Podular Organization and Edge Businesses

May 9, 2013
Podulation -- From Dave Gray's Connected Company

Podular Design — From Dave Gray’s Connected Company

In Institutional Innovation and Podular Design I noted a number of insights from the Aspen Institute’s report, Institutional Innovation: Oxymoron or Imperative?, especially that “the most important innovation challenges are now in fact institutional in nature.” As an aside, let me just note that institutions typically change in dramatic ways only over long periods of time. Think of institutions such as religion, government, the economy, and then consider the various organizational forms in which these institutions took shape across cultures over time.

One insight I have not discussed in previous posts is relevant to understanding the changing way teams work together in organizations and, by implication, in a Connected Company — as outlined by Dave Gray. Richard Adler the Rapporteur for the Aspen sessions, noted that,

“New findings about the power of collective intelligence and about the most effective ways of organizing teams are providing practical insights about how to accelerate innovation.”

To start, let’s consider many companies organize teams and then turn to the “power of collective intelligence” mentioned by Adler to see how the two relate to podular organization. Several research projects in recent years noted the fuzzy boundaries of teams in large organizations. Skilful Minds first noted this phenomena in Who’s on Your Team? Enterprise 2.0 and Team Boundaries , and then a couple of years later in Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity.

In fact, the phenomena of transitory team membership is so pervasive that some people propose we analyze “teaming” rather than teams when talking about how groups organize for cross-functional purposes within, or between, companies. Consider, for example the way, Mark Mortensen summarizes this trend in team dynamics,

First, organizations increasingly require collaborations to be fluid in their organization and composition, able to adapt to the rapid changes of the external environment. Second, collaborations increasingly overlap with one another, sharing resources — including people — as those resources become more limited due to increased competition. Third, collaborations must increasingly take into consideration the different contexts within which collaborators are embedded, including locations, time zones, cultures, and languages, structures, or organizations.

The liminality of such transitory teams results from several institutional challenges including the high degree of misunderstandings that initially occur due to team members rarely having the time to translate the different ways of thinking that people bring from their professional specializations into a mutual understanding of their shared business purpose. Developing mutual understanding requires shared experiences, getting to know who you are collaborating with, not just what they do or their skills profile. In addition, conflicting functional priorities, and often a lack of clear accountability, make it difficult for such teams to remain focused on the business purpose of their collaboration.

Teams were not always organized this way. As Mortensen notes, teams in multi-divisional companies were, at one time, defined by bounded and stable team membership and common goals that interdependent work was required to meet. Cross-functional teams in such companies today are not typically defined by bounded and stable membership, and common goals are still too often related to divisional performance driven by scalable efficiency rather than a connection to the purpose of the business the team is serving.

As Brown and Hagel recently observed:

Over the last 40 years, the emergence of new digital infrastructures and a global liberalization of economic policy have increased the pace of change exponentially. Many companies that were extremely successful in earlier times of relative stability are now finding that their relationship architectures are fundamentally misaligned with the needs of their business today. As the pace of change increases, many executives focus on product and service innovations to stay afloat. However, there is a deeper and more fundamental opportunity for institutional innovation—redefining the rationale for institutions and developing new relationship architectures within and across institutions to break existing performance trade-offs and expand the realm of what is possible.

Institutional innovation requires embracing a new rationale of “scalable learning” with the goal of creating smarter institutions that can thrive in a world of exponential change.

The challenge then remains how to enable organizations to adapt to their ecosystems by enhancing access to flows of knowledge that are likely to result in learning. Leinwand and Mainardi recently observed that permanent cross-functional teams tend to fare better than transitory teams in engaging organizational ecosystems. As they note:

We’ve recently seen a more robust cross-functional construct emerge, one  with an overarching organizational structure, based on building and maintaining a distinctive capability. Members of these capabilities teams are assigned permanently to them, reporting there rather than through a functional hierarchy.

Permanent cross-functional teams provide an institutional basis for what Hagel and Brown refer to as edge businesses that develop within large-scale enterprises, noting that such companies “should resist the temptation to confront the core, and instead  focus on opportunities on the periphery or at the ‘edge’ of their businesses that can scale rapidly.” I suggest below that Dave Gray’s conception of podular organization affords an important insight regarding how the institutional innovation of edge case businesses can develop and organize. Read the rest of this entry »


Collaboration, Empathy, and Language in Global Teams

March 27, 2013
Panacousticon -- Athanasius Kircher (1650)

Panacousticon — Athanasius Kircher (1650)

The importance of empathy for design research, organizational collaboration, and language is one of my major focuses. The relationship between empathy and collaboration is a topic I’ve covered in a range of posts over the past few years. One post in particular, drawing from the Open Empathy Organization concept of Dev Patnaik’s Wired to Care, focused on how empathy improves the overall communication patterns in organizations.

Organizations, for-profit or not-for-profit, which ignore the benefits of using empathy as an organizing principle do so to their own detriment. The point is especially relevant to global companies that mandate a lingua franca.  Companies currently mandating English as their lingua franca (ELF) include Daimler AG, Kone Elevators, SAP, Siemens, Philips, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Nissan, Technicolor, Rakuten, and Microsoft in Beijing, among others.

The trade-offs in deciding whether to implement ELF are pretty well known. Pressure from other global players such as suppliers, customers, partners, and competitors who increasingly use English is one. Diversification of organizational tasks across departments in different countries creates bottlenecks without a lingua franca, increasing inefficiencies. A third reason relates to making mergers and acquisitions among global companies smoother in organizational terms.

Actual research into how ELF affects collaboration within distributed teams with members from different mother toungues and national cultures is less abundant. The following discussion looks at some recent research into the way ELF actually affects distributed team members of global companies.

However, before looking at the research, a brief review of the debate about ELF is useful to put the research into a broader context. Most of the points (pro lingua france and con lingua franca) below are drawn from a debate between Maury Peipert and Karsten Jonsen of IMD.

If I had known about Jankaki Kumar when I wrote this post she would have been my point of reference for how these concerns apply to what employees in global enterprises think, feel, and do while participating across national cultures and peoples.

Read the rest of this entry »


On the Roots of Social Computing

November 17, 2011

I recently received an invitation from Mads Soegaard, Editor-in-Chief at Interaction-Design.org to offer those who read this blog an early view of a new chapter on Social Computing in their encyclopedia. I’m a little late on this writing for you to get a pre-publication view of the chapter but I wanted to make sure and point it out for those who take topics like social computing seriously. Thomas Erickson wrote the chapter. To be candid, I didn’t really know much about Thomas until I read it. He seems like a very interesting person. Thomas’ chapter takes seriously the point of an early comment I made in a post here in 2008 on Social Software, Community, and Organization: Where Practice Meets Process, specifically my point that not enough of the influential discussion on the topic took seriously the roots of what it means to do social computing.

The distinctions involved are as old as the study of social interaction in organizations, especially the characteristics of routine work. However, we don’t need to go back to the 1950s when the distinction first emerged in the study of industrial organization to understand the significance of Ross’ point. Indeed, the early 1980s will do. Rob Kling discussed computing as social organization as early as 1982 in Marshall Yovits’ edited series on Advances In Computers. Drawing from the symbolic interactionist tradition, Rob distinguished between a line of work which, he contended, indicates what people actually do in computing work, compared to formal descriptions of that work, or what we might today refer to as business processes. Kling’s work was one precursor to the focus on computer supported collaborative work  (CSCW) in studies of group collaboration, most notably developed at Xerox PARC.

The social roots of social computing are important for influentials to keep in mind as they discuss current developments in Web 2.0 technologies, especially their use in the enterprise. The point is not a simple academic exercise of giving credit to what came before. Rather, it is to take note that the distinctions made explicit…regarding practice/process are as old as the modern, hierarchical organization and seem to survive regardless of the way communication technology is applied in it. Those who discuss tensions between social software and Enterprise 2.0, or learning management systems and eLearning 2.0, are pointing to persistent challenges in how organizations work.

Thomas’ chapter provides an excellent overview of the roots, history, and development of the concept of social computing as a concept that promises to stand the test of time regardless of the labels used to describe it, e.g. Web 2.0, Social Media, Social Business, Enterprise 2.0, etc. I recommend anyone involved in current discussions related to compound nouns like social media, social business, social “this” or “that” take a look at Thomas’ chapter as well as the Interaction-Design.org encyclopedia which offers in-depth analysis of such topics.


A Learnability and Experience Design Update

November 9, 2011

One of my earlier posts discussed the learnability of a service as a key challenge for experience design. Today I ran across this early video from Don Norman on learnability and product design. I thought I would share it.

 


Social Learning and Exception Handling

December 9, 2010

We know that most learning in the workplace is informal. Most observers put it at around 80%. Recently, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contended that “as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” Of course, that fact is a result of the successes of process automation over the past few decades. Yet, still, The Barely Repeatable Process (BRP) persists as an organizational challenge for business.

Earlier discussions here focused on the importance of exceptions, to business process and formal learning. I examined the implications of the Kirkpatrick Evaluation model to the use of social media in learning experience design, while addressing the challenges facing learning leaders. Leading the Business-Centered Learning Experience noted that evaluating formal learning is as much about organizational learning and change management as it is about individual learning, largely because much of the learning, and performance, that matters today occurs at the group level. Marc Rosenberg recently echoed the point in an article in Learning Solutions Magazine, The Special Sauce of Social Learning. Marc noted that social learning is largely a change management challenge for organizations.

 The most basic point to remember is that exceptions to formal business processes require efforts to design a scalable learning architecture that supports content co-creation needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through an enterprise’s ecosystem. Whether judging an adaptation successful requires it to result in new formal learning content, i.e. content co-creation, or a new business process, i.e. organizational innovation, or both, remains an open question.

Echoing John Hagel, John Seeley Brown, and Lang Davison’s focus on The Big Shift, Tim Young recently noted the following about  social networking and exception handling,

When an exception happens, we have to step away from our PowerPoint, stop typing an email, or exit a meeting in order to take care of it. Routine work stops. And, our modern reliance on technology to find, aggregate, and alert us to these exceptions has made the task of managing them more burdensome than ever before. Systems that manage exceptions provide the enterprise with vast amounts of data points that have become overwhelming for employees to handle. The applications that we rely on for managing exceptions still rely on process owners to make decisions and respond to the issues. The result is a workforce that isn’t dealing with exceptions well at all. (my emphasis)

The importance of social networking to increasing the effective handling of exceptions is a major focus for those interested in social learning.

Read the rest of this entry »


Failing to See Money Hiding in Plain Sight

October 4, 2010

I’ve discussed ethnography, especially digital ethnography, several times here taking note that, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers. Ethnographers research settings, situations, and actions, with the goal of discovering surprising relationships. The most surprising relationships though are often hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.

I was recently pointed to a video from a link in the Yahoo Group Anthrodesign. The video, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, provides a unique example of insights about people we can glean from designing situations that transgress established sociocultural practices. I actually watched it three times, and not because Time listed it in the top five viral videos of the week…kind of like people (at least some people) did when the moonwalking bear video came out. Rather, my interest in it was how the mere observation of the actions taken by pedestrians leads us to experience surprise. More on this below. For now, let’s consider the video itself.

After sticking labels on 100 one dollar bills, with a unique message written on each, and clipping those dollar bills to individual leaves on a tree, Ben, Brian, and Amy video recorded how people respond to money hanging on a tree as they walk by it on a street.  The narrator, Amy,  indicates no crowds showed up to grab all the money they could get, though a few did take more than one dollar at a time. Most people who took money, a minority, pulled a couple of dollars, or one, and moved on.

(UPDATE: You will need to click on the Watch on YouTube link to see the video. Some proprietary thing I’m sure) ;-)

Amy offers two lessons learned from the Money Tree:

  1. That people routinely walk by a “tree filled with free money” without even noticing
  2. That people can look at a tree filled with money and not even see it

The Money Tree offers an example of what social psychology, but especially ethnomethodology, refers to as a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments typically involve a researcher breaking a rule about everyday life and then analyzing other people’s response. The Money Tree exemplifies a situation designed to break a tacit understanding about money and sidewalks.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees”, is a phrase most people in Chicago (the location of the Money Tree) probably know. We don’t routinely see money hanging from a tree along a sidewalk. It is certainly more common, as the bicyclist’s experience in the video shows, to see money on a sidewalk. And, I’d wager, most of us just think someone lost it. In other words, merely by setting up the situation to violate the pedestrians’ tacit knowledge of what walking down a sidewalk entails, the videographers show us something about people.

At the same time that the video offers us a surprising experience, it sure would be interesting to know what people who failed to take money were thinking. Anyone else find this interesting?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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