Rethinking organizational functions and components in a freelance economy

An story on NPR this morning about Grind, a new co-working start-up raises some intriguing questions about where organizations may be evolving in an increasingly freelance economy.

 

GrindOfficeSpaceNYC

JaegerSloan: Workers share office space at Grind, a co-working company in New York City. Those who want to use Grind’s facilities are vetted through a competitive application process.

April 10, 2012

The recession brought widespread unemployment across the U.S., but it also prompted a spike in the number of freelance or independent workers.

More than 30 percent of the nation’s workers now work on their own, and the research firm IDC projects the number of nontraditional office workers — telecommuters, freelancers and contractors — will reach 1.3 billion worldwide by 2015.

Typically, freelancers get to choose when and where they work. Many opt to set up shop in “co-working” arrangements, where they can rent a cubicle and other office resources by the day or the month.

It was once a relatively simple process to sign up with a co-working site.

But now, more companies are adopting a selective approach known as “curated co-working.” One such company, New York City’s Grind, requires an application — and you have to be accepted to get started.

That means some would-be co-workers will find they don’t make the cut…

For Freelancers, Landing A Workspace Gets Harder : NPR: by KAOMI GOETZ

(Someday I will produce a rant about the overuse of the word “curated.”)

Two interesting questions come to mind:

  1. How will the application and profile process evolve? We are all social animals. We also have a pretty solid understanding of what differentiates successful groups and successful teams. As freelancers and as potential co-workers, will we become more mindful about how we manage our associations?
  2. Grind is testing the hypothesis that there is value in filtering the freelancers who will have access to their space. Is this a leading indicator that the physical, social, psychological, and economic functions of the organization can be effectively decomposed and rearranged in new formats?

It’s certainly time to reread Ronald Coase’s The Nature of the Firm. I might also take a look at Jay Galbraith’s Designing Organizations and Bob Keidel’s Seeing Organizational Patterns.

Defining Characteristics of Wicked Problems

I’m just wrapping up a course I’ve been teaching at DePaul’s School for New Learning on Understanding Organizational Change. I’ve grounded the course in a view of organizations as dynamic systems from the perspective of Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge. In the last few sessions, we’ve also been discussing the notion of Wicked Problems and the challenges they present in today’s organizational environment.

I introduced the following list of “defining characteristics of wicked problems” drawn from The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations. I’m not yet finished with that book, although it is excellent so far. I’ll post a review when I’ve finished it. Here is their list:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In other words, the problem can be framed in many different ways, depending on which aspects of it one wants to emphasise. These different views of the problem can often be contradictory. Take, for example, the problem of traffic congestion. One solution may involve building more roads, whereas another may involve improving public transport. The first accommodates an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, whereas the second attempts to reduce it.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The first characteristic states that one s understanding of the problem depends on how one approaches it. Consequently, the problem is never truly solved. Each new insight or solution improves one s understanding of the problem yet one never completely understands it. This often leads to a situation in which people are loath to take action because additional analysis might increase the chances of finding a better solution. Analysis paralysis, anyone?
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false but better or worse. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong but are subjectively better or worse. Consequently, judgements on the effectiveness of solutions are likely to differ widely based on the personal interests, values, and ideology of the participants.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems cannot be validated as is the case in tame problems. Any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences that may yield undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages. (Offering Britney Spears a recording contract is a classic example).
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. Rittel explained this characteristic succinctly, with the example One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions. There are no criteria that allow one to test whether or not all possible solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Using what worked elsewhere will generally not work for wicked problems. There are always features that are unique to a particular wicked situation. Accordingly, one can never be certain that the specifics of a problem are consistent with previous problems that one has dealt with. This characteristic directly calls into question the common organisational practice of implementing best practices that have worked elsewhere.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This refers to the fact that a wicked problem can usually be traced back to a deeper underlying problem. For example, a high crime rate might be due to the lack of economic opportunities. In this case the obvious solution of cracking down on crime is unlikely to work because it treats the symptom, not the cause. The point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sure that one has reached the fundamental underlying problem. The level at which a problem settles cannot be decided on logical grounds alone.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem s resolution. In other words, a wicked problem can be explained in many ways with each explanation serving the interests of a particular group of stakeholders.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate). Those who work with wicked problems (town planners, for example) are paid to design and implement solutions. However, as we have seen, solutions to wicked problems cause other unforeseen issues. Planners and problem solvers are invariably held responsible for the unanticipated consequences of their solutions.

Culmsee, Paul; Kailash Awati (2011-12-02). The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations (Kindle Locations 2759-2839). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Richard Feynman On The Folly Of Crafting Precise Definitions

I’ve often struggled with the notion of definitions when working in organizations. On the one hand, too many of us hide our ignorance and uncertainty behind a wall of jargon and terminology. Terms fall in and out of favor and their relationship to the underlying real world is often less important than their value from a marketing perspective.

On the other hand, new terms and language can help us point to and see new ideas and new opportunities for action. Here’s a recent post from Bob Sutton that sheds light on these challenges and is worth thinking about.

One of my best friends in graduate school was a former physics major named Larry Ford. When behavioral scientists started pushing for precise definitions of concepts like effectiveness and leadership, he would sometimes confuse them (even though Larry is a very precise thinker) by arguing “there is a negative relationship between precision and accuracy.” I just ran into a quote from the amazing Nobel winner Richard Feynman that makes a similar point in a lovely way:

We can’t define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers one saying to the other: “you don’t know what you are talking about!”. The second one says: “what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?

Feynman’s quote reminded me of the opening pages of the 1958 classic “Organizations” by James March (quite possibly the most prestigious living organizational theorist, and certainly, one of the most charming academics on the planet) and Herbert Simon (another Nobel winner). They open the book with a great quote that sometimes drives doctoral students and other scholars just crazy. They kick-off by saying:

“This is a book about a theory of formal organizations. It is easier, and probably more useful, to give examples of formal organizations than to define them.”

After listing a bunch of examples of organizations including the Red Cross and New York State Highway Department, they note in words that would have pleased Feynman:

“But for the present purposes we need not trouble ourselves with the precise boundaries to be drawn around an organization or the exact distinction between an “organization” and a “non-organization.” We are dealing with empirical phenomena, and the world has an uncomfortable way of not permitting itself to be fitted into clean classifications.”

I must report, however, that for the second edition of the book, published over 20 years later, the authors elected to insert a short definition in the introduction:

“Organizations are systems of coordinated action among individuals and groups whose preferences, information, interests, or knowledge differ.”

When I read this, I find myself doing what Feynman complained about. I think of things they left out: What about norms? What about emotions? I think of situations where it might not apply: Doesn’t a business owned and operated by one person count as an organization? I think of the possible overemphasis on differences: What about all the times and ways that people and groups in organizations have similar preferences, information, interests, and knowledge? Isn’t that part of what an organization is as well? I could go on and on.

I actually think it is a pretty good definition, but my bias is still that I like original approach, as they did such a nice job of arguing, essentially, that if they tried to get more precise, they would sacrifice accuracy. Nonetheless, I confess that I still love trying to define things and believe that trying to do so can help clarifying your thinking. You could argue that while the outcome, in the end, will always be flawed and imprecise, the process is usually helpful and there are many times when it is useful pretend that you have a precise and accurate definition even if you don’t (such as when you are developing metrics). “

Richard Feynman On The Folly Of Crafting Precise Definitions – Bob Sutton:

Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking vs. Continuous Improvement

Russell Ackoff was one of the seminal thinkers in systems models of organization. Here is a short talk of his from 1994 that provides an excellent introduction to the topic.

Learning to see and understand the systems behavior of organizations is an excellent antidote to much of the mythology around organizations that functions in lieu of more powerful models.

Focusing on mission – why asking why is where to start

Morry Fiddler is a friend and one of my personal trusted advisors. During one of our recent breakfasts, he recommended the following TED talk by Simon Sinek on how leaders inspire action.

 

Since then, I’ve found myself weaving Sinek’s thinking into my own work and recommending it to others.

I also made a point to get my hands on the book version of Sinek’s thinking: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  While it helps fill in some holes in his argument, I think most will find the TED talk more than sufficient to grasp Sinek’s argument and start adapting it to their particular situations.

As you’ll discover, Sinek believes that the differentiating role of leadership is to define and ultimately embed into an organization’s culture a clear sense of "why" the organization exists.

Sinek’s arguments and examples are sufficient to encourage me to make the why/mission question more explicit in my work and I’m already seeing it bear fruit in several settings. Sinek makes an effort to anchor his ideas in what we’ve been learning about the organization of the human brain. While he makes an interesting case, I think it’s a bit of a stretch and not essential to his argument.

What Sinek does do is give you both a framework and some plausible examples to support important conversations with organizations and leaders who are struggling to find their focus.

Where IS Health Care Going? Technology Leader’s Presentation

Last week, JoAnn Becker  and I ran an interactive discussion with the monthly TLA Manager’s breakfast meeting here in Chicago. We had a lively and excellent debate among a group of technology executives, health care executives, and other smart people about the real challenges of successfully deploying information technology to improve productivity and quality in delivering health care in this country.

That, of course, is an immense issue and would could barely scratch the surface in the hour we had. For those who are interested, we’ve uploaded our slides to Slideshare.

 

We used two recent TV ads from GE and IBM to kick off the discussion. On the surface, each provides a sense for the promise of information technology to make health care more effective:

GE TV ad – Doctors
IBM TV Ad – “Data Baby”

In the tradition of all good technology vendor advertising, both also completely gloss over the complex organizational adaptation and evolution necessary to bring these hypothetical worlds into being. They also gloss over the existing institutional and industry complexity that needs to be understood and addressed through a combination of design, leadership, and management.

Fred  Brooks, professor of computer science at UNC and author of The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering, draws a critical distinction in the final chapter of the book, which is titled "No Silver Bullet," between accidental and essential complexity. His point is that software is so difficult to design and develop because it must successfully model the essential complexity of the domain it addresses. Technology and software efforts can stumble on a variety of barriers and roadblocks, but failing to understand and address essential complexity is the worst.

Health care provides its own mix of accidental and essential complexity. If the decision makers aren’t careful to draw distinctions between accidental and essential, then a great deal of time and effort will be expended without corresponding returns. On the one hand, we may simply succeed in "speeding up the mess" as my friend Benn Konsynski so liked to put it. Or, we may obliterate  essential complexities in a quest for uniformity and productivity that is blind to those complexities. Or, finally, we may invest the appropriate level of design time and talent in systems that account for essential complexity and eliminate accidental complexity.

Resources

We drew on a variety of excellent resources in preparing for this talk and wanted to make them more easily available here.

Here are several books that provide useful context and background

Here are pointers to a variety of health care related web resources worth paying attention to:

Rethinking thought leadership as an operating principle

Thought leadership risks becoming an empty marketing phrase just as it becomes essential to long term success. In an idea economy more and more firms understand the importance of getting credit for being on the leading edge, but getting credit is best preceded by actually being there. Organizations that depend on generating and exploiting ideas need to become more systematic about integrating thought leadership into their operating principles and practices not just their marketing.

Value of thought leadership

How many of today’s successful organizations are built on top of better ideas? Some, like FedEx or Southwest Airlines, were built on top of a powerful core idea. Others, like Amazon or Apple, were built on a powerful core plus ongoing extension and elaboration of that core with new ideas. Still others, like the best professional services firms, depend on a steady stream of new ideas.

If you’re fortunate enough to come up with a FedEx or Southwest quality idea, ongoing thought leadership isn’t much of an issue and you can focus your organizational energies on execution. On the other hand, if you’re in an organization or industry where the half-life of ideas is continuing to shrink, then you need a more explicit strategy than waiting for the next flash of entrepreneurial genius.

There have been many attempts to make thought leadership more manageable. These range from the full fledged research labs of large organizations (e.g.,  Xerox PARC, Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Bell Labs) to various research centers in professional services firms (e.g., Deloitte Center for the Edge, McKinsey Global Institute, Accenture Global Research).

Most of these examples separate research from practice and model themselves along academic lines. While they often produce excellent work and contribute to the overall market reputation of their parent organizations, they have been less successful at leveraging the experience of their parents or at feeding their insights back into their organizations. These examples also stamp thought leadership as a luxury available only to the largest and most successful organizations.

Where we went off track

While we can recognize the value of thought leadership as a component of innovation and of attracting new customers, we’ve had less success in transforming thought leadership into something systematic and manageable. While the end products of thought leadership are attractive, they shed limited light on what practices contribute to those end products.

Thought leadership presents a situation where working backwards isn’t helpful. Seeing the marketing and reputational value of a published article, senior executives will call their Chief Marketing Officers and order an article for the next issue of the Harvard Business Review. Wise CMOs, recognizing that this request has not come from someone named Gates, or Buffet, or Welch, will negotiate a more plausible timeline, identify some plausible topics, and search for potential authors within the organization.

With a great deal of luck and effort, this approach might yield an article in a year or so. Successful or not, marketing has now come to own the thought leadership problem. If the focus remains on the end products, which is likely, marketing will pursue opportunities to create materials that can easily be used as marketing and sales collateral. Perhaps they will enlist help from customer service or training groups to leverage their materials as input to the process as well.

This is a classic confusion of form over substance. At an extreme, we see such nonsense as Gartner Group trumpeting TLM (thought leadership marketing) as the next frontier for IT services marketing. Somewhat more sensibly, we see a variety of marketing and PR consultants pushing thought leadership as a key marketing strategy. Some good recent examples include:

Getting back on track

Whatever the marketing value of thought leadership, it is secondary to the operational value of increasing the effectiveness of how an organization learns from and disseminates practice. When you recast thought leadership as a core operating principle instead of ancillary marketing program, several implication follow. First, it changes what you recognize as relevant data. Second, it changes the kinds of support you provide to your front line practitioners. Finally, it shapes the practices you promote among your workforce.

Where you see data

A survey of current customers or prospects often passes for data in faux thought leadership attempts. Or, a few thin paragraphs passing as a case study. The insights that fuel real thought leadership flow from the interaction of rich data and penetrating questions. Those are typically found at the edges of current practice.

Organizations will find their richest data in the histories and traces of those projects that challenge their capabilities and are placed in the hands of their most adept staff. It’s often difficult to know in advance which projects will fall into this category. More often, it’s easier to predict that certain efforts will likely be routine.

How you support the field

The best time to collect this rich field data is as it’s being generated. The greater the delay between action and reflection, the more that real insight is displaced by revisionist history. Organizationally, you can provide systems and tools that make it simpler to capture and catalog working papers and work products as they are created. Second, organizations can set aside the time and create expectations that professionals will reflect on their work as they perform it.

What practices make a difference

Despite the fervent wishes of bureaucrats, the kind of reflection and learning from practice that fuel meaningful thought leadership won’t map into standard operating procedures or fixed processes. It is much more fruitful to think in terms of practices to encourage. At the team level, for example, After Action Reviews are a simple practice to amplify learning among the team.

Individual practices can range from debriefing a meeting over a beer to maintaining a journal of questions and reflections. The journal could be as simple as a Moleskine notebook or as extensive as a private blog.

Payoff to knowledge workers and their organizations

Treating thought leadership as a marketing responsibility does create organizational value, but at a significant cost in terms of effort and disruption within the organization. Marketing staff need the full support and participation of those line contributors generating the experience on which thought leadership must be based but if they drive thought leadership efforts from their immediate needs they risk alienating those on whom they most depend with requests for substantial incremental work.

On the other hand, treating thought leadership as an operating principle better aligns the demands on those core contributors. Now, rich, high quality input to thought leadership efforts are relevant components of ongoing work. Moreover, this approach enhances individual and organizational learning as a primary goal; thought leadership becomes a valuable side effect of doing work, instead of being an onerous additional requirement.

Professionals grow and develop through reflective practice. They build and test mini-theories of how their actions lead to outcomes. In a simpler world, that reflection was built on the slow accretion of experience. In today’s world, it is more effective to build on a foundation of explicit reflection.

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Applying End-to-End Design Principles in Social Networks

Partial map of the Internet based on the Janua...

Image via Wikipedia

 Andy Lippman, at MIT’s Media Lab, offers provocative examples of learning how to think in network terms when designing services in a recent blog post from the Communications Futures Program at MIT. At the very heart of the Internet’s design is a notion called the end-to-end principle (pdf). The best network is one that treats all nodes in the network identically and pushes responsibility for decisions out to the nodes. Creating special nodes in the network and centralizing decisions in those nodes makes the network as a whole work less well.

In this essay, Lippman explores that notion by looking at examples of existing and potential services in telecommunications networks that could be improved by trusting the end-to-end principle more fully. Lippman takes a look at emergency services such as 911 calls in the US. As currently designed, these services allow individuals to reach a centralized dispatch center in the event of an emergency.

Emergencies are no longer solely about getting help for a fire or heart attack. Nor are they purely personal affairs, directed at or for a single individual. Consider the recent attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airplane where passengers provided the service (saving the plane). Early reports portrayed this as a fine solution. Indeed, there is discussion that the best result of increased airline security is that it has made people aware of the fact that they all have to pitch in to help when it is needed; they can no longer just rely on a remote entity a site to solve the problem for them.

End-to-End Social Networks
Andy Lippman
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 21:10:36 GMT

Lippman makes the point that we can benefit from thinking about ways to mobilize the network as a whole as an alternative to using it to direct messages to some centralized authority. Continuing to impose hierarchical notions on top of network designs risks missing other, potentially more powerful, options. We have a set of powerful new tools and ideas that we have yet to fully exploit.

The design reasoning that underlies the engineering of the Internet is applicable in organizational settings as well. Lippman’s examples are a good place to start in thinking how to apply them effectively.

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Does the CIO have a role in successful social media adoption?

Like everyone else who’s awake, my long-time friend and colleague Keri Pearlson and I have been trying to make sense out of the uptake of new "social" technologies into organizations. We are noodling on the hypothesis that the CIO represents the best choice if an organization wants to develop a social technology strategy that is both effective and reasonably efficient in the demands it exacts on the organization.

Saying the Dell or P&G has a social technology strategy is a common shorthand that obscures a more important truth. There are real people in specific roles who take on the responsibility for developing and deploying the collection of initiatives and programs that get labeled as an organization’s social technology strategy. The specific people and the particular functions involved greatly influence the success or failure of these initiatives

Some manager in marketing experiments with Twitter or a fan page on Facebook. A lawyer in the general counsel’s office raises a concern about whether an employee comment on Twitter creates a liability for the corporation. A divisional general who still has his assistant print out his email traffic creates a task force to develop a corporate social media policy proposal. While there may be no right answer for how an organization handles social media, these choices matter. The hypothesis that we are considering is this:

The CIO represents an excellent choice for who should coordinate an organization’s approach to social media/social networking.

Why we think this is a reasonable hypothesis

From an IT manager’s perspective, the technologies of social media/social networking appear quite simple. They are either web services hosted outside the firewall or they are very simple new capabilities hosted on internal servers. Compared with the complexities of a global ERP system, a distributed point-of-sale system, or a terabyte-scale data warehouse, social media/social networking capabilities are technologically trivial. Why then are they a problem relevant to the IT function? Why not simply let ownership and management of these capabilities reside in the business?

First, much of the value in social media/social networking lies in the masses of data they generate. Whether in the content of employees at Microsoft blogging internally or publicly about their work or in the network linkage data embedded in the interactions among customers and customer service staff using @ComcastCares on Twitter, there are masses of data to be managed and manipulated. IT knows and understands the issues that arise when dealing with data on this scale. Moreover, they understand how to filter through and extract insight from this data.

Second, there is huge potential value in connecting activity in social networking venues to specific business process steps embedded in the current enterprise support environment. This too constitutes an area where IT’s existing perspectives add value as social media/networking activity moves from experiment to operating at scale.

Third, many of the issues with social media/social networking cross functional boundaries in the organization. IT as a group routinely handles cross-functional issues in designing and deploying other technology around the organization. They will have established relationships with the right people around the organization and they will be sensitive to the kinds of organizational issues that arise in cross-functional undertakings.

The general point is that experiments with these technologies will occur naturally in multiple spots throughout the organization. As these experiments grow in scale and scope the particular management challenges that will appear fall squarely in the sweet spot of the IT function.

What we’re doing next

Organizational work is messy and complex. Social technologies are messy and complex. Put the two together and you have mess squared.

What that means is that there aren’t any maps and there aren’t any checklists. There is no cookbook or operating manual to follow. Not yet, at any rate.

The appropriate research strategy now is to capture and start to understand the messy stories of what is actually going on. It is too soon to strip the story down to its essentials, because we can’t yet differentiate critical step from colorful detail.

We are looking to develop case studies of what organizations are actually doing. At this point, it is premature to be distilling these stories into a coherent and over simplified narrative. For now, it is enough to get multiple stories of successful, failed, and too soon to tell efforts. Comparing and contrasting those stories will begin to reveal the patterns of what matters. if you’re interested, drop one of us a line or leave us a comment.