Annual review

Take your pick at the end of the year. It's either review of the past year, or predictions for the coming year or resolutions, or the impossible to avoid 'Sales'. So far I have managed to avoid buying anything in a sale, unless you count a secondhand book from the Oxfam bookshop which was at second hand book price and not an even more cut down 'sale' price. Apparently the UK hit an all-time record this year in the shopping spree that started on Boxing Day.

Boxing Day set a new British record for online shopping, figures showed today as crowds descended on high streets once again for another day of frenzied sales.

While thousands of shoppers queued outside stores up and down the country to get ahead of the game, millions more made the most of tumbling prices from the comfort of their own homes.

Fears of consumers tightening their belts in the face of tough economic conditions were quickly shelved, with an estimated 10 million shoppers believed to have spent about £2.9bn.

I'll take a brief diversion and explain Boxing Day for readers who may not know the term. Boxing Day in the United Kingdom is the day after Christmas Day and falls on December 26. It's also known as St Stephen's Day. There's an interesting explanation of the various traditions of 'boxes' here, from which the day got its name – most often it is the gifts that employers gave their workers, or that held money for distribution to the poor.

Back to topic last week I tackled resolutions so that leaves me with either review or prediction or both (or something completely different). So, I'll do a review but that begs the question – review of what? I was just talking with my daughter about the 'Quantified Self' that is 'self-knowledge through numbers' movement' which on the one hand seems a complete eccentricity, and on the other could yield a lot of information about …. (who knows what?). Clearly the Cross Country train operators are not impressed with the concept because it is a site that they block. (I'm writing this on the train and have just got a message saying "We're Sorry… Access to this site is blocked. If you feel it shouldn't be, please drop us an e-mail at service.")

Oh – but the Wikipedia explanation is not blocked by Cross Country trains so here it is "The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)." See Gary Wolf's TED talk on it here. (Wolf and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly created the Web site "Quantified Self" in 2008.)

I could review my year in a quantified self way by all sorts of numerics – miles traveled on various forms of transport, coffees drunk, tweets posted, hotel rooms slept in, words written, books put on my Amazon wish list, emails responded to, emails originated by me, and so on. But I have not got the detailed data to hand as I haven't been tracking it through the year. Nor do I have any idea of what would be useful to track because I don't have a purpose for tracking it. (Unlike a friend who keeps very close track of his blood sugar level to avoid going into a type 1 diabetic coma).

This question on what numbers to track and review is an organizational question too. In many cases I've asked clients what they are tracking, for what purpose, and what they learn from the exercise. Very often they are baffled.

Reviewing the year (or the quarter) by numbers is fine but limited. There is a tendency to be selective in what you pay attention to e.g. financial data over staff retention data which may come at the expense of areas that might yield actionable learning or information.

Reviewing the year by narrative is equally problematic because there are many lenses one could pick to view the same thing through. I'm currently taking a program in creative non-fiction writing which illustrates the multiple lens possibility and Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization does a great job on this too.

The numbers versus narrative review is interesting in terms of organization assessment and design – because there's a tendency to find narrative that corroborates the numbers – for example if an employee satisfaction score shows low satisfaction then it is easy to find supporting narrative for this.

So how can we review information: numeric or narrative and come up with something that is useful, actionable, developmental, and unbiased. In a rather generalized way two of the reasons for reviewing data is to be able to a) make sound decisions or b) exercise good judgment in the present or the future.

For example, if I track my sleep patterns and know that I wake up feeling tired some mornings and not others, I might review the patterns and their context and work out how to get a better quality sleep, but I might not need numbers to do this I might be able to just work it out from how I feel and what happened the previous day. Or I might be able to change my mental model of what constitutes feeling 'tired' or 'alert'.

Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power, researches the decisions people make in life or death situations and talks about number one systems (experience and intuition) – essentially coming from reviewing and learning from past events – and number two systems (numbers, procedures and checklists). In a very readable interview he explains that 'we need both of those [systems], and we need to blend them'.

I like that kind of sensible pragmatism. In organizational reviews it allows learning via numbers and narrative, and at an individual level it fosters learning through a blend of fact, intuition and experience.
In a partial review of 2012 I know that I have traveled a lot this year (China, UK, Namibia, Sudan, Hungary, Portugal, France, Belgium, US) and beyond that on many forms of transport: plane, car, Megabus, train, bike, foot, taxi, subway, etc. I can see the quantified evidence of this in my passport and expense claims. But I am unable to quantify what I have learned in terms of cultural differences, or how to adapt my theory and practice of organization design in multiple different contexts, or what I have experienced working with so many different people during the year that has taught me so much.

Going forward into predictions for 2013? Personally I am favoring a quote I was sent the other day "The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination. (John Schaar)" with this I don't need to make predictions. But I can have an aim: to learn as I go and building on 2012's experiences making sounder decisions or better judgments than I have in the past – but how will I know I am doing this?

Have you reviewed 2012? What has your review shown up?


I'm getting ready for the New Year Resolution effort. What shall I resolve?
Taking a look at the week just gone – could it be described as 'typical' – I'm hoping to get some pointers.

Monday December 17
One of the time management things working in the UK and with colleagues on the US East and West Coast is handling the fact that 5:00 pm UK – normally construed as end of the working day, is 9:00 am US west coast – normally construed as the beginning of the work day. So I can easily do two days back to back in one day, as it were. How about resolving not to do two back to back days? Do I really want to take a phone call walking in pouring rain back from the station at 10:00 pm on the merits of using business intelligence/research in responding to an RFP? I have to recall from memory the PowerPoint I constructed on this as, fortunately, I have not yet got software that projects onto my retina a visual image of a PowerPoint as I am walking along. I think this is coming though.

Tuesday December 18
Well today I got up at my usual time, 5:30 am, and headed for the station. I could resolve not to travel on commuter trains, or within standard commuting hours. Oxford to Paddington requires speed to land a seat in the rush hour. It's impossible to get a seat on the Underground. Standing, it's not easy to respond to the overnight West Coast emails in a crush of people as one-fingered BlackBerry typing is laborious. Nor can I log on to finish the important document I started the evening before.

SIDEBAR I tried it out on the evening commuter train Kings Cross to Leeds the previous week because there were no seats. Linda and I had arranged to get the same train so we could work on our presentation. We stood at the cafe serving bar (same height as standing desk) working at the laptop -stopping it sliding with train movement, and keeping our own balance simultaneously. Fortunately the train emptied at Peterborough and we were able to find a seat and continue in relative comfort with our M & S G & T to hand. (Jargon buster: Marks & Spencer, gin and tonic)

A couple of meetings later I almost took a Boris bike instead of the underground to get to Canary Wharf from Waterloo but didn't – no reflective vest or helmet with me at the time and I've been inculcated with the US incredulity that anyone could cycle without a helmet. (One US cycle shop I went into – to get my bike repaired – more or less refused to release it to me when the assistant realized I didn't have a helmet to put on to ride it home. I bought a helmet). I could resolve to carry a reflective vest with me at all times to take advantage of all the shared bikes that are appearing in cities in order to avoid subways in commuting hours and I could resolve to revert to my UK insouciance about cycling without a helmet.

Wednesday December 19
Up to Halifax. I left the house to catch the 7:30 am train in the hope everything would work and I'd get the two connecting trains on time. It did, and I had a seat and internet access because I bought Cross-Country train Wi-Fi deal. This was great because I could post my Tweets for the day. I could resolve not to do any more Tweeting as I'm not convinced that the reward is worth the hassle of finding interesting things to Tweet about and the concept of anything being interesting in 140 characters is alien to me. Also it seems a colossal time-waster. I have to hunt around looking for stuff that conforms to my 'Tweet criteria', which means trawling through stuff. On the other hand a couple of times I've been pleasantly surprised by responses to some of my Tweets, and I've learned enough to win the local pub trivia quiz as long as it focuses on Victorian station architecture.

Thursday December 20
Off I go to London Heathrow (LHR) with a suitcase: not to travel anywhere for a change but to meet my daughter arriving from Sudan in flip-flops and clothing suited to 35C not 6C. She is shivering and glad of the white woolly hat and red duffle coat produced from my suitcase that instantly transforms her into a rather glamorous Santa Claus (in flip flops). We stop for hot chocolate in Terminal 4 (T4) arrival area and she remembers she has shoes. She delves into a suitcase, the size of which you'd need more than 7 reindeer to pull. I find the socks I have brought for her and then the scarf and gloves. She is now kitted up for the journey from T4 to some place where one can get the Oxford Tube (Terminal 5 or Central Bus Station).

On the journey to meet her I've already confirmed my resolution never to land or take off from T4 as there's no sane, quick way of getting to it – at least from Oxford. It's a colossal stress and waste of time. I already knew this as I took off and landed from London, T4 to EWR (Newark) the previous week. But it was too late to tell my daughter to change carrier to one that landed at Terminal 5 (T5) or Terminals1,2,3. Even BAA suggests you allow 105 minutes to connect between T5 and T4. This trip added to the time wasted waiting for the Airline bus from Oxford to LHR. I curse myself for not bringing my Kindle with me to read while waiting at the bus stop. I'd just loaded Obliquity (on decision making) onto it which has been recommended by two people already this week. I resolve always to bring my Kindle with me at all times – it would be useful in the queue in the Post Office as well. (15 mins today).

Friday December 21
I am sitting in my kitchen in Oxford on a work Skype call. I hear a phone ringing. Hmm, which phone is it? Landline, Blackberry personal, Blackberry work, ancient Nokia I use for UK calls while I'm here, or softphone on my desktop? In juggling the calls and then completing them before reverting to proposal writing I took a short break to list how many ways people can get in touch with me. (Yes, displacement activity – should I resolve not to do this?) It turns out to be twenty right now which surprised me: two US BlackBerries (own and business), UK cellphone (for while I'm here), Skype, UK landline, softphone on my laptop, three email accounts (personal, business, and university I teach for), postal system, LinkedIn, Twitter, Lync, WhatsApp, text messages (on any of the 3 mobile phones), BlackBerry Messenger (twice), and my blog. I think I'll resolve to limit communication channels I work in to 5 maximum – of course I'll need to run through a decision-making algorithm to prioritize them and then more activity in closing down some channels and dealing with people's reactions (especially mother's) at not being able to get through within 5 seconds. It may be worth it though as communication channels proliferate. Take a look at the Conversation Prism for a map of social media ones.

So the week ends with another G & T (Sainsbury's as I refuse to be trapped into customer loyalty programs) and here is my summary.

End of work week: proposed resolutions
Like any good consultant I've pulled out the key points from the above. They turn out to be the following resolutions:

1. I resolve not to do two back to back days (UK then West Coast)
2. I resolve not to travel on commuter trains, or within standard commuting hours
3. I resolve not to do any more Tweeting
4. I resolve never to land or take off from T4
5. I resolve to bring my Kindle with me at all times
6. I resolve not to partake in displacement activity that diverts me from the task in hand
7. I resolve to limit communication channels I am accessible by to 5 maximum
8. I resolve to carry a reflective vest with me at all times in order to take advantage of all the shared bikes that are appearing in cities and in order to avoid taking a subway in commuter hours.
9. I resolve to revert to my UK insouciance about cycling without a helmet.

Well and good. In fact terrific, because if I adopt all of them and stick to all of them I'll have plenty of time to get on with writing the second edition of my first book. But what would be the unintended consequences (to stay in consulting mode) of adopting them? Are the trade-offs and risks to rewards worth the adoption and discipline? I'm wavering. Some of them would be difficult to stick to – think of the repercussions of contravening the company's travel policy if I insist on traveling by a non-preferred carrier because it lands at T5 and not T4? Also I'll never get the book finished if I'm killed in a cycle accident because I'm not wearing a helmet. I think I'll make only one resolution – not to make any resolutions.

How about you? What are your resolutions?

Designing customer value

Last week I wrote about Pumpkin Cafe's decision making around whether or not to warm my scone. A trivial decision in the greater scheme of things, but on the basis that small things count I'll tell you a story of superb customer service from a cafe in Baltimore that I visited last Monday. (I'm traveling a lot right now).

This time I wanted a wholewheat bagel toasted with peanut butter. I went into a coffee shop that said it had bagels and asked for what I wanted. They had the wholewheat bagel but didn't do peanut butter. I bought the bagel anyway. Walking on, I passed another coffee shop David and Dad's that said it had bagels. I went in and ordered a wholewheat bagel toasted with peanut butter. Their response? They didn't have any wholewheat bagels left. I said I had a wholewheat bagel with me and would they be willing to toast it and put their peanut butter on it. "Of course. No problem," came the response. Good stuff – I handed over the bagel I'd just bought in the previous shop. So then the pricing decision had to be made. Two servers conferred and decided they would charge me half the full price I would have paid for my order. No manager involved to this point.

At that moment the manager wandered along and one server told him what was going on. "Excellent," he said, and disappeared again. I couldn't fault the experience. And it was so different from the Pumpkin one on all fronts. (Is that the stereotype of UK v US customer service I spot in action?)

Both stories went down well in the client workshop I ran later in the week. It happened to be about customer centricity i.e. putting the customer at the heart of everything the organization does on the basis that pleasing the customer is where the organizational value lay.

The participants' recognition of a value structure seemed to dovetail with the way Niels Pflaeging, and Silke Hermann of Beta Codex define three organization structures:

'Informal Structure. Informal power and influence structures, group norms and interaction, patterns arise wherever human beings come together. They evolve in any social structure, and in any human interaction.
Value Creation Structure. Like Informal Structure, any organization has it: Because organizations of any kind have to create value for its outside market, and any organization that didn't have one would cease to exist. It is through the Value Creation Structure that value flows from the inside to the outside, towards the external market.
Formal Structure. Formal Structure can produce compliance, but it can never produce value. It is most frequently mapped as a pyramid of departmental boxes, interconnected by power or "reporting" relationships (the "organization chart").'

Having defined the structures, the authors invite us to imagine an organization that

'Doesn't believe in formal structure. One that considers all management and centralization of power toxic and harmful, and refuses to put energy into Formal Structure, except when needed for external compliance. One that believes so strongly in its people that it won't let come anything between them, and the external market.'

With this in mind they suggest that 10% of energy go into designing and maintaining the formal structure, 20% or total organizational energy go into designing and working with the Informal Structure and the remaining 70% being applied to designing and sustaining value creation.

This sounds great but the challenge lies in the reality of a) aligning the three structures b) weaning a traditional organization away from the notions, systems, processes and vested interests of hierarchy and bureaucracy, c) keeping the value creation piece constantly refreshing in the operating context.

However, workshop participants I was working with seem to be on the right lines in first identifying that value for them lies in the customer experience and that they need to take a series of actions that will design an appropriate customer centric value structure and align the informal and formal organization with it. Unlike Valve (mentioned last week) the reality of any, even partial, abandonment of the formal structure is a bridge too far at this point but they are looking at reducing its reach and bureaucracy.

The way they are planning to tackle is to ensure that all employees have a clear view of the customer and market forces that are 'pulling' the organization. So, for example, in general customers want to be able to:

  1. Begin a purchase in one channel and complete it in another (retail outlet to on-line perhaps)
  2. Have one point of contact for the duration of their purchase life-cycle, not be passed from one person to the next. (I had a particularly bad BT experience on this front during the week)
  3. Will get a swift response from their point of contact in the event of a query
  4. Know that a decision will be made quickly and accurately in relation to their purchase
  5. Feel confident that they fully understand the small print before committing to the purchase
  6. Feel trusted and valued by the organization. (My mother lost her debit card during the week and had to go to the local bank branch to get some over the counter cash. She remarked 'It's my money. I don't see why I have to beg to get it, and go through such a palaver.')

None of this is a quick organizational turnaround if, as is the case, the focus has been on the formal internally focused structure. But the actions emerging do cover the three structures (formal, informal, value) albeit in a different percentage scale. I estimate actions are 40% pointed towards the formal structure, 30% towards the informal structure and 30% towards the value creation structure – though the distinction is a little false because actions in the formal and informal structures serve to benefit the value structure. Actions being considered (by structure) include:

Value structure

  1. Development of a customer lifecycle management process
  2. Investment in technology that supports collaborative working/dialogue across the business
  3. Provision of all employees with tools, facilities, skills to provide fast, efficient, effective and high quality customer-centric service.

Formal structure

  1. Redesign of the organization structure to emphasise the 'customer experience',
  2. Clarification of specific customer accountabilities of the different members of the leadership team
  3. Development of a focused recruitment process for selecting and hiring the right people against customer centric values

Informal structure

  1. Creation of a climate of probes, comments, questions, and feedback from every business area on the customer experience information
  2. Encouragement of collaboration across vertical units in the interests of customer centricity
  3. Reframe of the concept of managers to be about inspiring people to deliver a superior customer experience not about controlling and monitoring

For a quick summary of the customer journey experience take a look at the handout from Eric Fraterman consulting.

Meanwhile your comments on the customer journey or experience would be most welcome.

Desiging for decisions

I've been working with an organization, like many others, that wants to improve its decision making processes. Employees are saying things like:

'There's a lack of understanding around decision criteria. We have a tendency to push decisions up and over-bureaucratize. Currently the senior leaders make most of the decisions, but their role should be more about direction setting, and then setting people up to succeed. They need to step back. There's no definition on what decisions should be made at what level. People ask whether a decision is in their remit. There are too many decision points.'

For them, an improved process would:

  • Make it quicker and easier to make decisions whilst maintaining the right level of controls.
  • Create an organization that is more customer focused, market alert and fast on its feet
  • Give staff the mandate and confidence to make decisions at their level without unnecessary referring up

Probing a bit more on this reveals that what people mean by 'decisions' varies from the high level strategic things like 'Shall we buy this business?' to the day to day operational decisions that frontline staff need to make in their interactions with customers. I had an interesting one of the latter the other day at Doncaster Station in the Pumpkin café there.

I ordered a scone and a cup of tea. I asked if the scone could be warmed in the microwave for a few seconds. My server said 'yes', but her supervisor overheard and said 'no'. (I'm guessing it was the supervisor as my server was prepared to obey her). I asked the supervisor why not since I had just been told 'yes'. She said 'we don't warm scones'. To cut a long story short – and with some practice of my assertiveness skills – I got my scone warmed but was baffled to know why I got a customer oriented 'yes' from one server, and a stony 'no' from her colleague – for a simple 15 second request.

Conventional wisdom has it that 'If you can't make the right decisions quickly and effectively, and execute those decisions consistently, your business will lose ground.' It seems that this statement holds good at all levels of the organization. A surly Pumpkin employee is not going to win business for the company. It's easy enough to identify issues around decision making but much more difficult to work out how to actually get to the point of a) making the right decisions b) making them quickly and effectively c) executing on them consistently.

To begin with what are the 'right decisions'? Generally they are the decisions that are going to add value to the organization, and value can on be a range of metrics. In the warmed scone example, the first assistant decided to enable me to enjoy my Pumpkin experience – she was willing to add value to it. The second assistant who refused my request would have diminished the value of Pumpkin in my eyes (and maybe in the eyes of the others in the queue who were listening to the exchange).

Two Danish researchers, Christensen and Knudsen, look at this sort of interaction in terms of decision error – both errors result in organizational loss of value. The second assistant made what they term a Type 1 error: she rejected the superior alternative of offering me good customer service. If the first assistant had gone along with that decision she would have made a Type 2 error – of accepting an inferior alternative.

In terms of organization design they are of the view that hierarchical organizations are less prone to making Type 2 errors – accepting an inferior alternative – because any decision 'needs to be validated by successive ranks of the hierarchy to be approved.' In flat organizations where managers are making decisions in parallel they observe a tendency to minimize the probability of rejecting a superior alternative (a Type 1 error).

They suggest that 'the essence of designing decision-making organizations is to choose a structure that most effectively reduces Type I and/or Type II errors as required by the organization's task environment.' They then describe a reliable way to do this which, I warn you, is not for the fainthearted or more qualitatively oriented among us as it involves six theorems, and heavy duty statistical analysis. But all this finally emerges into four interesting statements

  • Decision making organizations can be constructed so they maximize decision reliability i.e. avoidance of Type 1 and/or Type 2 errors
  • Appropriate incentive structures can help people make better decisions
  • Some people are better at making good decisions than others so think where these people should be placed in the organization
  • Different structures filter information in different ways so some people may be making decisions on inadequate information.

Also they leave us with one 'important but unanswered' question. To what extent is decision making ability a function of (formal and informal) organization structures as well as talent?

The idea that organizations can be designed for good decision making is explored from a different angle in a Harvard Business Review article the Decision Driven Organization the authors note 'Reorganizations are popular with chief executives, who believe that making big structural changes will lead to better performance. … In reality, a company's structure results in better performance only if it improves the organization's ability to make and execute key decisions better and faster than competitors. If you can sync your organization's structure with its decisions, then the structure will work better and performance will improve.' They suggest six steps to take to organize around decisions:

  1. Be clear about which decisions are most important.
  2. Fi gure out where in the organization those decisions need to be made.
  3. Organize your structure around sources of value.
  4. Fi gure out the level of authority your decision makers need, and give it to them.
  5. Adjust other parts of your organizational system to support decision making and execution.
  6. Equip your managers to make decisions quickly and well.' (I think 'people' would be a better choice of word than 'managers')

Valve, a computer games design company, is designed around these six principles in a rather novel way, and judging by their success seems also to avoid rejecting superior alternatives. The company has no hierarchy and their employee handbook answers the question 'How does Valve decide what to work on?' with the response:

The same way we make other decisions: by waiting for someone to decide that it's the right thing to do, and then letting them recruit other people to work on it with them. We believe in each other to make these decisions, and this faith has proven to be well-founded over and over again. But rather than simply trusting each other to just be smart, we also constantly test our own decisions. Whenever we move into unknown territory, our findings defy our own predictions far more often than we would like to admit. We've found it vitally important to, whenever possible, not operate by using assumptions, unproven theories, or folk wisdom.

The Danish researchers, the HRB authors, and Valve make it clear that although a structure can be designed to support good decision making, the people working in the structure should have the will and the capability to make good decisions. How they get to this is perhaps illuminated by the quote below:

Sir, What is the secret of your success?" a reporter asked a bank president.
"Two words."
"And, sir, what are they?"
"Good decisions."
"And how do you make good decisions?"
"One word."
"And sir, what is that?"
"And how do you get Experience?"
"Two words."
"And, sir, what are they?"
"Bad decisions."

ENDNOTE: A great source of information, models, papers, pointers etc. on organizational decision making is Decision Making Confidence.

Designing discussions

This week I've been working on a project that is going to involve use of SharePoint as a 'home room' for team members. At least that is the theory.

SharePoint's website promises that 'Microsoft SharePoint 2010 makes it easier for people to work together. Using SharePoint 2010, your people can set up Web sites to share information with others, manage documents from start to finish, and publish reports to help everyone make better decisions.'

I'm not usually defeatist but the very mention of SharePoint and I immediately thought oh no not another platform for losing stuff on, practicing endless misfiling protocols, confusing organizational newcomers, and ensuring hours of wasted time and frustration searching for something that people know is on there 'somewhere'.

I know I've used earlier versions of SharePoint in various jobs in my recent history but they always seem to have the same trajectory – it resembles the normal change curve that everyone is familiar with, but just in case you're not it runs like this.

Downward slope: Anxiety: Can I cope?
First upward slope: Happiness: At last something is going to change
Then the slope down again towards
Fear: What impact is this going to have on me
Threat: This is bigger than I thought
Denial: Change? What change?
Disillusionment: This isn't for me
And at the bottom of the slope Depression: I give up

At this point we see that the change curve starts to turn upwards towards acceptance and finally moving forward to 'this can work and be good'.

Unfortunately, as far as my experience of SharePoint and its look alikes go the curve never goes up. People stop at disillusionment or depression or worse veer off on a sideways tack towards hostility.

So what does work? I just asked my niece (aged 25ish) if she used SharePoint at work and she says they are about to introduce it but currently the system is i-share but despite the name nobody does, even though she and her team are all Millennials and I thought they would embrace the technology. I asked her why they didn't. So the response came that:

a) It needs someone to put everyone 's data in the same protocols for effective storage and 'harvesting'
b) People have their own methods of filing and retrieving their information and there is no incentive to do anything differently
c) They are too busy on other things to change the way they do things even if there was an incentive to do it
d) The organization and management of 'sharing' isn't a job role for anyone so no-one does it
e) It's too vague in its value proposition to make it seem better than the way information is currently worked with.

So I started to think about the project I'm working on where we'll be using (or intending to use) SharePoint and specifically, in my role, the Discussion Board feature. The only place where I've had success in using discussion boards in on Moodle and Blackboard but in both those cases I was teaching an on-line university program. Here's how I operated it.

a) At the start of the program I told students that I would be posting an article each week on the discussion board.
b) Each week two students had to initiate a discussion on the article by commenting on it.
c) Before the first article was posted we listed for the whole semester the names of the two students who would initiate the discussion. They could choose which week number they would comment but did not know what article would be posted.
d) Either they could jointly comment or they could individually comment. The comment had to be substantive – a minimum of 500 words.
e) Every other student in the class had to participate substantively (minimum 800 words) in the discussion before the end of the week by commenting on one of the lead students articles and additionally developing points made by other learners.
f) Students had to participate 100% or lose 15% of their overall grade.
g) I commented on each student's comments (privately to that student)
h) At the end of the week I summarized the full week's discussion and posted this with the learning points.

So this method had a clean sheet to start, a defined start and end date, a clear task and goals, assigned accountabilities, a penalty for non-participation, feedback from peers and teacher, teacher participation, and a learning outcome.

Now I'm wondering if there would be any organizational benefit in trying to use this kind of structured and moderated approach with a SharePoint discussion board. Experience tells me that just opening a discussion board and expecting people to 'discuss' or a SharePoint site and expecting people to 'share' is simply not going to work. But I think it could if there were good reason to have the discussion or share information in the first place.

I looked around for a Best Practices Guide but all I found was SharePoint Best Practices guide which suggests that "Doing a few minutes of planning prior to creating a new site" will get you where you want to be. In the few minutes (my incredulous italics) we are asked to find answers to the following:

  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • What are your business goals?
  • Is there already an existing site that fulfills these goals?
  • Do I need an entire site? Or would a new page or item in an existing site be better?
  • Who needs access to the site? Team members, everyone in the department, external partners/vendors? What is the expected lifespan of site? 6 month project, until the next reorg, indefinite?
  • Does the site need to be searchable?
  • Should information within the site be able to be tagged and shared with others?
  • What kind of navigation is needed within the site? Complex subsite and library structure? Or fairly shallow, simple Information Architecture?
  • Will the site be for publishing and broad communications or for small group collaboration?
  • What kind of content will be stored within the site? Documents, project tracking, rich media, lists and spreadsheets?

It is precisely a few minutes of planning that will get the use of the platform exactly nowhere. So here is a suggestion on having a better chance of getting your discussion group or SharePoint site actually bringing some business benefits.

Spend a decent amount of time with people who are supposed to use the site and the people instructing people to use the site making sure that :

  • The reasons for launching the discussion board are clearly defined.
  • The positive impact to the business of its use is clear
  • Leaders of are supportive of and committed to the discussion board and participate in the discussions
  • The priority of the discussion board with respect to other work processes is clear.
  • The business case for using the discussion board creates a sense of urgency or priority for everyone expected to contribute
  • Everyone is 'on the same page' with the concepts and protocols of using the discussion board.
  • There are clear expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and scope for discussion board use with associated rewards and penalties that are actioned
  • There is obvious evidence of an overall motivation and drive to make the discussion board work and measurement and tracking of the (previously agreed) success factors.

If those elements are not articulated and communicable don't even start down the path of putting up a discussion board or SharePoint site.

That said – I'd be happy to hear about collaboration sites and discussion boards that are vibrant, productive, and sustained. Any best practice tips on getting to this would be very welcome.

Character, conflict and narrative arc

The creative non-fiction writing course I'm following over breakfast each morning is teaching me about character, conflict, and the narrative arc. I'm wondering how I can apply these techniques to my writing of the second edition of my first book Organization Design: the Collaborative Approach in order to give the new version "a compelling sense of momentum that carries the reader toward the conclusion."

On the face of it things look good. Organization design seems to have all the elements for momentum. That is, "strong characters who experience challenges and conflicts and undergo changes as a result." After all isn't this the story of organization design consulting and any organization design project? But how do I write the story in a way that doesn't breach Non-Disclosure Agreements, and somehow transforms the CIPDs HR Profession Map, Organization Design Competences from a series of uninspiring statements like "Leads systematic processes to manage job sizing and levelling, ensuring appropriate governance is in place to maintain the integrity of the grade structure," into vivid prose that captivates the reader?

It's hard work. Hence the grindingly slow pace and the numerous procrastinations, displacement activity, ensnaring by webrowsing, and so on. But this week I've managed to crank out a large proportion of the second chapter which feels like slight progress towards the April 27 2013 deadline. In the course of getting to this I've also got some good information that was worth the time taken to locate. Whether the information gets processed into a gripping story remains to be seen, as for the moment I'm in the hunter/gatherer stage.

What I've gathered this week is an excellent employee engagement model from Linda Holbeche and Geoffrey Matthews's recently published book Engaged: Unleashing Your Organization's Potential Through Employee Engagement They tell the reader that "there are many different drivers of engagement but they fall into four areas of dynamic interconnection between individuals and the organization in which they work." The four areas they describe are

Voice: Being informed, Being involved, Being heard
Connection: Sense of identification, Pride in the organization, Common purpose, Shared values
Support: Treated as an individual, Feeling valued, Fair deal, Enabled to do the job, Well being
Scope: Autonomy and mutual trust, Growth and accomplishment, Meaning and purpose

It's a practical book which weaves together the various strands of engagement. It's relevant to organization design work in that stakeholder communication and engagement are one of the many strands of successful implementation, and using aspects of the engagement model can help ensure that engagement is designed into the organization and then maintained through various means.

I've also come across an interesting piece of Henley Desk Research on HR Models – lessons from best practice. This is a critique of the Ulrich model and ends with a challenge that organization designers face, and not only in designing HR functions. Nick Holley the researcher notes that

"The challenge isn't either local or global but as Beaman and Hock have talked about "How do you build a "chaordic"organisation an organisation that thrives on the border between "chaos" and "order, that is adaptive to changing conditions, controlling at the center while empowering at the periphery, leveraging worldwide learning capabilities, and that transcends geographic and divisional borders?".

This reminded me of the Dee Hock book I read years ago (about 16 years I discover) on the Chaordic Organization. The book itself is now out of print but you can still read a Fast Company article on the theory behind it . He applied the principles to Visa. In 1996 the article recorded that: Visa has been called

"a corporation whose product is coordination." Hock calls it "an enabling organization." He also sees it as living proof that a large organization can be effective without being centralized and coercive. "Visa has elements of Jeffersonian democracy, it has elements of the free market, of government franchising — almost every kind of organization you can think about," he says. "But it's none of them. Like the body, the brain, and the biosphere, it's largely self-organizing."

So are chaordic organizations 16 years on the design of the future? I'm not sure if Visa today still conforms to that ideal, but certainly the principles are ones that 'agile' (another buzzword) organizations are striving to meet.

Then onwards to talk with Amy Kates who kindly sent information on her chapter on Organization Design in the book Practicing Organization Development: A Guide for Leading Change. I started to add the book to my wish list only to be told by the Amazon algorithm that it was already on the list but since I was putting on again it would be moved to the top instead.

And then to the next lesson in creative non-fiction writing which is on the 'three broad categories of narrative arc: the linear narrative, the circular narrative, and the frame narrative. Each is appropriate for different kinds of stories, but the best choice is usually the simplest, most direct form of narrative that will get the job done.' So story design seems to have an eerie similarity to organization design in that there are models, methods, and principles, and the best route to go is the simplest one that will get the job done – just the character and conflict to handle once the design is chosen – oh well.

My chances of winning a creative non-fiction writing award for the second edition of the book are minimal, but maybe worth a shot. More web cruising on this idle thought. The two awards that caught my eye immediately disqualify me. The PEN Center Award because I don't live west of the Mississippi and the Edna Staebler Award because I'm not Canadian. Nothing for it. I must stop procrastinating and plough on with Chapter 2.

Release the light

I just re-read a previous blog I'd written on organizational diagnosis (July 2010) It was right for now as I'm currently in the middle of three different organizational assessments. This is what some people call the 'discovery' phase when I'm finding out what I think I need to know about the organization in order to make some judgment on what course(s) of action to suggest or recommend.

As I said in last week's blog I am working with three clients in this assessment phase. I always enjoy this part of the design activity because I get to meet all kinds of people each with their own perspective on the same situation. Each of the three cases has taken a somewhat different approach in this phase – so as I always say on my organization design training courses 'there is no right way'.

The interesting thing about the assessment phases is making sense of the data. What do you do with a set of interview notes, or a mix of interview notes and survey data, or a mix of 1:1 notes and group discussion notes? How do you find the themes and patterns that make for a good diagnosis and a useful set of recommendations?

As I was buying one of those light reflecting crystals to give to my mother yesterday I thought that organizations are a bit like the crystal. In an ideal situation each facet is a part of the whole but each is catching and shedding light from its own perspective. The different views and information I am collecting in the discovery phase suggest the facets of the crystal. Collectively the facets make up the crystal ball that catches the light and throws rainbows on the wall. I know this may be a bit far-fetched but it did start me wondering if rather than looking to cure a problem we could be looking to release the light in our assessments.

I say this because one of the clients has a long history and they are rightly keen that a redesign does not, in their words, 'throw the baby out with the bathwater', that it reflects the long history and all the good things about it and reshapes them for the future. I guess much as one can recut the facets on a crystal ball.

Side bar The crystal ball metaphor also suggests looking into the future, and perhaps designing for it – though, in my sardonic moments I am reminded of Scott Adams's (of Dilbert fame) view that, "There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as "nutty methods." Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly referred to as "a complete waste of time."

Going back to my re-read, in that earlier blog I said that the NTL Handbook of Organizational Development and Change describes diagnosis as 'a collaborative process between organization members and the OD practitioner to collect relevant information, organize it, and feed the data back to the client system in such a way as to build commitment, energy and direction for action planning'

This description outlines a three step process a) collect the data b) organize it and c) feed the data back into the client system.

It's interesting to note the use of the word 'collaborative' because each of the steps involves a different form of collaboration.

Step 1 – is agreeing the data collection method. In most cases clients have a wealth of organizational data both quantitative and qualitative. They can pull out documents like strategic plans, business cases, customer and employee satisfaction information and so on that they feel is relevant to the task in hand but are not readily accessible or in public documents. It is important, but not enough, to do desk research of various types on this type of internal and external (Annual reports, white papers, analysts commentaries, etc) data.

Equally the consultant can suggest methods of approach: interviews, town halls, surveys, focus groups and so on. Deciding the right mix can well be a good first collaboration in the design process. If the choice is to conduct interviews and focus groups i.e. interaction with stakeholders then the process of facilitating the conversations involves collaboration between the consultants and the organizational members, or others, they are talking with. One has to assume a certain level of willing co-operation of the interviewees/participants, and that they are genuine in telling the story as they see it.

Step 2 – is the organizing of the data – I think this is less of a collaborative process between client and consultant and more of a consultant(s) activity. In two of the three projects I am working on I have colleagues working with me. In these instances the consulting team is collaborating on the organization of the data.

Incidentally if you are interested in methods of assessing qualitative data e.g. from interviews there's a useful book InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing . For small projects I generally organize unstructured data like interview notes 'by hand', but there are good software packages available that academic researchers use AtlasTi is one and Nvivo is another.

In this organizing of the data how does the consultant know how to sift out from the data what is important and what is 'noise'? I think this is where more client/consultant collaboration comes in. In a client I was working with a couple of weeks ago I began by sifting the information gathered from face to face interviews into cells on a Word table. I constructed a table with five headings: Main element, sub-elements, staff quotes, suggestions, work-stream. I was using an adaptation of Nadler and Tushman's congruence model so there were four main elements: Work, People, Informal Organization and Formal Organization. For this particular client, because so many people had talked about the client base I added a fifth element 'Client'.

Within each element I then had sub-elements drawn from the interview data. So, for example, under Informal Organization I had 'Trust', 'Inheritance from the past', and 'Response to change'. Against each of these sub elements were direct (unattributed) but in some cases slightly adapted quotes from staff – so the originator could not be identified. The fourth column held our – consultant – suggestions on what actions could be taken and the fifth our suggestions on emerging project work-streams or existing functional areas/projects that the actions could be assigned to.

Step 3 – is feeding the data back to the client system. In the case outlined above, we presented the client's leadership team with a PowerPoint overview of findings and then dived into a discussion on the detailed table, which is where the collaboration was really evident. The leadership team was able to take the various observations and see from a collective view whether they reflected a common reality or were an outlier, how important each was, how relevant and appropriate the suggestions were, and where to assign agreed actions (either functionally or to a work stream). We came out of the meeting with a whole lot of changes to our original thinking but ones which were much more appropriate to the clients' experience and intentions.

This type of co-creation is a very powerful way to achieve common ground and as much committed support as you can hope for. Also it removes the notion of 'expert' from the consultant, and puts it in the hands of the client group. Taking the medical analogy I wrote about in the July 2010 blog this approach is a form of second opinion on an initial diagnosis. But one where the second opinion comes from the client as expert. Facilitated carefully the discussion can also focus on methods of 'releasing the light' rather than looking to cure some perceived ills.

Your ideas on how to capture, organize and present assessment data to release the light would be great to get.