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 »

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.

Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity

March 4, 2010

Harold Jarche recently offered a framework for social learning in the enterprise in which he draws from a range of colleagues (Jay Cross, Jane Hart, George Siemens, Charles Jennings, and Jon Husband, all members of the Internet Time Alliance) to outline how the concept of social learning relates to the large-scale changes facing organizations as they struggle to manage how people share and use knowledge.

Harold’s overall framework comes down to the following insight,

Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but even this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Social networks are the primary conduit for effective organizational performance…Social learning is how groups work and share knowledge to become better practitioners. Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks.

Indeed, Jay Cross suggests that the whole discussion needs framing in terms of collaboration, and I tend to agree. Yet, saying social learning occurs largely through collaboration means delving into the subtleties of how social networks relate to the organizing work of project teams as well as to their performance. After all, much of the work done in Enterprises involves multidisciplinary teams, often spread across departments, operating units, and locations.

One of my earlier posts posed the question Who’s on Your Team? to highlight the importance of social networking to establishing team identity and enhancing knowledge sharing across distributed, multidisciplinary teams. Its focus was on the importance of social software applications in the Enterprise to the ability of distributed project team members to recognize who is on their team at any point in time, and who isn’t. Organizational analysts refer to the challenge of establishing team identity as a boundary definition problem for teams, when members are spread across large distances whether geographic or cultural in nature.

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Social Media is a Compound Noun

September 4, 2009

People who discuss the importance of social media, and actually social computing in general (Enterprise 2.0 included), continue to insist that the innovations involved will become as much a part of the tacit knowledge and expertise of ordinary people as email. I think that assessment is in fact correct. However, I want to add an insight that no one yet, to my knowledge, has offered.

Social media is not a noun (media) accompanied by an adjective (social). In fact, as long as we think of it that way social media can only fail to achieve what the thought leaders who advocate its use believe it capable of doing. Social media is, in fact, a compound noun, a noun made up of two or more words. Neither term is sufficient to describe what is done by those using it unless we consider it as part of the other.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design

August 27, 2009

Source: David Armano "Social Business by Design"

My first corporate position carried the title Methods Analyst, working for a large billing center serving a telephone company. One of my main tasks in that role involved learning how other employees performed their work and documenting it. On each project I typically spent several hours observing people work (what some today call rapid ethnography or guerilla ethnography) and then did in-depth interviews of the people I observed. Usually, at the end of my observation, I took responsibility for doing the work for a brief time under their watchful eye. In some sense you could say my work required me to continuously cross train in other people’s work, analyze the process, and write it up in a technical document.  The main insight I took away from that experience was an appreciation for the importance played by empathy in effective collaboration.

First off, collaboration isn’t just about people sharing information to achieve common goals. Collaboration is about people working with other people to achieve common goals and create value. Advocates of Enterprise 2.0 sometimes make the fundamental mistake of arguing that collaboration is really only about achieving business goals, leaving the implication that incorporating social software into the work flow of organizations is sufficient. Even though goal-orientation is a big part of collaborating, collaboration requires more to achieve goals effectively. It requires shared experience. As Dev Patnaik and Evan Rosen recently noted, empathy and collaboration go hand in hand.

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Shaping Social Business Ecosystems as Learnscapes

August 18, 2009

shapeThe emergence of social media provides people inside and outside organizations with a way to actively speak about, speak to, and engage the product and service offerings of enterprises. Currently, 25% of search results for the World’s Top 20 largest brands are links to user-generated content and 34% of bloggers post opinions about products & brands. Enterprises, on the other hand, listen to, engage, and act on insights gained from social media.

A recent study of social media engagement by Ben Elowitz and Charlene Li covered the 100 largest brands and, among other conclusions, noted that,

One recurring theme throughout these case studies is that engagement cannot remain the sole province of a few social media experts, but instead must be embraced by the entire organization.

Channels, policies, processes, touch points and transactions are increasingly viewed as parts of the social experience organizations use to encourage employees in collaboration (also known as — Enterprise 2.0), and engage customers in conversation (also known as — social media) for the purposes of innovation and transformation of the business. The common goal of the ongoing discussion involves transforming business practices to incorporate social relationships into the value proposition to customers and other stakeholders.

Integrating engagement into enterprises is crucial to strategic efforts to use social software throughout an ecosystem, inside and outside the formal organizational hierarchy, as social business design. My contention is that such integration is most likely to succeed with a focused approach to informal learning. In my last post, Scalable Learning and Learnscapes in Social Business Design, I offered the following point.

The concept of learnscape is a useful framework for thinking about the strategic challenge to the range of learning activities occurring as companies attempt to create feedback loops between their brand experience and the functional areas of their enterprise, especially in regard to the multidisciplinary collaboration needed to make these efforts successful.

The concept of a learnscape, initially outlined by Jay Cross, focuses our attention on designing ecosystems to heighten the innovation and performance of people. I lay out some thoughts about learnscapes and shaping ecosystems below, using key concepts from the Dachis Group’s framework, initially discussed in an earlier post on HP’s WaterCooler project. I don’t claim these insights provide proven techniques for shaping enterprise ecosystems. But, I do think they point in a useful direction for those thinking about Enterprise 2.0 and social media strategy to keep in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Scalable Learning and Learnscapes in Social Business Design

August 10, 2009

 learnscapeAbout a month ago I read What Would Andrew Do?, an unbook by Jay Cross and friends. I’ve mentioned Jay’s work in previous posts dealing with elearning 2.0 and collaboration in informal learning. In particular, its important to remember that focusing on informal learning doesn’t mean we must disregard the relevance of formal learning because learning is never 100% formal or informal.

However, the term scalable learning probably does require a bit of clarification. After all, isn’t elearning supposed to scale to the size of the learning group and remain available when they need it, where they need it, as long as they are connected to the Web? Well, yes–and it does pretty much. Nevertheless, instructional designers too often fail to incorporate emergent learning requirements of the organization, the enterprise, into  their learning architecture largely because the approaches used to evaluate learning content (whether elearning, blended, or instructor-led) do not incorporate assumptions about the larger ecosystem’s need for the co-creation of knowledge.

The concern for whether the learner is exposed to every thread of content in every course, and assessed for mastery of the information, tends to predominate design thinking about learning, and for compliance training sometimes this is required.  However, too often, instructional design fails to focus on whether the learning scales to support the learner’s ability on-the-job to recognize a problem as a particular kind of problem, much less provide the ability to find the learning content that provides a solution.

I don’t intend to delve here into the minutiae of distinction possible between types of learning. Suffice it to say that when a learning architecture supports all types of learning along the range of formal, non-formal, and informal experience, it must design formal learning in small enough chunks to serve as resources for non-formal and informal learning activities. It also means that the knowledge created using non-formal learning (whether mentored or accomplished in collaboration with peers), or informal learning taken on its own, needs to become a performance resource in developing new formal learning content.

Jay contends that the performance challenges facing organizations are most aptly conceptualized as a learnscape, a concept initially articulated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. In the August 2009 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Jay offers the following synopsis.

Learnscapes are the factory floor of knowledge organizations. The “scape” part underscores the need to deal at the level of the learning environment or ecology…The “learn” part highlights the importance of baking the principles of sound learning into that environment rather than leaving it to chance.

 John Hagel sees learnscapes as part of a global transformation of industrial society that he, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison call the Big Shift: the move from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning. Hagel’s thinking is relevant since, as I explain below, Jay uses the Push/Pull distinction to demarcate formal and informal learning. The basic insight is conveyed by Hagel, Brown, and Davison in their thoughts on Measuring the Big Shift:

Companies must move beyond their fixation on getting bigger and more cost-effective to make the institutional innovations necessary to accelerate performance improvement as they add participants to their ecosystems, expanding learning and innovation in collaboration curves and creation spaces. Companies must move, in other words, from scalable efficiency to scalable learning and performance. Only then will they make the most of our new era’s fast-moving digital infrastructure.

The participants that Hagel, Brown, and Davison refer to consist of consumers, customers, partners, and employees using social media to talk about, talk to, and engage the products and services, i.e. brands, that an enterprise markets. Don’t misunderstand the focus on performance in the discussion of scalable learning. It isn’t about the traditional focus on efficiency, pursuing ever leaner processes for the sake of officially recognized best practices. Rather, the focus is on creating the knowledge needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through the enterprise’s ecosystem. For learning architecture it begins with understanding the importance of keeping the focus on distinctions between push and pull learning.

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