Organizational silence and its costs

Speak freely. Jevon MacDonald on organizational silence and its costs.

[Seb’s Open Research]

Key graf:

Organizational communications are at the mercy of corporate culture. The more top-down our methods (newsletters, presidents reports, corporate newspapers) of communicating and directing, the more we formalize (by implication) our less structured interpersonal communications. Even the validity of our consensus building exercises comes in to question when we realize that our corporate culture may be fostering silence within the hierarchy.

Very thought provoking piece. One of the frustrating aspects of organizational silence is how easy it is to provoke even when senior executives are desperately in need of more open communication and would welcome it if they got it. What they tend not to see is how they contribute to silence instead of voice. It’s hard in the midst of all the more obvious pressures they face.

Storylines in a new organizational narrative

10) Tools Rule.

Jay Rosen‘s latest is Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative. Excellent, as usual. It should be required reading for candidates preparing to mix it up as the political season gets into full swing.

I wouldn’t be a techblogger if I didn’t add one more story line, without which the other nine wouldn’t mean squat.

We’ve only begun to see what can be done with tech tools as instruments of applied democracy.

More later, after I get some sleep.

[The Doc Searls Weblog]

While Jay and Doc are focused on the political process, their analyses also apply to organizations more generally. Both political campaigns and organizations are instruments for acquiring and deploying power (in the sense of the ability to accomplish work) effectively. The Dean campaign is a case study in progress of what can happen if you start with different premises. That case study is worth tracking on both levels – for what it portends for our political leadership and for what it suggests for leadership and management in general.

I’d also recommend looking at Ed Cone’s excellent case study of the Dean Campaign in Base Line magazine, “The Marketing of the President 2004.”

Finally, let me suggest that all of this can be fruitfully thought of in terms of the late Donella Meadow’s advice on places to intervene in a system.

Some empirical support for the magic number 150

Two things:In the paper Co-evolution of….

Two things:

  1. In the paper Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans, Robin Dunbar predicts that the maximum group size that humans can maintain as a cohesive social unit, based on the ratio of neocortex volume to brain volume, is 147.8 (100.2-231.1 at 95% confidence). Consulting the literature, he finds that there’s a trimodal distribution of group sizes: bands at 30-50 people, tribes at 1000-2000, and an intermediate one. The mean size of the intermediate level group societies is 148.4.
  2. The AOL Instant Messenger servers impose a hard limit on the number of people you’re allowed to put in your buddylist: 150.

(For more, and a better summary of Dunbar’s paper, read The Magic of 150. Malcolm Gladwell also refers to the number 150 in his book The Tipping Point.)


I’ve been looking for a good link to this paper from 1993. Although there is a wide variation around the magic number 150 it is a really interesting conjecture. [A Man with a Ph.D. – Richard Gayle’s Weblog]

Good to have a link to some empirical support for notion that certain group scales are hard-wired.

Windley on Event Driven Business

Event Driven Business. In an event driven business, products are built to order, not built to stock, reducing inventory carrying costs and allowing greater customer satisfaction as a result of customization. This article from ebizQ has a great analogy: [Windley’s Enterprise Computing Weblog]

If you want the train to move over one foot, you have to do an immense amount of work tearing up and re-laying tracks. On the other hand, all you need to do to turn the more agile truck is move the steering wheel.

This is a useful analogy. I also agree with Phil that the following observation provides a very useful classification of data in organizational information systems:

[E]vent-driven, service-oriented architectures integrate three kinds of data: reference data, such as the number of trucks in a fleet; state data, such as the number of trucks under repair; and event data, such as a delivery being completed.

Worth checking out the full article.

Building bridges back to the rest of the world

Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges. David Giacalone: Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges. [Scripting News]

David has a lovely rant here about the self-inflicted damage we’ve created with ugly labels like ‘blog’ for the powerful tools and ideas we’ve invested in ahead of the curve. Not that I would have been happy with some marketing type trying to package things up while we’re still figuring out what it is we have here. David sums it up nicely

Very few adults are looking for a clique, new religion, or (r)evolutionary movement to join. They don’t have the time or desire to learn a special new language or undergo some tribal initiation. Instead, if they are going to turn to sites that use the weblog format, it will be because gathering or disseminating information that is important to them is especially easy and rewarding on such sites. [Jargon Builds Walls Not Bridges]

My approach has been to keep conversations focused on the problems that people have before talking about tools of any kind. Even that can be difficult because the natural tendency is to shortcircuit the conversation to the answer before we’ve really agreed on the question. Jargon, for all its usefulness as shorthand, just gets in the way.

For all the progress that has been made over the last several years, it’s easy to forget how small and self-contained our little universe actually is. Time to start building some bridges.

Presentation on weblogs in the organization from Michael Angeles of Lucent

Blogging in an organisation.

This sounds like a must-read. No time now – keeping it for later.

Excellent presentation on supporting K-logging within a large organisation. Lucent Technologies’ Information Specialist, Michael Angeles, believes blogging has evolved beyond “cool” and is moving quickly into the corporate world. In this presentation, Angeles will discuss who blogs, how and why. He will also discuss how Lucent is supporting bloggers and at the same time keeping close watch over the resulting growth of information on the Intranet.

Lucent’s Michael Angeles has posted the slides from his presentation to the (US) Usability Professional Association’s “Blogging in Corporate America” event in New York. His talk was called Making intranet weblog data usable.

This is worth a read for anybody interested in:

* how to support quick, easy knowledge sharing
* how to use simple publishing tools to bind together diverse data and knowledge bases
* how to promote expert voices within an organisation or a community
* how to deal with (and enoucrage) a diverse knowledge ecology within an organisation

A truly excellent and well-prepared presentation.

[headshift moments]

[Conversations with Dina]

Definitely worthwhile. Let me add my recommendation to the several other recommendations arriving in my aggregator. Helpful in building the arguments for using weblogs inside the firewall, although it doesn’t really do justify to the importance of RSS/aggregation in the overall knowledge sharing mix.

Willful ignorance

Hylton Jolliffe of Corante pointed me to this great post on one of Corante’s weblogs that I don’t frequent. Very helpful in understanding issues I encounter every day.

‘Tis Folly To Be Wise

I came across an article in my files today that I thought I’d share. It’s by the late Calvin Mooers, an information scientist. He addressed his colleagues on the question of why some information systems got so much more use than others – often with no correlation between the amount of use and how useful the tools actually were.

“It is my considered opinion, from long experience, that our customers will continue to be reluctant to use information systems – however well designed – so long as one feature of our present intellectual and engineering climate prevails. This feature – and its relevance is all to commonplace in many companies, laboratories, and agencies – is that for many people it is more painful and troublesome to have information than for them not to have it.”

When I first read this, I experienced that quick shock of encountering something that you feel as if you’d known all along, without realizing that you knew it. Of course. It’s not a new idea, but we keep having to learn it over and over. Mooers again:

“Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it. Let me explain this further. In many work environments, the penalties for not being diligent in the finding and use of information are minor, if they exist at all. In fact, such lack of diligence tens often to be rewarded. The man who does not fuss with information is seen at his bench, plainly at work, getting the job done. Approval goes to projects where things are happening. One must be courageous or imprudent, or both, to point out from the literature that a current laboratory project which has had an extensive history and full backing of the management was futile from the outset.”

Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I’ve seen these examples made real right in front of my eyes, and more than once. Have I mentioned that Mooers wrote all this in 1959? The problem has not lessened one bit since then. If anything, our vast information resources and the powerful tools we have to dig for it have made things worse. Just try being the person who finds a patent claim that stops a project in its tracks, one that was missed while the work went on for months. Or find out that a close analog of the lead compound was found to be toxic twenty years ago.

We’re supposed to be able to find these sorts of things. But everyone assumes that because it’s possible to do it, that it’s been done. Taken care of: “Didn’t we see that paper before? I thought we’d already evaluated that patent – isn’t that one one that so-and-so found? It can’t be right, anyway. We wouldn’t have gone this far if there were a problem like that out there, clearly.”

My rule, which I learned in graduate school and have had to relearn a few times since, is to never take anything on faith when you join a new project. Go back and read the papers. Root through the primary literature. Look at the data and see if you believe it. If you let other people tell you what you should believe, then you deserve what you get when it comes down around your ears.

[Corante: In the pipeline]

I don’t think we can afford this kind of behavior any longer either as organizations or as individual knowledge workers, although there’s no question we continue to reward it. Two things have changed.

One is that the excuse that it is too difficult or expensive to track down and check relevant information is no longer tenable. The problem has changed. The risk today is that the potentially relevant information is too vast and easily obtained and threatens to overwhelm you. This can be managed with modest investment in learning how to search.

The second thing that has changed is a requirement to understand what kinds of information pose the greatest risks to an initiative. You may be reluctant to go searching for the “ugly fact” but your competitors may not be so hesitant.

What’s tricky is that you still operate in an environment of imperfect information. One of the entries in my personal collection of quotes worth thinking about comes from Samual Butler; “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” More information may be available but you still have to make a decision and there’s always a timetable. But you now have to think explicitly about what information to seek out within the limits of the time available. The old excuses are gone.

Trust, security, and organization design

Security doesn’t create trust [SATN]

Humans gain trust by interacting and “getting to know” people. Transparent technologies that make it easy to see what people and companies are up to (in a sense the opposite of firewalls) are what help me trust. I like Reagan’s saying: “trust, but verify”. It implies that trust requires means for openness, not firewalls and secretiveness

More wise words from David Reed.

We spend time in the summers on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. There’s a little vegetable stand that runs on an honor system; you pick out the fresh vegetable you want and leave your money in a little cash box. It works in that environment.

Anonymity and large scale make those kinds of processes hard. But solutions based on protecting yourself against the risks of anonymity and scale aggravate the problem instead of alleviating it. There is risk associated with opening yourself up either metaphorically or technologically. I think a portion of the answer lies in working from the grassroots up. Inside organizations most of the real work gets done by small groups of people who’ve learned how to trust one another. But how much of their work is overhead generated by having to work around well-intentioned but ultimately fear based rules, regulations, and processes?

One reference worth checking out in this regard is Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, which I’ve mentioned before.

There’s quite a lot going on in this realm right now. Chad Dickerson just ran this interesting column in Infoworld on “the battle for decentralization.” All of the current ferment around Social Software.

There’s an interesting book about organizations published a few years back called Seeing Organizational Patterns : A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Bob Keidel. In it he offers the following diagram for understanding the tradeoffs that must be managed in designing organizations. Typically we tend to think only in terms of the tradeoff between control and autonomy. His, richer, model introduces a third point of cooperation and suggests that organization design problems can be treated as looking for a spot somewhere inside the triangle instead of somewhere along one of its edges. The trend has been northward towards more recognition of cooperation and, hopefully, away from stale debates about control or autonomy.

Knowledge work, weblogs, and fair process

I’ve just been rereading an article from the Harvard Business Review called “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy.” Written by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, two professors at Insead, it helps me understand one of the reasons why I think that weblogs have an important role in making knowledge work in organizations more effective.

Kim and Mauborgne’s fundamental insight is that “employees will commit to a manager’s decision–even one they disagree with–if they believe that the process the manager used to make the decision was fair.” Doesn’t sound especially profound until you think about how often it is ignored on the premise that all the matters is the final outcome.

They define three principles of what constitutes fair process: engagement, explanation, and expectation clarity. Many managers ignore all three. Those who do attend to process tend to get stuck at the first principle of engagement and ignore the other two. They make some effort to involve everyone in the process, but too often short circuit the rest of the process in the rush to get to the “right answer.” Managers feel the pressures of time and assume that as long as the final outcome is fair and logical, they will be forgiven for rushing ahead. More likely, they will be punished in terms of sullen compliance or outright sabotage.

Now apply this in the realm of knowledge work. Kim and Mauborgne quote Friederich Hayek

“Practically every individual…possesses unique information” that can be put to use only with “his active cooperation”

You don’t get voluntary cooperation without paying attention to what they term “procedural justice.”

As I’ve argued before one of the principal benefits of weblogs is the way that they can make knowledge work more visible. In this context, weblogs serve as a tool that makes fair process a natural byproduct of the work itself. They are a place where explanation can be developed and shared as it is worked out in real time. Moreover, if you can get an institutional environment in which everyone can potentially contribute their perspectives by way of their own weblogs and these perspectives can flow through the system by way of RSS, then you also increase the degree of engagement.

The flip side of this is that without a belief in and commitment to the notion of fair process, weblogs by themselves aren’t likely to last very long inside organizations. While they can be a tool to promote those values, I don’t think they can create those values if they are otherwise absent.