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Future Tense

September 21, 2006

Bob Sutton on Crappy People versus Crappy Systems

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Posted by Jim McGee

I recently pointed to Bob Sutton's new blog as a good source of insight into the world of effective organizations.  One of his recent posts, Crappy People versus Crappy Systems, offers an excellent case in point. The entire post is well worth your time, but here is the essence:

 The worst part about focusing on keeping out crappy people, however, is that it reflects a belief system that “the people make the place.” The implication is that, once you hire great people and get rid of the bad ones, your work is pretty much done. Yet if you look at large scale studies in everything from automobile industry to the airline industry, or look at Diane Vaughn’s fantastic book on the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the well-crafted report written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board , the evidence is clear: The “rule of law crappy systems” trumps the “rule of crappy people.”

Sure, people matter a lot, but as my colleague Jeff Pfeffer puts it, some systems are so badly designed that when smart people with a great track record join them, it seems as if a “brain vacuum” is applied, and they turn incompetent. Jeff often jokes that this is what happens to many business school deans, and indeed, these jobs have so many competing and conflicting demands that they are often impossible to do well.

Bob Sutton: Crappy People versus Crappy Systems.

I've worked in a number of organizations that do an excellent job of hiring great people, including successful startups. Sutton's post finally puts a finger on my central frustration in these organizations; they too often tolerate crappy systems that pull down the performance and potential of the great people they manage to attract.

I suspect this is partly a function of the wrong design emphasis. When you know in advance that your organizational systems must work regardless of your ability to attract the best and the brightest, you invest the time and energy to make those systems robust. If you go down the "hire the best" path, you give yourself license to under-invest in systems. Perhaps more harmfully, you don't take the time to design the organizational systems that might actually amplify the quality and capabilities of a superior workforce.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Workforce

September 12, 2006

New bloggers on the future of work

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Posted by Jim McGee

One of my colleagues at work recently asked which bloggers I might recommend that also deal with the future of work and the changes technology continues to elicit in organizations. His question was well-timed as there are several fine thinkers who have taken to blogging in the last several months that have much to add to this ongoing conversation.

I've previously mentioned John Sviokla (Sviokla's Context) and Espen Andersen (Applied Abstractions) who were both colleagues at Harvard. There are three other academics/ex-academics who I find particularly cogent on the topic of managing and leading knowledge-based organizations.

David Maister created and taught a course on managing service-based operations during my MBA days; an area that has since grown to become one of the major organizing themes of the curriculum there. Since then, David has gone on to become one of the pre-eminent consultants to professional services organizations. He is blogging at Passion, People and Principles. Although his ostensible focus in on services organizations, the challenges they face make them a laboratory for the kinds of knowledge work issues that all organizations will face. David is also the author of several of the best books on consulting and professional services, including The Trusted Advisor and True Professionalism : The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career.

Another Harvard blogger is Andrew McAfee who teaches in the technology and operations management group, which has become the home of the most robust thinking about these topics at Harvard. His blog title, The Impact of Information Technology (IT) on Business and Their Leaders, lacks a bit in the snappy department, but the content is first rate. Recently, he has been leading the charge to map out and define the notion of Enterprise 2.0 in places as diverse as the Sloan Management Review and wikipedia.

Over on the West Coast at Stanford, we have Bob Sutton the author of several excellent books, most recently  Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management. His blog is Work Matters. Sutton has been collaborating with Jeff Pfeffer, also of Stanford, to promote the practice of evidence-based management, which, like evidence-based medicine,

means finding the best evidence that you can, facing those facts, and acting on those facts – rather than doing what everyone else does, what you have always done, or what you thought was true. It isn’t an excuse for inaction. Leaders of organizations must have the courage to act on the best facts they have right now, and the humility to change what they do as better information is found. [Evidence-Based Management]

Sutton and Pfeffer have also launched a website and a group blog to promote evidence-based management. You might also want to check out The Knowing-Doing Gap : How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action by Pfeffer and Sutton and Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, one of Sutton's earlier books.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Management Practices

August 29, 2006

Circles of knowledge and boundaries of ignorance

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Posted by Jim McGee

My latest column at Enterprise Systems Journal appears today. In it I take a look at the notion of developing an ongoing learning agenda by focusing on the boundaries of your ignorance. One key graf:

The late Isaac Asimov once observed that "the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'that’s funny'." What piques your curiosity is an excellent indicator of where your learning energies ought to be focused. Curiosity is an edge phenomenon where new inputs have enough structure and content from your perspective to emerge as something more than background noise and chaos, yet are not so well-defined as to be immediately classifiable. Becoming more mindful of the terminology, issues, and phenomenon that are separating themselves from background noise helps identify topics you should consider investing learning time in. [IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance]

I started thinking about "boundaries of ignorance" and "circles of knowledge" while putting together a presentation on learning and knowledge management. I began with the simple notion of learning as expanding your circle of knowledge and quickly hit on the notion that expanding my circle of knowledge was simultaneously expanding the boundaries of my ignorance. The more things I learned, the more things I became aware of that I didn't know.

In my teens, that manifested itself as reading everything I could lay my hands on in the quest for the "one right answer." I wasn't as smart as Alan Kay to realize early on that books had limits or could be wrong. I was so engrossed in the world that books opened up for me that it took quite a while to grasp their limits. My dad used to say that he could always tell when I had finished a book by my fervent belief in some new world view. In retrospect, I suspect my ignorance was growing faster than my knowledge. But I was more focused on the inside of the circle than on its contact with the rest of knowledge.

My first cut at visualizing this image was along the following lines:

Circle of Knowledge - Boundary of Ignorance

In this version, learning can be viewed as either expanding your circle of knowledge or as increasing your boundary of ignorance.  So, the more you learn the more you know, but also the more you know that you don't know.  Depending on your temperament, this can be either encouraging or discouraging to your efforts to continue learning.

Formal schooling focuses attention on the inside of the circle and keeps you carefully inside the boundaries. The credentialing system of education looks backward at what you are supposed to have learned. On the plus side, a good school environment helps keep you from falling off the edge into material you are unable to understand or appreciate. I can remember trying to read various books on philosophy in my wildly eclectic romps through the public library during my high school days. All fields have their professional vocabulary and one purpose of schools is to introduce you to that vocabulary in a coherent order. While we are hard-wired to learn spoken languages simply by being immersed in them, I don't think the same strategy would work as well for learning calculus or modern European history.

The danger of formal schooling (even when well done) is too much focus on what you already know. If you don't push yourself out to the boundaries, you seriously limit your opportunities for significant new learning. Formal schooling tends to overly protect you from failure and, therefore, from opportunities for deeper learning. Granted, I've come to appreciate the importance of failure in real learning courtesy of my work with Roger Schank. The more important learning becomes as an ongoing career development activity, the more you have to deal with not knowing. This can become a real challenge as you advance in your career and as you become recognized for your expertise.

Over time and as you get farther away from your school days, your circle of knowledge starts to get spiky:

Lumpy Circle of Knowledge

You become more expert and informed on certain topics at the expense of others. The nice, well-rounded, circle that might have characterized the end of a classical liberal arts education has been replaced with the distinctive profile of an expert in some particular domain.

If you assume that you do, in fact, need to continue to learn, regardless of your current level of expertise, is there some way to use this notion of the "boundary of ignorance" to guide ongoing learning? For an individual topic,

Monitoring your curiosity consists of becoming aware of terms, tools, topics, and techniques that you are encountering in your environment, yet are not part of your current knowledge and skills. As these become visible to you, the next step is to cluster and chunk that material into a learning agenda; a sequence of topics ranging from the nearly familiar to the barely recognized. [IT Learning at the Boundaries of Your Ignorance]

 In addition to tuning into the language of a topic, you can also start to identify the experts and authorities who are working in the domain.

In general, your learning agenda is not likely to be a single topic. Instead, you will be pushing out along multiple dimensions. It might be helpful to visualize that process in terms of progress along several learning vectors. For example, I might group my learning activities along the following dimensions:

Learning Vectors

This larger picture of learning would help assess what kind of balance I was striking across topics and whether that balance was suitable. 

What you are left with at this point is a map for what you want to learn based on the edges of what you know now coupled with what captures your curiosity. What comes next is the effort to learn topic by topic and to fit that learning into the demands of performing.


Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Education

Tool-and-Die Makers in a Knowledge Economy

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Posted by Jim McGee

In one of my columns at Enterprise Systems Journal, I started to explore a nagging concern about why organizations have realized less of the potential of technology to support knowledge work than they could. In a nutshell, my hypothesis is that most organizations have not thought through what organizational roles need to be created to best leverage the technology. In my column I made the argument that we need the knowledge economy equivalent of tool-and-die makers. You can find the full column at ESJ:

Tool-and-Die Makers in a Knowledge Economy

The full potential of tools to support knowledge work remains unrealized

Given the near total independence that most knowledge workers have in organizations, they have been largely left to their own devices in figuring out how to take best advantage of the technology tools we have made available.  That leads to a great deal of wasted potential. Here's the way I described it in the column:

Applying the tool-and-die maker strategy, knowledge organizations should identify individuals particularly adept at applying tool and technology features to simplifying their own work and give them a new goal of improving the productivity and effectiveness of their knowledge-work colleagues. The knowledge work of these “toolsmiths” would be to understand the knowledge work of others and apply Taylor’s principles of scientific management; to observe how knowledge workers currently worked and to identify, design, and deploy new tools and techniques to make it possible to perform the same work with less effort or produce better-quality deliverables on demand

Essentially, we are missing an opportunity for knowledge work productivity by not taking full advantage of designing organizational roles to take full advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of individual knowledge workers.

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August 08, 2006

Wikiwise 50: #45 -- Yahoo!

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Posted by Giovanni Rodriguez

Over the course of one year, we will be conducting a survey of organizations that are supporting emergent behavior in the enterprise using social-media tools. The organizations do not need to use wikis per se, but they must be supportive of emergent behavior at the management level. To nominate an organization for this series, please comment here.

No surprise here. Of all the major Internet giants, Yahoo! has always appeared to be the most socially minded, and their new corporate blog, Yodel Anecdotal, is a real treat -- nicely designed, easy to navigate, integrating text, photos, audio, video. Most of all, it's consistent with Yahoo's brand, which to some extent, has always been about emergence.

Says the site's editor, Nick Dugan:

"We want to share insights into our company, our people, our culture, and the things that occupy our cluttered minds. We'll cover emerging trends, provide some behind-the-scenes commentary, profile interesting Yahoos, spotlight our beloved users, reveal some of our quirks, tap into guest bloggers, sprinkle in some videos and photo essays, and generally think out loud (lucky you ... you get to listen). You'll hear from interns to executives. Some days we'll be light and airy, others we'll get serious."

The not to "anecdotal" information, by the way, strikes the right note. Often, I am asked what a blog can do that a corporate Web site cannot. It's more then function than the tool that matters here. By providing visitors a more candid peek into the inner workings at Yahoo!, Yodel Anecdotal is promoting and supporting a more spontaneous, authentic way for staff to interact internally and externally.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Wikiwise 50

July 19, 2006

Knowledge management, reinvention, and innovation

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Posted by Jim McGee

Earlier this year I wrote a column for the Enterrpise Systems Journal on the linkage between knowledge management efforts and innovation. You can find the column at:

Get Better at Reinventing the Wheel

To succeed with knowledge management, organizations should focus on getting better at reinventing the wheel instead of avoiding it.

The rant that provoked this column was in response to the frequent justification of knowledge management efforts on the grounds that "we don't want to reinvent the wheel," which I finally got tired of hearing. It's one of those phrases that sounds like it means something useful until you actually take a look at it.

First, equating "knowledge" with "wheels" gets you on the wrong track by confusing knowledge with something vaguely product-like. I can't think of many knowledge work processes where you could simply take a piece of finished work from elsewhere in the organization and drop it in place. At the very least, you need to understand the current situation and the available knowledge work "thing" well enough to come up with a way to adapt or apply the old thing in a new situation. Any attempt to sidestep that process is guaranteed to lead to trouble. Don't encourage it by laziness in comparing knowledge work deliverables to wheels.

Second, if you are really doing knowledge work, then your customer, be it someone above you in the organizational food chain or a paying customer, is not interested in and will not pay for yesterday's answer. You need to divine their unique perspective and explicitly connect your knowledge work deliverable to that unique situation. The value of having organized access to prior knowledge work deliverables lies in improving the quality and the speed of applying that knowledge as an input to the process at hand, not as a deliverable.

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Balancing diligence and laziness

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Posted by Jim McGee

Some time back I came across the following quote in The 80/20 Principle : The Secret of Achieving More With Less by Richard Koch, which I've been pondering ever since for its implications for knowledge work and knowledge workers:

There are only four types of officer. First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm…Second, there are the hard- working, intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered. Third, there are the hard- working, stupid ones. These people are a menace and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody. Finally, there are the intelligent, lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office.

General Erich Von Manstein (1887-1973) on the German Officer Corps

You can also map this quote into the following matrix representation:

Diligence vs. Laziness

One implication certainly is that you want to keep the average IQ up in your organization (setting aside all the limits on accurately measuring or assessing something as complex as intelligence for the moment). My own theory is that it also suggests that you want to keep your organization relatively small to maintain some degree of control over that average IQ. You may also want to keep the distribution of IQ in your organization as tight as possible.

The laziness/diligence dimension is the more interesting of the two in the context of knowledge work organizations. Common organizational practice is biased in favor of diligence, while laziness doesn't get the respect it deserves. Granted, the appearance of blogs such as Slacker Manager is a hopeful sign, as is the recent spate of activity and commentary around the importance of innovation and creative thinking for knowledge based organizations. But our Puritan/Calvinist heritage still dominates reward and evaluation systems. Regardless of the actual importance of thought and reflection to long-term organizational success, you are better off looking busy than looking like you are thinking. Even organizations that exist to promote reflective thought (e.g., universities, research institutes, think tanks) fall into the trap of encouraging diligence at the expense of reflection/laziness.

I don't yet have a fully workable solution to the problem of carving out sufficient and appropriate time for thinking and reflection. More often than not, it gets relegated to plane-time, travel-time, and after-hours time; essentially bypassing the organizational problem. I've found that mind-mapping, either by hand on on the computer, is one form of thinking that can be done in public without triggering unwanted negative perceptions.  Setting aside time to maintain some form of journal (whether in the form of a blog or more private diary) is another thinking/reflecting discipline that is both productive and not immediately threatening to the activity police.

Here are some questions I think are worth exploring in this context.

  1. What alternate terms than diligence and laziness could we use to better frame the issue?
  2. How important is it to carve out times and places to engage in visible laziness within organizations?
  3. Is this a problem that needs to be solved at the organizational level? For which types of organization?
  4. What barriers to innovation, if any, does a bias toward diligence create?

Any takers?


Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Innovation

July 13, 2006

Wikiwise 50: #46 -- Microsoft

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Posted by Giovanni Rodriguez

Over the course of one year, we will be conducting a survey of organizations that are supporting emergent behavior in the enterprise using social-media tools. The organizations do not need to use wikis per se, but they must be supportive of emergent behavior at the management level. To nominate an organization for this series, please comment here.

When people hear the name Robert Scoble, many think about the groundbreaking blog he wrote for Microsoft before his recent departure for Podtech. From our perspectve, his work for a Microsoft interactive portal called Channel 9 is just as noteworthy. An early innovator in DIY, off-the-cuff video, Scoble trolled the Microsoft campus, capturing scores of staffers in their real-work environments, unscripted, sans handlers, and it was really effective. If Scoble's blog put a human face on the company, Channel 9 presented many others.

That effort continues today on Channel 9, which has developed into a really impressive forum -- incorporating blogs, wikis, videos and polls -- for all sorts of Microsoft watchers. And by tapping so many staffers to participate in this open forum, Channel 9 has enabled Microsoft to support emergence in a really interesting way. Many people you see on Channel 9 are the new, emergent leaders at Microsoft, who now have a direct channel for connecting to the outside world.

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July 11, 2006

Go to the head of the distribution by explaining the tail

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Posted by Jim McGee

The Long Tail : Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More

Rating: 5 out of 5

Author: Chris Anderson

Year: 2006

Publisher: Hyperion

ISBN: 1401302378

The book length version of The Long Tail has now been published. Based on Chris Anderson's seminal Wired article, the book expands and elaborates on the article's thesis that one consequence of network economics is to reset the balance in markets between hits and the rest of the distribution. Anderson also began a blog on the Long Tail as he conducted his research, which has become its own resource on the topic for those interested in it.

In most markets, sales/popularity follows a power curve with a tiny handful of items, "the hits," garnering attention and sales. In physical markets, hits dominate and drive management attention and thinking. In markets that bypass the barriers of the physical, such as Amazon or iTunes, the dominance of hits shrinks. Sales from the tail of the distribution, in aggregate, come to rival sales from the head.

Where the initial Wired article identifies and labels the phenomenon, the book strives to work out the implications. While I think it occasionally oversteps the evidence, on balance it succeeds in opening up the concept and its consequences. I confess I was dubious, although unsurprised, to see Anderson take his long tail lens to Wikipedia. Yet, in the end, his analysis did shed substantive new light on a phenomenon that is more often used as poster child or whipping boy depending on the writer's agenda.

If you have products, services, or ideas that would benefit from finding their market, the Long Tail is a concept you had best understand and The Long Tail is your best starting point. I'm sure it will end up in the head of the sales distribution to Anderson's well-earned benefit. Be smart and make the effort to actually read it and think through its application to your circumstances so that you might benefit as well. 


Tags: network-economics strategy

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Management Practices

July 03, 2006

Wikiwise 50: #47: SUN

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Posted by Giovanni Rodriguez

Over the course of one year, we will be conducting a survey of organizations that are supporting emergent behavior in the enterprise using social-media tools. The organizations do not need to use wikis per se, but they must be supportive of emergent behavior at the management level. To nominate an organization for this series, please comment here.

Note: To be fair to the other organizations that we are surveying in this series, I did not consult my Future Tense colleague, Dave Desforges -- a manager at SUN -- for this week's entry. Of course, I hope that Dave will contribute to what we know about Sun's ambitious blogging initiative:

--CEO Jonathan Schwartz is perhaps the best known and most visible CEP blogger today, and he got there the emergent way (he began blogging as COO).

--More than 2,000 SUN employees are blogging today, and you can track some of that activity here.

--The blogging initiative closely resembles I.B.M.'s -- a "inside-out" approach where the company provides a company-wide platform for blogging.

As a recent article in USA Today observed, "businesses talk a lot about becoming more open and transparent, but they will be watching Schwartz's experiment to see how much transparency is feasible in business, where trade secrets are protected and warts hidden." We'll be watching, too, as SUN, IBM and a few others in the technology world conduct the first experiments in large-scale, company-supported blogging.

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June 26, 2006

Wikiwise 50 -- #48: IBM

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Posted by Giovanni Rodriguez

Our entry this week is IBM. We will write about it tomorrow. But for now, take a look at their "Hitchikers's Guide."

UPDATE: 7/1/2006

Over the course of one year, we will be conducting a survey of organizations that are supporting emergent behavior in the enterprise using social-media tools. The organizations do not need to use wikis per se, but they must be supportive of emergent behavior at the management level. To nominate an organization for this series, please comment here.

Apologies for the delay on this one -- it was an unusually busy week -- but here's our continuation of our mini-profile of the I.B.M. blogging initiative. A few key facts:

--with more than 5,000 internal and 100 internal blogs, this may be the world's largest corporate blogging project.

--it is also perhaps one of the greatest examples of developing a social media platform "from the inside out," a theme we will be exploring in greater detail here at Future Tense.

--as blogger-in-chief Christopher Barger noted in article earlier this year, "any time you can make a company of 329,000 people feel smaller, that's a good thing."

The sheer size and scope of this initiative will compel many other companies -- not just technology, though they happen to be leading the way (no surprise) -- should compel many other companies to look at this experiment. They might also want to check out I.B.M.'s excellent blogging policy, which encourages everyone at the company to write so long as they follow general communication policies (especially important at a public company) and clearly indicate that their opinions are their own, not I.B.M.'s. I recently met with an internal communications manager for a another large technology company, and we discussed the idea of developing a "community of communicators." The I.B.M. project provides excellent guidance to companies interested in developing that kind of culture.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Wikiwise 50

June 19, 2006

Wikiwise 50 -- #49: DrKW

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Posted by Giovanni Rodriguez

Over the course of one year, we will be conducting a survey of organizations that are supporting emergent behavior in the enterprise using social-media tools. The organizations do not need to use wikis per se, but they must be supportive of emergent behavior at the management level. Today marks the beginning of our survey. To nominate an organization for this series, please comment here.

We wrote about this terrific project on 33 Wikis. Here's a paraphrased version:

Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), the international investment bank, is operating what we believe is the largest internal corporate wiki in existence. As the Financial Times observed this Spring, this wiki, with more than 2,000 pages edited by more than a quarter of its workforce, has traffic well exceeding the company's intranet. Employees today are using the wiki for a wide variety of activities, including training, project management, and sales support. With this wide and far-reaching agenda -- driven only by the imagination of employees -- this wiki has been dubbed the DrKWpedia, a nod to the largest wiki of all, Wikipedia.

The scope of this project -- and the reputation of the company -- should help to evangelize the way wikis can be used to make businesses more efficient, nimble, and creative. It helps that one of the leading proponents of the DrKW wiki is CIO JP Rangaswami. But as Socialtext-consultant Suw Charman observes, the widespread adoption of the DrKW wiki also has a lot to do with folks at lower tiers -- the "supernodes" who are so well connected and so influential among their peers.

There are other corporate "pedias" in the works, but to date this is the leading case study. If an organization wants to explore the business benefits of launching a wiki, the public documentation of this wiki project can be a great help.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Wikiwise 50