5 Ways to Blast through the Productivity “Sound Barrier”: Trading Pipes for Platforms

Pipes-Platforms

We are in an age where the vast majority of large organisations in developed economies are struggling to find ways to seriously boost productivity. The recent OECD report on the future of productivity identifies the growing gap between those super-productive organisations and the rest. They highlight ICT playing a key role in the future of productivity. The now ubiquitous “digital disruption” phrase, in the USA in particular, is providing real-life examples of the productivity boom enjoyed by successful digital platform businesses. Businesses like Ebay, Amazon, AirBnB, Uber, Facebook, Linkedin and the like have already blasted through the productivity “sound barrier” with their relatively small staff and high impact business models.  But what about those established large businesses that are often the target of these upstart platform providers? How can they match these productivity behemoths in the marketplace?

Through our organisational network analysis work we have taken hundreds of organisational x-rays of traditional organisations over the past decade or more. Many of these firms are looking to collaboration for a step change productivity boost. Organisational network analysis identifies how work is really happening, under the cloak of the formal organisation chart, by surfacing the real people to people dependencies. Importantly it identifies the true internal influencers, many of whom are invisible to formal line management. The over-riding theme that we see is the predominance of productivity silos. In essence the formal business units are collaborating intensely within their own walls, but with precious little connectivity between them. In most cases the productivity of one business unit can be totally undermined by the productivity aims of another. Regularly firm KPIs will even encourage internal competition. Its not surprising that the OECD has found that for the majority of organisations, productivity growth is stagnating. We found that when organisations leveraged their identified internal influencers, at all levels, good stuff happens, and happens fast.

Lets reflect a little on how we got here in the first place. Before the “age of the platform” the big productivity toolsets were engineering toolsets. Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Business Process Management were designed to bring well-engineered systematic methods to productivity enhancement. As useful as they have been, we are now in marginal returns territory. No productivity sound barrier will even be approached by pushing these familiar themes. Where we are seeing sound barrier breaking productivity is in the world of “platforms” that facilitate human initiative to connect and produce.

Here is the crux of the problem: Compliance versus Initiative. Sangeet Paul Choudary elegantly describes this as “Pipes vs Platforms”. Traditional firms work as pipes, trying to push as much through the pipe to the customer, as cheaply as possible. This requires people to essentially “comply” with codified business processes to achieve this. Boosting productivity in the pipe means more rules and bigger, more expensive pipes. But here is the rub. The rules rarely work in all situations. The pipes regularly leak. Increasing and costly overheads are required to manage these leaks, But it’s a losing battle. So what we get is flip flopping between departments in the service centre; off spec products sitting in the warehouse with nowhere to go; continuous delays waiting for the only person who knows what to do to come back off leave; falling through the cracks is now more like toppling into the crevice.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. How is it that Buutzorg, the Dutch neighborhood nursing organisation can grow to a very profitable market dominating 7,000+ employees in 7 years, with no “pipe” style business process management in place? Indeed how have all of the successful platform companies like Uber, AirBnB, Ebay, Amazon achieved their success with scant regard for the “accepted” productivity tools mentioned? The key is that they have leveraged human initiative. They have established platforms on which individuals can leverage their own collective initiative to succeed in the work they want to do. Its not a world without rules though. The rules however are designed not for compliance to a pre-determined process, but for sustaining productive interactions in a busy digital marketplace.

But what about you; stuck in an old world bureaucratic organisation, being weighed down by increasingly onerous compliance regimes and time-wasting overheads to your main work? Should you just leave for greener pastures? One school of thought suggests that “too big to let fail” is exactly the wrong thing for governments to support; as these organisations will never be able to change sufficiently to meet the required productivity levels. But pragmatically, if 90% of the world’s firms sit in this space we need to find another way to break through that sound barrier.

Here are my recommendations for both organisations and individuals who feel trapped in that productivity wasteland:

  1. For business processes requiring human judgment, change the management style from pipe to platform i.e. remove the process rules and let people self manage.
  2. If a process can be automated with 0% chance of failure, automate aggressively.
  3. As an individual, work to be a linchpin. This does not mean to become a bottleneck, in fact the exact opposite. Be seen as the “go to” person that can get things done. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Once you have achieved this status, help as many others around you to do the same.
  4. Find the linchpins in your organisations and leverage them ahead of any formal processes.
  5. Finally, value relationships over processes. In the longer run breakthrough, sustainable productivity is a human centered trait.

See you on the other side of that sound barrier!

AFR BOSS Magazine: Power and Influence Index

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 5.33.58 pmWe’re excited to have been working with the AFR BOSS Magazine on developing the 2015 Power and Influence Index. We have analysed all ASX listed companies (more than 2,000), and ranked all of the 5,000+ non-executive directors drawing on data from Thomson Reuters’ Connect4 database.

The underlying methodology for determining influence is based on social network analysis, which we have used in more than 100 projects across Australia, Europe, North and South America to help our clients improve organisational performance.

Our work around the mapping of networks has previously been covered by the AFR BOSS Magazine, and also in an article we had published in the Harvard Business Review (Italy) and HR Monthly.

You can read more about the problems we solve on our website.

Book Review: “Networked: The New Social Operating System” – Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

Holiday breaks are a good time to catch up on your reading and I had put this one aside for just that. I won’t be offering a full chapter-by-chapter review as I’m sure that has been done elsewhere. This is more of a personal reflection. Having spent considerable time researching in field of Social Network Analysis (SNA), Barry Wellman was well known to me. We have never met face-to-face but I had met up with a number of his Netlab colleagues at a couple of INSA Sunbelt conferences. My first recollection of Wellman’s work goes back to some of his early pre-Internet research on electronically facilitated communications and the social network.  Even then there was the fear that such communication technology could lead to de-socialization with less face-to-face contact and a subsequent loss of community.  Wellman argued then that rather than replacing face-to-face socialization, collaborative technologies would actually lead to people meeting up more than they did before and with a broader circle of connections. This counter-intuitive theme continues to run through the book, with Rainie’s Pew Internet research results and Wellman’s networking research providing plenty of factual supporting evidence.

Rainie and Wellman focus on anther apparent contradiction that they refer to as “Networked Individualism”. One of the claims made that did catch my attention is that the authors believe that the networked world has matured to the extent that groups and communities are no longer a prime focus. Individuals will belong to multiple groups and communities of practice; and will therefore share their attention amongst such groups as their individual need or context demands, at any given time.  The focus has therefore moved from the group to the individual. The onus is therefore now on the individual to learn how to navigate their networks for personal benefit, rather than relying on group or community leaders. When I look at my own use of Linkedin groups I would have to agree. Some groups I lurk in just to get a sense of what is important to that community. I can move in and out of such groups as the context demands. Others that I am closer to, I will more actively participate on a regular basis.

The other key theme from the book is what the authors call the triple revolution: Social Network, Internet and Mobile. While the authors go to some pains to say the book is not about technology, it is hard not to see these revolutions as technology driven. I’m not sure that is matters. Having spent most of my career at the leading/bleeding edge of technology, for me there was nothing particularly new or novel that I hadn’t read about before, though Rainie’s Pew Internet Research added some additional colour to the coverage. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading about how these technologies have evolved over the past 20 years or more. Like me, I suspect the authors entered the workforce before e-mail was invented in the 1970s. Reading about how that first email was sent, how hypertext and the first Internet browser was developed and our first mobile phones, which were the size and weight the equivalent of a house brick, made me reflect on just how fortunate one has been to have lived and worked through such an exciting era of technological change. The authors talk about how individuals are now equipped with smart phones which equips them to operate effectively as a networked individual. I can recall on my first day at work of being impressed with having my own telephone on my desk! Of course it could only ring in and out internally (does this sound like some Enterprise Social Networking implementations?).

One area I was particularly looking for was networking ‘at work’. We hear a lot about networking in the ‘friends and family’ space, but enterprise networking provides a whole new suite of challenges. A single chapter is devoted to ‘Networked Work’. Again the historical story telling made it an interesting read. Even if it was not perhaps new to me it will interest those wanting to understand how networking is changing the world of work. The Boeing examples of their networked approach to airplane design provide good and instructive reading. One point that did stand out however is that collaborative technologies have not reduced the need for business travel and face-to-face connections. In fact the opposite has happened; reinforcing the theme identified earlier in that the technology is not replacing the need to connect in person, but is actually facilitating more face-to-face connections. If anything this book is not short of supporting facts and figures.

 Finally the book is full of anecdotes from Wellman’s Gen Y students. In fact some of his students helped co-write some of the chapters. One of the insights I gained from some of the Gen Y voices was how they were using social networking technologies mostly to organize face-to-face meet-ups. These interactions were often short, sharp and multi-modal i.e. text, voice, IM etc.. These examples reinforce Wellman’s long-term theme that the collaborative technologies are not replacing face-to-face communications, but augmenting and expanding it.

I see some common threads here with research by MIT’s Sandy Pentland on high performance teams and Tom Allen’s research on communications and physical separation. Additionally it also provides some comfort for me in explaining some of our initial work in developing a ‘give/receive’ social analytic measure based on Pentland’s work. Pentland found that the most productive teams have balanced short and sharp interactions. As we were developing our metrics we noted that many of these supposedly highly productive conversations were around organising meet-ups. Our initial thoughts were that we shouldn’t really count these; but after having read this book, perhaps the most productive thing that we can do is to organise a meetup!

Will Fitbit ever be able to get you Net-Fit?


Wearable heFitbitalth trackers are the rage at the moment. A thin wrist band wirelessly connected to your smartphone can pretty much monitor your activity and general health, in the same way that only a short few years ago, required a hospital room full of computers, screens and wires attached to you while you slogged away on the walkinfitbit analyticsg machine. People wear them because they want to improve their health and well-being. And they can become positively addictive! Fitbits [1] provide analytics about you and your personal physics. But the other side of you that also has a big effect on your overall health and well-being is your ‘social physics’ , being your social connections. So the question is… will devices like Fitbit ever evolve to help you enhance your social connections, be they work related, or purely personal? i.e. get you ‘Net-Fit’.


Well thSociometric Badgeis may not be that far away. We have already seen the creation by MIT Labs of the experimental ‘Social Badge’ that collects data on your face-to-face
interactions; like your body language, physical proximity and even your conversational style. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see social badge features incorporated into a future versions of wearable fitness devices. Devices like Fitbit already take advantage of social cues by allowing you to share your data with friends, in the guise of creating some friendly competition and motivation to reach and surpass the fitness goals that you might set yourself.

Now lets change contexts a little. Its now a few years on and your Fitbit is now equipped with the latest social physics features, all wirelessly connected to your smartphone, which is also selectively synchronised to your employers’ cloud based servers. As part of the ‘new-age ‘care for your employees’ climate, your employer is interested in your health and well-being. Its not all philanthropic though, there is good commercial reasons for having healthy employees who take fewer days off sick and can come to work with a healthy mindset.  Likewise with social monitoring, there isn’t an enterprise around today that does not have aspirations for its staff to improve collaboration. The senior executive would be equally enchanted by the prospect of monitoring their staffs’ social interactions at work. This is where things start to get a bit uncomfortable. This is when we start to hear the terms ‘big brother monitoring’, ‘privacy’ and the like. All of a sudden we have progressed from a simple self-monitoring device from which I can set some personal goals and monitor them privately, to one where potentially my every move and utterance can be monitored.

Here is the gist of the article. As we move technology from the personal world into the world of work the traditional methods for introducing enterprise wide technology needs to change. No longer will a CEO pronouncement, a raft of carefully crafted corporate communications and a truckload of organisational change consultants be sufficient. We are entering an age of customer and employee empowerment, facilitated by the vast and affordable technology becoming available. For the enterprise to thrive, senior executives can best facilitate staff and client motivations in the desired directions by providing a climate of trust and empowerment, whereby staff and customers choose to work together for communal benefit.

Lets now take a little journey into the future. How could this future customer and employee empowered world look? 

We are clearly now in the ‘bring your own device’ world. I can wirelessly synchronize my personal data at a local, group or enterprise level, if I choose to do so, it’s entirely up to me. I quickly find however that it’s not good to keep all my data to myself. I do need to get my profile out there. Without a personal brand none of the resourcing co-ordinators will know that I exist. It’s not like the old days, where there was always a line manager there to make sure everyone was occupied. I also quickly find out that its not enough to just blast everyone with by profile page. It seems that the people that get the best jobs and get promoted the fastest are the ones in most demand from their peers. I really do need to know ‘who’s who in the zoo’ if I’m to achieve my own career goals (which are privately programmed into my Fitbit).

Network-SwoopMy organisation has provided us with a comprehensive enterprise wide social software platform. I don’t have to use it. There are no managers imploring me to use it like in the bad old days, when these systems first arrived. I find that if I want to progress in this organisation I have to engage with other staff, and they need to engage with me. The platform is my way of exposing the collective value that I am providing by being a part of several high performing teams. I also find that as my network evolves I am having greater success in reaching out to ‘hard to get to’ specialists and experts in our organisation. In the bad old days we were always directed to the ubiquitous “Directory” to connect with people. Unfortunately the directory didn’t have information like ‘how approachable is this person?’; ‘is this person really an expert?’; ‘would they be willing to help me if they don’t know me?’. I find that reaching out through my network provides me with ‘qualified’ leads that can make my job so much easier. In fact my work colleagues are now all thinking the same way. I’m comfortable now sharing most of my Fitbit data, with the knowledge that it would not be misused. The difference now is that I have the choice. It’s my decision.

So what has my new socially enhanced Fitbit done for me?

 Well here are just a few things:

  • We now have a work-based community who I can walk with at lunch times, meeting our activity goals together. It’s so much more fun.
  • I have found out that my work network only gives back on the basis of what it receives. I’m much more careful now with my forum posts and blogs, to write them in a way that they can really provide value and engage others. I also find that I’m much more willing to engage with others’ contributions by actively commenting or sometimes just with a simple ‘like’….but not too much. We are all now attuned to people trying to ‘game the system’.
  • I’ve also learnt to balance my conversational style when interacting both face-to-face and online, so that I don’t talk too much or too little. We now know that high performing teams have balanced contributions from all of their members. The social tag features of the Fitbit monitor this for me.
  • It has helped me make a career move from technical specialist to client service Archetype-Swoopmanager (eventually I want to get into general management). I did have to research the client service area well before cultivating new connections in the area. Over time they started to value some of my forum contributions that drew from areas of my technical expertise; and eventually they offered me a job. I intend to do the same for my next move, but I’m convinced that things will move faster as my network grows. In fact on our platform I have private access to my own network graph, so I can actually see it growing and changing over time.
  • In my new role I find that I’m becoming the ‘connector’ between our clients and my former technology area. I feel good about being able to facilitate the connection between a client need and a technical capability that we have. I note that on the personal network profiling provided on our social platform I have moved from the ‘specialist’ quadrant to the ‘agent’ quadrant now and I’m starting to edge toward the sought after ‘ambassador’ quadrant….how exciting!
  • I’m also monitoring my ‘Network Performance’ score, which I share with a few close colleagues … we like to egg each other on. We understand that the score is based on Gauge-Swoopa combination of how cohesive and yet diverse your network is. It is all about tradeoffs, but essentially maximum performance is gained by achieving the right balance. Too much cohesion might lead to close mindedness and ‘group think’. Too much diversity might lead to ‘wheel spinning’ with lots of ideas but no ability to execute.
  • As a final comment I’m glad we have moved on from the ‘bad old days’. Its now fun to come to work; collaborate and engage with people I like to work with; to be part of energised and agile teams that are delighting our clients, without the threat of the old meaningless targets. I mostly appreciate the ‘light touch’ approach management have these days. They now set the scene and the let us get on with our work. We have the tools to work with, it’s now all just up to us.

 Now back to the present. All wishful thinking or are we on the verge of a big shift? What do you think?

 

[1] I don’t currently own a Fitbit, I’m not promoting them, just using it as an example.

Celebrating the ‘Quiet Achievers’ …. Quietly…

What is it about quiet achievers that people like?

In this fast paced world where to be heard one needs to be increasingly loud and visible, the quiet achiever can be increasingly pushed into the background. Inevitably those that achieve visibility have to be loud, confident, extroverted and sometimes even a little arrogant to get attention. We are bombarded by media channels fronted by celebrity extroverts competing for our attention, to the point that we can become cynical in our search for genuine people. Sandra Cain’s Ted Talk on the “Power of Introverts” certainly struck a chord with the audience, which is essentially a call for the quiet achievers. According to Cain, introverts can use their private time away from the limelight to reflect more deeply on game changing ideas and innovations. And when forced into the limelight, like Mahatma Ghandi, their humility becomes more engaging and therefore more influential.

 So how do we find the quiet achievers?

By definition, one might feel that because they are ‘quiet’ achievers they would be hard to find. Interestingly though inside organisations they are often not that hard to locate. Think about the last time you needed to locate some specialist expertise in your organisation. I suspect you started the process by asking someone you know to help direct you. It’s likely that you will find the quiet achiever you are looking for in three or less calls. This is the power of networks. Referral networks are not something you will see published in the corporate directory. But through the use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) these referral networks can be exposed. Typically the “quiet achievers” will be heavily nominated central players in the referral network. Additionally, we will often find that those referring to them are drawn from a broad and diverse range of peers.

We regularly use the following network leadership framework to characterise the roles individuals play within organisations based on their networking profiles:

 Quiet Achievers

Individuals identified in the top right quartile demonstrate the unique leadership trait of attracting a high number of nominations for value adding to their peers, with the nominators coming from a diverse range of business units and/or locations. Such individuals are in a particularly influential position in the organisation. Regularly individuals occupying these roles are senior executives, whose power comes from their position in the hierarchy (ambassadors). However, those individuals that can sustain such a network position without the privilege of hierarchical power are indeed our quiet achievers.

Quiet Achievers Lead ‘Quietly’

As SNA practitioners we get excited when we find a heavily nominated staff member who sits relatively low in the formal hierarchy and/or are short tenure members compared to their more long tenured colleagues. It’s not uncommon for us to find these special ‘quiet achievers’. They are what we have previously referred to as ‘leaders without authority’ in our blog post on “Leading from the Bottom”. We don’t know for sure that they are introverts, but what we invariably find out is they are not usually visible to the senior executive. One such find was recently reported in the AFR BOSS magazine article on “Secret Power Brokers”. The back story on “Elvis”, who is featured on the cover, is that out of some 700 staff, Elvis was a newcomer at the lowest level in the organisation, yet his network profile was right up there with the top 5 senior, long tenured executives. We knew there was something special about Elvis and when we queried the leadership team about him, no-one knew who he was. We went down a level in the hierarchy and still no-one knew of him until one of the fringe members of the team, the business improvement manager, walked in and yes, he knew of Elvis. While he was a simple storeman he had the power to reject goods received into the store if they didn’t meet certain standards. Rather than misusing this power, Elvis was seen as extremely helpful and accommodating in helping staff across the organisation to rapidly access their procurements. He quickly became the ‘go to’ person in the store from all levels of staff across the organisation.

Senior Executives intuitively “know” the value of Quiet Achievers

One of my early SNA studies was conducted across a global network of some 2000+ engineers at BHP BIlliton. Our sponsor, Paul, was a former head of Engineering but by now the President of BHP’s largest revenue earning operation. He made it clear very early that he wanted to find out who the quiet achievers were so that he could make a point of personally visiting them and thanking them for their contribution. We duly delivered a couple of names of engineers who made the top 10 most nominated list, yet were regular engineers located at remote mine sites. Having himself come up through the ranks, Paul was well aware of the value that the quite achievers contribute to keeping the business running effectively. As a senior executive he commented that in his experience it’s the ones who just get on with the job, without feeling the need to “tell the boss” about everything they had done that week, that invariably contributed the most.

Unanticipated Consequences from Quiet Achievers

Sometimes the “quiet achiever” is nominated for unexpected reasons. In one exercise we conducted for a large rail utility, the General Manager (GM) was surprised as to why one of his technical staff, Tim, was in such high demand from his peers. On investigation we found out that IT services had been recently outsourced, making access to computer systems support bureaucratic and cumbersome. Tim was good with computers and always happy to help out to the point that he had become the de-facto IT support officer, taking him away from his real work. The GM was able to use this evidence to gain preferential attention from the outsourced IT providers, freeing Tim to do his real job.

Quiet Achievers don’t “fit” the Traditional Leadership Archetype

In one of our recent studies for an energy utility we again found a heavily nominated technical specialist that was somewhat a surprise to senior management. Some months later I met with the Head of HR who revealed that based on our results they had invited this person to address the executive team on his area of speciality. She indicated that they were largely unimpressed. He didn’t appear to show the confidence and presence they would have expected from an emerging leader. This was somewhat troubling to me. Sandra Cain elegantly identifies how the western world has come to expect our leaders to always exhibit confidence, extroversion and statesman like behaviour. Quiet achievers in contrast are likely to be more introverted and more comfortable responding to people looking for help, more so than pushing themselves forward and promoting themselves to others. In fact it is the humility trait that endears people to them in the first place. It is therefore somewhat disturbing that their value to an organisation might be measured against a leadership archetype suited to leading in a traditional hierarchy. I’m confident that as organisations flatten into more networked forms of operations, it is the networked quiet achievers that will come to the fore. While we might want to celebrate them publicly and put them on pedestals as role models for the future, I suspect that quiet appreciation from their workplace peers will be reward enough.

 

 

 

 

Leading from the Bottom

We have been long term advocates of J.B. Quinn’s inverted hierarchy model for new service led economies.

Inverted HierarchyEssentially Quinn’s argument was that the vast majority of jobs in the developed world (around 80%) are now service oriented and that competitive advantage now comes from having ‘best in class’ competencies. His inverted hierarchy emphasises the need for line management to “support”, rather than “direct” front line staff in services organisations. Since its publication in the 1980s there has been a plethora of supporting voices from all quarters. The Deloitte’s led study “The Big Shift”; and book on “The Power of Pull”; the MIT management think tank on “Leaders Everywhere”; Steve Denning’s book “Radical Leadership”; plus numerous HBR and McKinsey articles all imploring the same message, get rid of the bureaucracy, flatten the organisation, and empower the front line staff. Easier said than done? 

Try as we might the management hierarchy, with its military heritage adopted by industry in the last century, has been a hard one to shake. Over a decade and a half of Social Network Analysis (SNA) studies has highlighted to us just how embedded this model is within organisations, though clearly the degree of hierarchical compliance does vary significantly across industries. A network model of a well functioning hierarchy will show cohesive networks at the executive level. The cohesive groups will then fragment as you move down through the levels of the organisation chart. At the base of the chart you will see shop floor level teams only connected through higher levels in the hierarchy. 

Network Hierachy

Of course in an industrial age, where the workforce was largely engaged in manufacturing or producing widgets, this form of work organisation has stood the test of time in terms of efficiency and low cost production. The situation changes when those passive widgets become active and opinion fuelled customers! As aware as we are how can we enact change to the inverted hierarchy?

 Barriers to Change

Rather than going straight to solution mode it is worth reflecting first on the nature of the barriers that we are faced with:

  1. Your organisational remuneration systems are likely to be strongly biased to the levels in the hierarchy, hence there is a vested interest for those at the top to maintain the status quo.
  2. Those part-way up the hierarchy have developed long term strategies as to how they can climb that hierarchy and have little interest in disrupting the status quo.
  3. Those at the base of the hierarchy have learnt that to progress up the hierarchy one must first learn to do what your line manager boss wants, hence reinforcing the hierarchy.
  4. For many nationalities the management hierarchy is embedded in their cultures. Asian cultures in particular have ‘respect for your elders’ and ‘respect for your leaders’ built in, even if sometimes that respect is not implicit, it is usually explicit.
  5. Even office or workplace designs reinforce the hierarchy. The default design is to co-locate those according to the organization chart. Though some forward thinking organisations are now challenging this by looking to engineer innovation and developing serendipitous connections through judicious physical space design.

There have been several sources of suggestions for facilitating the required changes. For example, leadership guru Steve Denning in his book on radical management suggests:

–       A shift in goals from making money for shareholders to delighting customers through continuous innovation.
–       A shift in the role of managers from controlling individuals to enabling self-organising teams.
–       A shift in the way work is coordinated from bureaucracy to dynamic linking.
–       A shift in values from a preoccupation with efficiency to a broader set of values that will foster continuous innovation.
–       A shift in communications from top-down commands to horizontal communications.

 
Gary Hamel in his writings on “Leaders Everywhere” suggests:

 –       Too much is required by too few people on top — change is belated, infrequent, convulsive, i.e. by the time the top realises that a change is needed, it’s too late.
–       Instead of continuing to ask more and more of the top leaders, we should move responsibility and expertise downwards.
–       We already realise that value is created by the associates (note: most don’t call them employees any longer), e.g. by interacting with clients, we talk about co-creation with clients.
–       One of the next important steps, after 360-feedback, is 360-compensation that gets rid of the rigid, hierarchical structure of compensation, but attributes compensation more fairly to where it is created.


Authors of the “Power of Pull”, John Hagel, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison address the issue of client engagement (the pull) with these suggestions:

 –       Choosing environments that increase our likelihood of encountering people who share our passions; becoming and staying visible to the people who matter most.
–       Influencing their endeavors so they amplify our own work.
–       Discovering and interacting with the right people at the right time (timeliness).
–       Making the most of every serendipitous encounter (relevance).

Along the same lines MIT professor Thomas J Allen, the inventor of the ‘Allen Curve’ which articulates the level of drop off in communications with spatial separation, with co-author Gunter Henn, find that levels of physical co-location predicts the level of electronic communication. In their book the Organization and Architecture of Innovation, they make the compelling point that non-collocated teams that share an organizational membership will suffer some loss of intra-departmental communication, but this would be more than offset by increased inter-departmental communication with co-located members of other departments, which would be virtually non-existent without that co-location. The increasing availability of electronic communication facilities has no or little effect on this. So their suggestions could be summarised as:

 –       For staff involved in tasks requiring complex communications, co-location is essential.
–       For staff tasked with coordinating others, co-location is not critical
–       Where organizations are looking to build a diversity of interactions (like the base of the service pyramid) the tradeoff between intra-departmental vs inter-departmental communication, in deciding on who sits near who, is well worthwhile.

Orchestrating Change through Networks

For our part we believe that the value that SNA can add is the ability to provide specificity to these general recommendations. By providing targeted areas for action, the effects are likely to be felt in the shorter term, providing a stronger catalyst for change. For example, in addressing Denning’s recommendations, SNA can provide a baseline as to how the current organisation is working. What are the current levels of bureaucracy? Is it uniform or are some areas more bureaucratic than others? Which areas are likely to be engaging in innovative co-creation activities with clients? Is this happening at the service interface or at higher levels in the hierarchy? How are customers being engaged at each level of the hierarchy? How is client intelligence being vertically integrated up and down the hierarchy?

Management LayersThe above map is filtered to show predominantly reciprocated relationships to accentuate the relationship patterns. One can see how the management layers are closely clustered with a selection of clients. At another level we can see many associate-client disconnected clusters. The opportunity exists for the management to facilitate peer connections between these disconnected clusters to achieve a broader base of client connection, without the need to introduce bureaucratic overheads.

In addressing Gary Hamel’s suggestions, SNA can assess how much appreciation the management layers have on the value being generated at the client interfaces. We regularly find that in hierarchical organisations dependency nominations rarely point downwards i.e. managers tend not to acknowledge their dependency on their own staff, but will freely nominate ‘up and out’. In the Hamel scenario we would see many more reciprocated nominations. SNA is often compared with 360 deg reviews. When asked a question like “who helps you most in getting your job done well”?” Those staff nominated the most would qualify for higher remunerations according to Hamel. SNA can identify these ‘most valued’ staff precisely.

In terms of efficiency we had already indicated that the dependency relationships invariably point upward, rather than the other way. As Hamel indicates, this causes a logjam at the top, with many organisations paralysed while waiting for management responses. Many of the executives we work with have despaired at what they see as their staff’s inability to be accountable and to resolve peer level issues amongst themselves, rather than relying on the line management to make a call on any little dispute. We shouldn’t be surprised as hierarchies are designed this way. Unfortunately with growing interdependence between job roles the call on managers to adjudicate disputes is growing with it. What we need to see and encourage is natural ‘leaders without authority’.  These are the influencers and ‘can do’ staff who can influence others through their powers of persuasion, rather than through the power of position. They are able to successfully negotiate outcomes through co-operation and collaboration. We have found that the ‘key players’ identified by the SNA are, more often than not, these types of people. 

Natural leaders

In the above map we have identified those that are not part of the line management, yet have attracted several peer dependency nominations, which are often reciprocated (red lines).

In the “Power of Pull” much is made of being able to quickly identify the people you should be collaborating with, independent of a formal structure. An ‘industrial era’ response to these needs would be to build a skills or ‘yellow pages’ directory where everyone’s skills and experiences could be catalogued and freely searched. These efforts have largely been miserable failures. For several organisations we have been able to fill this gap by using the key players identified in the SNA as connection brokers. Rather than building expensive directories that become out of date before they are published, the SNA identified brokers who are organised to respond to people search enquires, by doing what they do naturally. And that is to provide qualified referrals, meaning that the right connections are being made in the fastest possible time.

 Yellow Pages

The “Power of Pull” also identifies the importance of serendipitous connections or relevance. In SNA terminology these are called ‘weak ties’, made famous by Mark Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” theory. Granovetter’s research identified that someone looking for a new job is much more likely to be successful by working through people that they might only know peripherally, rather than working through their closest connections. The logic is that your weak tie network provides a far broader search potential than your close ties, whose connections you are likely to be already connected to.  SNA can explore your ‘weak tie’ network, identifying those that are best positioned to broker connections to the largest number of relevant connections.

 Weak Ties Network

The above map identified only those connections that were nominated as ‘minor’ and therefore representing this organisation’s ‘weak tie’ network. The nodes were sized by a ‘betweenness’ metric, which identifies those best positioned to broker connections between diverse groups. Interestingly the most dominant grouping (coloured ‘grey) were viewed as somewhat peripheral in comparison to the core groups. Our advice to the management was to make them aware of the potential role these ‘brokers’ could play in triggering breakthrough innovation.

Finally lets address the Thomas Allen’s research and the powerful influence physical proximity has on connectivity and collaboration. This topic is addressed in more detail in Workplace Space and Connectedness, but for this article we highlight how SNA can overlay physical location attributes onto the social network analysis maps to identify just how powerful this impact might be in any given workplace. To ‘engineer serendipity’ we basically need to change where people sit. In doing this however, we don’t want to destroy existing teams. Using SNA we can clearly identify those teams showing the strongest density of internal connections. It is these teams that are mostly susceptible to the negative aspects of group think and therefore would benefit most from a more diverse suite of connections. They are also the teams least likely to be damaged by physical separation, as the existing trust links will ensure continued collaboration, independent of physical location.

 Network Map - Across floors and levelsThe above map identifies the connectivity patterns across physical work areas (identified by a Floor/Area code). In this case we can see the organisation has allocated the physical space according to the organisational structure (as per the colour of the circles). The connectivity patterns identify the ‘traffic pattern’ of connectivity across the physical space. The cohesiveness of the existing teams can also be seen, providing a choice for those teams that could be physically separated for ‘engineered serendipity’ purposes.

Summing up

There are many arguments for inverting the management hierarchy in order to thrive in today’s economy. It is however, easier said than done, with many structural mechanisms working to reinforce rather than dismantle it.

We have identified a number of ways SNA can facilitate this challenging task:

  • Identifying how clients are actually being engaged with at all levels of the organisation. Visually identifying where bureaucratic processes are impacting performance.
  • Identifying who the ‘key players’ in the organisation are, being those identified through 360 degree nominations. Rewards and acknowledgement of these key players can change behaviours.
  • Identifying the ‘leaders without authority’. These are the people at the bottom of the hierarchy who through their powers of influence and persuasion can lead the way from the bottom.
  • Use the identified key players as connection brokers. In this way ensuring that the right connections can be made at the right time, without the overhead of bureaucratic systems.
  • Build the reach across the organisation through identified brokers in the ‘weak tie’ network, as a more effective alternative to relying on the formal hierarchy.
  • Identify the most cohesive teams as those who would benefit most from an injection of diverse connections through co-location. They would also suffer least from not being physically co-located. 

What’s in a Role? Another relic of the industrial age?

How should organisations manage their workforces in the post-industrial age? How should roles be described? More importantly, how does one assess whether a role is being performed adequately or not?

Think about how workforce planning is being done in your organisation. Traditionally the human resources department will sit down with senior executives to map out the types of roles and positions the organisation needs to maximise performance. These named roles will typically be accompanied by a role description. There even may be a set of named competencies attached to these named roles. Having set up the ‘template’ for the identified roles, they can then be used to recruit new staff, assess current staff, identify training and development programmes, or even compare the organisation against competency benchmarks. There are several guides and templates for doing this. Sounds very logical and rational? The problem is that this model was designed for an age when the majority of staff were engaged in repetitive industrial style work. Efficiency was achieved through standardising roles and work instructions. Feedback cycles were short with product defects, clerical errors and the like identified by other compliance checking roles. The end customer was typically several degrees of separation away from the majority of the workforce.

Wind the clock forward to today. The equivalent of a shop floor manufacturing worker or a bank clerical worker is the call centre operator or the fast food restaurant waiter or waitress. Their day-to-day interactions are not with a passive manufactured product or a paper invoice to be created and checked. They deal with end customers. People who can talk back, form opinions and make decisions that can directly impact the fortunes of your organisation. But are we still describing the needs of these key roles in the same way that we would describe the job of a factory or clerical worker of the last century? To illustrate, I have selected one of many similar examples of a template for a call centre operator, found on the Internet. I have underlined the job tasks that I really care about as a prospective ‘customer’ of these services:

Inbound Call Center Job Description
General Purpose

Answer incoming calls from customers to take orders, answer inquiries and questions, handle complaints, troubleshoot problems and provide information.

 Main Job Tasks and Responsibilities

  • answer calls and respond to emails
  • handle customer inquiries both telephonically and by email
  • research required information using available resources
  • manage and resolve customer complaints
  • provide customers with product and service information
  • enter new customer information into system
  • update existing customer information
  • process orders, forms and applications
  • identify and escalate priority issues
  • route calls to appropriate resource
  • follow up customer calls where necessary
  • document all call information according to standard operating procedures
  • complete call logs
  • produce call reports

 Key Competencies

  • verbal and written communication skills
  • listening skills
  • problem analysis and problem solving
  • customer service orientation
  • organizational skills
  • attention to detail
  • judgment
  • adaptability
  • team work
  • stress tolerance
  • resilience

Outbound Call Center Job Description
General Purpose

Interact by phone with outside parties to solicit orders for goods or services, request donations, make appointments, collect information or conduct follow-up.

 Main Job Tasks and Responsibilities

  • contact businesses or private individuals by phone
  • deliver prepared sales scripts to persuade potential customers to purchase a product or service or make a donation
  • describe products and services
  • respond to questions
  • identify and overcome objections
  • take the customer through the sales process
  • obtain customer information
  • obtain possible customer leads
  • maintain customer/potential customer data bases
  • follow up on initial contacts
  • complete records of telephonic interactions, orders and accounts

 Key Competencies

  • communication skills
  • persuasiveness
  • problem solving
  • adaptability
  • tenacious
  • negotiation skills
  • stress tolerance
  • high energy level

Now if you do the same you may not be as harsh as I have by selecting just one of the tasks/responsibilities for each of the inbound and outbound roles, but I suggest you would be hard pressed to find many more. So why is this so? Why are call centre operators being selected on their ability to become 21st century factory or clerical workers? Following processes, filling data bases, even delivering pre-prepared ‘would you like fries with that’ scripts!

A key issue is how performance is assessed against job tasks. In the industrial age, performance was largely measured by output alone. How many widgets were produced; how many invoices were processed etc.. Quality issues could be identified by ‘inspector’ roles and corrected in short order. Unfortunately the same model is being applied to call centre operators. The ‘production’ metric is number of calls made or serviced. While we get the ‘this call is being monitored for…..’, one suspects that only a very small proportion of these calls are actually ‘inspected’. A dissatisfied customer or prospect is largely invisible to the organisation. A ‘compliance check’ of a call centre operator against the job description could come up positive when they are failing on the key customer engagement dimensions and visa versa. Role descriptions from the industrial age do not translate well to our service centric economy.

Interestingly, when you look at the identified ‘Key Competencies’ for each role they appear to be directed at the job tasks that I as the ‘customer’ has identified, more so than the process centred tasks. So the designers of this job description do have a sense of what is required to be successful in the role. But how they describe the role is last century industrial.

So what’s Missing and what can be done?

engineering seredipityFirstly we need to appreciate that work is social. This was the case in the industrial age, but amplified now as the majority of jobs today require interactions with other staff to get the work done. A McKinsey study found that some 70% of staff roles require tacit knowledge and interactions. The archetype call centre operator is shown as someone sitting in their cubicle on the phone to their clients, with little scope to converse with their fellow operators or other staff. In fact if they were caught in dialogue with their fellow staff this may be seen as time taken away from the main task of taking calls. Reading the job descriptions there is little reference to interacting with anyone other than a customer and a database.  Strict compliance to these job descriptions leaves no scope for learning from more experienced staff, understanding the human aspects of escalating or re-routing customer calls etc.. In fact I would suggest that those deemed as being excellent call centre operators would probably fail a strict compliance check against the stated job role.

The problem is that job designers are still looking to prescribe job roles and processes as if they were designing a factory. The majority of staff are now ‘knowledge workers’ who need to interact with their fellow workers to effectively do their work. Knowledge workers need to be supported in building their expertise through interacting with their fellow knowledge workers, rather than forcing this activity underground. An anthological study of photocopying repair staff at Xerox identified the socialisation processes that were essentially conducted outside of normal work, yet were critical for building the technical competence required. Despite the existence of copious technical reference material, sharing stories about repair experiences provided the ‘social learning’ that contributed most to repair technician competency. We therefore need to allow the socialisation activities to be brought to the surface and be subject to inspection, analysis and improvement in the same way that business processes and work instructions are.

Making Roles Interactions Visible

The traditional role description will specify required interactions only at an aggregated level e.g. “work with marketing to…..”; “discussing needs with clients….”; “making pitches to ….”, etc.. Contrast this to the granularity of the job role specifications for the call centre operators that are processes centred: “enter new customer information into system”; “complete record of telephonic interactions, orders and accounts”.  We can easily assess whether the call centre operator is fulfilling these aspects of the job by reviewing the data base entries. But what can we do to assess whether the important interaction requirements are being fulfilled?

We have been conducting SNA studies for some 15 years now, but for the first time, through the use of an interactive web based mapping tool we have been able to facilitate explorative sessions where the clients can follow paths of enquiry that spark their interest and inquisitiveness the most.  Interestingly we have found that clients want to focus on job roles the most. They have become keenly interested into how people really do their jobs. For the first time they can look at how different people playing the same roles interact with their stakeholders. The interactions are exposed at the individual level i.e. a high resolution picture of how individual roles interact with each other.  For example, we mapped the interaction patterns of two “Account Director” roles for one client:
AD Map - Whats in a Role

At first glance it is clear that Account Director 2 is much more connected with many more links to external clients (blue dots) than Account Director 1. It’s worth noting that for Account Director 1, two of the three customer connections are shared with another staff member. For Account Director 2 the majority of customers are unique and not connected with other staff. So which is the best pattern of interaction? The fact that we could be having this conversation and doing this type of analysis at the granularity we were, is unique in itself. The conversation moved to one of “what is an ideal interaction pattern for the account director role?”

Not only are the Executive now able to think in more detail about how their knowledge workers should be interacting in some detail, they can also identify how these patterns should evolve over time. For the individuals themselves they are able to compare their own networking patterns against other peer workers. They are now able to have business improvement discussions by comparing networking patterns in the same way that a Six Sigma process might be used to assess a business process run chart.

Coming back to the question of “what is an ideal interaction pattern for position X?”, creates a whole new level of conversation, debate and analysis about job roles requiring interaction (with is now 70%+). As indicated earlier, traditional job descriptions would have phrases like “work with….”; “pass on to…”; “obtain from…” as if these were simply mechanical tasks. In reality many of these tasks may require significant negotiation backward and forth. If we think about the Account Director role, some fundamental activities could be described with terms like “Co-ordinate”; “Represent”; “Broker”; “Gatekeep”; “Liaise”; “Consult” etc.. Social Network Analysis researchers have for some time been working on identifying these types of roles that people may be playing, independent of the organisational labels that they are given. The importance of this is that job roles can be aligned with how people naturally prefer to operate. If someone is a natural broker, why not allocate him or her a formal role that plays to his or her strengths?

Looking at the Account Director (AD) role again we can identify different ways with which the role could be executed simply by analysing the networking patterns:

BP Maps-whats in a role

On the left we can see the role played as a gatekeeper i.e. all contact has to flow through the AD role like a funnel from internal to external. In the middle, the connections are the same but this time they are two-way or reciprocated. This would indicate more than a ‘handover’ is being performed and more of an active co-ordination is happening, but still the AD is central to the activity. On the right we have a situation that relationships have been built directly between the external and internal stakeholders. While the AD may have instigated the connection, ongoing interaction can continue independent of the AD, leaving the AD time to create new connections and broker new relationships. Which behaviour would you like to see in your Account Directors? Perhaps some behaviours are context dependent as the first case showed, where maturity of the market dictated how the role should be played. The important point is that we can start to have business improvement discussions that were not possible without the relationship data being collected.

Closing Thoughts

It would be naïve to think that executives are not intuitively aware of the challenges faced by many of the job roles that are demanding more effective collaboration today. This is evidenced by the mismatch in the job descriptions and competency requirements illustrated in the call centre operator example. Process centric job descriptions are potentially constraining the ability of senior executives to effectively build, monitor and enhance workforces where collaboration is replacing process as the key value driver.

The workplace is becoming more ‘socialised’. Its not only social networking, social media, or even flatter organisations. Industrial style workforce planning now needs to be adapted to meet the changing needs of businesses to be more adaptive and reactive to customers needs. The days when only the thin layer of sales staff were the only ones who interacted with clients is well and truly gone. Organisations need to identify and develop leaders at all levels and functions within the organisation. The science of Social Network Analysis has been with us for over 80 years now. It is now time to bring the practice into the mainstream for developing and managing our workforces.