Friday, September 23, 2011

Can this be your future work environment?

(photo from stock.xchng)

Imagine an environment characterized by the following:
  • It is as easy to get started for a newbie as for an experienced professional
  • The time from preparation to execution is really short
  • You can do it anywhere, any time 
  • You can set your own goals
  • You can do it in your own pace
  • You can get guidance and coaching on demand from experts and mentors
  • You get immediate feedback about your progress and performance
  • You can easily coordinate and share your activities with other people
  • Real-time positive feedback from people you trust help you refuel when your energy levels are low
  • Your performance is documented in the flow instead of as a separate activity, adding no extra work load
  • You can evaluate your own efforts and progress and adjust your goals 
  • You can make your performance and achievements visible to your environment
  • There are many ways, requiring no effort, for others to recognize and celebrate your achievements
  • By being able to make your activities visible and recognized by other people, you influence more people to follow your example
This could very well be a description of how it is to work in a social business, but it’s actually a list of things I believe have contributed to the "running phenomenon": the trend that more and more people in all ages are putting on their running shoes and starting to run on a regular basis.

I know of many people who, like me, have never been running regularly before, who have even seen running as something dreadfully boring and painful, and who slowly have turned into runners. Their reasons for running might vary, such as improving their health, losing weight, or becoming part of a community or social group. Regardless of their reasons, some are not at a point where running has become a part of their social identity. By that point, it's virtually impossible to stop. They have developed an intrinsic motivation for running and rely less and less on the extrinsic motivation and rewards once helped them getting started.

The key to this trend has been environment that motivates people to run and triggers certain behaviors. A lot of techy things like smartphones, mobile apps, GPS, presence, cloud computing, gamification and social software have been used to create this environment. Yet, it couldn’t have been created without a deeper understanding of what motivates people and how to design an environment that triggers the right behaviors.

So the bottom line is this: If the environment described above can turn almost anyone into a runner, we can be pretty sure that a work environment that is designed with an understanding of  what make people more motivated, collaborative and productive at work, and where performance models and management practices are adjusted accordingly, can turn an underperforming business to one that thrives and outperforms its competitors.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Connectedness


From Edward M. Hallowell’s, "Connectedness,"  in Finding the Heart of the Child, Association of Independent Schools in New England, Inc., 1993:
"What is connectedness?  It is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself.  It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment.  It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone.  It is a sense that, no matter how scary things may become, there is a hand for you in the dark.  While ambition drives us to achieve, connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior." 
If there is one word that can describe the era we are now entering, and the power that disrupts and changes everything from our individual and social lives to business environments and society, it is probably this word: Connectedness.

Connectedness is the state of being connected, about being “joined or fastened together”, “associated with or related to others, especially to influential or important people.” (The Free Dictionary). It can also be seen as a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself, as a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. Connectedness is what makes enterprises tick and enables people to work together towards a shared purpose. It is what creates and shapes markets, and what influences our attitudes and behaviors.

The days when brands could be built and markets created almost entirely through advertising in mass-media are over. Today people who share similar needs or wants can easily connect with each other by their own force, creating markets where they exchange information about any products or services available that can satisfy their needs or wants. They might even create the services or products themselves. One thing that is sure is that the impact and reach of personal recommendations and influence has never been stronger, and it has all to do with the reach, immediacy and multiplier effects now available through the social web. If people like a brand and its products or services, they might become advocates for that brand, influencing their friends and other people with similar needs or wants to buy the brand’s products or services. The brand becomes part of their social identities, which turns them into loyal and powerful band advocates if they are considered as influencers among their friends or communities.

What all this means is that most brands don’t create or even shape markets anymore. At best, they co-create their markets together with their customers. And the fundamental force behind these new market dynamics can be captured with one word: Connectedness.

In a world where things changed less frequently and when there was plenty of time to react on new information that emerged, where markets did not emerge by themselves and change shape by themselves, it was possible to centralize planning and make long-term detailed plans and execute the plans over a period of several years. Those days are also over, and businesses have to be prepared for the unexpected. They might still have an overall strategy and plan, but they need to be prepared to change it at any point in time and accept that the only feasible strategy they have to respond to change fast enough and good enough is to distribute the power of decision-making to everyone who might ever need to make a decision.

Informal networks have always been important, if not to say critical, for good decision-making in organizations. They have compensated for the lack of bandwidth and the slowness of formal information flows, the ones which typically follow the hierarchic reporting structure of organizations, by rapidly bringing new and more complete information to the awareness of decision-makers. Yet until recently the power to build and maintain informal networks were primarily possessed by those people within an organization who possessed formal positions in the hierarchy. Their positions allowed them to allocate the time and resources to build their informal networks. Anyone who had a strong informal network could influence decision-making, and informal networks were considered as something bad – especially if someone outside the hierarchy had strong informal networks.

Today informal networks are increasingly considered as an organizational asset, especially if they become visible and if more people are given the chance to develop them. The social web and enterprise social software allows empowers people to connect and build their own networks. This means they can more easily get access to the information needed making the right decisions themselves, right there in the situation where they are need to make a decision. As more people are empowered to do this, the enterprise becomes more agile and responsive, increasing its chances of surviving and thriving in a global, connected and rapidly changing business landscape. So if there is any art the modern enterprise needs to learn and master, it is the art of Connectedness.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Designing a Less Dysfunctional Knowledge Management System


This definition of a Knowledge Management System (KMS) can be found in Wikipedia:
"a (generally IT based) system for managing knowledge in organizations for supporting creation, capture, storage and dissemination of information. It can comprise a part (neither necessary or sufficient) of a Knowledge Management initiative."
I am personally not too fond of this definition. First of all, it makes it seem like a knowledge management system can exist and function independently from the people who are using it. In addition, as a Druckerian I believe in Peter F Druckers expression that "you can’t manage knowledge. Knowledge exists between two ears only." This is why I would rather see a knowledge management system as a dynamic network of interconnected individuals who share and learn together, supported by various forms of information technology. With this definition it is easy to see that every enterprise has a knowledge management system. What differs is how well it functions, which is today heavily dependent on how well it is able to make proper use of information technology to sustain and improve itself.

Large and dispersed enterprises typically involve multiple organizations and their performance thus relies on a successful orchestration and alignment of all the efforts within and across the different organizations. In practice this requires the integration of multiple professional informal networks and this integration is primarily done by allowing people from different organizations to meet and connect with each other to establish communication. Until recently, an organization’s capability to connect people with each within the organization and with other organizations involved in an enterprise has been very limited and costly. So this was a task done by managers, sales people, formally appointed experts and other people who had the possibility to travel and meet a lot of people in their daily work. They aggregated the connections in their own networks, and connected the enterprise. These people acted as hubs, or what Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors, helping to connect people and expertise across the workforce. Although their function adds immense value, it is easy to see how easily they can become bottlenecks when there is a need to speed up and broaden the flow of information and that they exercise immense power over the performance of the enterprise, a power that could be misused in various ways.

The natural approach to avoid these kinds of bottlenecks is to create ways to increase the number of direct connections between people and allow people to build and connect their networks so that information can flow across networks. Until recently this hasn’t been practically or financially feasible.

Now back to Drucker again. All the knowledge within an enterprise, residing in the heads of its people, can only be "managed" in the sense that people create and maintain digital representations of their knowledge in various forms (from simple text messages to documents and rich media) and that they find ways to exchange, aggregate, organize and maintain those representations together. To their help they have information technologies which help to extend their human abilities to do all these things. Modern information technologies allow us to represent our knowledge in various forms and share them as well as accessing the representations created by other people, no matter where they are located or what team they belong to. In theory, that is.

In practice, a knowledge management system cannot function properly or produce the required results if all the layers of an enterprise – such as processes, organization, practices, information and IT solutions - aren’t designed to be as open and transparent as possible. If any of those layers is designed in a way that makes it closed and opaque, it will make the knowledge management system dysfunctional. The ability of the enterprise to quickly adapt to its environment and respond to external stimuli, such changing behaviors of the market, will be limited. If there is not enough inflow and exchange of information within the system, few ideas will be created within the enterprise and it will be hard to make the ideas which are created reach those who can make them happen. Teams will become silos and revert to group-thing which lead to suboptimal decisions and keep their knowledge and ideas to themselves, operating as an enterprise of their own with their own purpose and goals. The enterprise becomes like a federation of states without proper common governance and with trade barriers that hinder free trade and thereby the development of wealth for the federation as a whole as well as for the individual countries.

Enterprises have now the opportunity to apply social principles and technologies to improve the performance of the enterprise as a knowledge management system. It is now practically and financially feasible to increase the number of direct connections between people and allow people to build and connect their networks so that information can flow across those networks more smoothly. Besides making this possible, social technologies also allow us to represent and share our knowledge in much easier and richer ways, many times as a byproduct when we simply try to get things done together. Our social interactions happening through social technologies further enrich the representations of our knowledge with more information (or metadata) that make the representations easier to find, interpret, understand, use and reuse.

This does however not come automatically. All layers of the enterprise, from the organization to the IT solutions, need to be designed for maximum transparency and connectivity. They also need to be designed to encourage and make it really simple for people to connect and interact across all structures, thereby making it more likely that there will be a continuous exchange of valuable information and knowledge across the enterprise. Only then will they have a functioning knowledge management system that allows them to proactively deal with the challenges of today’s global and ever changing business environment.