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!

Who would you like to sit near at work?


Sounds a simple enough question, but likely to provoke a mix of emotions that strikes at the heart of the social and business dichotomy. On one hand we like to sit with people that we can get on with; people that potentially share our interests, both inside and outside of work. But also they might be people that are different enough from us to challenge and stretch us without descending into acrimony. On the other hand we might put our ‘business’ hat on and consider our current role. As a technical specialist we might want to sit near other like specialists to share our learnings and experiences and deepen our capabilities. As a line manager I may consider whether I would like to sit with my boss and be more visible and aligned with the strategic directions of the organisation, or alternatively be with my team, to be a ‘hands on’ manager. As a client facing person I would similarly be considering whether it is best to sit near my customers or my service providers. As a senior executive I would also have to consider which stakeholders I would benefit most in being near. Even the idea of individuals being allocated a ‘seat’ is becoming outdated. Hot desking was established to enable facilities to be shared by staff not requiring a permanent location. A recent workplace study conducted of its CBD premises by one large organisation found that staff only spent 63% of their time at the office and of that time, were away from their desk 47% of the time, with the rest of the time being mobile between other workspaces and meeting rooms. The average occupancy was just over 30% overall. Facilities managers are now looking to design workspaces that can accommodate more modern and productive activity based work practices, while at the same time, making more economic use of the spaces provided.

 SNAW1In reality, when it comes to where we sit and co-locate with at work, most of us do not get asked. The task of assigning workspaces is left to line management and facilities staff. By default, workspaces will often be aligned with the formal organisation chart, making the assumption that the formal structure also reflects the preferred work patterns. This assumption is becoming highly questionable as workplaces become increasingly interdependent. Workspace allocation can become a highly emotive issue. It’s not just about the corner offices. It can be impossible to meet everyone’s expectations, yet its important that organisations maximise the opportunity that co-location offers. Despite the facility offered by modern communications technology, physical co-location is still by far the best means for sharing knowledge and maximizing productivity.  So how can we converge the duplicity of personal co-working preferences, natural team collaboration patterns with physical workplace design, to achieve maximum possible productivity?
SNAW2

Social Network Analysis and Workplace Design

Modern organisations are rapidly moving away from ‘command and control’ structures to more ‘empower and support’ frameworks, with of course social business initiatives leading the way. It is therefore not surprising that staff would be given more input into their physical working environment and in particular who they would like to sit near. The essence of this change is cleverly articulated in “Re-imagining Work”, part of the popular RSA animate series, where the choice of who we choose to work with and near is increasingly becoming a personal one. Social Business principles would dictate that it’s the people themselves, more so than their management,  that are best placed to choose their most productive collaboration partners. One doesn’t need to look further than the successful open source software industry to see this in action.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a method of choice for analyzing and understanding informal collaboration patterns. Typically an SNA study surveys staff about who they benefit from working with.  Social networking maps and analytics can then be developed to assess where the most productive patterns of collaboration exist and also potential productivity bottlenecks or blockages.

The “who would you like to sit near at work” question was designed to support projects looking to consider productive networking patterns into workplace occupation activities. Forward thinking facilities design and development firms are now appreciating that having a deeper understanding of the natural collaboration patterns of their prospective clients will enable them to provide a more convincing design and development proposition. In a recent project Optimice worked with one of Australia largest developers in developing an occupation plan for their key client, a major telecommunications organisation that was looking to refurbish their central city facilities. Their objective was not only to optimize their floor space, but to configure their physical spaces to be aligned to their ‘future way of working’ vision, which of course included much more mobility and technical enabled communications. Some 5,000 staff were asked to nominate and rate the people they would benefit most in terms of their personal productivity, by being co-located. As with any SNA study it only takes a relatively modest sample to characterize an organisation’s overall collaboration patterns. By aggregating at the ‘Team” level we were able to quickly identify those teams that feel they would be most productive when co-located. Additionally, because we were able to measure the ‘strength of ties’ between teams we could incrementally “fill” a building floor with teams preferentially by manipulating the strength filter, as illustrated below:

SNAW4The top panel identifies the two teams with the highest collaboration score (94), along with the total number of staff (230) contained within those teams. Decreasing the strength filter exposes additional teams with collaboration scores above (24) as shown in the middle panel, constituting a total staff of 1589. Decreasing the collaboration strength even further down to (12) exposes even more teams configured in several clusters. The clustering patterns, along with the staff counter, can be used by occupancy designers to effectively ‘stack’ building floors according to stated collocation preferences. Note that only just over 3,000 of the 5,000 staff would have been allocated at this point. We could continue to decrease the strength of tie filter to allocate the remaining teams or we could determine that those teams with only weak connections could be placed anywhere without seriously impacting their productivity. If you like, these teams could be used as ‘fillers’ for floors only partially occupied.

Where to Next?

 The above example identifies how SNA can be used to realize social business principles for collocating teams. The science of social networks can assist in mediating the politics that regularly pervade office space allocations. There is more to do however. Cohesive, co-located teams can deepen capabilities and enhance efficiency. Productivity however, is not just about efficiency.  We know that a certain level of diversity of connections is needed to facilitate creativity and to deliver innovation. Such connections may not require extended co-location but will require an environment where serendipitous connections are more likely. Those staff in roles requiring diverse networks tends to be those that are more often not in the office and/or not at their desk that often. These people may feel that nominating permanent co-location partners is incongruous with their desired mode of operation. Like teams that have no strong ties to other teams, at the individual level, those staff without strong ties are far from being outcasts, especially if they are seen to ‘bridge’ between cohesive teams, providing the important balance between cohesion and diversity that characterizes high performance organisations.

For the individual, the network ensuing from the simple question of “who would you like to sit near as work?” can be much more than your position in a popularity contest. While you may have a view of who you would benefit from being co-located with, even more insightful is who, if any, have nominated you as someone that they would benefit from being co-located. But that’s another story!