Archive for the ‘Knowledge strategy’ category

Designing design in non-design organizations

June 3, 2008

Should designers embed with their clients?

Designers have tied themselves closely to their clients since the early days of the Vatican. In design consulting, you must understand your clients’ business to advise effectively. So we have to work closely with clients to understand their users/customers.

We’ve done this since 2001 as a boutique research/design consulting firm, and have noticed that smaller consulting firms have always done this. Its the larger firms likeIDEO that have to formalize a process for customer intimacy – but when you’re already close to your client, you nurture them in many ways outside of the contractual relationship.

The evolving processes of “Design 3.0” have now also turned this imperative toward the organization itself – organizational processes are becoming “designable options.”  In ever more projects, we are advising user experience processes, consulting on overall product design and branding, conducting holistic UX research (end to end), and advising on organizational design and new practices.

Rather than merely extending an organization’s UX capacity, we are designing that capacity, more management consulting than “design delivery.” I stay close to long term clients and often work as an extended capacity for their internal UX organization. Redesign has partnered with organizations that have no formal UX group, and we’ve developed a model for just-in-time education of product managers, prototypers, and the closest equivalent to UX in a company. We call this process socialization, which looks like collaborative consulting in practice. This approach also lets a smaller consulting firm like Redesign consult strategically through process change and adapting the new UX processes closely to their strategic intent and product portfolio.

A problem with larger design agencies is they cannot afford to seat their better designers or advisors with clients in a mentoring capacity, and their rate structure won’t easily allow them to give up the time. If we all did a better job of educating the client while working on projects, this would not seem a novel idea but instead a standard practice. We also need to realize that better transition planning (the deliverables handoff from design to development) will reduce the need for mitigating turmoil in the client’s implementation of our design plans.

Failure is a Matter of Timing

April 4, 2008

On Boxes and Arrows, Part II of We Tried to Warn You! is now up, with several great comments that are worth the visit. Boxes and Arrows is a truly beautiful and readable online publication, one that I recommend as an example of how to do things right. One of the core points in Part II is the notion that we don’t see organizational failures coming because of the long lead times between early (and detectable) signals of trouble and the ultimate re-orgs or product portfolio changes that occur. By the time managers act on the larger failure, so many contributing events will have occurred that most observers will be unable to connect the dots. A section early in the article that explains this follows:

A major difference in the current discussion is that organizational failure as defined here does not bring down the firm itself, at least not directly, as a risky strategy might. But it often leads to complete reorganization of divisions and large projects, which should be recognized as a significant failure at the organizational level.

One reason we are unlikely to assess the organization as having failed is the temporal difference between failure triggers and the shared experience of observable events. Any product failure will affect the organization, but some failures are truly organizational. They may be more difficult to observe.

If a prototype design fails quickly (within a single usability test period), and a project starts and fails within 6 months, and a product takes perhaps a year to determine its failure – what about an organization? We should expect a much longer cycle from originating failure event to general acknowledgment of failure, perhaps 2-5 years.

I’m also hearing personally from a few design/researchers from different design agencies in North America about a different type of org failure – that of following economics and not vision. During the last downturn I noticed that agencies reached a peak of bad performance right before the dot.bomb, mainly due to taking on too much work and pushing rag-tag designer teams beyond their performance limits.

This time around there’s a similar sense of cashing-in, and with the dependency many large agencies have on retail, financials, and adevrtising I think we’ll see the same business cycle. Thinking and feeling practitioners also see that there are times (like this) that the organization’s goals, style, and climate are unlikely to improve in the near term. The designers are the talent, the transformers, not the account managers, and they can always find a better home. Many organizations are not worth waiting out through the next macro or micro failure cycle. Now may be the time to pre-empt the inevitable and follow your own vision.

Socializing Business Decisions

January 6, 2008

What are the most effective ways to coordinate organizational transformation? Theories and experiences differ widely. Nearly all schools of strategic transformation assume a top-down decisionmaking style that wreaks “transformation” like a plague of new process changes across the organization. When the dust settles, it’s often the case that it was just another re-org, and now the very notion of transformation is relegated to a management fad. You cannot do “transformation” twice in the same organization.

Complexity scientists and strategic thinkers both speak of the  dynamics of emergence in change processes. Emergent strategies are powerful for smaller firms, that can prepare for contingencies with strategic options that can be selected over time. Emergent strategy leverages a bias toward environmental scanning and opportunism in the marketplace. Not bad, but not transformative. In the same way, transformation that’s emergent seems a misnomer, the very notion of transformative change implies bold design.

How else can true organizational transformation occur? How about laterally, through locally designed interventions guided by strategy, and energized by the socialization of agreement?

Socialization is a type of organizational routine applicable to any business practice where there’s a need to develop a model routine or new set of skills before rolling it out enterprise-wide. Rather like a real-world scale simulation of the social interaction, tacit rules, and division of roles for a new knowledge practice, a new process, or even simulating the impact of major decisions such a new product or business strategies. Richard Anderson recently cited U of Toronto’s Dean Roger Martin from Connecting, which led me to a 2005 article I wish I had seen 2 years ago: Why Decisions Need Design (which Dean Martin extended in an IIT interview in 2006, Designing Decisions.) He poses some interesting questions, which may not have been answered anywhere since:

These are all manifestations of badly designed decisions. What’s the root cause? The fundamentally flawed design of the decision factory.

Typical decision design demonstrates few of the features of great design, which starts with deep user understanding. The designer dives well below the surface to fathom exactly how someone will use the artifact to be designed. The designer goes beyond understanding the user’s physical and functional needs to determine the user’s deeper emotional and psychological needs.

Do decisions even have “users” who need to be deeply understood? Indeed they do: Anyone whose subsequent decisions and actions are shaped and constrained by a given decision is a “user.” So if corporation decides that all divisions will cut costs by 10%, or deploy Six Sigma, or adopt a shared-services model for info tech, many divisional managers will be users of these decisions.

Socialization provides a testbed for social prototyping, allowing new routines to be simulated before they become operational. If they succeed in the dynamic prototype of a product team, we can circulate that successful practice laterally to other projects, teams, or cross-functional groups. Its a decentralized way to accomplish the goals of institutionalizing, without the high-profile risks and communication management necessary in the top-down approach.

Socialization provides a way for organizations to adopt and diffuse reliable, resilient capacities for new knowledge-based practices, such as the high-knowledge value skills of User Experience. I thought the familiarity of “socializing,” which the literature references as an HR onboarding process, would inspire its adoption in large product companies, where new management approaches may be perceived as threatening established orders or as fads. Socialization is based on research and practical consulting, and it passed both tests – making it a stronger Some of these ideas were published in a recent business research volume (Jones, 2007, Socializing a Knowledge Strategy), and an upcoming Boxes and Arrows article, We Tried to Warn You, based on last year’s IA Summit panel on Learning from Failure.

From Socializing a Knowledge Strategy, just published in Abou Zeid: Knowledge Management and Business Strategies: Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Research:

Socialization presents a meaningful alternative to formal management and institutionalization of user experience and IA practices, to either establish or improve a core competency. Socialization developed from two different directions and drivers, and its satisfaction of both shows its reliability. One driver was for organizations to rapidly create a new business function or process requiring unique, often rare knowledge-based skills that require significant development time and investment. Socialization allows organizations to leverage their current capacities by supporting a bottom-up formation of skills and practices optimally suited for the organizational setting. We have found that when externally developed processes are “imported” into established organizations, they are often likely to fail. However, functionally similar practices can be organically co-designed and accelerated within the course of state-of-the-art consulting support within the context of a significant project.

All that is to say, those closest to the practices should develop and own the practice, sharing its value both laterally andks.jpg

vertically. Minimal, but loyal, executive support is necessary to legitimate the practices as they interfere with established practices and traditions, thus allowing the new process to take hold and become sustainable over time.

If you’re interested in the theoretical foundations, see support from Ciborra, Orlikowski, Christensen, Raynor, Boland, Zack, and Penrose,

Socializing Knowledge Practices

December 17, 2007

Yes, this was really about Innovation at first. But like authors that avoid the use of the verb “to be,” I am attempting to write about systematic product and systems design without using the “I” word. I’d like to write about creating a “Culture of Innovation,” but I agree with Peter Merholz and others who suggest the term is overused. (Especially in UX.) But innovation is not going away, so let’s find ways to make it work.

What concerns me about contemporary organizations is the extent to which top office-holders push the idea of I without understanding how I really happens. How does I really happen, and how is it diminished? Most of us in the design professions readily respond by insisting that creative, divergent thinking must always be pushed to the lowest level of management where the action happens. Design or UX management, who are ultimately responsible for designing new artifacts for competitive advantage. But how do we resolve the subsidiarity of designing with the strategic imperatives of product portfolio management, or revenue responsibility for the next year? Where do the trade-off decisions affecting what we call “innovation” really happen?

What I call socialization comes from empirical observations that people who take ownership of their processes in organizations establish the practices best suited to their products and strategy. It applies to design, product management, user experience, and strategy – all knowledge practices.

HBR’s Working Knowledge posts a special discussion on What Is Management’s Role in Innovation? 76 comments (none of them mine, because I blog instead) show a huge degree of “spreadthink,” the opposite of groupthink, with comments all over the map. A closer look shows the same age-old controversy in organizational management and advising which is (always) of two positions: Management’s role is A) Significant, and the Executives better Get It, or B) They’re in the Way, and those close to the customer/problem should innovate.

Of course, it depends on the organization and their type of innovation problem. Even readers of HBR (OK, online) are revealing their spreadthink about the very definition of innovation. Again, two extremes often show up: Innovation = Creativity/ Invention, or Innovation = business process. Answer = both and neither.

But this article follows another relevant piece that complements the discussion. The larger issue of effective leadership in complex organizational settings (typified by product development and innovation) is showing up. In An Inside Job: Best Practices from Within, December’s Strategy+Business tells us “the best solutions to an organization’s problems may be found among its members.” The article reports on the Pittsburgh VA Hospitals’ use of the Positive Deviance knowledge acquisition process (which they term a strategy, perhaps a knowledge startegy), to locate wisdom about infectious disease prevention and mitigation from practitioners within the institution. Positive Deviance is a kind of lead user approach for identifying practices at the fringes that might be developed and deployed institutionally. (One would hope infection management practices would not be THAT deviant in a hospital!) But this article, and the HBR online, both present innovations emerging from ground level practices that become institutionalized through recognition of value and managerial deployment.

Understanding Meaning as Awareness

May 17, 2007

See the fullpost on the CIMI website: Center for Interactive Management, India

Dr. Batra’s discussions of “From Data to Wisdom”, and “Laszlo’s Pyramid of Meaning”, describe a hierarchy of types of knowing and understanding. Alexander Laszlo’s notion of syntony, a kind of resonant circuit of meaning related to the levels of knowledge, energizes the pyramid in the dynamic interactions of learning and evolution. There are interesting origins to the evolution of a DIKW (Data, Information, Knowledge Wisdom) model, ranging back to Russell Ackoff’s (1989) JASS article, and according to Nikhil Sharma, back to T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, from 1934.The current model enhances this hierarchical construction with the dynamics of learning and meaning.

The DIKW model presents a kind of Maslovian-type hierarchy of knowledge, where the higher levels are constructed as “better” locations that are reached by mastering the lower levels composing the pyramid. Except in Laszlo’s model, the pyramidal shape is rightly downsided-up, to better envision the dynamics of the syntonic (dual-circuit) model. Laszlo shows the bottom levels (data and information) as constituting more objectified representations of human knowledge. The higher levels increase the degrees of freedom exponentially, toward an unlimited horizon of (subjective) possibility, creativity, and transcendence. 

In the development of KM, one of the persistent forces driving the field was the possibility of moving organizational awareness from a data-perspective toward a knowledge-based perspective. A non-trivial difference was imagined, whereby we might enhance productivity, reduce error and the reinvention of wheels, and accelerate innovation by leveraging the various levels of information entities: data, information, and the ever-elusive knowledge. Consider an organizational model of this pyramid based on one of the main drivers of KM, innovation management. Some of the questions that drive interaction at these levels may include:

  • Data: What resources do we have?
  • Information: What do we know about?
  • Knowledge: What do we know how to do with what we know?
  • Comprehension: Where do we have mastery? (Is it worth doing?)
  • Understanding: How well do we understand our context, opportunities and possibilities?
  • Wisdom: Knowing this, what should we do? (What’s the best decision?)
  • Transcendence: What does this mean? (What’s the best contribution we can make?)

We might redefine these levels of meaning as states of consciousness, from Data to Transcendence. Data is not “data” apart from our awareness and perception of it as such. Information is not transformed from data except in cognition – there is no object in the world identified as “information.” Bits, yes – information, no.

And of course, these are the tangible levels of meaning – the intersubjective agreement diffuses even more as we navigate through Knowledge and toward Wisdom. Working knowledge is inherently tacit – all the more so Understanding and Wisdom. While I am not ready to regard these states of awareness as continua, the states have characteristics we might collectively agree upon and recognize, even across cultures. And traversing up the pyramid, we experience different gradations of possibility vs. utility, tacitness vs. concreteness, self-awareness vs. object-awareness, and duration.

Why Do Good Managers Set Bad Strategies?

April 26, 2007

An interesting confessional from the master of corporate strategy, the Five Forces guru Dr. Michael Porter.

“Errors in corporate strategy are often self-inflicted, and a singular focus on shareholder value is the “Bermuda Triangle” of strategy, according to Michael E. Porter, director of Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness.

These were two of the takeaways from a recent talk by Porter — titled “Why Do Good Managers Set Bad Strategies?” — offered as part of Wharton’s SEI Center Distinguished Lecture Series. During his remarks, Porter stressed that managers get into trouble when they attempt to compete head-on with other companies. No one wins that kind of struggle, he said. Instead, managers need to develop a clear strategy around their company’s unique place in the market.”

This is a significant change, if it makes a difference. Regardless of the different approaches to strategy, planning, and market development, the non-academic practice of strategy has grown up around Porter’s 1980’s work, which was an is hugely influential. The industry analysis, dominate your sector-based mindset that evolved under Five Forces grew into a set of practices that prevented managers from thinking creatively about internal resource development and product innovation. As long as large companies performed well and made money, and shareholders stayed on the train, there was no perceived need to reinvent strategy itself.

“When Porter started out studying strategy, he believed most strategic errors were caused by external factors, such as consumer trends or technological change. “But I have come to the realization after 25 to 30 years that many, if not most, strategic errors come from within. The company does it to itself.”

Innovation and knowledge-leverage strategies require developing a strong internal focus, according to the Penrose (1959) school of resource-based perspective, an empirical approach that enhances organizational capacities and learning, as opposed to theoretical market forces that are always imperfectly understood. A market must be understood, of course, but the strategic basis for action should be based on resources and practices that are unique and non-transferable or imitable.

How does the Penrose RBV orientation apply to design and innovation? Knowledge management scholars such as (Zack and yes, Jones) have argued that the development of knowledge practices is the primary source of innovation and competitive advantage. Product/service design and innovation are not measured by shareholder value – and we should not be led by outdated views of business strategy into taking guidance from such a singular corporate metric. Shareholder value leads to short-term thinking, which constrains innovation to the immediately doable. As a strategy, it puts the future of the firm in the hands of Wall Street investors, which is no strategy for success at all.

Why the Crowd has no Wisdom

April 3, 2007

Before I even got this post out of the box, the thesis was pushed into international publication by the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam : Alex takes Wikipedia to task, for good reason, but then ties it back to the problem – we are trusting in the wisdom of crowds when we have no evidence that crowds are “wise.” They are not even smart. In fact, my mother thought pretty low of the crowd. Given the Internet Age, we have elevated busy bloggers to philosopher king status now. Beam reminds in My Sticky Wiki how lucky we are Wikipedia works at all. Given his (and my) recent experiences::

“Wikipedia has had plenty of bad publicity lately. Allow me to bring you up to date. Last month, Middlebury College’s history department banned the use of Wikipedia citations in exams or papers, because an error about Japanese history — since corrected — showed up in several exams. Last week, a prominent, pseudonymous Wiki contributor lionized by The New Yorker as a tenured professor of religion turned out to be … a 24-year- old who used the book “Catholicism for Dummies” to write and edit entries.

The proverbial bottom line is that the theoretical underpinning of Wikipedia, the fashionable notion of “crowdsourcing,” or “the wisdom of crowds,” is nonsense. There is no wisdom in crowds. The crowd drinks Coke. The crowd elects George Bush or — God forbid — John Kerry. The crowd accepts authority unquestioningly, especially when it’s dressed up as a “cool” new information source. So who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or … EssJay?

Well enough. Wikipedia is an information ecology that begs for real knowledge problems. Use with caution. Colbert’s Wikiality is a great example. Stephen publicly games Wikipedia to kind of prove how people can change a media’s representation of reality. (Have you checked on the African elephants lately? Read the histories to see how much activity happens over a given time.)

None of this is wisdom. There is no agreement that this is so. Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance. Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. We can facilitate collective wisdom (see Dialogic Design), but a collection of knowledgeable observers, on the Net or any other media, does not “create” wisdom automatically. It appears we require an equilibrium of both intent (will) and emergence (listening for patterns).

We may be taking a meaningful divergence toward a new function of knowledge management, that aims at eliciting the wisdom from a situation. The context of that situation, rather than personal knowledge, then prevails. Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, even validated and tangible knowledge drawn from tacit holdings of smart people.

“Knowledge” often suggests.that we will privilege the knowing, experience, and rationalization of persuasive individuals within a group. Some potential clients see dialogic design in this way right away – they think the idea is to draw forth the best ideas and use a no-gaming process to winnow the wheat from chaff. Instead, we are seeking the emergence of a true group wisdom that was not possible or available in any other setting. Wisdom is beyond what we don’t know (DK) that we know – its the DK that we DK but that has tremendous capacity for motivation and meaning.

This is not anything like Suroweicki’s Wisdom of Crowds. The problem with the Wisdom of the Crowd notion is that it is not wisdom at all – it is social sentiment only, and the best you can achieve is popularity. Wisdom comes from learning, exchange, and emergence in a smaller group dedicated to learning and acting in a common domain. Perhaps this has not been made clear enough in the centuries before …