Experience design

Is it possible to design organizations as if they were experiences – which, of course they are? Nathan Shedroff in his books Experience Design 1.1 and Experience Design 2 suggests that there are at least six dimensions to experiences:

  • time/duration
  • interactivity
  • intensity
  • breadth/consistency
  • sensorial and cognitive triggers
  • significance/meaning

At face value each of these could be consciously designed into an organization in relation to the business strategy and/or business model, and also into the various elements that comprise the organization. A series of questions could be asked around each of the dimensions

Take the time/duration dimension as an example. Questions relating to this include:

How long do we typically want the various levels of employees to stay with us?
What are the advantages/disadvantages of length of employement period?
Is a short stay with high performance better than a long stay with medium performance?
What do we anticipate the organization's longevity to be?
Is it a pop-up or are we in it for the long term? What is long-term?
Are we buying equipment to last or to be replaced?
What is the lifecycle of our products and services?
How long do we expect our policies and procedures to last? How often should we review them?

And so on. The list of questions for each of the six dimensions could be endless but yield rich thinking into how the organization should be designed or redesigned.

Capacity to Act

Several years ago Robert Shaw and David Nadler wrote an article called Capacity to Act (in Human Resource Planning, Volume 14, No. 4). It's worth reading now as it addresses some of the questions people have regarding why some companies are able to be adaptive and redesign themselves in the face of new challenges and others are not. Newspaper industry take note. The authors identify three factors that they say contribute to this inability to adapt.

1. Priority stress which occurs when there is a lack of clear focus on core priorities i.e. people don't know what is important

2. A bias towards activity versus results – when people come to value standard operating procedures and the security that comes with following these procedures over improving organizational performance

3. Perceived powerlessness which occurs when managers believe they lack the authority and power necessary to make important decisions.

It's a simple and persuasive argument and they put forward four suggestions for address the issue i.e. ways of creating capacity to act.

  • Create clarity in purpose and direction
  • Focus on results by rewarding the right performance
  • Move decision making downwards
  • Restructure organizational units to be smaller and more automous.

This all sounds straightforward. However, with all these things the 'what to do' is relatively easy. The 'how to do it' so that it works is usually the challenge. What the article does not tackle is the emotions and responses of people who don't want to do things differently from the way they've always done them.

Pop ups

The NYT article today on 'land banking' – the strategic acquisition of land in advance of expanding urban development, and the holding on to it as long as possible to maximize profits – talks about how such pieces of land could be used for temporary public parks pending development. Apparently last Friday was Park(ing) Day and the article gives several examples of where this has happened.

This idea of a 'pop-up' park is very similar to the pop up shops that have recently hit mainstream (of course they always existed in the mysterious way that umbrella sellers pop up in city streets the second a rain shower begins). The Economist describes the pop up retailing scene in a piece published in July this year.

Pop-ups arrive unannounced in empty storefronts or public spaces and leave just as quickly. Their aim, says Eduardo Braniff of Imagination USA, which does "experiential" marketing, is to "intervene in a consumer's life" and take people by surprise.

Both the parks and the retail stores have taken advantage of the weak property market and are nice examples of quick innovative thinking. How could the pop up concepts be extended into organization design? (Discount project teams are arguably a form of pop up although these are usually formed in the same mould as the rest of the organization rather than different from the original intention which is the value add).

Developing curiosity

Fred Hoyle, a UK astronomer, in 1957 published a science fiction novel called The Black Cloud (which is still available). One of the strands in it is about knowledge exchange and how difficult it is to imbibe new knowledge if it contradicts an existing paradigm that someone holds.

This can be a real issue for organizations trying to be innovative. It's not an easy task to think outside what is known because education, experience, and the current organizational form all conspire against us when it comes to predicting the future potential of a new idea. As someone said "Each acts as a funnel narrowing our field of vision so tightly that eventually we only see what is already behind us".

So how can organizations – or rather the people in them – overcome the heritage of what they have previously learned, what they already know, what the organization is set up to do? One thought is to help people develop the capacity of curiosity and 'conscious un-knowing'. (Dr Martin Seligman in a co-authored book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification discusses 24 character strengths, one of which is curiosity). While Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that people only become curious about something when they direct their attention towards it.

To develop curiosity try this exercise from the Authentic Happiness newsletter

During those times when you are feeling bored or unstimulated (e.g., while waiting in line at the grocery store), focus your attention on something that ordinarily might not engage your interest. For example, if you are at the grocery store, really notice how various customers interact with the checkout clerk. Are they making eye contact or averting their gaze? Do they make small talk? Do they offer to bag their own groceries? Notice how much effort you need to expend to focus your attention. Is it worth it? Is there a trade off between being bored (but with no demands placed on your psychic energy) and being interested?

Serious Games Institute

The University of Coventry in the UK opened the Serious Games Institute in fall 2007.

The Institute acts as a hub for 'serious games' (defined as digital computer games with an educational purpose) research and development and notes that:

The current main areas of application of serious games (and virtual worlds) are in the business and military sectors but there is also much interest in their use in the education sector.

A report published in co-operation with the Serious Games Institute in November 2008 Serious Virtual Worlds: A Scoping Study makes the point that

Immersive world applications achieve this mainly because they have the potential to support multimodal (using different senses) communications between learners; they set up the potential for problem – or challenge-based learning and offer the learner control through exploratory learning experiences.

While the spaces are excellent for bringing together the use of a range of different media (eg streamed video and audio, email, live chat, social network software and mind mapping software), questions remain as to how best to integrate these media to support the most enriched learning experiences, so more work is needed to identify the key strengths of learning in immersive worlds and guidelines are required to support practitioners and learners.

Additionally, Cisco is collaborating in a research project with the Serious Games Institute to explore the potential of smart buildings and campuses to support innovative and personalised learning. At the heart of this collaboration is the concept of a "smart building" as an intelligent agent that can learn about its visitors and stakeholders and respond proactively to deliver a rich experience based on knowledge of an individual's profile and location. They say that:

Over time, we envisage that the system will develop a profile of the visitor which not only delivers content most appropriate to the visitor's knowledge and preferences but also acts in a proactive way to connect the visitor to other people with similar interests or specialised knowledge.

These types of developments are likely to have huge impacts on the way organizations interact with stakeholders to deliver their products and services. It will be stretch for most of the traditional business models to adapt quickly enough to remain competitive.

Creative capitalism business models

In the call for 'beyond capitalism' businesses Bill Gates in a January 2008 speech at the World Economic Forum called for creative capitalism

"an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities."

Going down this route has significant implications the businesses and for the organization designers supporting this level of change to the business model.

It means shifting from an over-arching purpose of 'making the numbers' to a an organizational purpose around social, moral, and environmental principles (many of them outlined in Adam Werbach's book Strategy for Sustainability).

The question is: "Is it feasible, or possible for existing businesses to make such a fundamental shift?" To answer: It's very unlikely as all aspects of an existing for profit, publicly owned companies are set up to maximize shareholder valuing and this is enforced through a variety of mechanisms – legal, regulatory, and so on.

However, a way to do this is for businesses either to establish parallel businesses set up on a new model – Grameen Danone is a much quoted example designed to support a dual model of for-profit and social/environmental purpose.

There are good examples of organizations that were established with the dual purpose framing the business model. Many are co-operatives for example, Amul an Indian milk farming co-operative and Organic Valley (a US farmer owned co-operative), other models are those of Triodos Bank or the John Lewis Partnership.

Trying to graft a new business model onto an existing one, or change an existing one to a different one is not a task for the faint hearted.

Future gazing

PWC's report, published in 2008, Managing Tomorrow's People: the future of work to 2020 outlines three plausible future worlds of work – derived from two surveys a) of 6000 graduates b) of CEOs.

They describe these scenarios as:

• The blue world: where the big capitalist company rules – controlling people and trumping states

• The green world: where sustainability, concern for others and environmental issues drive the business agendas

• The orange world: where collaborative, specialized organizational networks dominate the economy.

The report points out that none of these are givens but what the authors do suggest are givens are that the world will be more complicated, technology will advance faster, global expansion will continue, and people will become more demanding of employers as talent gets scarcer.

Any one of these three scenarios – or more likely to occur – a combination of the will force a change in business models. This is probably the most useful observation of the report as organizations as less likely to seek to change their business models than they are to try to re-organize or state a desire to 'change the culture'. Organization designers would do well to start prompting clients to consider the precepts of their business model as part of any design exercise.