Innovation, but mostly not.

Posted: November 1st, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

I had planned on a different subject today but Steve Mann’s bit on innovation in Able Brains touched something off. Read it, and then spend some time with his other writings, it’s been too long since I shilled his blog which is one of my regular reads.

There is a considerable gap between many company’s stated dedication to innovation as a competitive and growth lever and the eventual execution and product offerings. What passes for innovation in many places is too diluted to recognize. Steve offers some yellow flags:

“…if you work at an organization that doesn’t have a culture that (1) values innovation and (2) places governance, budget and resources around innovation – not that it never will but it may be a cold day in hell before Innovation becomes mainstream. Further, many top managers agree that corporate policy actually tends to offer limited incentives to innovation or limits it by placing an innovation team in a risk averse organization or business unit or having no plan to deal with failure other than to junk the team and start over. Some say this is a talent issue, other execs say its a cultural issue. The answer is “yes.””

Couldn’t agree more. I worked in e-business organizations which were walled gardens. We were kept at arms length so as not to infect the general population and once a product was deemed to be sufficiently cootie-free it was sliced out and transplanted into the business. Today, increasingly regulated and scrutinized operating environments makes innovation look more like a risk to be managed. I’ve seen the talent issues run both ways. We may have leaders and managers who have been conditioned to drive risk out, but at the same time we experience few skillful innovators and far too many who claim to be visionary but end up being undisciplined or ineffectual at matching innovation to business benefits.

The aversion to innovate affects more than competitive advantage and growth. I often work with clients whose IT has sufficient control over how apps are deployed to push them into vanilla deployments because they’re managing risk in terms of not wanting to manage code bases or introduce customizations that add complexity to upgrades. The result is business heads who don’t get what they need out of systems, with functional professionals who are relegated to awkwardly aligned processes, managers and employees who need to perform basic tasks and are presented with systems that require hours of training to use. The aversion to innovate at even this simple level – let’s make our systems easier to use by our own – is a direct cause of this pain. Risk needs to have a 360 review process so a fuller measure of is made before a decision that leans towards benefiting a single area is taken.

Not just for Employees and Managers?

Posted: October 29th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, HR, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

Many of the portals I’ve worked on have had a complete lack of attention to the HR practitioner. The generic scenario is an enterprise intranet, often driven by an underlying portal technology, with a static and outdated HR presence oriented towards policy and benefit information and links.  These organizations are motivated to improve their HR offering and there’s no lack of energy around ESS and MSS integration, and plenty of thinking around how to balance centralized vs. decentralized employee programs.

When I recommend optimizing the experience for the HR professionals I find this has been given little to no thought, and that’s reflected in the environments I have seen for HRs, typically a password-protected sub-site with some stale documents and an unused discussion forum purported to be an exciting ‘collaboration’ space to share a handful of sensitive documents, with little thought to making it easier for HRs to work together (“Test Message” and “Hello World” seem to be the common subjects).

A couple of things – first,  it’s generally acknowledged that the ERP user experience is sufficiently difficult to require supplemental front end work at a portal interface layer, yet the expectation is that HR professionals ought to be able to deal with it. Why is that? Frequent/’power’ users of an application stand to gain a lot from optimization, and I frequently interview folks who demonstrate tasks that require high numbers of clicks, screen changes, data fetching from other sources, etc. Training doesn’t make awkward processes efficient.

Second, the value proposition of leveraging collaborative technology in the HR space hasn’t been connected to the ongoing transformation programs in place at most large enterprises. I commonly hear from professionals out in the businesses and regions that don’t have a good sense of what’s going on in Corporate, and they often feel that their local dynamics are either unknown of ignored. Corporate people often expresses that they feel disconnected from the field and have little visibility into who does what, where. Often HR operations is under pressure to reduce operating costs, making it appear counter-indicative to provide practitioners additional IT effort on top of the ERP systems that are already in place.

Contrast this with sales. Here’s a function with similar needs: to rely on ERP but in this case a recognition that there is also a supporting data, historical information and a need for awareness of ongoing work efforts among their teams. Sales has always had a tacit social knowledge network supporting a set of individual practitioners performing against personal and group goals.

The big difference is that sales generates revenue and HR is an expense, and as such it’s managed quite differently.

The HR Professional portal should provide a functional workspace with information and tools that can be managed by a distributed workforce, centered around the areas that align to the business and corporate HR strategies and moves the value proposition away from the administrative formula. I’ve yet to see an organization that doesn’t get an ‘ah-ha’ moment when we talk about it but I have seen those that just can’t get it either funded of adequately staffed and developed. Where we are building them, they are in their infancy but I feel they will have high value as HR emerges as a strategic business partner over the next decade.

Social Media in the enterprise – best practice #4

Posted: October 15th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

Let it be!

In best practice #3 I say that without governance, social media risks failure. Now I’m going to speak out of the other side of my mouth and say that too much governance will also lead to failure.

Like raising a child, there’s a responsibility to set a foundation that supports positive and healthy growth but one must step back and not interfere – most of the time. Groups will ultimately define their own priorities and tone, and to be valuable to itself and ultimately to the enterprise they shouldn’t be meddled with.

Overly visible ‘management’ will almost certainly stifle open discourse, and that is the opposite of the exact value proposition that social media holds. With all the thought, care and consideration given to establishing an appropriate medium for collaboration and discourse it will be hard to step back and let this nascent environment develop according to it’s own needs. The fact that the intranet environment is by definition controlled by a relative (and often somewhat disconnected) few within the organization makes this even harder.

Find the balance and resist the urge to steer conversations. Let people bump into things and make mistakes, just keep an eye out so things stay civil. In time, the community will be on it’s own feet and in the best case will become self-maintaining.

Best practice #4: Don’t interfere with the community-building process.

Geeked & Poked 2.0

Posted: September 28th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments


Lovingly linked to at

Thanks to the Fast Forward Blog for bringing this to our attention.

Social media in the enterprise – best practice #3

Posted: September 11th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

Yesterday I was speaking with a client about collaboration opportunities for a certain community. They described a common scenario – employees had been given broad access to Sharepoint. Folks rushed out and set up their own spaces, and now nobody collaborates across them. As a result information and knowledge is more hidden than it was before ‘collaboration’ became broadly available.

As true with collaboration than many other areas, lack of governance is a sure way to failure.  There’s a common perception in the general public that a site like Wikipedia is a wild west, with anyone and everyone invited to say whatever the heck they want about anything under the sun. While a bit of that may be so, there is in fact a shadow army working within a rules set that generally rights egregious wrongs, often in near real time. Rules are indeed in place and they’re both explicit and tacit.

A rules set, structure and governance is necessary to ensure the context and health of  of a collaboration platform. Volumes have been written about supporting a community, and the subject can run quite deep.  For a pragmatic approach to the common problem described above I recommend reading what James Robertson of Step Two Designs posted today,  a tidy summary of four stages that move the adoption of collaborative tools from fragmentation to coherence.

Best practice #3: Collaboration requires a balance of freedom and governance to thrive.

Social Media in the enterprise – best practice #2

Posted: August 30th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

I’ve heard that email spam got it’s nickname based on the physical behavior of its namesake processed meat product. Apparently you take a large quantity, throw it against a wall and see what sticks…I’ve lived in rural America, sometimes this is what passes for fun.

Unfortunately the scatter-shot approach is sometimes used in early stages of emerging technology deployments. Blogs, Wikis and IM have been no exception. You’ll see skunkworks driven by a well-meaning enthusiast pushing a technology out and justifying it by essentially declaring that ‘if we deploy it, they will come’. More often than not, very few people come. Resources are wasted, management finds out and the entire effort gets a bad name. When the subject is raised again, the resistance is high.

If you’re thinking of deploying a form of social media, it must have a defined value proposition, be aligned to a business process and demonstrably improve or enhance that process: eliminating friction, reducing errors, capturing undocumented data or knowledge and making it easily findable…you get the point.

If you crave a Sharepoint or other collaboration instance, find a project that is broadly distributed. Chances are high that too much of the process and communications is happening between a small number of participants via email and attachments. The rest of the team wonders what’s happening and the lack of visibility leads to a lack of engagement.

Show how document sharing and simple versioning reduces the problem of multiple unsynchronized documents driving people to actions based on the wrong version. Show how a discussion forum can help a person in a regional office stay aligned with a corporate framework, and how a person the the corporate office can learn who does what in the regions, and how they’ve needed to modify that framework to work better in their business environment. In short, show how these tools help people work more efficiently.

Best Practice #2: Show direct business value by aligning social computing to real-world work.

Social Media in the enterprise – best practice #1

Posted: August 22nd, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, Social Media, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

One of the first issues that comes up in the business community when discussing social computing behind the firewall is control. It’s a valid issue – companies can and are held liable for the actions, words and postings of individuals. The expressed concern is that given unfettered ability to post to a blog, wiki, discussion thread or more traditional intranet page, employees will behave badly at worst or incorrectly at best. Most often this point of view comes from the communications disciplines, who sometimes hold a conceptual model of the intranet as analogous to the newsletter or house publication, which of course is the domain of the Editor.

Publication models are still valid, but they’re no longer primary and are rapidly being replaced by transactional and collaborative models that place the value proposition more directly in the hands of the knowledge worker. It’s good to remind our communications colleagues that we’re not publishing when we send emails, we’re using technology to collaborate and share knowledge. It’s easy to see from there that what some social media represents is moving those activities out of the inbox and into the browser. Organizations with sufficient size and maturity have existing communication policies that should adequately cover the forms of communications afforded by social computing.

Sometime in that last century, the intranet I managed featured a threaded discussion forum which was greatly underutilized. An interesting ‘feature’ was that we relied on the honor system for registrations. We required an email address to use the forums and presumed that folks would identify themselves honestly. A group of employees in a service center proved us wrong. These employees were not given email as a policy so to use the forums they simply made up names or even used their personal email addresses (in retrospect, a Bad Idea). At first the group dynamic was light and friendly although they used it conversations about everything except work. Within a few weeks the crowd got larger and the conversations veered towards the street corner. We rang an alarm and pulled the service. Within a few weeks we had tightened governance and included an address verification process which drove anonymity out of the system.

Best practice #1: Trust, but verify. People behave better when they know the rules and are identifiable.

He doesn't sound confused to me

Posted: August 9th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Business, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

JP Rangaswami speaks of what people really do in the enterprise and how technology can and should assist those human needs. Some sound bites:

“…it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing, search, fulfillment and conversation.”

“In an enterprise these relationships are usually to do with the department the person belongs to, and the reporting line. What utter tosh. Those are not relationships. They are irritants. Irritants apparently required in order for people to allocate costs and profits accurately….I am prepared to change my mind on this, the day I meet a customer who cares about what department I work in or whom I report to.”

“…people appear to ‘work’ by doing four things:

They look proactively for information. They search for things.
They receive information because they said they were interested in receiving that information. They subscribe to things.
They talk to each other using various forms of communication: letter, e-mail, audio, video, text, IM, blog, wiki, twitter, whatever. They are even known occasionally to talk to each other face to face without use of technology.
And they transact business as a result. Within the enterprise. In the extended enterprise and partners and supply chain. With customers.

People do all this now. But we do not have the tools to do the job well.”

Thank you, JP for addressing what’s been missing in much the Enterprise 2.o talk of late, that being the question of “why?”. For a long time it seemed like there were two vectors driving the conversation:

a) Pro: “Look at all this AJAX-y goodness! We must bolt this on to our ERP so it doesn’t appear to be so hard to use!”

b) Con: “People are cats, they are unloyal and must be herded. Do not give them freedom to go outside the box (pun intended) or we shall introduce Risk.”

JP highlights the reason social computing has taken off – people are social and desire community. In the enterprise that means we want to work together in a fluid, on-demand manner. Nothing provided in of standard office productivity tool suite does that. They’re fine for turning concepts into artifacts, like insects in amber, but interchange is asynchronous and awkward at best. We fought for IM behind the firewall ten years ago and it’s still unusual to find widespread use.

In my workplace people form virtual teams around projects. Organizationally we’re pretty flat except for natural team groupings around core competencies like graphics, usability, technology, etc. A natural pattern has emerged where folks on a project tend to take over an available space – usually conference rooms – and cluster together so they have proximity to share ideas while their heads are stuck in their laptops creating the artifacts that emerge from their interaction. The fellow whose office is next to mine hasn’t been in it in 6 weeks. They sometimes bring graphics, products and designs into the room that reflect the project that end up being the cave paintings representing their new environment and their recent hunts as they share stories around the virtual fire.

OK – maybe that’s kind of stretching it to the poetic, the point is people require freedom to congregate and bounce off each other if they are going to produce excellence. Malcolm Gladwell holds that modern genius emerges more from collaboration than from the lone insightful person (video here).

I’ve know of an organization whose 3-year plan includes a key feature – Employee Development. Yet they have no training and development resources at the corporate level, and precious few in the businesses. This disconnect is where we find the enterprise; they truly want employees to collaborate. Yet the best tools: audio, video, text, IM, blog, wiki, twitter…are often unavailable or even banned for fear that the cats will be distracted into mere chit-chat.

As I write I see that Michael has asked for thoughts about how social computing tools can play inside the firewall. Consider this a start. I’ll say that the first critical aspect for social computing success in the enterprise would be to ‘trust…but verify’.

More later.

Anonymous BloggerCon 2.0 – or, It R.U.B.s off

Posted: July 21st, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, HR, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

It’s always a pleasure when Dubs is in town and we get together over dinner. Last week was one of those times, we met at one of the great barbecue places in Manhattan, R.U.B. – the acronym stands for Righteous Urban Barbecue. The place is owned by Paul Kirk, a bona fide Kansas City BBQ master – he’s won many awards in the competitive barbecue circuit, but the food speaks for itself. Go there.

While we attacked a preposterous amount of food I talked about some challenges I’ve been having with a client whose HR organization and programs are in a state of disarray and neglect. I said it had occurred to me that because of that exposure I must be sounding pretty cranky in my recent posts and comments lately, and he went big-eyed and said something like, “I was wondering what was going on!”

Art can reflect life, and my life has clearly been rubbing off on my art. I’m an extremely pragmatic person – I recall a psychological assessment I took as part of a leadership program that landed me dead center between strategic and tactical. I love being a futurist but I also need to get things built and out the door, in today’s terms. I get great satisfaction in connecting those points.

My client needs us to help them stop the bleeding and get the fundamentals straightened out. We’re all over that, but we’re also providing tools to help get them past the pain and make their platform something that will let them act strategically moving forward. That’s where the success will be, not in the tactical part.

There are 3 sides to every story.

Posted: July 12th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, HR, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

In an impressive one-two combo, Jim points out how re-evaluation of HR-to-business alignment and priorities is an ongoing job, and then, hardly pausing for breath, he expands the recent discussions on HR-to-business alignment by reminding us of the CEO’s responsibility to invest strategically in HR. Spot on, we’ve indulged in a lot of HR bashing of late (and I’ve been one of the bashers). True, there’s solid grounds for highlighting disconnect between business goals and HR strategy but it’s also a truth that HR is ofttimes funded as a shared administrative service to be run using a low-cost model. This generates contradictory demands, like mandates to use common platforms and processes while insisting that regions and business units be flexible and responsive to local dynamics.

Add securing financial and program support from the corner office that reinforces the strategic partnership to the duties of the tactical-yet-strategic SHRO.