The arrival of new technology leading to new ways of working can lead to assumptions that something is being created versus the invisible becoming visible, the unknowns becoming knowns…
Another year, another Davos conference where the global super-elite gather to meet to discuss the worlds’ problems. Or at least do some great networking… Because how much innovation truly originates from those at the top?
In the UK, a controversially-titled TV show is dominating local headlines – Benefits Street – examining the lives of residents living on one street in Birmingham, the majority of which are dependent on benefits.
Paul Taylor has an excellent article – 3 lessons we should all learn from Benefits Street – highlighting the more positive aspects of the programme. Like Paul, I watched an episode out of curiosity given the news coverage and agree with his perspective. The show shines a spotlight on just how difficult it is to get out of the trap once you fall into it. And Paul highlights the flaw in much of our government systems focused on welfare (emphasis his):
One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.
We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way.
Time and again, systems that grow bottom-up out perform those that are designed top-down. Top-down priorities are beneficial when you are looking to scale out a successful solution. But finding a solution in the first place is demonstrably easier when starting small: experiment, fail fast, learn and try again. You can’t do that when investing billions on a single enterprise-scale scheme.
Davos may be a great deal of fun and intellectual exercise for the global super-elite. But the mindset invariably focuses on top-down solutions. Attendance is mostly limited to those benefitting from the current systems in the world. Cue Machiavelli:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
To shape the world in a different way is more likely to happen by the actions of those least likely to attend events like Davos. And in this new globally connected age, the balance of power is shifting. Whilst there have always been people across the generations who would rather see a fairer world, the Internet has connected those voices on a far bigger scale in recent years. More and more individuals talk about their desire for meaning and purpose over wealth. For a more collaborative networked culture over one dominated by command-and-control hierarchies.
The following is just one presentation (but a rather good one by Joyce Hostyn) demonstrating this shift:
The theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year was ‘Shaping the world’. That’s something we can all now participate in. The smartest people will never all be in one room.
- 3 things we should all learn from Benefits Street – Paul Taylor, January 2014
- Can we design organisations for beauty? – Joyce Hostyn, January 2014
- Machiavelli’s quote taken from The Prince, published 1532
Similar or related posts
Flickr image – Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Michael S. Dell at WEF 2009, Davos – shared by the World Economic Forum
I went into the boardroom. The chairman was sitting on one side of the table and in front of him was a great platter of sushi which is my favourite food. On my side of the table was a tuna sandwich. That was to tell me that, because I had pushed and insisted upon this meeting, I [the president of the company] was the tuna sandwich in the food chain.
A great 30-minute podcast recently hosted by Evan Davis for BBC Radio 4 looked at examples of managing in a crisis. Each case was completely different but all shared a common theme – the role of emotion (and cultural norms) in decisions, actions and consequences.
The first example was a story recounted by Michael Woodford, former president of Olympus. Mr Woodford had worked for Olympus for 30 years and risen through the ranks to become president of the corporation. His mentor Tsuyoshi Kikukawa – ‘who was like my favourite uncle’ – was the chairman.
Not long after becoming president, Mr Woodford became aware of allegations that Olympus had bought three companies with almost no turnover for over $1 billion. A close business friend translated articles that substantiated the allegations and made them irrefutable. When Mr Woodford spoke to a colleague, he discovered that the chairman was aware of the allegations and had told the entire executive floor to not discuss the article with the president.
The next day, he asked for a meeting with the chairman and it was set for lunchtime, the only available slot. And so he was faced with the tuna sandwich:
And it was a manky tuna sandwich at that, there was no lettuce or crisps around it. A British Rail buffet carriage in the 1980s would not have been proud of this sandwich.
After the meeting, he proceeded with investigating the matter with the accountants. Six letters were written going through the formal process:
It culminated in letter number six when I asked for the resignation of the chairman and the vice president. I knew if they were going to go quietly, which would have been in their interests and for the benefit of the company, that I would have been called to a small meeting. Instead, an extraordinary board meeting was scheduled and I knew there and then I was going to be fired.
The culture of the organisation was to protect the most senior members of the ‘club’. No matter who or what was right or wrong. Within a month, Olympus shares had fallen in value by $7billion wiping 8o% off the value of the company.
Looking back on the experience, Mr Woodford commented:
Organisations have this instinct to protect themselves. Which can be the worst thing. A bad situation can be made ten times worse because of what the organisation chooses to do. …The day I was fired, people ran with the pack, the new order. That still haunts me today… To become a persona non gratis is very hard to describe. It’s a horrible thing to go through.
Given recent news headlines involving various governments around the world, that is a very astute observation.
The second example offers a fascinating insight into a brand that decided to make a stand in a crisis that risked its reputation in every possible way.
In the late 1980s, the UK was embroiled in the BSE crisis – ‘mad cow disease’. Questions were being asked about whether or not there was a link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans and whether or not it was safe to consume beef. The scientific facts were inconclusive and scientists were at odds with one another. There was a lot of emotional reporting in the media about the risks, creating growing concerns amongst consumers, particularly families.
At the time, over 80% of the menu in McDonalds restaurants comprised of beef-based products.
With no clear guidance coming from within the food industry, McDonald’s held a scenario planning day to consider how bad the situation was. What was the very worst case scenario and what would be the consequences for the company? It was not a pretty picture. McDonald’s decided there and then that they would stop selling British beef. All stock would be moved out of all of the stores and somehow they would replace it with alternative supplies. It took 48 hours and was one of the biggest logistical exercises the company had ever undertaken.
For two days, there was little produce left in the stores. And sales barely dropped. People still came into the stores and bought chicken or extra fries instead. McDonald’s felt that it was testament to the power of the brand that people still trusted them and bought whatever food was available. However, it was also made clear that the rest of the industry and the UK government were not best pleased with the decision. A lot of bridge-building was required in the aftermath.
Looking back when asked if McDonald’s had panicked in the crisis, the comment was made:
Crisis management is about being able to make good decisions and being seen to be implementing them. It was the right decision at the right time.
And closing out the interviews, the following observation was given:
You don’t want to manage a successful business as though it is a burning platform. It’s great to be able to respond to a crisis properly but it is better to manage a business in a thoughtful way rather than always be in a fire-fighting situation.
Nokia came to mind with that quote… An excellent podcast (it’s a rather good series in general) and well worth listening to if you can access the recording.
- The Bottom Line: Managing in a crisis – BBC Radio 4 (may not be available to download outside of the UK)
- Ex-Olympus chairman gets suspended sentence for fraud – Bloomberg, July 2013
Flickr image: 吞拿魚(金槍魚)壽司 – Tuna sushi kindly shared by Thomas Lok
Utterly unrelated side note: The only dose of food poisoning I have experienced to date was from a dodgy tuna sandwich…
In just about every scenario imaginable, success is usually found at the edges rather than the middle. Being in the middle is normal, comfortable, average, bland, OK, alright, doing fine…. feels safe but usually isn’t. Be big or small, not medium sized. Be loved or hated but never just OK. Be the hero or the villain, who wants to be the victim. Be thoughtful and considered or crazy and passionate, but have an opinion and don’t sit on the fence. Being at the edge creates a reaction, something happens. But there’s more to it. Being at one edge makes it easier to take on the other side, to compete. Being in the middle means sharing some traits from both sides but not enough to matter to, or be, either.
MIT Sloan Management Review has a detailed research article on Social Business: What are companies really doing? Lots of case studies and examples about what works and what doesn’t. And yet again, the challenge for those in the middle. One of the key findings was that size matters:
To back their social business activities, both small companies (those with fewer than 1,000 employees) and large companies (those with more than 100,000 employees) tend to have stronger management support for social business initiatives than do midsize companies.
With social tools, small companies are demonstrating that they can appear larger than their actual size; large companies can appear less like corporate behemoths. Midsize companies see the advantages of social tools but, in general, do not see themselves exploiting these advantages for another few years.
It makes sense. Small companies usually have more flexibility to innovate and experiment, there is less bureaucracy. There is often also the urgency to do something, anything, to grow. Large companies can be big enough to allow for experiments – so much bureaucracy, ideas can fly under the radar, what harm can they do? There are usually enough funds to take the odd risk and see where it goes. But for medium-sized companies, change comes much harder. Big enough to feel there is too much to risk losing. Not big enough to have a war chest to fund crazy ideas.
The competition is between the very small and the very large. And that competition eats away at the market for those in the middle. And all the while, those in the middle are waiting to see what happens. Feeling safe… and far from it.
Three weeks ago I attended the third Social Media for Business DellB2B event, this time held at Google’s offices in London. Then I was supposed to attend Dachis Group’s Social Business Summit, also in London, but ended up watching the Twitter feed instead. Whilst both events included some great sessions, they shared a frustration: utopian quotes that sound great in theory but can be hard to put in to practice. Here’s a sample:
||No. The impact of participating or not in social media is not equal for all businesses or industries.|
||Yes, but so do most retail stores, call centres, middle management etc.|
||Tell Apple that!|
Many organisations could benefit from adopting social media. But it is too often pitched as the new utopia all businesses should aspire too. Businesses have plenty of flaws, not listening too or conversing with customers is just one of them.
I’ve seen oodles of research and presentations proving that performance appraisals damage moral, lower producitivy and encourage poor behavoiur. For one example, see Crashing with the nose up (2001). Yet still they are a staple of business life and Dilbert cartoons.
For businesses seeking to benefit from trends and technologies such as social media, it can help to understand, if not overcome, some of the barriers that prevent adoption. And O’Reilly Radar has a great post to help identify them: 5 reasons why we still don’t have invisibility cloaks.
Here are the soundbites: As always, it’s well worth reading the full article.
Decision-makers have many choices when investing scarce dollars on IT projects. Many great ideas fall by the wayside and never make the light of day in favor of more pressing enterprise needs. Social media may not cost much, but it is never free.
Today, fewer and fewer solutions remain islands. There are often so many inter-dependencies that even a small change has downstream impacts that must be considered. Social media often starts out as an island. Can it justify staying that way?
Every CIO needs to understand, for his or her organization, the pace at which new capabilities can be deployed. It’s probably a lot slower than we all think. Social media rarely provides instant hits, think marathon rather than sprint. That does not help speed up internal adoption.
We are wedded to the past. We like the things we know more than things that are new and unknown. There’s a reason we go back to that tried and tested Excel formula when we know we have the same capability in the latest ERP system. People don’t change their habits over night. And social media is all about changing habits.
Reconciling organizational and individual interests is a messy business. And it’s highly complex. I imagine many of us can tell our own stories of how we observed decisions being made that had little basis in reasonable logic. We’d like to pretend it isn’t a factor, but all too often it is. And pretending won’t help your social media project.
Five points applicable to all new systems, social media is just one. Enjoy the memorable quotes at your next conference but never forget, the devil is always in the details.
- Crashing with the nose up – why performance appraisals fail, blog post
- 5 reasons why we still don’t have invisibility cloaks, O’Reilly Radar
- Dell B2B Social Media Huddle 2, blog post
- Dell B2B Social Media Huddle 1, blog post
- Social media requires discipline, blog post
- Social media can protect systems, blog post
- Blogging mistake help improve policy, blog post
- Social media judges the Olympics, blog post
- Analyse and act on social media trends, blog post
- NLab Social Networks conference, blog post
One of the explanations for why change in the workplace can fail, particularly the introduction of systems built on new technology, is ‘culture’, as in the culture of the organisation is not ready for the new technology or the solution (e.g. sharing knowledge) doesn’t fit with the culture of the organisation.
That isn’t an explanation. It’s an excuse.
Time and again on the Internet, conventional wisdom about what people will and won’t do is challenged by evidence that begs to differ. Grandparents are supposed to be technology-averse and not understand the Internet. That soon changes if their children move abroad and webcams and Facebook are the easiest way to keep in touch and watch the grandchildren grow up. The old argument that nobody bothers to classify information fell flat when Flickr and photo tagging came along.
In short, culture is used as an excuse when the real reason for failure to adopt new systems is because the target audience doesn’t see any value in what they are being asked to do versus what they have been doing in the past. And so they either don’t change or do reluctantly, which can have worse outcomes than not doing anything at all.
Culture matters in the interpretation of how people use systems, how they communicate. But the differences are regional, not organisational. In some countries, talking up your success is perceived negatively as boasting. In others, modesty is misinterpreted as lacking ambition. People in some societies say ‘Yes’ to every question regardless of what the question is asking, sometimes before you’ve even finished asking the qeustion. In others, the default response is ‘No’. Some societies expect permission to be asked before doing something, others admire those who try and ask forgiveness if the outcome doesn’t go to plan. These differences will affect how people communicate and the words they choose to use, verbally and in written form.
If you need to make a judgement based on what people say and do, interpreting information to compensate for cultural differences will improve your chances of making the right decision. But culture does not prevent people from adapting and using new systems.
Systems fail because they are poorly designed and don’t offer benefits to the people expected to use them. It reminds me of a quote from a Gartner conference, that went along the lines:
Ask a sales person what they need from a new system and it’s one requirement – make it easier for me to sell more stuff. Ask a sales manager and you’ll get 400 requirements on how to report, analyse and manage what gets sold.
The latter gets built and its failure will have nothing to do with culture (or technology for that matter) and everything to do with creating a system that takes longer to sell anything at all.