What Have They Done to My Song, Ma

broken organization

credit: Erwin Schoonderwaldt

“Look what they done to my song ma
Look what they done to my song
It’s the only thing I could do alright
And they turned it upside down
Oh ma, look what they done to my song”
– Melanie -

We know the importance of experience, of the accumulation of tips, tricks and shortcuts that nurture our curiosity and our ability to adapt to new situations. Yet, we judge the skills and capabilities of one’s life mostly upon curriculum and diplomas, upon a period of five to eight years. Is that reasonable?

We value creativity, experimentation and intellectual curiosity, yet we ask our youth to abdicate the most creative and innovative part of their life to conform to a formal yoke that we call education. Can we really adapt to an ever changing environment while enforcing such a mechanistic process?

We aim at economic growth. Yet the resources we rely on are finite, if not decaying. The only infinite resource at our disposal is knowledge, yet we leave more and more people, thus more and more sources of knowledge, on the side of the road. Is that sustainable?

We look for, encourage and measure individual performance. Yet, any sport coach knows that collective efficiency is what matters, and that individual performance often gets in the way. Is that sane?

We value our customers. Yet we keep on feeding them with products they don’t need, with the false premise of making their life better, when what really matters is our income. Is that honest?

The world we used to live in no more exists. Yet, all the mechanisms and beliefs that prevailed during the industrial era are still the ones that rule our education system, our organizations, our life. We are still playing the same old song with new lyrics and new instruments, while the need to change the melody becomes more and more obvious. We don’t need new performers anymore. To thrive in today’s world, we need new composers.

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Return of Venn – Looking at the Future of Business

My last post sparked a few amazing comments. Looking back to the little exercise I attempted – representing organizational structure as Venn diagrams – I realize that my view was a bit enterprise-centric. “Customer”, as a concept, is quite reductive when considering the relationships between individuals and organizations. What if, instead of focusing on the world of work inside companies, we considered the larger context in which work takes place? Work, in fact, is the human activity of producing artefacts – goods and services, of course, but also capital, or knowledge – to allow for exchanges to happen. These kinds of transactions – non-market, if we consider exchanges of knowledge as transactions – have existed since the dawn of humanity, amongst the first tribes of hunters-gatherers, encompassing both physical and symbolic transactions between individuals and the community they belonged to. A straightforward world…

Well, not quite. Starting from the first cut stone, technology has always played a major role in magnifying and extending human capabilities. If we can illustrate the initial transactional context as follows…

The real initial world of transactions

… as we navigate in time from prehistory to history, individual interests more and more lost their importance in favor of the collective. Technology began to allow completion of more sophisticated tasks, often requiring more than one individual for being completed. From one-to-one or one-to-many transactions, production mechanisms, fueled by the growing division of labour, turned into many-to-whatever, giving rise to the need for formal structures to optimize technology driven production.

Productivism and organizational disease

With the Industrial Revolution came an important shift: most of technological breakthroughs didn’t empowered individuals, but required a collective structure to deliver. Not only were firms the logical outcome of economical evolution, but they were a natural fit for the rapid evolution of technology occurring during the XIXth century. It would be childish to say that large corporations are born by technological necessity, but fact is, in this pre-unionist era, that most of the resistance to the world of work taking shape wasn’t caused by deteriorating conditions of working, but directly linked to technology, as François Jarrige describes in Face au au monstre mécanique : Une histoire des résistances à la technique. The Luddite uprisings from 1811 in Great Britain is one of many such examples.

At the same time, another major change took place: the emergence of the nation state. By providing a symbolic as well as practical context in which most community-based exchanges could take place -administration, law, education,… – and securing the identity of communities through a distinct and infrangible territory, it freed corporations from their duties toward the communities they belonged to, allowing them to pursue an economical only mission. The complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships involved in traditional transactions, implying reciprocity and feedback loops, disappeared, replaced by markets only dynamics. In this emerging paradigm, people began to be considered according to a dichotomic prism: they became either employees, for the sake of production, or customers, for the sake of transactions. In the most cynical cases, this duality was meant as an autonomous circle; Henry Ford famously raised his employees’ wage, so they could afford to buy his cars.

Building on the diagram from my previous post, here is how we might represent business in the industrial and post-industrial ages:

the industrial world of transactions

From this diagram alone, it is easy to deduce the symptoms of today’s organizational disease that we witness around us:

  • Disengagement from work. Productivism isn’t a human ideal. By reducing employees to production tools, by protecting work from the rest of human activities, organizations have created conceptual and functional strongholds. The premise of recurrent wages isn’t a stirring enough purpose to trigger and sustain involvement in such isolation.
  • Hardcore individualism. Customer is king, of course, but propelling consumerism for a century has flattered our ego in unprecedented ways. Businesses have operated in an apparent paradox: to propel mass-production, they have pandered to -an created- individuals’ needs and expectations in a more and more targeted way, encouraging conspicuous consumption and fostering devious hedonistic behaviors. By playing sorcerer’s apprentices, organizations have have allowed this individualistic mindset to blossom inside their walls, facilitated by hierarchical structures and concentration of power.
  • Ethical chasm. By disregarding the collective, corporations have grown in isolation from the issues impacting human communities, in some -many?- cases worsening them: environmental degradation, wealth imbalance, cultural inequalities,…

Toward a new world

Yet, a totally new breed of technology has appeared, disrupting industrial age behaviors even faster than precedent technological milestones have helped in shaping them. For the first time in history, a device, the personal computer, when associated to the internet, has become both a tool of production and a tool of consumption, challenging the producer-consumer relationship on which the industrial paradigm was based, erasing the lines carefully drawn between work and other activities, freeing individuals from this dichotomy, allowing them to think differently over their own role and to relentlessly connect with each other.

As no surprise, most of the technologies built upon this breakthrough derive from this awareness and share common traits:

  • They are personal. Unlike technologies from the industrial age, they are built for the individual, and don’t require heavy infrastructure or strong coordination to be operated. Organizations, in fact, struggle when trying to adapt them to their own command-and-control mindset, stifling their outdated notion of productivity.
  • They are adaptive. As Manuel Castells explains, the networks that information technologies enable doesn’t warrants by itself their superiority over centrally structured hierarchical organizations. Their advantage comes from the flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing environments to “de-center performance and share decision making” according to the context they allow.
  • They are multi-purpose. These technologies are themselves networked and modular, giving individuals unprecedented ways to make them fit any purpose, and to use them to address goals beyond production or consumption only. Unlike precedent technologies, their impact on the society is not predetermined, and lies on the will of those who use them, for better or for worse.

Hyper-connectivity and dynamic reallocation of resources based on trust are the main characteristics of the new, networked, world unveiling in front of our eyes, allowing the rise of micro-markets and the re-appropriation of production by individuals , who have become both producers and customers.

the collaborative world of transactions

Our society’s infrastructure, fitted to the precedent centralized paradigm, is slow to adapt. Our compensation-based world of work, backed up by an omnipotent banking system, is curbing our ability to fully embrace a network-based economy. Our nation states which, after having favored the domination of the mechanistic corporation, could paradoxically be a key actor in the rise of a prosumer world, are now too weak to take over this role.

Yet, it is only a matter of time. In our recessing economies, the movement toward individualization and self-determination is hitting the job market, as part-time and contractual work make up a growing part of the workforce. The future of business is about an organization’s capability to create value from, for, and inside networks. The kind of linked structures businesses are more and more forming in the midst of their ecosystem is not flexible enough to avoid the risk of being disrupted by emergent outcomes from the rising collaborative economy. To avoid this disruption, organizations have little if no choice. Internally, they have to behave as networks to adapt to their environment, thus to embrace the organizational principles of wirearchy. Externally, they must act as nodes in the larger networks making up our communities as well as our society: purposeful, supportive and trustworthy. For many businesses, it is a long way to go. But it is the kind of world we, as human beings, have already started living in.

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Venn’s Adventures in the Future of Work

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at BPM Conference Portugal by Alberto Manuel, its chairman and delightful host. My talk focused on the inability for business processes to adequately address real world problems, either from a knowledge worker’s point of view, or from a customer’s point of view. In that sense, organizations, workers and customers live in different worlds, each with its own language, its own behaviors and expectations.

During a chat on the next day while waiting for our planes, Chris Potts, who delivered a brilliant presentation on enterprise architecture, made me a great suggestion: why not summarizing these three conceptions of work through a Venn diagram? This moment of truth made a long way into my thinking: what would be the best representation of business-as-a-Venn-diagram?

Representing the pre-industrial world of work is quite straightforward.

pre-industrial business

With the industrial revolution, the world of work, under the influence of key technologies and of fast growing corporations, transformed itself rapidly. These technologies allowed for unheard performance boosts, and for heavy rationalization of products and services. With the need -and will- to standardize the means of production, came the for standardizing work itself. Here is what organizations in a transactional world look like.

industrial age business

Today, the game has changed. In a world riddled with complexity and drowned in hyper-connectivity, shaken by the emergence of collaborative cultural and economic consumption patterns, this diagram is definitely outdated. Yet how do we represent the present world of work, fragmented by technology, torn between a leadership ideal and productive necessity? Have a look on how many of enterprise 2.0 and social business protagonists and thinkers represent the forces at work in today’s businesses.

outdated business

Problem is… this representation is definitely flawed, for at least two reasons.

Where is the customer gone?

This Peter Drucker’s quote couldn’t be enough repeated: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.” Customers aren’t only the purpose, but also the engine and the gas of organizations. The force behind most of the changes that organizations are facing today comes from the consumer world; not only have they now to cope with new consumption behaviors, but they more and more run the risk of being disrupted by their own customers. Whether they want it or not, customers are now organizations’ main stakeholder. If businesses don’t transform themselves, their customers will do without them; they are already creating new ways to make, share and consume.

Technology is not a subject, or rather not the one we think

Facilitating the adoption of new technologies and the emergence of work behaviors enabled by these technologies seems to be the lingua franca of transforming organizations. But let us step back for a while. Can we seriously admit, without challenging our assumptions, that the people who struggle to use collaborative platforms in the course of their work are the same who casually play with more computing power than what was available at NASA twenty years ago? I am not talking here of some happy fews, but of more than 1.7 billion smartphone owners, who routinely jump over the trough of disillusionment as over an annoying gutter. If technology has become such an important hurdle in the evolution of the business world, it might well be not because people struggle to adopt the behaviors we expect in an enabled workplace, but because we don’t provide them with the tools they really need.

The real topic related to technology lies at the interface between the company and its customers. Automatization has streamlined a myriad of transactional operations and, as more and more objects get connected – according to Gartner, the Internet of Things will grow to 26 billions connected objects by 2020 – most of these operations are taking place without human interaction, raising a new challenge for organizations.

Maintaining homogeneity in all these machine-to-machine interactions and providing the components for a transparent, seamless customer experience in a self-service world will become increasingly complex, leveraging the need for tightening authentic and meaningful conversations with customers. The heart of organizations doesn’t beat in their center, but at their boundaries. The necessary transformation they will have to undergo to thrive, or simply to survive, will take place at the interface between their structure, their people and their customers. If the future of work is a Venn diagram, here is what it looks like.

the future of work

If you are interested, here is my presentation from the BPM Conference.

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Employee Engagement: Beyond Workplace Psychosis 2.0

psychosis 2.0

I always have been an ardent supporter of true qualitative research. Yet, data IS interesting, specially when, considered under the right angle, it helps shedding a light on otherwise unnoticed facts and behaviors.

A number is a number is a number
Emanuele Quintarelli, when presenting the results of the Social Collaboration Survey he recently conducted among 300 Italian companies, exposed such numbers, which curiously were barely commented, during the recent Enterprise 2.0 Summit (you can have a look to his presentation here). He, and his colleague Stefano Besana, found out that middle management is not the problem we all thought it was. On average, it represents a problem for less than 20 percent of companies having undergone a social business initiative. Wow… A fast and dirty interpretation of this finding would be to correlate it with the now (in)famous prediction from the Gartner Group saying that 80 percent of social business efforts will fail, and to assert that old thinking — introducing social with a project mindset, something easily understandable and actionable at middle management level — fails in reshaping businesses to adapt to our new hyper connected reality.

While intellectually flattering, as it nurtures our believing in the necessity for a cultural and behavioral change, making such a correlation would be a fraud. 80 percent of middle managers seing value in social means that part of them are adopting new leadership traits in their behavior (Emanuele’s survey in fact shows that half of companies, on average, think that their culture fits social initiatives). If so, how may we interpret the dreadful level of disengagement (63 per cent worldwide) among employees reported by Gallup?

When structure trumps culture

More than culture, organizational structure imposes constraints on our behaviors. Going even further, organizational culture might be defined as the set of behaviors which develop over time along the interplay of these constraints. As John Wenger insightfully pointed out:

“I’m often fascinated by how people, when they walk through the door of their workplaces, adopt behaviors akin to the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite knowing in our hearts and in our guts that much of how workplaces operate is nonsensical and even anti-human, we maintain the charade that it’s the best way of doing things. As Alan Moore points out in No Straight Lines, industrial systems were not designed with human needs at their heart, yet we still organise workplaces along such lines. We go along with the deceit that doing things in a mechanistic, command-and-control way is the right way to do things.”

In many cases, the “victimization” of unengaged employees isn’t caused by, or targeted toward colleagues and managers, but toward the system itself, which structure embodies a deterministic set of constraints. Restoring goodwill requires much more than changing management’s mindset, it calls for a reweaving of the formal structure of organizations. Structure and culture are intimately linked, and at the end of the day, they all relate to relationships between people. As Dan Pontefract wrote in Flat Army:

“… organizational culture is defined by one criterion, and one only: an organization’s culture is defined by the manner in which employees are treated by their direct leader.”

I won’t discuss here the superiority of networks over industrial era hierarchies as organizational model, many others have brilliantly discussed it, you can for example read these recent posts by Jon Husband or Oskar Berg. Yet, a crucial question remains: does a networked organizational structure intrinsically trigger employee engagement?

Sadly, the answer seems negative. There are still few plausible case studies of companies exhibiting —and living— this kind of structure: Gore, Valve, Automatic, and some others, but they all share a common attitude toward employee engagement: they hire individuals who fit their internal culture, and are particularly cautious about the personality and mindset of new hires. When setting up the right structure, they tend more to protect the corresponding culture than to assimilate dissent elements. Indirectly, they all prove that, if a network-based structure enables engagement and collaboration by leveraging trusted relationships, it doesn’t help that much in restoring motivation from disengaged employees.

Workplace psychosis 2.0

Companies’ culture is evolving; in some cases, their structure is beginning — albeit slowly — to change, but the level of disengagement keeps on increasing. To counter this inexorable trend, some companies are beginning to adopt new behaviors: ROWE human resources approach, BYOD policies, better work-life balance,… but is there any tangible evidence that those are really enhancing engagement?

In a parallel to the rise of industrialization, in our Western societies, the XIXth century has seen our lives being more and more tightly structured and partitioned: work, family, religion, leisure, have grown into social and behavioral “boxes” which, for many people, were largely disconnected one from another. This social, moral, and ontological evolution even reflected itself in the thinking of the time. For example, in Ancient Society, Lewis Henry Morgan, one of the founders of anthropology, described social evolution as a set of patterns belonging different domains: technology, subsistence, marriage, family and political organization.

Today, all, but one, of these personal, social and political boxes which prevailed in the XIXth century have disappeared, in a global transformative movement, accelerated by the internet and the rise of networks. Technology is now pervasive, and affordable to anyone. Family is no more the infrangible nucleus it was hundred years ago, and marriage is no more the reference point of human lives. Political minorities take now their own voice, whichever it is, and the class struggle is merely memories in hedonistic and individualistic societies. Work, instead, has remained the last “reserved” domain, in which people still think and behave differently than in any other situation of a life characterized by social and cultural continuous hybridation. This fracture is less physical, as telework and freelance contracting develops, than psychological, as work codes greatly differ from the ones from our private life, as the nature of work moves away from its outcomes, and gets more and more abstract.

This situation sheds a new light on the lack of engagement, in organizations attempting to adopt more flexible internal rules and to entice employees to bring more of their personality and creativity into the workplace. Being a more complete self in a disconnected, self-contained, workplace, while living a more and more demanding and connected life externally, exhibits all the traits of a split personality disorder. In other words, organizations trying to socialize processes tailored (Taylored) to an industrial-era operational mentality, or to add a social layer to an otherwise closed system, are, slowly but steadily, growing workplace psychosis 2.0.

The nature of the firm, redux

Isn’t there any hope left, beside a radical erase-and-redesign move? Yes, there is. Beside culture and structure, and even beyond them, organizations have to rethink about their nature. I have previously written that the dominant transactional purpose of organizations, famously explained by Ronald Coase, is becoming an economic nonsense. For more than a century, they have grown on top of our society, draining tangible and intangible resources for their own sake, up to the point they have become totally closed systems, subject to growing entropy.

Instead of fighting for a shrinking piece of profit, organizations have to learn how to be useful again to the society which nurtures them, beyond shareholders’ interests, and to become the thriving engines of a global circular economy. To regain sustainability in the new world we see emerging, companies must rethink their own purpose, and will have to switch from an onward, quasi parasitic, to an outward, symbiotic, attitude. The schizophrenia route is definitely a no go. Instead of requiring even more from employees, they are urged to open the doors, and to show them that they care about the world, the society, the city, the life in which they operate.

For sure, most people want to get their work done the best they can, but this only if this work gives sense to their life, and if they are able to feel that this sense is shared among coworkers. Instead of trying to weave socializing behaviors with obsolete business mechanisms, let your employees know you care about your customers, and give them tools to support this. Let them know you care about broader, deeper issues, and help them getting involved in resolving the problems they tackle in their real, external, life. This was the lesson that my friend and colleague from Change Agents Worldwide Céline Schillinger brilliantly gave us during the Enterprise 2.0 Summit: her “Women in Sanofi Pasteur” internal movement grew on the premise of helping to solve the gender balance issue at work, a problem which isn’t limited to the internal corporate world, and the initiative flourished through external recognition. Her success shows that, in order to get more from their employees and contractors, in order to re-engage them, organizations must, simply, give them more. Not as employees, but as human beings. Not in the workplace, but in their life. Let us open the doors of the confined world of work, it needs fresh air. Right now.

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Breaking the reality barrier (social business style)

A tweet from Bertrand Duperrin, during the just finished Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris, ringed a bell in my head.

2014 will be the year #socbiz will fork. Idealists on one side, productivists on the other

We all know (or should know) that any social initiative should start with a concrete, tangible business problem to be solved. “Selling social”, whichever the tool that will be used, requires a thorough understanding of the problem to solve and of the weaknesses and strengths in presence. It comes with the impervious necessity to change the way companies believe work is done to align it with how work is really done: collaboratively, along the path of ad hoc interactions and iterations, back and forth between stakeholders who often only have a partial view of the problem to be solved. It also comes with the premise of more efficiency, of better operational performance. Yet…

Yet, once a company crosses the Rubicon, the reality kicks in dreadfully. Some key stakeholders are unable to use the technology because of strict firewall rules or legal compliance. ISO 9xxx forbid users from seing some relevant content. Video messaging is riddled by the poor bandwidth available. War rooms are only available 9 to 11 on Thursdays. Meetings cannot be recorded, thus zeroing out efforts invested in the planning of a series of webinars. Some manager, who doesn’t see the value he could get from it, dismiss the communication plan. This list could go on forever, and everyone who has ever worked in a large company has some items to add. It certainly helps consultants in allowing them to contract many days of consulting services to raise flags around them, but it overall demonstrates how broken our organizations are.

You may perhaps call me an idealist, but when a man’s kneecaps are worned-out by carrying heavy loads for too long, replacing them with state of the art prothesis a weak solution. When businesses are getting too big too remember that they are all about people, that technology, processes, and even organizational structures are just enablers, the society is in trouble. Productivists’ efforts to change the reality by socializing (cough) it look too much like another Zeno’s paradox, as incremental change won’t drive us past the sad reality we are witnessing day after day: beyond the poor state of what work means for many of us, think of exhaustion of natural resources, demise of human creativity and willingness, growing disparity of wealth,… Time has come to rethink not only the way we work, but the purpose and nature of firms. Time to introduce, as John Wenger said yesterday, to introduce sociology and psychology in our approach and thinking. Time to break the reality barrier, to help leading conscious organizations toward Wirearchy or Thin Organizations.

It will be a long journey, for sure. But the path is now opened, as guilds like Change Agents Worldwide or Corporate Rebels United now exist to help us pave the way for others to follow and expand. I’d wished I had them by my side some years ago. As Anatole France once said: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”

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