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

Corporate Communications: Talk or Tell?

“Communication” is a powerful word with a multiplex of meanings. The dictionary throws up definitions like “…a document or message imparting views, information etc…”; “the science or process of conveying information especially by electronic or mechanical means…”; which in the world of corporate communications, its all about crafting and sending the message. But if we look at some other definitions we see a concession that communication can also mean a two-way interaction “… the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions or information…”.  Now we often hear from corporate communications and their sponsors of wanting to ‘engage’ with their stakeholders, whether they are external or internal. The complication with this however is the sheer number of stakeholders that have to be ‘engaged’ with.

I recall many years ago, when working for a large corporation, I was asked to attend a ‘focus group’ being conducted by the corporate communications folks. The organisation was going through some significant changes at the time and corporate communications had been enrolled into the whole ‘organisational change management’ effort. As we were ushered in to take our seats in the meeting room one of my fellow attendees asked of the organisers as she was taking her seat: “Is this a Talk or a Tell Session?”.  I was initially amused by the question and I expect the organisers were less so. But there was a serious side to the question. If this was a “Tell Session” then basically we could just sit back and ingest the carefully crafted PowerPoint slides, perhaps ask some clarifying questions, and then quickly go back to our workplaces feeling better informed about what our leaders were looking to do. Corporate Communications could tick the box on another focus group having been ‘communicated to’. On the other hand, if it was a “Talk Session” where we were genuinely being engaged for our opinions, with a realistic expectation that actions might be changed or adapted because of our feedback, then this would be different. Our hearts and minds would be elevated to another level and we would actively look to engage in constructive dialog with our corporate communications brethren, who would then faithfully report the results back to the leadership for review and action. Unfortunately in this case it was the former, rather than the latter.

The above episode was before the age of social media and social networking. There were some practical reasons why the Corporate Communications staff at that time was more about crafting and sending the message with little or no feedback opportunities. Today social technologies are facilitating a real interchange of thoughts and opinions. We have seen corporations seriously damaged by negative feedback from their clients.  We have seen Governments overthrown with the help of social media. As public social networking migrates into the corporate world, with the advent of Enterprise Social Networking systems, all of a sudden the vast numbers of staff that Internal Communications is tasked with ‘communicating with’ now have a voice. For the Internal Communications officer it is no longer simply about publishing. It really is now about engaging in two-way dialogues. In other words its now “Talk, not only Tell”.  As intimidating as this may seem to someone who has mainly dealt with the publishing side of communications; it can also be seen as a real opportunity for Corporate Communications to become the key change agents in organisations.

The opportunity exists for them to become the critical link between senior leadership and both internal and external stakeholders at large. It will however require a significant change in perspective and capabilities; “from Teller to Talker”

Specifically here are some insights/indicators that I think the Corporate Communications folks should take notice of in making this transition:

  1. Social Media and Social Networking are here to stay and will give a substantial voice to the organisation’s stakeholders; so embrace, don’t ignore.TorT growth graph1TorT Growth2

If you are of the view that social media/networking is a passing fad; then this data might influence you otherwise:

  1. Staff ‘Engagement’ cannot rely on ‘Top Down” communication. Our research indicates that staff engage, and are influenced by, a multiplex of peers and leaders, far in excess of their own line manager. The trick is to identify the real influencers at all levels of the organisation; and target them for engagement. The chart below shows an extract of a social network analysis we conducted recently, showing the networks that exist at only the bottom two layers of a financial services organisation. TorT Network MapTypically, staff at this level are the most client facing and therefore should be a clear target for internal communications. The network map shows the peer connections. The larger circles represent people who have been multiply nominated as influential by their peers. The chart on the left shows the 80/20 power law of networks in operation, whereby engaging with the most influential 20% only can potentially reach the remaining 80% through a trusted connection. Hence they are important people for Corporate Communications to target.
  1. Communications professionals need to assess their own personal networks. Are you truly acting as a link between the leadership and staff/clients? Or do you find that the majority of your connections are within your own function? Ideally Corporate Communications professionals should aspire to be the corporate ambassadors, or at least very effective agents.TorT Archetypes
  1. Do your stakeholders see you as an authentic individual, or simply a mouthpiece for the executive?

Its no longer enough to plead “don’t shoot the messenger”. Corporate Communications needs to be viewed as a “conversation leader”, facilitating an authentic interaction between the leadership and their stakeholders.TorT Engage

  1. How balanced are your ‘sends and receives’? Researchstudies have shown that productive conversations (Talk) would see a 50/50 spilt. Whereas “Telling” is 100% Send. Try monitoring your own conversations. What proportion of the time are you “telling” versus “listening”.TorT conversation

So what’s it to be ….Talker or Teller?

How Can Yammer Match Facebook Performance?

Ever since the Gen Y’s started marching into the workplace with their mobile devices and Facebook accounts, “Enterprise” leaders became paranoid about time wasting on “non-work” activities, often instituting a plethora of policy attempts to ban the use of social networking applications in the workplace. In recent times however the attitude to social networking at work has softened somewhat. The business use of applications like Linkedin and Twitter have actually been encouraged by some forward looking enterprises, with some even providing training in how to improve your Linkedin profile (cynically, this may have been because this organisation was just doing a round of retrenchments!). We have also seen the rise of “Enterprise Social Networking” (ESN) software, which essentially is Facebook/Linkedin/Twitter packaged for enterprise use. Current market forecasts predict a healthy future for ESNs, with the promise of improved collaboration. Microsoft’s Yammer, Jive and IBM Connect currently lead the charge from a host of fast followers. What enterprise does not want to improve their collaboration? So what is the risk?

Here’s where things get a little interesting. We know from past experiences with knowledge management systems that just sharing information is not enough to reap the full rewards from collaboration. We knew about the importance of social interaction for sharing ‘hard to codify’ tacit knowledge 20 years ago, when Nonaka and Takeuchi first framed their SECI (Socialise/Externalise/Combine/Internalise) framework for knowledge sharing.

Knowledge SharingThis has more recently been reinforced with research from Knoco, who found that “connections” are 14 times more effective at sharing knowledge than “collections”.  So with ESNs focused precisely on “connections” one would think that ESNs would indeed have a healthy future. For the large part however, ESNs are struggling with adoption. Hard working Community Managers are having a difficult time engaging their fellow work colleagues into using these platforms for collaborating. While some would previously have argued about functionality, most of the functions have now been “borrowed” from the public social networking platforms, for which adoption rates are still booming. So what is the problem?

Work/Life Balance

 We don’t have to look much further than the broader tension around what we call “Work/Life balance”. At home we can be relatively relaxed about how we might use Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter to share with our friends and connections. There is no-one dictating to us on how, when and where we should be engaging on these platforms. It’s basically our decision on how, what and where we share. Privacy is an issue for all of us, but on the whole, the majority of use have felt the benefits of being able to connect, engage and share far outweighs the privacy risks that are ever present. When we go to work however, there are other people tasked with “guiding us” on how to share and collaborate. We have policies from above that tell us what we can and can’t do. We have ‘confidential’ information that we need to be sure isn’t inadvertently leaked. We have a whole raft of functions in the organisation that have a vested interest in drawing the line on what can and cannot be shared, as far to the conservative end of the scale as possible. If that’s not enough, the majority of organisations today are still slaves to the formal organisational structure. Sharing across formal organisational boundaries, though no doubt encouraged by the senior management, can often be seen as a negative by business unit KPI driven middle management. So what can be done to change this situation?

Why ESNs Underperform

 Why is it that ESN adoption underperforms when compared to their public social networking brethren, despite comparable feature richness? Invariably ESNs have been implemented like any other piece of enterprise software. The senior executive will make the announcement; there will be an official launch with said executives prominent. Community Managers and change agents will be employed to help with the adoption. The IT department will be central to the effort to ensure the platforms stay ‘secure’. Things will go swimmingly for a period post launch, until the cynicism starts to creep in. What is the ROI here? Why are the forums full of trivia or people just complaining? Why haven’t we seen more evidence of collaboration outcomes?

The core of the problem we believe is that we are applying the same “top down management lens” to an ESN implementation as we might have done when we implemented an Enterprise Resource Planning or Customer Relationship Management or Enterprise Document Management System.  These systems are information-centred, not people-centred. They are designed to reinforce the organisation’s designed business processes, whether it be to track a product through the supply chain, capture a customer contact or ensure a record is kept for compliance reasons. Top down management oversight is required and expected to ensure that uniform compliance to these designed “best practices” are adhered to.

Social Networking software is different. Its strength is not in supporting pre-designed collaboration practices. It’s not even substantially about information, though collaboration may occur around information artifacts. Its strength is in engaging people around constructive conversations. Being people-centred, ESNs are designed to facilitate and sustain profitable connections. Management oversight is for the purpose of facilitation, not direction. People volunteer to join ESNs because they personally benefit from doing so; not for their manager’s or even the CEO’s benefit. If the organisation has not enrolled the individual into the mission of the enterprise to an extent where they can be trusted to collaborate appropriately, without oversight, then no amount of management coercion will substitute.

ESN analytics have also fallen into the “top down” management mantra. They track traffic in the same way as one would track a product through their supply chain. They focus on quantity, rather than quality with “number of posts” being given precedence over “number and depth of engagements”. Individuals are left with reports on their individual activity levels rather than the measures that might help them to enhance their network and progress their careers in the organisation. While the Community Manager requires “top down” analytics to help them do their facilitation job, Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin levels of adoption performance will only be achieved if employee-led, not management-led.


To have your Yammer/Jive/IBM Connect performance up there with Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin levels we suggest:

1.  Think like Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin. What do you need to do to encourage the individual to join in? What features would encourage the individual to log in multiple times every day.

2.   Show trust by letting the individual choose and manage their own privacy levels, rather than applying a top down blanket policy.

 3.  Show trust my moving the ‘enterprise risk’ marker from the far ‘conservative’ end to the ‘managed risk’ end of the scale.

 4.  Make it as easy to get to your ESN, especially on mobile devices, as you can get to your Facebook account.

 5.   Move from activity based metrics to engagement metrics. For example, rather than posts, count responses. Look at the density of conversations, rather than the number of them. Help staff connect to people they are looking to connect with (like Linkedin).

 6.   Reward connectors. Look for those people who are connecting across formal organisation boundaries and look to reinforce and reward such behaviour.

 7.   Encourage the development of more ‘campaign based’ groups that are competency, task or innovation driven. Use relationship analytics to predict performance of these result driven groups, thereby addressing the ROI question.

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.