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.

3 Points of Entry for Organizational Change

An organization’s culture is created from beliefs. These beliefs are formed through daily behaviors and the responses to these behaviors. And the behaviors are typically driven by the systems embedded in the organization. So when change is desired, there are 3 points of entry to begin the transformation, each with pros and cons.

Systems -> Behaviors -> Beliefs -> Culture

Leadership typically and unfortunately starts from what they perceive is the easiest but is actually the most complex – Employee Beliefs. The most common ways you’ve probably seen are by handing down edicts where employees are told to to do or not do something. Posters and new mission statements often appear in an effort to motivate or inspire along with catchphrases and the like. These commands, words and billboards are routinely dismissed and or mocked as toothless reminders of corporate paternalism. However, this approach isn’t typically done in isolation, it is coupled with another point of entry, behaviors.

Directly addressing employee Behaviors is the next level up effort but again will typically fall short of lasting change. Behavior change is often driven by informational training and/or incentive programs to bring about new attitudes and behaviors or remove unwanted ones. These efforts can work temporary because the training is often unsupported by management and incentives are rarely made permanent. When both evaporate, it’s back to status quo. These approaches are commonly used by leadership because they will see fast but sadly only temporary change. It’s akin to a quick hit which is highly addictive with no lasting impact.

The final entry point is the only one that doesn’t directly target employees and is the path rarely taken because it can shake the landscape. Systems Change is indirect behavior change and it is the element in an organization that has the greatest influence on the previous two. Systems change efforts can be Catalytic Mechanisms because of the far reaching and sometimes unexpected transformation they bring. It is a scary proposition for the status quo but ultimately it is the systems that drive behaviors and behaviors are what create beliefs, and the beliefs form the culture.

Take for example an organization’s intertwined systems of communication and trust. Trust takes on different forms based on communication beliefs. When communication is closed and top-down, Managers direct and employees act. Managers subsequently trust only those that comply and employees trust that if they comply, they will be rewarded. A culture of compliance is born. It’s easy, clean but hardly advances the organization. If however we have open communication where Managers trust employees to be autonomous, do what is necessary and get what they need, then environments where networks thrive and information moves uninhibited are created. This is fertile soil for retention, creativity and innovation but it can be painful for the traditional hierarchy.

Systems, Behaviors, Beliefs. Where does your organization begin change efforts?

Digital Transformation is the big buzz word today related to change efforts. And although this speaks ultimately to technical and technological change it begins with employee behaviors and beliefs. I’m really curious about this and will be exploring more in this space; examining the relationships of systems, behaviors, beliefs and culture. I am seeing the oft overlooked small businesses as possibly the best blueprint for large organizations – those looking to step back and get small to move forward.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised?

I’ve been privy to a few conversations lately around organizational “social” behaviors and tools. Most of this has come through people in leadership roles reflecting on their organizations and the work they do.

One, a Dean at Syracuse University, expressed that the students “were already doing these things” (PKM, network building, etc) and a corporate leader who stated “we are doing a few of these things now” (social tech for organizational collaboration). In both cases it was sadly apparent there was no data just subjective observation, gut feeling and certainly no larger strategy to support these behaviors as being critical.

What’s Going On?

One thing is the fact that social tech is becoming increasingly commonplace, resulting in people slowly opening up and using the tools. Its become normalized and the long held leadership fear of social tech or that it’s mere folly has subsided. This is both good and bad news.

Good – because as we know, social always finds a way. People are playing around and getting more comfortable inside organizations using these tools in small teams and in productive ways.

Bad – because 1. the pace of adoption is slow and disconnected. Slow adoption means we are a long way from the real vision; work adaptation or working socially as the default. And 2. Executives, particularly old school executives (more common than not), are now “flippant”. The pace is comfortable, it feels safe in small pockets. But safe is not transformative. Safe, small and slow is not a revolution, never has been.

The Social Evolution?

This all reminds me of Karl Marx and what he wrote about the inevitability of a Communist revolution by the working class. Critics said that if it was inevitable, then one didn’t need to rush things, it would happen when the time was right. So rather than some massive, upheaving, social revolution are we just to see organizations incrementally reach plateaus? Is the “Future of Work” and “Humanization of Organizations” really to be more a slow slough forward vs. the a rapid change we desired and hoped for?

But then again, maybe it’s not about how we light the fire it’s where we light the fire.

Hope Lies with Youth

I think this slow level of advancement is the reality for most large organizations, the ones getting all the media attention about digital transformation. However, it’s the small, budding companies who inherently get social because that’s how they MUST work; people over process, flexible systems, cross pollination of skills, late night pizza in the meeting rooms.

If we want to incite a revolution, it starts with here, with the small and mostly invisible. It’s a revolution where a connected culture is maintained to prevent social atrophy, not try to reverse it. Helping small, growing organizations to NOT follow in the footsteps of the big ones is the real transformation we should be working on.

A Tale of Two Socials

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – Charles Dickens

Social has come a long way, the notion of its importance in business reborn through works like the Agile Manifesto and Cluetrain over 15 years ago and propelled first by Web 2.0 and then through enterprise social technology. But there now appears to be a division of direction.

On one hand social and social technology can extend and expand human interactions like nothing else. It can transform business from the industrial models, and change the very nature of work. Yet today much of the technology (and the vendors building and promoting it) may just be But such awful workers, and such awful work!helping business be a faster, a more effective business as usual. Simply, enterprise social is supporting today’s work, not creating tomorrows’.

Wasn’t there supposed to be more?

Social Has Gone Corporate More Than Corporate Has Gone Social
Early social brought diverse people, groups and ideas together. The tools were simple and allowed people to be creative with their use and that was often the draw; autonomy and creativity. This however was not what business was buying, even though it is just what they needed for the innovation they sought.

The reality is that conversation and idea sharing are messy things, difficult to guide and even more difficult to measure. Vendors either couldn’t articulate this or they didn’t bother since it didn’t fit into the purchaser’s mindsets and models anyway.

Goodbye Connection, Hello Collaboration!
Collaboration became king to the point today that many wrongly see “social”and “collaboration” as identical. Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing, what is though is having collaboration become expected rather than encouraged. The command and control message within the social technology medium is this:

“We bought this platform, now go use it.”

To appease leaders, and to better ensure the tool fit measures of success (i.e. ROI), vendors focused on dashboards, and monitoring and measurement were promoted mostly for tracking the most frivolous of activity.

The Rise of Chat
The growing use of chat and chat platforms today is an indicator of this “social” conformity. Chat doesn’t scale. Chat won’t get you to transform. Transformation takes much wider connection and collaboration. Business loves chat; it’s about team-work not net-work; it’s about supporting how work gets done today… in silos. Again, faster, more efficient business as usual.

The User is the Loser
Another sign of stagnation is the emphasis on the terminal goal of user adoption and not work adaptation (the measures mentioned before support this). Of course using a social tool is a step forward, so too is working out loud (a collaboration invitation) but adapting work in a social environment is what can change the very essence of the work being done, where power and authority reside and therefore alter the organization itself – the true promise of social.

 

Yes, we should be disappointed at the state of enterprise social but not surprised. Change is rarely revolutionary and business is business after all, with the goal of most being to win the game and far fewer out to change it. All is not lost however…

We need new skills not new features. We need more understanding and growth in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and new organizational structures for learning and working like 702010 frameworks to not merely influence but alter the systems that currently bind us. For these, look no further than the work of Harold Jarche (Personal Knowledge Mastery) and Charles Jennings (702010) for details on explaining individual and organizational approaches.

Ultimately the minority that believe and embrace the power of social to upend the 20th century systems are those that will conform to social, and not work to conform it (to their current models). It will take some very special people in leadership roles and not special technology; People that can cast aside the very systems that enabled them to become the decision-makers today, those who really know that what got us here, won’t get us there.

 

Transformation Doesn’t Happen in Silos

James Tyer and I often find ourselves chatting on Twitter about our shared observations and ideas.  One particular stream of though started to gel and we decided to formalize it some in a shared blog post (which was quite enjoyable) as an opportunity to extend the conversation. Let us know your thoughts.

 

There’s much talk of transforming HR, reimagining L&D, shaking up corp comms, disrupting marketing, “hacking” [insert your dept name here]. Transformation! Hacking! SEO buzzwords abound. LinkedIn feeds are full of it. Trade publications are recommending it. Armies of consultants are demanding it. Organizations are spending a fortune on it, yet once again nothing is fundamentally changing.

When “change” happens (and it can) it still happens within the department. This reveals our paradigm – the way our leaders see the structure of organizations – a last century, industrial era mindset. The result is a transformed department…that’s it. With the same problems, the same people – apart from the ones who were fired – the same leaders, the same titles. Really, nothing changes. It’s just the same old re-organization – not transformation.

A real transformation would see the end of these silos, an end to big departmental structures, decentralisation of power, a shift in authority, an end to the “business relationship manager”. For example, a real transformation of HR would likely result in no HR silo. Now that’s revolutionary!

Why do we do this over and over again? This time Amara’s law is particularly pertinent:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

Short Run:

Leaders are sold on technology as a solution to big problems… big problems in their areas. But this isn’t transformation, it’s piecemeal modification. For example, in HR: people analytics, performance systems, another LMS, maybe even an ESN. IT are dumping every shiny tool they see onto employees in a bid to keep up with “being digital”. Comms (the marketing of four years ago) are obsessed with new “channels” to give employees more and more information. And it’s not a question of whether comms or HR or IT are well-intentioned; it’s whether they are willing to keep repeating the same mistakes.

All we’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Long Run:

Technology is changing product development and distribution, it’s changing political discourse, it’s changing the consumer landscape, and has the potential to continue transforming our physical landscape. Take for example this Greg Ferenstein article on Medium where he reveals a simulation that showed how vast amounts of urban land could be reclaimed and 90% of cars would disappear due to automated vehicles. Technology stands to reimage the globe, physically, socially, and politically like never before.

We are naive if we don’t think organizational structures can’t change. Or are we short sighted, comfortable in our paradigm so as to unconsciously impede the progress of digital transformation by holding tight to familiar structures. Our cautious human nature prevents us from embracing real change. If we could just get out of our own way and let go of our archaic reward structures, our traditional ideas about leadership, our inability to be truly open and transparent with our work. Could we harness technology to create the modern firm – one that actually benefits consumers, workers and shareholders alike? The answer is Yes – there are already companies doing just this!

What’s Next?

If you’re fed up with endless re-orgs, talk of “transformation”, talk of disruption with no compelling alternative vision to the current state of affairs, uninspired by leadership, and feel like you’re working Einstein’s world of insanity. What do we suggest for those of you who would like to get started?

Well, the kicker is, there’s nothing easy. And when you’re out there on your own talking about new ideas, it’s tough.

Frankly you can only transform yourself. You can only change your viewpoints, outlooks, beliefs, ideas, and work. The fortunes spent on changing organizations are wasted because those who spend the money don’t change – they just tell others to. Change is social. Change happens one conversation at a time as Euan Semple has said. Be bold and talk about new ideas. Build your networks of like-minded support across departments, not just your own. Here are some frameworks to help guide your first conversations. There are no formulas – no one-size fits all. You and your organization will need to be agile to adapt to circumstance. To create your own version of the networked organizations.

A few sites, books, articles, etc to get you started.