Archive for the ‘Organizational strategy’ category

JSB advocates Slow Learning at Strategy 08

August 2, 2008

Not that he calls it that, but I do. Think “Slow Food of Learning.” Here’s the segue. At his recent presentation at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy conference, John Seely Brown frames new ways of envisioning institutional architectures. As a longtime advocate of rethinking the contemporary organization, he asks how we might deploy emerging adaptations of social network technology to fundamentally change how we learn in organizations and educational systems. He’s talking Big Picture redesign of fundamental assumptions and concepts in and of organization and how we learn together.

JSB builds the platform for the network learning model. Social co-construction of knowledge, enabled by social computing, is already changing the infrastructures of organizations. Informal education networks have already been moving toward a new model. About mid-way through his presentation (see video) he advocates moving institutional education toward this model.

One basis for the shift is that traditional institutional warrants of authority are less meaningful in a world where value is being created by people in ad hoc community networks of interest. Both institutional and organizational learning will shift due to these trends. That students will workaround their institutions, find interest groups around their interests, and learn the necessary skills to satisfy the requirements for projects that nurture their projects, their learning needs, and far-reaching dreams.

This could happen. Probably not in America. (Maybe in India?  For a real scare, see the Globe and Mail’s recent article: If the schools don’t cut it, build your own.) “Why not” in America? That’s another cultural story too long to tell here, but it suffices to note that we have nurtured a couple of generations to want what the learning gives you, not the learning itself. People actually want “the degree” as an instrumental (explicit) warrant, purely “in order to.”

Patricia Kambitsch describes a program called Slow Learning, invented about 4 years ago after her experiences with co-creating the Dayton Early College Academy (a Gates Foundation project) in inner-city Dayton. What she realized was that students remain locked into the institutional warrants by mandate, and that after a decade of conventional learning, students can start to play a new game, but they face very real obstacles. Learning-to-learn requires more than new institutional architectures. It requires personal commitment beyond that supportable by culture and neighborhood. It means a (we think) permanent change of consciousness, and cultural support.

We identified a different target audience than students – mid-career adults – who often believe they need to earn another conventional degree when they decide to change career paths. Slow Learning was born from the frustration of watching our highly educated friends chase the “institutional warrant.” Especially for creative careers, when, in mid-career, it doesn’t actually MATTER whether you have a warrant. You just need to be part of the network of practitioners that learning happens in. Your warrant is that you are already known to othe practitioners, which is what you get after the degree anyway. (See some 2007 posts, such as at College is a Great Place to Learn – So What?)

So JSB is describing a theory of institutional workaround and personal learning paths that sounds a lot like community learning models, or even the Union Institute (which requires learning internships in a tutorial framework).  But to cut to the simple, here’s what Kambitsch says:

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

Sure, there’s a role for online communities and Internet-accessible courseware. But these are just enablers. Where JSB and we part ways is that community learning is largely situated and place-based. (That’s why there was a Bauhaus and a “Frankfurt School”). You cannot place yourself in a (creative or intellectual) community solely by Facebook networking. I believe real F2F engagement with your mentors is central to social learning.

Organizational learning also requires the commitment of personal presence, I believe. Virtual presence only goes so far. We are still human beings, blessed with a wide range of sensing, thinking, intuitive, and sensemaking systems and organs. Virtual life excludes most of these, thereby excluding the types of learning necessary to shift self-reflection away from the habitus of abstracting (online, reading, and typing).  To create new roles for ourselves, we literally must “act” those roles. That’s where our beginners’s mind unlocks new ways of knowing we would never find by engaging in any types of online learning activity.

Patricia is not a JSB, she mostly publishes memoirs and satire, and convenes participatory arts and writing events. I am the more abstract one in the team, and have a paper at this year’s Participatory Design conference that deepens some of John’s other ideas about socializing organizational learning practices. These ideas are not institutionally warranted, yet. But perhaps, instead, we might co-create a Learning Lab with interested parties who also see this as a possible vision.

Real innovators fail, more.

April 29, 2008

I follow the Freakonomics blog in the New York Times online – one of the few that i do follow anymore. (Blogs have become so abundant worldwide that any opinion or commentary is cheap and available. In such an infoloaded ecology, only the relevant, compelling, and well-written rise above the noise. Relevancy and context rule.)

So I’m fascinated by the shifting trends in economics leading to ecological thinkers such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner opening up the discourse into areas that would be risk the “credibility” of more mainstream economists. Freakonomics recently held a Quorum of several collaborating authors (Ashish Arora, John Seely Brown, Seth Godin, Bill Hildebolt, Daphne Kwon, and Mark Turrell) to dialogue on Measuring Innovation.  Several of these are truly worth the read, but you’ll have to scroll – a lot. Freakonomics does not break out sections into new posts. (An innovation I would propose is arbitrary links you can add to perma-link to a section in a public medium. ) So, go to Kwon and Hildebolt:

While we track traditional industry metrics such as number of reviews, breadth of catalog, and quality of information, we’ve added new metrics that help define the goals of consumer word-of-mouth. Defining these new benchmarks helps us select new risk-taking projects that can speed us along our path to success.

How can our experience measuring innovation in the moment (rather than just looking backwards) be generalized for other entrepreneurs and managers?

We’re going to go on record and say that it is all about looking for and then celebrating the unique “failure metrics” in your business:

They list 3 measures of organizational failure, which correspond to an innovative culture. These are all small-scale failures, not the cover-up, highly-leveraged kind that bring down the product line. Consider:

1) The rate of failure. More small failures are better.

2) Failing along the right path. Embracing failure, however, brings you dangerously close to failure’s more deadly cousin, flailing.

3) The source of failures. Another measure we use to determine if our company is embracing failures is whether new strategic ideas are coming from all levels of the company.

And of course, the comments are always telling, worth a final scroll down for a scan.

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.

We Tried To Warn You

March 23, 2008

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.

Who’s Your City? (Toronto!) Who’s your Company?

March 15, 2008

Richard Florida’s latest dive off the springboard of the Creative Class shows up in geography – where you choose to live determines your destiny. In the Globe and Mail, Florida himself reviews the premises and thesis of the book Who’s your City?

Where we choose to live, argues the director of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute , is crucial not only to how we live and who we share our lives with, but also to what kind of career we end up having.

In this passage, he describes how this “geographic clustering” is dictated by five basic personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The choice to live in a certain city – essentially a situated culture with its unique set of circumstances – generates an enormous new set of options for the individual. It has taken us three years of continual learning and exploration to become Torontonians-in-training. However, even on the very part-time basis of one week a month, we have created a huge network of new friends by choice (all of them brilliant, smarter than us, well-informed politically, constantly culturally creating, attractive, socially engaged, etc.). We have recreated Toronto in our own idealized image of the place, and that has led to some extraordinary connections that could never have occurred in the US. These relationships have led to extraordinary opportunities as well – in business, research, and intellectual communities, as well as artistic, creative, and self-exploration opportunities.

torontopulse.jpg

Now, shift the unit of analysis of cultural ecology of the city to the cultural ecology of your career or business. I own and manage a small design research firm, Redesign Research, and we thrive on designing new information services, researching the ecologies of use for product innovations, and advising organizations on configuring their strategies and operations to best pursue innovation. I live in two cities now – hometown Dayton and newtown Toronto. Which one will better suit this business model in the future?

Focus the lens a notch deeper – where do you choose to work? Given the geographic traits of Florida’s thesis – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – which of these do you experience in your workplace? Which do you want more of, less of? To what extent does geography map these traits to the firm? So what organizations – and what cities – what nations – seem to hold these traits?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Richard Florida left the US (Virginia) for Toronto, where he is Academic Director of University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute which takes an integrative approach to the study and creation of jurisdictional advantage. (I am at U of T as a visiting scientist myself). When I meet Richard, I’d like ask him how and why he chose Toronto. Given his distinction as an American that explored and wrote about the evolution of North American cities, he’s quickly becoming a new century’s Jane Jacobs. Jane’s vision of a city of neighborhoods seems well loved (if institutional), in Toronto; now Richard is finding who lives in those neighborhoods (and why) makes all the difference.

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.