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!

Did Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer Really get it Wrong in Banning “Work from Home”?

Ordering Yahoo workers back to the office certainly gained its share of critics for Marissa Mayer when instituting this Yahoo policy some 18 months ago now. There are a couple of reasons for me to reflect on this at this point in time. Principally, my upcoming presentation at the Social Business Forum 2014 in Milan at the beginning of July is one. My presentation is entitled “Who would you like to sit near at work?”, and  is not unsurprisingly about co-location and collaboration. Here is a sneak preview from an earlier blog post.

The presentation will not be about leading the charge back to the office though. I’ve been presenting at the Open Knowledge social business forums since the very first one in 2008 held in Varese and pioneering what was then called Enterprise 2.0. It was my first introduction to the serious use of twitter (less than 2 years old then) and its use to connect the world to an innocuous event held in a quaint but sleepy town in northern Italy. In recent times I have been providing twitter maps and  affinity mapping (feel free to join up) to support networking at the forum. Interestingly, while Open Knowledge provide a rich suite of recorded talks and presentations supporting the forum, my sense is that the forum also provides a rallying point for conversations, led by the abundantly ‘followed’ keynote speakers. The following map emphasizes just how global this twitter audience is. A majority of the participants were nowhere near Milan.



The second ‘event’ prompting my reflections on the topic is a recently submitted doctoral thesis entitled “Creativity and Innovation in Virtual Teams” by Hari Sangha, who I was supervising, and therefore reading his thesis closely. Hari’s research was a case study of his own government agency workplace and the introduction of a new system. His organisation is a mature user of virtual teams technology and he was interested in how well factors like presence, trust, group identity and implementation effectiveness impacted innovation success. Hopefully without stealing Hari’s thunder, he did find that indeed the presence factor for virtual teaming did not interfere with the overall success of the innovation, in his context. What did catch my eye though were some of the comments extracted from his qualitative interviews. Several of his interviewees complained of not having on-site support during the critical “first impressions” installation stage. The “canned online training” fell far short of providing the organisational change support required when convincing an end user of the need to move from the comfort of a well-loved legacy system, to a new “integrated” system.  In fact the new system suffered substantial criticism on installation, that took some time to overcome. For me it was evidence that there is definitely a case to choose wisely when to apply both your virtual and co-location initiatives.

The “co-location touch points” tend to occur where the human factors of organisational change substantially outweigh the efficiency of process compliance. In Hari’s context it wasn’t so much about training in the operational aspects of a new system, but “communicating to me why I should be changing in the first place”. To give Marissa Mayer her due, it must have been a shock to come from the highly energised and innovative Google environment to one at Yahoo that had been reduced to something akin to clock watchers. The size of the organisational and cultural change perhaps dictated her mandate. That said, I was intrigued by comments made to us by Lend Lease’s head of workplace Natalie Slessor, that the business case for activity-based working is not principally about space now, but collaborative performance. And its not just about having an environment that staff will be comfortable in attending; but one where staff choose to come to because there is no better place that they would prefer to be, in doing their work; a place where they can collaborate with who they need to collaborate with, at these critical touch point times. No doubt this is something Google did get right from all reports.

While context will often dictate where these touch points are in your business, I’ve had a go at identifying where I think they are in an innovation context:

 Colocation zones

The Social Business Forum Twitter network is a ‘searching for inspiration’ network and therefore can comfortably work virtually. However, acting on an inspiration to design a new product or identify how to gain a brand new client requires some high touch collaboration and co-operation. Once a design or plan is settled on, the execution of the design/plan etc. could be accommodated by a mature virtual team. The next high touch point is when engaging the ‘early majority’ i.e. key buyers, influential users etc.. Here we need all ‘hands on deck” to rapidly respond to previously unseen or unexpected issues, objections and/or complaints. Inevitably with any innovation there will be issues that will require an agile response from a team of people. Once adoption is assured we can then move back into virtual customer support mode, perhaps even engaging our customers into a social business support community.

So did Marissa Mayer get it wrong?  Well maybe just a little. A few months after her policy was introduced she rationalised her decision with a comment:  “….  they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” This looks like my first “high touch zone”. But does that have to mean that those doing standard IT builds or providing after sales customer service should be made to feel dictated to? And what about creating an environment where Yahoo staff actually want to show up to by choice?