Archive for August, 2008

With the 2008 Olympics now only a few days away, we’ll have another opportunity to witness how much higher, faster and stronger athletes have become. Having endured countless hours of gruelling training, stringently monitored diets, and worked on carefully designed competition schedules and race tactics, many can expect to achieve great returns in the form of higher standards and superior performances.

In his recent post about the dysfunctionality of business, Leberecht asks why this mentality apparent in sport and the arts is lacking in the world of business. In particular he asks:

[T]he operational rigor and prowess that has long been a calling card of companies like GE – has that become a nostalgic idea in the work-life balanced world of millennials? Do commitment and attention to detail still matter? Is perfection a desirable goal at all in the accelerated economy of permanent beta?

A ‘good is good enough’ work ethic clearly wouldn’t cut it at Blackstone. In his recent HBR article ( June 2008 ) Stephen A Schwarzman reminisces about his track coach’s advice shouted during bitter cold training days (“Remember – you’ve got to make your deposits before you can make a withdrawal“) and how that translates into business practice, viz meeting a deadline simply isn’t enough if the output isn’t 100% correct. He advises that unless you’re completely sure about the validity of the analysis, don’t put anything forward. Instead insist on more information and doing extra laps around the intellectual carpark.

I’d like to think I subscribe to a concept of excellence, commitment and attention to detail. But I also wonder what the opportunities and costs are for me in adopting this line. On the one hand, I get tremendous satisfaction from having done the best I possibly could with whatever I do. On the other hand, that takes time, and I probably output less than somebody who is going for 75% rather than 100%. But I guess I’m not well placed to deliver an objective opinion about the quality of the outputs.

In commercial terms, I’ve regularly heard the proverbial comparison between the ‘Mini’ and the ‘Rolls Royce’. Of course, Agile methods like SCRUM help us to build the best system possible within the budget available. But, too often there is an expectation that a system can be developed or social tools put in place without adequate investment in analysing the root causes of key issues which need solving, and designing solutions without the people who are actually going to use the tools. Is it then any surprise that the deposits aren’t going to cover the withdrawal?

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Over the last few weeks there’s been some interesting exchanges around mandating the use of social tools (in particular blogs) within an organisation as ‘reflective’ tools for sharing and learning (see Abraham, Leberecht, Leyden and Cornelius). Those exchanges dovetail nicely with another weighty debate around tailoring the functionality of tools like ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ to suit the enterprise context, and more particularly, whether their use should be given a top-down or other informal nudge to ensure contributions are sufficiently work-related. The former is now moving through a spectrum of mandating -> encouraging contributions and the latter is focusing on channeling or containing them.

Moving away from a ‘they just must‘ perspective, we can instead observe how people are communicating and with whom, and why in other instances they are not. We also have the opportunity to consider how to channel ‘twittering’ behaviour to help us work in a more fun, informed and effective way.

The working paper “Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organisation” by Adam M Kleinbaum, Toby E Stuart and Michael L Tushman (Harvard Business School, First Look, 29 July 2008 ) provides some extraordinary insight into the structure of communications in a modern organization. In other words, who is communicating, how often and with whom? To answer the following question, the study analysed millions of electronic mail messages, calendar meetings and teleconferences for thousands of employees in a geographically dispersed, multiunit enterprise:

What is the role of observable … boundaries (i.e. business unit, office location, gender and tenure in the firm) between individuals in structuring communications inside the firm?

The salient findings include:

  • The extraordinarily high similarity and parallel relationship between email and face-to-face/social networks within the firm.
  • The striking relationship between e-mail activity and hierarchical level; the average executive (members of the top four salary bands) in the sample sent and received more than twice as many e-mails as the average middle manager who, in turn, sent and received more than twice as many as the average rank-and-file employee.
  • That women, mid- to high- level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions are most likely to cross the company’s social structure gaps and participate in cross-group communications.

What we don’t know is whether (and if so the extent to which) other communication/collaboration technologies were available within the firm. Of course the authors warn against generalisations based on results from a single organisation, but given well-known issues associated with email overuse, abstinence from traditional ‘above-the-flow‘ KM/collaboration, and the need for buy-in from management, I think the study supports some principles which can guide behaviour in other instances.

If social tools are thrown into the mix, any adoption strategy should look to the participation of the groups identified above, who are key information/social networking nodes and would be invaluable to any social software pilot. But engaging the high-level executives (in particular) could be a very large mountain to climb. Whilst that group has a considerable amount to gain from ‘above-the-flow’ activities and slight changes to behaviour (like micro-blogging instead of emailing), they usually have well established preferences for face-to-face, email or phone communications, and need to cope with a variety of political/power dynamics. And as for a “they just must” approach with this group: forget it!

Simply articulating the value to be obtained from experience will clearly not be enough, even if people are being given the time to take up the opportunity. Instead, barriers to the participation, reflection and learning processes need to be lowered. Amongst other ways, that can be achieved by giving people the means to capture their thoughts on a platform in a more informal conversational way – whilst they are working (i.e. more ‘in-the-flow’ of daily operations). Whether that be through micro-blogging, sticky notes or commenting, status updates or wall-postings, the process should reflect people’s preferences for technology and communication style. As we are seeing, that means enabling ‘twitter-ing’ quick-fire style exchanges during people’s work, which can be rapidly embellished and/or responded to by others.

And rather than defining the scope of the tools (like “please use this for client and not social purposes”), use tags, aggregators and RSS to manage/channel the flow of content. Having started the debate, McAfee on further reflection notes “… norms and policies might not be the only ways to make a tool like Twitter work well for enterprise purposes”. The idea is to “tag” the tweet, perhaps by prefacing it with characters (like @FM) corresponding to a client or contract. In that way, it would be possible to categorize and organise the flow of information.

In fact, that may be one use case for PagesPlus (which Paolo Valdemarin from Evectors very kindly demostrated to everybody at Headshift yesterday morning!). Since the core of PagesPlus is an aggregator, it can digest any form of RSS/Atom and use tags to organize everything it aggregates. Because the aggregator supports tag schemas not only can it distinguish between a topic-tag and a category-tag, but it also allows you to create your own schemas to address specific needs. With the WYSIWYG application allowing users to easily create content at the front end, it would be a small step to continually auto-save the content and for the system to recommend to the user tags based on an analysis of the text being typed (and other tags applied in the past). That content could be pushed out to the categories and pages corresponding to the tags, and to the users who are subscribing to feeds from those categories.

Essentially, designing the tools around people’s preferred styles of communication and collaboration will help to support behaviour rather than control or mandate it – a poor counterpart. People may then filter content and functionality depending on their style and preferences, and then hook other people and content into the process by creating actions and feeds out of their activity. All up, that approach should help to get people on board and keep them there.

In the same way the famously contrasting perceptions of the nature of organizational communities has animated a great debate in organization theory during the past few decades, so too perhaps will the issues discussed here continue to test knowledge workers. Kleinbaum et al cite the study of Hannan and Freeman (1977), which posed the classic question, why are there so many organizational forms, and DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) rejoinder, why are there are so few. Likewise, I wonder about the levels of diversity of communication and collaboration actually being facilitated in organisations, and why there aren’t more.

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