!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: October 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Vintage Halloween

In honor of Halloween, here's a public-domain image I found online that has acquired a considerable touch of whimsy since it was published almost a hundred years ago ...

"Halloween--Ancient and Modern"

"Halloween--Ancient and Modern," drawn by Clifford Kennedy Berryman, pub. October 1909 or 1910. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Retrieved from http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/modern/jb_modern_hallowen_1_e.html



Monday, October 30, 2006

Learning Styles

There are several ways people learn:
  • by doing

  • by brainstorming

  • by problem solving

  • by integrating information with what the person already knows
The approach a particular person prefers depends on how the person likes to process new information, and what sort of information the person likes to work with.

These two factors are combined in the graphic below.

The How dimension distinguishes between preference for action and preference for reflection.
  • Action allows people to test ideas and gather new experiences.

  • Reflection allows people to examine their actions, compare them with existing interpretations, and create more effective interpretations to guide future actions.
The What dimension distinguishes between preference for facts and preference for feelings.
  • Some people prefer to deal with facts, data, theories, and information.

  • Others prefer intuition, feelings, stories, and experiences — their own and others'.
The moral of the story: To accelerate learning and improve communication, adapt your coaching and communication, as much as practical, to each person's preferences.


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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Situational Leadership in a Nutshell

A big part of managing effectively is knowing how deeply to become involved in guiding the work of employees to whom you have delegated specific tasks. The key is to adapt your approach to each individual and task — hence the label "situational leadership" that has been given to this approach to getting results through others.

When delegating a task or responsibility, consider both the employee's current skills (ability to perform well) and the employee's motivation (willingness to perform well). As shown in the graphic below, there are four possibilities, based on whether the employee is inexperienced or experienced with the particular task, and on whether the employee is reluctant or willing to tackle the task.

For example, with an inexperienced employee who is leary of the task you are delegating, you need to provide specific direction and frequent follow-up. By contrast, with an employee who is both experienced and willing, your role is to go ahead and delegate the task, and, assuming no unusual snags, to then recognize the employee's accomplishment when the task is completed.

Note that if the employee's performance is not up to standard, you need to identify the root cause of the deficiency. Besides lack of skill and/or willingness, other possibilities are:
  • The employee isn't aware that there's a problem.

  • The employee isn't clear about the expected results.

  • There is an organizational barrier to getting the task done.

  • The task is a poor fit for the particular employee. (E.g., the employee might be both experienced and willing, but be better suited by personal style to other types of work.)


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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Business Acumen X: Deficits

Among the most important economic concepts discussed regularly are the federal budget deficit and the US trade deficit. Many people do not have a clear basic grasp of these concepts, so here are some definitions ...

The federal budget deficit is the amount by which federal government spending (including Social Security) exceeds receipts (mostly taxes, fees, and tariffs).

As with many accounting concepts, there is some wiggle room in how the deficit is computed. You can find a detailed explanation of the computation issues here.

It is important not to confuse the annual budget deficit with the national debt, which is the sum total of all annual deficits, less surpluses in the years when receipts exceeded outlays, since the federal government came into being over two centuries ago. If you want to know "The Debt To the Penny," you can go to this US Treasury site.

The trade deficit measures the dollar amount by which merchandise imports into the US exceed merchandise exports.

An important point to understand about the trade deficit is the narrowness of the imports and exports it covers. Countries trade not only merchandise, but also a range of services — transportation services, tourist services, business and professional services, and earnings on foreign investments net of payments to foreigners with investments in the US. In addition, residents of the US send funds overseas — transfers, gifts, and donations — for which nothing is received in return. The US current account deficit, graphed below, reflects receipts and payments associated with this broader group of international flows (goods, services, unilateral transfers).

Finally, investors buy and sell assets outside their home countries, which also affects the overall balance of payments.

In sum, any analysis of the strength of the US in the global economy must look beyond the balance of trade to all categories in which we do business internationally. The current account balance is generally viewed as the most significant measure because it reflects whether the US is a net creditor to the rest of the world (current account surplus) or a net debtor (current account deficit).



Friday, October 27, 2006

Why Critical Thinking May Not Happen

If, as several previous posts have argued, critical thinking is vital for sound decision-making, why is it so often MIA?

The Wall Street Journal published a short report on October 20 offering some insight. Specifically, Sharon Begley reports on the views of D. Alan Bensley, a cognitive psychologist at Frostburg State University in Maryland, concerning "the reasons people hold tight to seemingly ludicrous beliefs."1

Bensley focuses on the circumstances in which people perfectly capable of deploying critical thinking skills nevertheless choose not to. According to Bensley,
Being curious, open-minded, open to new experiences and conscientious indicates a disposition to employ critical thinking ... So does being less dogmatic and less authoritarian, and having a preference for empirical and rational data over intuition and emotion when weighing information and reaching conclusions.
Bensley argues that the most typical impediment to actually using one's critical thinking skills is extreme reluctance to accept contradictions to one's deeply held beliefs and hopes.

One implication of this insight for business is that it's important to seek out employees who are open-minded (at least in areas relevant to your business's prospects for success). Another implication is that training on how to exert influence can help employees nudge their more credulous peers toward evidence-based decisions.

1 "Why Great Thinkers Sometimes Fail to Think Critically," D. Alan Bensley (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 30, no. 4, July/August 2006). Begley offers this definition of critical thinking: "... being able to evaluate evidence, to tell fact from opinion, to see holes in an argument, to tell whether cause and effect has been established and to spot illogic."



Thursday, October 26, 2006

Practice, Practice, Practice

In two previous posts, I've talked about Anders Ericsson's work on the role of "deliberate practice" in fostering expert performance in just about any field. Now Fortune has taken up the the subject of talent vs. deliberate practice in an article in their October 30 issue.1

What Geoffrey Colvin, the author of the article, contributes to the discussion is a set of principles for deliberate practice in the business realm. Colvin notes:
Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements — you can practice them all. Still, they aren't the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information ...
Colvin then goes on to describe the principles for deliberate practice that apply to all aspects of effective performance in business:
  • Instead of just aiming to get a task done, aim to get better at it each time you do it. "As you do the task, focus on what's happening and why you're doing it the way you are." This puts you in a different mindset, one that fosters deeper thinking and more elaborate consideration of different perspectives and options.

  • Make sure you get feedback. If knowledgeable people, such as your manager, don't offer feedback spontaneously, seek it out.

  • Use systems thinking. This equips you to respond quickly and effectively to changes in the business environment, including unexpected changes.

  • Make your deliberate practice a regular part of your work life. That way you improve your performance as rapidly and steadily as possible, as opposed to hitting a plateau.
Aside from providing feedback, managers can help by using references to the accumulating evidence for the value of deliberate practice to demystify the process of developing expertise.
1 The Fortune article defines deliberate practice as "activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results, and involves high levels of repetition."



Wednesday, October 25, 2006

iPods on the Job

Use of iPods to deliver training and other company communications seems to be spreading. Today's Wall Street Journal reports on a number of recent applications by businesses such as National Semiconductor, Capital One, and Siemens.

As discussed in an earlier post, the process for creating podcasts for downloading onto iPods and similar devices is not complicated. Once the process is in place, a company can easily disseminate training courses (e.g., learn to speak Spanish), individual lessons (e.g., how to cook a cheeseburger), sales support (e.g., how to install a piece of equipment), and announcements. Employees can listen and, in the case of video, watch at whatever moment is most convenient and timely.

The cost savings of using podcasts can be substantial due to reduced need to pay for travel and lodging to bring people into a single location for classroom instruction.

The article does raise the issue of a generation gap in familiarity with iPods. I believe that just about anyone can be motivated and trained to use these devices. The key is to recognize that not all employees already know the drill. Therefore a company needs to be ready to provide friendly support to get employees up to speed.

Another issue is intruding on employees' personal time. Here I would say that the key is dialogue about where exactly the time for listening to and watching the podcasts will come from. Reasonable people should be able to arrive at reasonable arrangements.



Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Fed's Education Resources

Understanding the basics of real-world economics is essential for understanding trends in the marketplace. That's why knowing where to get help in learning the basics is so valuable. I'd suggest having a look at the Federal Reserve's education site.

The site is a portal to an array of resources. Some you might want to start with include:

Interest Rates: An Introduction

US Monetary Policy: An Introduction

In Plain English: Making Sense of the Federal Reserve

Building Wealth



Monday, October 23, 2006

When All Else Fails, Train

I read an article in today's Wall Street Journal that had me wondering why training is often treated as a last resort when companies find themselves in need of people with specialized skills.

I'm sure that in many cases the explanation is reluctance to invest in people who may walk out the door once their training is done (a reluctance accompanied by lack of initiative in adopting retention measures that encourage valuable employees to stay). But in other cases, shortsightedness seems to be the problem.

The WSJ article reports on the difficulty ad agencies are having staffing creative and sales positions in the online segment of their business. The staff shortages are so severe that they are constraining client spending on online advertising. Salaries are being bid up to levels that are out of range for many smaller agencies, especially outside of New York City.

What to do? If you read to the last paragraph of the article, the concept of training finally rears its head. Apparently, it is beginning to dawn on ad agency managers that their best bet over the long haul is to expand the talent pool for producing and selling digital marketing services. I am now on the lookout for reports of how these nascent training efforts pan out.


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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Retaining Retirees' Knowledge

Among the issues raised by the coming large-scale retirement of baby boomers, is how their companies can retain the retirees' specialized knowledge. The July 24 issue of Fortune offered some practical guidance in a brief article by Anne Fisher.

Fisher explains how the Tennessee Valley Authority is handling transfer of knowledge to younger employees.
Starting in 1999, the TVA broke down the daunting task of retaining knowledge into manageable parts, by asking line managers three questions: What knowledge is likely to be lost when particular employees leave? ("What?") What will be the business consequences of losing that knowledge? ("So what?") And what can be done to prevent or minimize the damage? ("Now what?")
TVA asks its older employees when each is thinking of retiring. (Answers are not binding.) Then TVA scores the employees according to how soon they expect to leave, and how critical their knowledge is to company operations. The higher an employee's score, the higher the priority of transferring that employee's know-how to younger colleagues.

For the high-priority cases, the actual transfer is handled expeditiously in whatever fashion best fits the type of knowledge in question. For instance, nuggets of information that can be readily documented are written down and made easily accessible. For tacit knowledge, job shadowing is used.



Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Impact of Discouraging Words

We got a useful reminder the other day of the power of expectations in determining how well people perform. Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine, a doctoral student and professor, respectively, at the University of British Columbia, have published results of research1 investigating how women's math performance is affected by differences in the perceived source of the stereotype that females aren't as good at math as males.

Heine and Dar-Nimrod were looking specifically at how females responded to being told that there are genetic causes of math-related gender differences vs. how they respond if differences are attributed to experiential causes (e.g., boys being given preferential treatment in the early years of math education).
Dar-Nimrod and Heine's research suggests that women tend to perceive gender differences in math to be innate or genetic, but when women consider such differences to be based on theories of nurture rather than nature, they can improve their performance [on a math test].
Heine proposes that the divergent impacts may arise because genetically derived differences seem immutable, while socially derived differences can be dismissed by individual women who believe that they have escaped social stereotyping.2

This research reinforces our understanding of the importance of the Pygmalion effect. Telling people you believe they are capable of strong performance tends to be motivating. Conversely, telling people that they are doomed to relatively weak performance is demotivating. In both cases, you get a self-fulfilling prophecy.

1 "Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance," Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine (Science, Vol. 314, no. 5798, Oct. 20, 2006, p. 435).

2 Dar-Nimrod and Heine's research results were consistent with the notion of stereotype threat — the idea that simply reminding people that they belong to a stereotyped group will induce weakened performance. Women in their study who were simply reminded that they were female performed on the math test at about the same level as those told that males are genetically better equipped to handle math. Study participants who were told that there are no gender differences in math performed at about the same level as those told that males are better at math due to social factors.


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Friday, October 20, 2006

Goals, Strategies, Tactics

In facilitating training, I have often noticed difficulty among some participants in distinguishing between goals and strategies. There is also a common tendency to mistake tactics for strategies.

The definitions of these three concepts — goals, strategies, and tactics — are reasonably straightforward, so the problem is more one of going too fast in putting together a plan for moving a business forward. The necessary distinctions get lost in the rush to take action.

For example, in a simulation for newspaper managers, when I ask the team I'm facilitating what their strategy is, I'll often be told something like:
We're going to focus on rebuilding circulation.
Until the team comes up with a concrete approach to rebuilding circulation, this statement is more an aspiration — a goal — than a strategy.

Another common response to my question about strategy is along these lines:
We're going to provide more local coverage, do more zoning, and add new products for segments like young adults.
Again, at best a strategy is implied by these planned steps, which are actually in the realm of tactics.

An honest-to-goodness strategy is an approach to achieving organization goals that specifies what you are depending on to make your goals a reality. For example, a newspaper's strategy for increasing its long-term profitability might be to provide content of interest to all age groups, and to integrate its print and online operations in order to deliver content through whatever channel a particular reader prefers, while simultaneously controlling costs.

Tactics for executing this strategy might include additional coverage of local entertainment options for teens and young adults, equipping reporters with still and video camera equipment so they can do some of their own photography, and including a link to additional features at the end of most articles in the print paper.

The key point for trainers is to be alert to opportunities during team discussions for opportunities to reinforce the important distinctions among the concepts of goals, strategies, and tactics.



Thursday, October 19, 2006

Putting Together an Account Plan

One of the best job aids you can provide someone getting started in a sales career is an outline of an account plan for a prospective customer that covers all the essential bases. Generally speaking, the job aid will advise the salesperson to do the following:
  • Determine your current position. Consider changes in the sales environment. Which changes are threats, and which are opportunities?

  • Set your goal for the account. Most commonly, a goal is expressed in terms of revenue dollars or share of market. Bear in mind the importance of generating profitable revenue.

  • Identify all players (buying influences). Then make it your business to learn for each person:

    • degree of influence

    • desired outcome — the person's concept of what doing business with you will accomplish

    • receptivity to you and your company's offerings

    • how the person feels about your proposal vis-à-vis other options

    • how you can make the sale a personal and professional win for the person

    • what questions the person wants answered

  • Set your account strategy. To differentiate yourself, you must understand the client's needs and preferences in depth so you can contribute clearly perceived value. (It should go without saying, that setting strategy comes before working out sales tactics.)

  • Test your strategy;

    • Does your strategy capitalize on your company's strengths relative to the competition?

    • Does the customer care about these strengths?

  • Identify your current strengths and weak points (red flags).

  • Develop a list of alternate positions, i.e., positions to move toward from your current position. Then refine your strategy so that it robustly addresses red flags and capitalizes on areas of strength. You define alternate positions by identifying:

    • ways to move an opportunity more steadily and predictably to a close

    • steps to understand individual players' desired results better, or to deliver those results more effectively

  • Don't over-do your attention to the competition. Focusing too much on the competition means you:

    • allow the competition to write the rules of the game

    • advertise your weaknesses, not your strengths

    • invite price battles

    • look unimaginative, with no ideas of your own
Offer customized solutions that make a contribution to the prospect's business. And, to tee yourself up for ongoing sales, keep the entire context of the relationship in mind.



Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wharton Weighs in on Blogging

Knowledge@Wharton has published a brief sampling of views on the blogosphere collected from Wharton faculty and staff.

I doubt it will come as a surprise when I say that I found the individuals who make selective use of the blogosphere more insightful than those who dismiss blogs as pretty much 100% chaff. I know from my own experience that tuning in to the informed commentary provided by certain bloggers on subjects of interest to me is well worth the hour or so a day I devote to keeping up with new posts.

As with most things in life, the blogosphere is not an all or nothing proposition. The key to using it well is selectivity, i.e., exactly the same process one goes through when deciding what to read in the paper or which newly published books to check out.

Kevin Werbach, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, is my kind of guy. He explains that he looks for blogs
that tell me something I don't already know, including in areas where I am an expert. Even with all the resources I have available as a Wharton faculty member, the distributed global network of millions of bloggers will generate ideas and turn up links that I wouldn't find otherwise. Used well, blogs are an extraordinary filtering mechanism for the vast array of information available online. They are a complement to, not a substitute for, mainstream media — something forward-thinking news organizations are realizing.
Conversely, I believe that someone like marketing professor Xavier Dreze has not assessed the blogosphere with sufficient discernment to speak knowledgeably about what the subset of highly capable bloggers are offering. Consider Dreze's explanation of why he doesn't read blogs:
I don't see the point. It's a bunch of people writing their opinions, and those people have no credibility. The information content is very low.
When you consider that the blogosphere includes such widely acknowledged experts as Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker, computer security guru Bruce Schneier, and the group of professionals who contribute to The Health Care Blog, to name a few, the potential to learn from what's available in the blogsphere seems beyond question to me.

Dan Hunter, another Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, describes a use of blogging of particular relevance to trainers on the lookout for ways to strengthen learning. He explains that in his courses
Students are expected to post material to a student-only blog. This provides an account of their learning and gives useful information to other students, forces them to think about the material before the exam, helps them with their understanding, gives an indication of how they are doing during the course of the term, and so on. ...

The lightweight character of blogging takes away the fear of failure and the pressure of things like multiple essays. It also means that other students can comment on the work and provide peer feedback. It removes the authority of the professor as [the sole classroom] arbiter, which, all in all, is a good thing.
In sum, Hunter recognizes the power of blogging for promoting reflection, the sine qua non for good retention of new concepts and principles.



Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Five Possible Approaches to Leadership

About ten years ago, Charles Farkas, a director at Bain & Co., and Suzy Wetlaufer, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, conducted interviews with 160 chief executives around the world, and then analyzed what the interviews revealed concerning business leaders' attitudes, activities, and behaviors.

As summarized in their 1996 Harvard Business Review article, "The Ways Chief Executive Officers Lead," they concluded that CEOs can pursue five general approaches to leadership:

Strategy — primary attention on the future.

Farkas and Wetlaufer recommend using this approach when:
  • Your company or industry is technologically, geographically, or structurally complex.

  • The volume and pace of change in your industry creates instability.

  • You possess the best vantage point for deciding about capital allocations, resource management, or new products.
Focus on:
  • Gathering and testing information about markets, economic trends, customers’ purchasing patterns, and competitors’ capabilities.

  • Testing strategic scenarios.

  • Determining how your organization can best deliver on its strategy.

Managing individuals in your organization

Farkas and Wetlaufer recommend using this approach when:
  • Your company’s success depends on superior execution — the way people make decisions, interact with customers, roll out new offerings, and defeat rivals.

  • You want to develop bench strength by creating a universe of “satellite CEOs,” leaders at all levels who can act effectively without direct supervision.
Focus on:
  • Imparting desired values, behaviors, and attitudes face-to-face.

  • Traveling widely to recruit, conduct performance reviews, and assess the workforce’s commitment to company objectives.

  • Identifying and developing star performers.

Expertise — championing knowledge

Farkas and Wetlaufer recommend using this approach when:
  • Your company needs a carefully developed area of competence to gain and sustain competitive advantage.

  • You want to focus your organization on competencies required to win.
Focus on:
  • Creating programs that deepen your company’s unique competencies.

  • Monitoring hiring policies to ensure your company attracts the right expertise.

  • Rewarding people who share their expertise with colleagues.

Control — emphasis on financial or cultural rules

Farkas and Wetlaufer recommend using this approach when:
  • Your industry is highly regulated, demanding strict procedural and financial controls.

  • Safety is a major concern in your industry, and there is virtually no margin for error.
Focus on:
  • Creating explicit rules and rewards for acceptable behaviors and results.

  • Using audits to detect exceptions to controls, such as missed deadlines or below-target performance.


Farkas and Wetlaufer recommend using this approach when:
  • Your company must change in order to deliver consistently extraordinary results.

  • Deeply entrenched ways of doing business will cripple your company.

  • Your organization needs to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity to succeed.
Focus on:
  • Inspiring employees, customers, and
    suppliers to embrace change.

  • Hiring people with passion, energy, and openness to change.

  • Revamping reward systems to encourage risk taking and overhaul business practices.
As for the question of what characterizes effective leadership in general, Farkas and Wetlaufer argue for the importance of consistency. The choice of a particular approach from the five outlined above depends on what best matches the organization's needs and the demands of the situation in which it finds itself (as opposed to simply proceeding with whatever approach best matches the leader's personality).



Monday, October 16, 2006

Business Acumen IX - Profitable Sales

I recommend having a look at this Wall Street Journal article illustrating the importance of training and incentivizing salespeople to make profitable sales. In the article, Jaclyne Badal describes several examples of companies that found themselves generating considerable revenue from sales of products that were actually detracting from the bottom line.

For instance, Brazilian salespeople for Syngenta, an agribusiness company, were paid on the basis of revenue generated. Even if they had wanted to check the cost of sales, they couldn't because they didn't have access to the necessary data on items like freight charges and shifts in exchange rates.

Syngenta has now created a software tool that calculates a "pocket price" for each proposed sale and flags any order that shows a negative number; such an order passes muster only with a manager's special permission. Syngenta also "changed the incentive plan for the sales team to align it with the [company's] emphasis on earnings. The new system tied bonuses to profit margins rather than volume."

Dow Chemical also uses software to estimate each proposed deal's profitability. As Badal reports:
... Dow asked some salespeople to work with customers to cut costs — or lift prices. Executives armed the sales team with data on sale prices and costs, helping their negotiating positions.

... the conversations allowed salespeople to craft delivery or service agreements that were less expensive for Dow as well as the customers.
Helping salespeople understand and gauge the profitability of deals on which they're working is a prerequisite for restructuring compensation to incentivize meeting profit goals.1 Trainers should consult with management concerning how they can assist with this effort.

1 Salespeople should not be asked to do the impossible. Companies need to analyze the cost structure of each product, and then weed out any products that simply cannot be sold at a profit and which do not contribute adequately to profitable sales of other products.


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Sunday, October 15, 2006

"I feel your pain"

Time seems to be running out for those who like to mock the sentiment, "I feel your pain." As reported in the November 2006 issue of the Scientific American,1 scientists are busily confirming the theory that human brains have a special class of cells that enable people to literally feel what others are feeling.

The cells are called mirror neurons because they respond both when an individual performs certain actions (e.g., getting set to pitch a baseball), has certain intentions (e.g., moving into position to bunt), or experiences certain emotions (e.g., feeling rejected when not picked for a team), and when the individual observes others performing the same actions, having the same intentions, or undergoing the same emotions.

In other words, it seems that normal humans do indeed feel each other's pain. Conversely, evidence indicates that people with autism do not feel what others feel; research is now proceeding to determine whether malfunctioning mirror neuron networks are the underlying reason for this deficit.

It is important to understand that the empathy we're talking about does not involve reasoning. It is a direct internal experience, which helps to explain why coaches get good results when they encourage athletes to mentally rehearse the skills they need to execute.

An important implication of this research for trainers relates to the role of imitation in learning. It seems natural to offer trainees demonstrations of skills they are expected to learn. What scientists are now telling us is that the trainees' imitation is not simply a product of reasoning about what they are observing, but also an actual internal experience of execution of the skill in question. With such a powerful learning mechanism available, a trainer would certainly be remiss to give demonstrations short shrift ("we're short of time, so I'll just explain"). Instead, trainers should take full advantage of mirror neuron-based learning by using demonstrations as broadly as possible.

1 "Mirrors in the Mind," by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese (Scientific American, November 2006, pp. 54-61. A January 10, 2006 New York Times article describing research on mirror neurons can be found here.


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Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Case for Case Studies

I have never liked highly complex case studies as a component of a business training program. On the other hand, I am very much in favor of using carefully designed cases of manageable length to illustrate the principles a training program is teaching.

In a recent proposal to a client, I had to summarize the benefits of using case studies of the latter sort. In a nutshell, one uses a customized case study in an organization's training in order to:
  • integrate the concepts participants are learning within the specific context of the organization's strategies and processes

  • provide several points in the program during which participants reflect in practical terms on how they should apply what they are learning

  • facilitate improved communication and working relations among participants

  • further hone analytical and decision-making skills

  • help ensure active involvement in learning, which is essential for maximum retention
Realism is essential, so a case must be based on input gathered from knowledgeable people at the organization and, if at all possible, from representative customers. The writing should be engaging (not artificially jovial), and the discussion questions should be closely tied to the content of the training.


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Friday, October 13, 2006

Collaborative Learning

A few years ago, when he was teaching at the University of Colorado's Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, Eric Scharff teamed up with Gerhard Fischer, a professor of computer science, to offer a course structured as an experiment in collaborative learning.1

More specifically, Scharff wanted to see how well the principles underlying creation of open source software could be translated to a classroom setting in which students worked on non-software projects. The open source principles Scharff adapted to his classroom experiment were:
  • Participants engage in personally meaningful activities. Without the personal meaning, there would be little motivation, in an open source context, to lend a hand to the collective effort.

  • Intrinsic motivation is important for inducing participation.

  • When the problem is one of complex design, the process of creating a solution is open-ended — there is no single "right answer" — and learning "involves the continuous activities of framing and solving problems."

  • The community needs to produce something concrete — e.g., computer code — in order for everyone to have something shared to reflect upon as they pursue the problem-solving process.

  • Collaborative technologies are used extensively. As is true at a growing number of businesses, Scharff found that wiki software was valuable as a communications tool.

  • Contributions are incremental and continuously integrated.
Based on what he already knew about open source projects and practices, Scharff adopted several features for his course:
  • Students engaged in projects of their own design in order to ensure that the projects provided the motivation of being personally meaningful.

  • Teams created their own work assignments.

  • Scharff served as project leader "to provide some centralized integration of decentralized development, resolve disputes between members, and help members find direction." Individual teams were also welcome to choose leaders for themselves.

  • The teams presented frequent, incremental deliverables. Setting deadlines for the deliverables proved an important goad to ensuring teams made good-quality progress in their work. The production of each interim deliverable became the occasion for the team to "observe its work, reflect on it, and refine it."

  • Final deliverables were "open," i.e., they were structured in a way that would enable others to build on them in the future.
In summarizing the lessons he took away from his experiment in collaborative learning, Scharff emphasized the importance of collaborative technology (principally, a wiki), while noting that participants preferred discussion at face-to-face meetings when feasible.

Extrapolating to business training, we can surmise that the open source model is valuable for action learning activities, with the caveat that if participants can be brought together for meetings, they should be.

1 The 2001 paper Eric Scharff wrote about the course, "Applying Open Source Principles to Collaborative Learning Environments," is hard to access on the Internet, but you may be able to read it by searching for it on Google, and then accessing a cached version.


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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Easing Conflict via Internet Dialogue

A pair of researchers in Israel have provided a helpful summary of research concerning how biases and hostility people bring to contact with others can be diminished by enabling groups to talk to each other via Internet text-based dialogue.

Yair Amichai-Hamburger of Bar-Ilan University and Katelyn McKenna of Ben Gurion University argue that the Internet's unique characteristics help create effective intergroup contact "by creating a secure environment, reducing anxiety, cutting geographical distances, significantly lowering costs, and by creating equal status, intimate contact, and cooperation." A bit more expansively, the authors point to these benefits of using a virtual meeting space on the Internet (or, by extension, a company intranet):
Participants can readily take part from disparate locales and do so from a position of greater comfort and security than can be obtained in face-to-face meetings. Many of the most obvious status "give-aways" are not in evidence in text-based online interactions. When the status of a member is known, the nature of the communication medium tends to ameliorate the negative influence and effects that status can have on an interaction. Cooperative tasks can be conducted just as well online as they can were the participants to undertake them in person and, indeed, there may be greater willingness to take part in the online task. Finally, as our technology continues to evolve, better software tools are being developed that will enhance the meeting and interaction between participants in ways not possible in traditional settings.
Though Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna focus on encounters involving groups on two sides of a racial, political or similar divide, it is not much of a stretch to apply the principles they describe to a business setting in which groups in conflict need to find a way to overcome antipathy and work constructively together.

Other benefits of text-based virtual dialogue Amichai-Hamburger and McKenna cite include:
  • Less anxiety among participants because they have more control over how they present themselves and their views.

  • Socially anxious participants are viewed as more likeable and extroverted than when interacting in person and tend to take more active leadership roles than in face-to-face meetings.

  • Group norms can have a stronger effect than in face-to-face interactions.

  • Participants tend to develop an enhanced sense of attachment to the larger group composed of all those involved in the dialogue.

  • There is more mutual self-disclosure, which helps in the formation of interpersonal bonds and a sense of belonging and acceptance.

  • The vast information resources accessible via the Internet make it easy to supplement dialogue with information about the participants that helps them learn about each other.
Training professionals can assist their organizations in getting maximum benefit from virtual meetings by advising on how to structure and facilitate the interactions.


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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Business Acumen VIII: Assessing Intangible Assets

As a follow-on to yesterday's post dealing with intangible assets, I'd like to recommend taking a look at an article that Dave Ulrich of the University of Michigan and consultant Norm Smallwood published in the June 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

"Capitalizing on Capabilities" focuses on one particular type of intangible asset, namely organizational capabilities, i.e., such assets as human talent, speed in making changes, and leadership. Ulrich and Smallwood explain how carrying out an audit of an organization's capabilities can be the first step in a process of managing these capabilities more effectively.

In basic terms, a capabilties audit involves assessing each capability on a scale of 1 to 10, and assigning priorities to the capabilities in order to guide planning. The priorities reflect where investment in bolstering capabilities is likely to generate the best return. For example, one company might determine that its best opportunities for return lie in improving performance management and leadership, while another might determine that the focus should be on improving collaboration and strategic unity.

Ulrich and Smallwood define 11 capabilities, noting that each organization will need to customize these generic items in order to match the organization's particular make-up:
  • Talent — Do our employees have the competencies and the commitment required to deliver our business strategy?

  • Speed — Can we make important things happen fast?

  • Shared mind-set and coherent brand identity — Do we have a culture or identity that reflects what we stand for and how we work? Is it shared by both customers and employees?

  • Accountability — Does high performance matter to the extent that we can ensure execution of our strategy?

  • Collaboration — How well do we collaborate to gain both efficiency and leverage?

  • Learning — Are we good at generating new ideas with impact and generalizing those ideas across boundaries (e.g., geographic and divisional boundaries)?

  • Leadership — Do we have a leadership brand (= what our leaders are, know, and do) that guides managers on which results to deliver and how to deliver them?

  • Customer connectivity — Do we form enduring relationships of trust with targeted customers?

  • Strategic unity — Do our employees share an intellectual, behavioral, and procedural agenda for our strategy?

  • Innovation — How well do we innovate in product, strategy, channel, service, and administration?

  • Efficiency — Do we reduce costs by closely managing processes, people, and projects?
After the capabilities audit is complete, the organization needs to draw up an action plan for addressing the highest-priority improvement opportunities. In many cases, training will be a part of this plan.



Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Business Acumen VII: Intangible Assets

As indicated in an earlier post on building business acumen, basic knowledge of a company's main financial statements — balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement — is key.

But it is just as important that employees being trained in business fundamentals learn about the shortcomings of standard financial statements when it comes to analyzing how a company creates value.

The biggest issue is the increasing significance of intangible assets, most of which do not show up on the balance sheet. Of major importance are the intangible assets embodied in people — knowledge, skill, creativity — because 60 to 70 percent of most firms' expenditures are labor-related.1

Standard accounting treats spending on human resources — wages, benefits, training, etc. — as current expense. However, in most companies, some or all of this spending is actually a form of investment. For example, strategic investment in training increases a company's ability to generate profits over the long run, and thus is as much an investment as buying a new computer.

The good news is that researchers who combine a strong background in modeling with practical knowledge of business are making notable progress in analytical techniques for spelling out the links between HR investments and financial performance. The best example I've come upon is a working paper (pdf) by Jeffrey A. Schmidt of Towers Perrin and Bala G. Dharan of Rice University. Schmidt and Dharan explain the issues involved in measuring returns to investment in employees and describe the approaches used to pin down the relationships between such investment and a company's competitiveness and business performance.

The goal of this research is to "provide business leaders with sufficient knowledge of what levers will capture the full potential of human capital in their organizations."

1 "Tying Your People Strategy to the Bottom Line," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 8, No. 8, August 2003.



Monday, October 09, 2006

The Employee Role in Career Planning

Yesterday, in the process of writing an abstract for a career planning case study, I pulled together a summary of the phases of exploration and decision-making an employee goes through in a thoughtful effort to decide on his or her next career move. The phases involve these steps:
  1. Do a self-assessment of skills, interests, preferences, and dislikes. Understand what creates a personal sense of self-esteem and well-being.

  2. Investigate the available possibilities, e.g., advancement in the current position by taking on expanded responsibilities, remaining an individual contributor but making a lateral move into a different department or function, or moving into a management or supervisory position. Jobs suitable for consideration will depend on both the individual’s preferences and the employer's needs.

    Scoping out the possibilities includes getting ideas and advice from one’s manager and others familiar with the specifics of jobs under consideration — their respective roles and responsibilities, working environments, knowledge and skill requirements, etc.

  3. Envision what the future would look like for each of the career moves under consideration. Decide which option best fits one’s aspirations and preferences.

  4. Sketch out action steps that will help close any gaps between current competencies and those needed for the targeted next position. Continue networking.
An employer concerned about retaining valuable talent will ensure that both managers and those reporting to them understand their roles in defining next steps in an employee's career, and pinning down specifics of how to qualify for desired advancement.


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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Evidence-Based Medicine

In an earlier post, I mentioned increasing attention to evidence-based medicine as an example of how astute decision-makers make careful use of data; they don't act on the basis of conventional wisdom or on pure instinct.

An example of how evidence-based medicine is developing in the real world is described in a recent article about Prometheus Payment, Inc.,1 a non-profit organization whose mission is to drive improvements in quality of care, coordination of care, and medical innovation by reforming the US healthcare payment system.

The article (actually, a press release from Prometheus) explains:
The Prometheus model breaks from existing health care payments systems in basing payments on evidence-based guidelines and whether patients receive the right amount and type of care. Designed to distribute clinical and insurance risk fairly, Prometheus uses Evidence-Based Case Rates (ECRs) to determine the total resources required to deliver clinically appropriate care. An ECR is a payment rate that establishes the total amount to be paid to all providers to care for a patient through an entire episode of care according to what the evidence says is the best protocol in clinical practice guidelines.

... The result is providers offering effective and efficient care, wihout burdening them with administrative hassles or insurance risks they can't conrol. Because the Prometheus reimbursement model also includes performance incentives, some providers can earn more than 100 percent of the ECR, depending on how well they deliver care.
The Prometheus model is currently in the testing stage, and I will be watching with great interest to see how it fares in its staged rollout. I anticipate useful lessons not only for the healthcare sector, but also for business enterprises generally.

1 PROMETHEUS stands for Provider payment Reform for Outcomes Margins Evidence Transparency Hassle-reduction Excellence Understandability and Sustainability.



Saturday, October 07, 2006

Tips for Your Next Negotiation

Some time ago I attended a panel in which several experienced magazine salespeople provided guidance to junior sellers concerning the art of negotiation. They offered a wealth of practical advice, and I'd like to pass along some highlights:
  • The negotiation process begins as soon as you are given the account, and it never actually stops. All through the year, the salesperson needs to be shaping the client's views, getting them to think the way the seller wants them to think, building value.

  • Doing homework helps establish credibility, helps get phone calls returned. E.g., in your research you may come upon relevant statements by the client's management that you can quote.

  • Find out about the personalities of those you'll be negotiating with. E.g., ask people you work with what each player on the other side is like.

  • Know as much as you can about what the competition is offering.

  • When you meet with the client, ask the right questions. You need to uncover goals, opportunities (e.g., difficulties the client is having with their product), and priorities. You also need to discover any misconceptions or other impediments to getting an open-minded hearing.

  • Back at the office, figure out what your currencies1 are and what is realistic, and then shoot high (but avoid sticker shock).

  • Formulate a crisp statement about how you and your company can deliver value. Address the client's goals and the concerns you've uncovered. Make sure you differentiate yourself.

  • Information is power. The person with the most information has the most leverage.
The panelists' parting piece of advice: Be gutsy. Don't be intimidated by the client. And don't let the other side take advanage of your desire to be liked; your goal is to be respected by the other side.

1 Currencies are elements of value available to you for exchange with the client. For example, a magazine's currencies include ad positioning and value-added items, such as access to useful information in the magazine's circulation database.



Friday, October 06, 2006

Systems Thinking

If you're inclined to bolster your ability to use systems thinking, a good source of information is Pegasus Communications' website, The Systems Thinker.

Among the tools at the site that I've found especially useful is the set of guidelines for mapping cause-and-effect relationships using causal loop diagrams. To give you a taste of what's involved, here's a quick summary:
  • You need to identify the interrelated variables in the system you're looking to manage better. For example, you might want to investigate how you can better control costs without detracting from the quality of your product. To get started, you need to identify all relevant variables affecting, and affected by, costs — prices of raw materials, inventory levels, gross margins, etc.

  • Try to give your variables positive names. "For example, the concept of 'Growth' increasing or decreasing is clearer than an increase or decrease in 'Contraction.'"

  • Minimize surprises by thinking carefully about the full range of possible impacts of a change under consideration. In other words, minimize unintended consequences by anticipating effects as fully as possible. Serious team discussion really pays off here.

  • Always make the goals of your actions explicit. For example, if you take action to decrease unit cost, indicate whether the driving goal is being able to set lower prices and gain market share, or to meet a competitive challenge, or something else. Making the goal explicit is important so that it can be taken into account in all decisions affecting the variables with which you are working.

  • Distinguish between perceived and actual effects. When planning, recognize that it can take a while for actual changes to be perceived.

  • Add detail gradually. Start by sketching out the cause-and-effect relationships "as seen from 30,000 feet," and then drill down to identify more specifically the ramifications (effects) of a change in a particular variable (cause).

  • Map both short-term and long-term effects, and take both into account in your planning.

  • Make clarity the acid test for the completeness of your diagram. If you find that lengthy commentary is needed to explain some cause-and-effect link, try to add detail to the diagram to make the links more self-evidently clear.
Another good, accessible resource on systems thinking is Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline — which places strong emphasis on continuous learning.



Thursday, October 05, 2006

Can I Trust You?

Some years ago I had a conversation about marriage that made a lasting impression. The woman I was speaking with told me, "It may sound odd, but the best marriages are the ones where the husband and wife are, in a certain sense, like brother and sister. They need to be so confident of each other that they can speak frankly — the way brothers and sisters do. They need to be able to say what they really think without worrying that the other person is going to feel personally attacked."

This view struck me as persuasive and I have kept it in mind ever since. I was reminded of the conversation this week when I read a short piece by James Surowiecki in the October 9 issue of The New Yorker.

Surowiecki reports on research by Cornell professors Tony Simons and Randall Peterson that looked at how top management teams at seventy companies handled decision-making. Effective teams were able to argue about various possible solutions to problems without creating hostile personal relationships.

How did the effective teams achieve this? By maintaining a high level of trust, i.e., by being "like brothers and sisters." Surowiecki explains:
... groups whose members trusted one another's competence and integrity were more likely to engage in task conflict without succumbing to relationship conflict. Paradoxically, the more people trust one another, the more willing they are to fight with each other.
From the perspective of training, the key is to make sure teams of decision-makers are aware of the negative effect lack of trust has on the quality of their decisions. Training can't make people trustworthy, but it can help them recognize the crucial importance of establishing a reputation for probity and reliable expertise.


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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - The Tempest

From The Tempest:

To the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure.



Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - Sonnet 50

Sonnet 50:

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel's end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say
'Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!'
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed, being made from thee:
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide;
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind;
My grief lies onward and my joy behind.



Monday, October 02, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - Othello

From Othello, Act III, Scene 3:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.



Sunday, October 01, 2006

Shakespeare Festival - Hamlet

From Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1:

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.