Silos Are Chosen, Not Imposed

It’s been an interesting week in the midst of the national anthem kneeling controversy here in the US. In two separate circumstances a close and a distant friend on Facebook decided to unfriend or block me when I politely disagreed with their “it’s an insult to the military” stand. It took only my one shortdissenting point for them to “shout” at me and cut me off from their safe, ego-stroking echo chambers. Those within the conversation threads do not know that I was blocked but rather probably assume I whimpered away with my tail between my legs. All within now rest easy as uncomfortable dialog was avoided, loved ones empowered, and complex issues made simple. The lesson: Shout loud, shout angrily, and have the last word.

Little Children

The action each of these people took surprised me, one more than the other stung as it was my childhood friend, but I was left seeing them both still as children; not getting their way (a unified voice of support) they chose to slam the door and stomp away. No matter how you feel about politics or The President of the United States, this was his strategy throughout the campaign and even today; shout, shout angrily, and have the last word. No debate, no dialog, no conversation. Mr. Trump’s behavior is disturbing but it is more clearly a reflection of much of our society.

We Live in Silos
The silo analogy, like the idea of the echo chamber, is an easy one to understand in both life and the world of work. It comes from agriculture – silos of different grains sit spaced across expansive fields, separated, isolated, contained. And although structures exist to contain people in similar homogeneous groups; Social technology where we can choose our “friends” and in organizational departments with unique responsibilities and processes, we do ultimately have the choice to be open-minded and engaging with others… but we often refrain for emotional reasons in one and economic reasons in the other.

A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve. Collaboration in a business culture with silos among teams or departments will be limited, unless collaboration benefits the members of the department. In addition, the members of a silo tend to think alike. They get their power from association with their function and their shared technical knowledge.

– Audra Bianca
Where Difference is Divisive 

I’ve been striving to dissolve these business silos with my work in social technologies over the years. I have helped my own company’s people understand and use technology to find others, find resources and share more openly. The company leadership always welcomes it as they believe correctly that it will help them remain agile, keep people engaged and lead to innovative solutions. However, they quickly realize the organization’s culture stands in the way. No org culture is one where people are shouting however snuffing out difference is still accomplished. Organizations have systems that separate and prevailing beliefs that hoarding knowledge leads to power, failing is not acceptable, and being wrong is a sign of weakness. Their people seek agreement not because it is the right approach but because they don’t want to be ostracized and seen as difficult. So debate is suppressed, monologue is chosen over dialog, and conversation is contained.

Sorry, technology is not going to save us, it only reinforces who we really are. In the end I don’t care about the national anthem debate, I care about social justice and I really care that there is no debate happening. We cannot advance social or even organizational issues without being ego-less, honest, humble and open… which ironically is the natural state of being a child.

The Future of Learning Is About Less

The future is taking shape and it’s about using what we have first instead of making more. For example, Airbnb and Uber are in the aggregation business. Each recognized the underused assets of property and time and created a platform to organize and commoditize them. And progressive organizations shifted their marketing from create first to curate long ago. This movement of looking, combining, and reusing is gaining momentum everywhere.

A 70:20:10 framework is the organizational learning strategy equivalent of this global movement. The 70 and 20 already happen and much like renewable solar and wind, we only look to harness their energy. The 10 is more content and more time to create and recreate. This isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just not always necessary and can waste time and resources. The beauty of focusing on social and informal learning first is that when each are supported and encouraged there is actually less dependency on training to answer the bell and better still, only the training that is truly excellent and really needed will be produced.

Let’s stop creating more and harness the mental energy being expelled in the work already being done and the interactions taking place to fuel performance.

Social Tech Made Easy Makes for Soft Social

When we want to improve our health, we often have to make small, difficult choices like climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Similarly, if we want to improve our organizations we need to make small, difficult choices like starting a debate, engaging the strangers within other departments, and being critically honest.

Enterprise Social could do better by doing less. In an effort to make social tech more like public social tools, vendors have actually made the tools less social by making them easier and familiar. Yes, ease of use is positive as it is all about adoption but adoption is the vendor’s end game, it can’t be the goal of organization. For example by simply “liking” or adding a GIF or emoji as a comment, we end the potential for conversation before it can really start. This is fine outside the organization as people flit from post to post in Facebook, yet how many times have you seen anyone there ask “I see you liked my comment. Why?” Maybe it was obvious but maybe not. And similarly when we choose to hold critical discussions in private groups, groups typically formed around function or departments, we cripple the opportunity for diverse opinions and ideas – those things that truly advance organizations.

Given the dismal state of employee satisfaction/ engagement today, should the goal of social tech be only to help get work done or do we want to have it help us challenge how and what work gets done?

If you want to make things better the next time you have something to share or something to add, remember that although the elevator is available, you can and should take the stairs.

Going UpStream

So you’ve probably picked up on a recent theme in my posts – organizational design. Now, I’m far from an org design specialist. It’s a field that is deep, has been around as long as there have been organizations, and has numerous authors, consultants and academics behind it. That being said, I am personally curious of how organizational design impacts learning and thus performance. My hypothesis is that if we get the design right, most performance problems naturally go away and with it some unnecessary efforts by L&D.

There is a lot of talk about some interrelated ideas today; culture, engagement, performance, ecosystems, etc. Each article I read or talk I hear explores these mostly in isolation and definitely without going far enough upstream. And speaking of upstream, maybe you’ve heard The Parable of the DownStreamers by Donald Ardell. I encourage you to read it as it’s quite short and sets the table nicely. If you haven’t the time, here’s a simple summary:

It’s the story of a village who’s inhabitants regularly saved people drowning in a river; those apparently thrown in somewhere upstream. Rather than figuring out what was happening upstream, the Downstreamers were perfectly content to just develop the infrastructure and hone their craft of saving people.

Today L&D equates to being the Downstreamers; mostly spending it’s time and energy rescuing the drowning. L&D tools, programs, courses, and resources are easy, quick fixes. This isn’t a bad thing, actually it’s necessary today because we have left unexamined some systemic issues; those things that make up the design of the organization.

What do I mean by organizational design?

All organizations design around a purpose as Jack Martin Leith reminded me recently in a Twitter conversation. And this purpose is achieved through various elements; some formal and informal, some are obvious and others hidden, and still more are conscious and unconscious systems. These elements include monetary rewards, recognition, talent measurement, knowledge management systems, reporting relationships, values, information flows, performance indicators, teams and unit structures, and behavior expectations just to name some. All make up an organization’s design.

We’re not going to train our way forward.

Jane Bozarth shared a resource in her book “From Analysis to Evaluation” that I have pointed to many times. It indicates that most performance problems are not ones solved through training. Most issues have to do with motivation, access to information, and hiring correctly for the job in the first place. Therefore at least 75% of the problem lay beyond the waiting arms of the learning professional. These are systems and structure issues; organizational design flaws. And yet either organizational leaders don’t see this or worse, they willingly ignore it.

So, who’s job then is it to identify the flaws?
Leadership? Hardly. A profitable company today may be in a death spiral tomorrow because these system and structural flaws have been left so long they have become inflexible. Status quo lives for today or quarter to quarter. Remember, status quo put leaders in their positions of leadership. It falls on individuals, passionate ones who see the need for change.

Can we alter design without major disruption?
No. The list of design elements are all intertwined. Alter one, you disturb several others. The real question is, what if we do nothing?

When does an organization take on conscious design?
I suspect it’s at the point communication becomes difficult. Management systems are then devised with all the trappings we find today. Conversations around Digital Transformation look to the large organizations but we need to place attention on the small too so as to not repeat mistakes.

These are just a few questions I’m pondering lately. I’m poking the box and joining OD conversations and reading some great organizational design books, blogs and resources. L&D will remain downstream with as Ardell notes, “all the manpower involved, and the large numbers of highly trained and dedicated swimmers already to risk their lives to save victims from the raging currents.” I however need to stretch, so if you’re looking for me I’ll be walking upstream for a bit to see what’s going on.

But It Won’t Scale

Chat platforms like Slack are still the darling social tool of startups. A former colleague of mine working in a small, geographically dispersed startup noted “I can’t imagine work with out it.” The criticism of chat platforms however is that they won’t scale if a company of 20 becomes one of 200. Functionally speaking, this is probably correct. It’s a team tool and typically as an organization grows teams divide and functional groups and departments form. If Slack remains, it’s a get work done tool, not a cross company communication, learning, large-scale collaborating, innovation tool; a tool to help the company remain agile.

However to start by identifying its shortcomings and labeling Chat platforms as the wrong solution long term is missing a huge point. What can scale, because of its use, is attitudes about social tech and it’s value to an organization. A small group is the nucleus of a growing organization and chat platforms help make social activity a part of the company’s day-to-day, not apart from it. This is something that’s very difficult to grasp in large enterprises that try desperately to plug in an ESN after living on email for decades – here, social is perceived as a separate activity from work and it’s typically a long slog to get the tech adopted let alone help adapt or even alter their work.

In today’s chat tool leveraging startups and small enterprises I suspect cultural DNA is being rewired for greater social, so even if chat platform like Slack don’t scale, the attitudes, the belief and the value of social will.

Technology will fade, ideas rarely do.