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Jun 22, 2012

The Employee and the Professional

Within all of us there are two minds: the professional and the employee. Actually, there are probably many more but I am just going to talk about those two. On the one side, the professional is focused on his/her craft and building skills. Professionals are passionate about their discipline and look for ways to be creative and innovative. The professional seeks challenge and isn't afraid of failure. The employee side, however, is focused on his/her job as it has been defined: meeting expectations, following the rules, and other forms of job preservation/advancement. The employee side seeks comfort and safety. The employee avoids risk through routine. Innovation is limited to small optimizations of the status quo.

Both sides are important. You get dependability from the employee. You get excellence from the professional. Depending on the field, one aspect may dominate another. For example, in an unskilled field, the employee dominates the professional. The job is easy to learn, there is no career to build, and you are easily replaced. You show up on time, you do as you are told, and you go home. The best you can do is show yourself to be dependable and hope for a promotion to lead others in the tasks that you have learned. In a high skill job, like a doctor, the employee part is minimal. You see a lot of passion about the craft and much less interest in the details of employment. Doctors can easily shift from one practice to another but the focus is the same - solving challenging problems, contributing to the field of medicine, and delivering excellent patient care.

Why am I even talking about this esoteric decomposition of the human psyche? Because it has profound implications on knowledge management and Intranets. The thing is that advanced skill and knowledge are wrapped up in the professional side of the person and that side wants to interact with his/her field (inside and outside the company). It is far more rewarding to share brilliant insight on a large professional network than to a small group of co-workers. The few co-workers that are as passionate as the professional are probably already on that external professional network too.

This is why the knowledge management aspect of intranets (like blogging and micro-blogging and most wikis) tend to fail so often. The dream of using an Intranet as a catalyst to synthesize all of the great ideas trapped in the brains of an organization never is achieved. The professional's brilliance is drawn to a larger stage. The most successful bits of Intranet are the ones that serve the employee: the company directory, forms, and templates. Templates are the things that are most often passed off as knowledge but I would contend that they are more focused on routine and consistency than thinking and knowledge.

This is why I have such low expectations for the "Social Enterprise" solving knowledge management through tools like Yammer that emulate what is happening on the public web. The single reason for Twitter's success is its openness. With an open network like Twitter (or Google+), I can connect with a stranger on the other side of the world through the simple bond of being interested in the same thing. We can learn from each other and build off each others' ideas. Our motivation is our interest — the professionals within each of us. If you narrow down that pool to just the people you work with (a great percentage of whom are involved in totally different professions), the shared interests get fewer and much more mundane: holiday schedules, cafeteria menus, etc. This makes the value of content shared hardly worth the cost and effort of implementing these tools.

If the Social Enterprise is to work, I predict it will be on open networks that can also support private group channels. Personally, the network that I think comes the closest is Google+. Perhaps LinkedIn. I guess Facebook has the functionality but Facebook has become a place for the hyper-personal and that clashes too much with our professional contexts. I would love to hear about companies that are using public networks to connect employees. Perhaps this would be putting your social network links in your corporate directory profile or creating circles and lists for co-workers. Anyone doing anything cool? I ask this question to the professional in you.

Sep 26, 2011

Social Business: Revolution or Differentiator?

Thank you Deb Lavoy for writing that Social Business blog that I have been meaning to write (Social Business Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does, Neither Does Enterprise 2.0). Procrastination pays! Deb did a better job than I could have done explaining that social business goes deeper than what we call "culture" as defined by the "corporate values" poster that you would see in a lunch area. You need to go below this surface culture right down to core attitudes about people and business.

Anything social is about people and their connections. To be authentic in social business, your business has revolve around people. You can't fake it. You can't talk about people as "resources" and then turn around expect them to feel like they are members of a community. Treat someone like a resource and he will behave like a resource. He will not invest his personal identity to advocate for an organization. He will save his personality and creativity for whatever community treats him like a person. That may include friendships he has formed at work but not to the organization itself.

The difference between my imaginary article and Deb's real one is a slight change in emphasis. I don't think Social Business will transform all companies. I don't think it is possible to run every business like a social business (although I would like to see every business try). The companies that don't go social will not necessarily just shrivel up and die. However, if one of their direct competitors makes the leap they will be operating at a distinct disadvantage.

Any business that has wide disparity in pay and privilege will have a hard time becoming a social business. People at the top who prosper from the exploitation of the bottom become a faces of the company that are easy to resent. Aggressive management that drives performance through reward/fear (the "coffee is for closers" culture) is an obstacle to social business; so are rigid roles and repetitive tasks that stifle individual expression. Anything that makes employees grumble to their peers after work will inhibit social business success. What people say over beers is what they will want say if you try to make them social. If you are frustrated by their silence. Consider that they are just being polite: "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it."

Does every business need these anti-social practices? I don't know; but the ones that do have them think they need them. Remember the testimonies defending executive pay during the financial crisis hearings? As managers, haven't we all experienced passing down pressure received from above? Anti-social business behavior is always justified by a need to be competitive and survive. If the customers only care about price (and not service, innovation, and connection) and the owners only care about growth and profits (like investors and shareholders do), the necessity of anti-social business behavior might be difficult to argue with. But if the company operates in an industry that values the human element of business (as in what humans can offer: ideas, problem solving, listening, trust, relationships, etc.), long-range competitiveness may depend on the ability to transform into a social business.

Aug 08, 2011

What Game is your Team Playing?

I am trying to get a friend of mine to quit his job. No, I don't want him to join the massive ranks of the unemployed. I want him to move to a job that appreciates his talents and efforts. My friend (let's call him Bob) is totally dedicated to his profession. He is continually trying to improve his skills and productivity and wants to help his colleagues achieve better results too. Nobody brings more thought and interest to any task he faces. But he is surrounded on all sides by people who just don't care. They are satisfied by doing mediocre work. If something they build doesn't immediately fall over, they consider it done. If they can assign responsibility to someone else, they will. If nobody else notices a problem, it never happened.

It's frustrating for Bob. He can't accomplish his goals without help or at least cooperation. His company doesn't recognize the difference between his performance and that of his peers. In fact, he is constantly getting passed over. It doesn't feel fair. But it is fair. Bob is just playing the wrong game. Queue the metaphor...

Imagine that you are a world class tennis player. You live and breath tennis. You go into every volley trying to do your best and to improve upon the last one. You invest in coaching and resources to improve your game. If something might help you play better, (like a different diet, a different racket, or even one of those magnetic bracelets) you will try it.

One day, a friend challenges you to a game of Wii Tennis. You start to play tennis as you know how. Your knees are bent. You move your feet. You swing with explosive power. You are playing great tennis... but you are losing. You look over and you see your friend. He is slumped on the couch barely moving his controller with a flick of wrist. He looks like he couldn't walk across a tennis court without losing his breath.

As pathetic as he looks, Wii thinks your opponent is a better tennis player. Wii doesn't care about his form, his position, or how much leverage he has over the ball. Wii only cares about timing and maybe a couple other factors. Your friends knows this and he is not wasting any energy on what Wii doesn't care about. Your friend is the better Wii Tennis player because he has figured out how to do less but still satisfy the minimal inputs that Wii has been programmed to observe.

Bob is trying to play real tennis in his company's Wii Tennis tournament. He is not exactly losing, but he should be winning. The frustrating part is that he could be doing a lot less and get the same results. When he is on a team, he is constantly questioning whether he should be compensating for others by fixing their work — like in a doubles game when you see your partner is not running so you cover more of the court. His extra efforts only result in bumping into things and annoying people who just want to "sit on the couch and casually wave their hands."

Now the big question: who is playing the wrong game? It is difficult to tell if Bob's company would perform better if it paid attention to the finer aspects of how people worked and measured performance more holistically. It is unknown whether the company's customers would appreciate a higher quality product. But there are two things I know. 1) Bob wants to play real tennis, not Wii Tennis. 2) He doesn't have the clout to change the game that the rest of the company is playing.

The reason why I am writing this post on this blog is that I think that this story is very relevant to the pursuit of any type of organizational change, be it adopting Agile development or Enterprise 2.0. Companies can delude themselves into thinking they are playing a different game than they actually are. They may think they have a bunch of real tennis players who are striving for excellence and victory on a dynamic playing field; instead, they have a bunch of Wii tennis players who are looking for ways to minimize their personal/professional investment to only what is recognized. These companies get confused when they put a tool or way of working out in the wild and nobody adopts it; they shouldn't be.

Organizational change is much harder with the Wii Tennis company because you have to actively incentivize every behavior you want to see. It is not enough to say "this will make our company more effective." You have to say "do this specific thing and get points towards your performance review;" and you better not be lying because Wii Tennis players will see right through that. Finding real tennis players like Bob is hard to do — especially if you work for a large company. Real tennis players need a lot of room to move around and large companies tend to compartmentalize people. They need to be challenged in different ways to keep things interesting. Their rewards need to be tied to company achievement. Plus, other employees will get annoyed when you change the game that they have gotten so good at.

When building a company or even just a team within a company, think about what game you are playing. If your industry is commoditized and the difference between average and excellent is under appreciated by the market, it may pay to go after the Wii Tennis players and be very specific about expectations and incentives. If you are competing in a dynamic industry with a large upside, build a team of competitors who will take ownership of optimizing their personal performances and also the effectiveness of the overall team. They will innovate and try new tools and techniques that are offered. Most importantly, they will not stop a practice if it is difficult to do — they will only stop if it is ineffective or if they find something more effective.

Feb 11, 2010

Does "Intranet" Need a New Name?

James Robertson has an excellent post, Future principle: it’s more than the intranet, where he summarizes a movement to replace the term "intranet" with a word that reflects what an intranet could be. To quote:

There are some that would like to dump the “intranet” name, as it’s associated with the “old” vision of intranets as a publishing platform, a dumping group for documents, and a place for the CEO to post his thoughts.

This narrow vision of the intranet must certainly die. In the process, intranet teams need to go from being custodians of an internal website, to facilitators for business improvements. In many ways, the word “intranet” has too much baggage, and is an anchor for much-needed changes.

I agree that many people hear the word intranet and immediately think "dumping ground" but one does wonder if companies will not sully the next name by their continued failure to execute on the vision. The term "intranet" is actually pretty good and should be able to ride on the coat tails of the internet. The name "internet" wasn't brought down by failures like GeoCities because there is so much innovation happening; and failure is a necessary by-product of innovation. The difference is that failure kills most corporate intranets. Many intranets are big waterfall I.T. projects that are "complete" after launch. There is no time or budget left to learn from mistakes and adjust — the equivalent of a failed internet start-up but without the decency of shutting the servers down.

I don't expect companies will improve their execution of intranet projects until they start to change the way they build, launch, and manage internal products. The companies that are ahead of the curve should give their intranet an internal name to make users expect and work for more than the status quo.

BTW, I have a great replacement for the term "intranet" but I am not going to tell anyone because, sooner or later, it will be ruined by some comatose intranet initiative looking for some easy re-branding. :P

Jun 01, 2009

What your intranet needs is a publisher!


J. Jonah Jameson

Originally uploaded by OntologicalDoubt

While I work with companies from many different industries, most of my clients media and publishing companies. I like working with publishers for many reasons — not the least of which is the fact that this is an industry in transition and it is exciting to see my clients innovating and re-inventing themselves. But the main reason publishers are so interesting to work with is that they, more than any other industry, understand the value of content. It is their business. While you could make the argument that a publisher's key asset is its audience (not the content), it is the content that attracts the audience. Publishers push their organizations to produce content that an audience wants to read and then look for ways to monetize that audience.

Compare that with other types of companies. How many marketing organizations think of their website copy as only a modest improvement over the Latin text that the web designer left behind? Internal content is worse. Updating the intranet is the last priority for the average knowledge worker. People have more gratifying responsibilities than contributing to a web site that nobody wants to read. In most companies, employees are not recognized for their intranet contributions. Take, for example, a knowledge base. If you have a brilliant piece of information, depending on where you work, it may be better to share it with individuals you know and have them "owe you" than to leave it to rot a in a place where nobody will benefit from it.

Companies fool themselves when they think that if the tool makes contributing easy, staff will all of the sudden think contributing content is their number one priority. You might get a slight uptick of activity when you deploy a new publishing system, but after the novelty wears off, people will go back to their old habits. Writing content is hard work no matter how "fun" the tool is to use. Employees will gravitate to work that is either easier to do or more rewarding (that is, things that are measured by their bosses).

Assuming that enterprise content has value and is worth managing, there needs to be someone in the organization responsible for maintaining that value. Enterprise content needs someone to represent the audience and ensure that they are being served. Enterprise content needs a publisher. Pardon the geeky comic book reference but think of Peter Parker's (aka Spiderman) obnoxious boss J. Jonah Jameson (pictured above). He relentlessly pushes his staff to create content that he knows his readers want to read. Granted, nobody wants to work for a jerk like that. But is it any better to work for someone who doesn't care about what you produce?

In the media and publishing world, Clay Shirky theorizes that the role of the publisher is becoming unnecessary. The Internet has solved the journalist's problem of reaching an audience. But that assumes that the journalist wants to become his own publisher. The blogging phenomenon has seen just that. Bloggers (citizen journalists) put up their own websites and invest large amounts of time building and cultivating their audiences. They look at traffic stats; they think about wording for SEO and click through; they tag; they obsess over establishing their personal brand. They didn't do this just because the blogging tools were easy to use. The first generation of blogging tools stunk. But the first generation of bloggers really wanted to publish and they were just happy for the opportunity. Inconveniences and poor usability were not going to hold them back from having their voices on the Web.

Many Enterprise 2.0 advocates predicted the same thing would happen inside the firewall; that employees would self publish with the same zeal on the Intranet as they did on their personal blogs if they had similar tools available to them. It didn't happen — not because they couldn't figure out the tools but because they were too smart about managing their time. They knew that they would gain more during their 9-5 work day from doing other things. They satisfied their inner publisher during nights and weekends at home where they could reach a much larger audience and own their content. If they could get away with it, they would sneak in a post to their personal blog from their cube.

There is only so much you can do to motivate your employees to "want" to publish on your Intranet. You can make it part of their job description; you can recognize their efforts. But you will probably not be able to create the hunger for attention within your firewall that will unleash that entrepreneurial publisher spirit. If they have that spirit within them, it will be expressed on their personal blogs. To get your employees to act like journalists, you need a J. Jonah Jameson type. Maybe not as abrasive, but just as passionate. Have your internal publisher imagine that he is in a circulation war with a competing intranet and that he should do whatever it takes to capture and enthrall subscribers. Just tell him to 86 the cigar; he will never get that approved by HR.