!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: March 2007

Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Survey Tool for Organizational Network Analysis

As outlined in an earlier post, most, if not all, of the data for an organizational network analysis come from a survey customized for the organization in question.

Bruce Hoppe of Connective Associates has made a user-friendly survey utility available for anyone to use. When you look at Hoppe's survey, you will see that it traces three types of interactions between people:
  • One person providing information to another that the latter needs to do his/her job.

  • One person providing another with technical advice to help the latter solve a work-related problem.

  • One person providing another with personal work-related advice to help the latter deal with a difficult situation at work.
For each type of interaction, the key data are between which pairs of people the interaction occurs, and how frequently.



Friday, March 30, 2007

An Organizational Network Map

In 1996 The Advisory Board Company published a report that included a section (pdf) on organizational network mapping. The latter provides a nice visual example of how a company's formal and informal organization can diverge.

First, the formal organization, with five work units, is shown below. The organizational network map captures how the individuals in these work units interact internally and exernally:

And now, here is the informal organization. There are three communities of practice, whose membership is determined by the types and frequency of communication between various pairs of employees:

You can review an outline of the steps for producing an organizational network in this earlier post.



Thursday, March 29, 2007

Do's for Study Abroad

Much of the advice offered students considering and preparing for study abroad understandably focuses on logistics and safety. As I commented in a previous post, it's also of central importance to ensure that time spent overseas is well-used.

Do practice the language. It almost goes without saying that arranging experiences that help build fluency in the host country's language should be a high priority (assuming the student is not in a country where his/her native language is spoken). The Russian American Cultural Heritage Center offers advice that applies to language study in any foreign country:
In class, in the dorm, and in other safe social situations do not be afraid of making mistakes while trying out your Russian tongue. Most Russians are just happy that you are trying and will help as much as possible. Try to make Russian friends at school, through your family, and during inter-program excursions. Part of being here is learning how Russians behave between themselves. The more you talk with native speakers, the more you will force yourself to learn. You will learn a lot just by listening to the way they speak, in addition to how they speak. Be open to meeting all the Russians you can.
Do be open to the culture. One of the major benefits of international study is developing "cultural fluency." McMaster University in Ontario offers good advice on coping with culture shock, including:
  • Stay focused. Keep in mind your goals and objectives.

  • Develop and/or improve your sense of humour. Laugh and smile.

  • Make friends. Talk to people from the host country and to other foreign students.

  • Avoid the temptation of flocking together with other [people from your own country] on a permanent basis.

  • Read local magazines, watch TV and seek local entertainment...

  • Participate in community activities.

  • Stay in contact with family and friends back home.

  • Work on the new language.

  • Ask for help.
Last but not least, do study. Some students are inclined to treat the academic side of their overseas program as more or less optional. Savvy students recognize that the key is to balance time spent on classes and assignments, and time spent on travel and socializing. The University of Pennsylvania's academic policies and performance guidelines are a paradigm of good practice.

The Forum on Education Abroad provides a comprehensive set of standards that an education abroad provider can use to do a self-assessment of the quality of their offering(s).


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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Promoting and Facilitating Study Abroad

In the MIT report I talked about in yesterday's post, the task force chartered to examine options for enhancing undergraduate education offered six recommendations relating to international study. In brief:
  1. Build on "existing programs at MIT that have proven especially effective in creating meaningful encounters between undergraduates and foreign countries. These efforts include assessing the optimal sustainable scale of these programs, the resources necessary to reach this scale, and feasible strategies for expanding the reach of these programs."

  2. "... ensure that, within five years, any MIT student who wishes to undertake meaningful study, work, or internships abroad may be able to do so without financial or academic penalty. In particular, students who undertake meaningful study abroad should be able to graduate in four years and will be assisted in financing foreign study, especially for summer experiences, where financial aid is generally unavailable."

  3. " ... encourage faculty members to explore formal arrangements with comparable universities in other countries, in order to promote undergraduate study and research exchanges."

  4. Ask all the academic departments to "provide formal guidance to all majors who may wish to pursue international study. Departments also should be encouraged to explore developing educational partnerships with universities in other countries and develop avenues for undergraduates to gain international experience during the IAP [interterm period] and the summer. ... ensure that information about each department’s international education opportunities is updated annually and widely disseminated to current and prospective students."

  5. Study "current and future demand for foreign language instruction at MIT, with the goal of devising a plan for meeting the demand that may exist."

  6. "... bolster the internationalizing missions of the Institute’s international theme houses and, where necessary, work to strengthen ties between these residences and academic units."
A strong theme of the section of the task force report dealing with international study is that the seriousness with which both academic departments and the students themselves plan students' programs causes many students to view study abroad as relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things. (The lack of a language requirement is a corollary of this view.)

What the task force strongly urges is, in essence, promoting existing opportunities; developing additional well-designed academic, work, and internship opportunities (also to be promoted); and ensuring good support, both from faculty and from administration responsible for infrastructure and logistics.


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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why study abroad?

One of the mistakes I made when I was in college was deciding to spend all four years on campus rather than going overseas for at least one semester.

It seems that MIT has traditionally had a lot of students like me — people who decide they can best fulfill their educational goals by staying put once they arrive at their alma mater.

Last year MIT published a task force report (pdf) on how to update and enhance the school's undergraduate program. This report, the result of two-and-a-half years of work, includes a long section on what to do about study abroad.

In the task force's view, the goals of MIT's foreign study programs should be providing students with:
  1. a better awareness of problems on a global scale, including but not limited to problems that relate to their individual field of study

  2. the opportunity to understand professional problems within their cultural context, illustrating that other cultures may attach different priorities to these problems and their solutions

  3. explicit exposure to different educational and research systems, gaining the understanding that those systems can provide equally serious approaches to knowledge

  4. the opportunity to take a break from MIT, allowing students to step back from their day-today education and understand its deeper value
Obviously, these goals will be met only if students are spending significant time doing serious academic and practical work, and not just devoting themselves to extracurricular activities and pastimes. How to ensure that time spent overseas is well-used is a subject I'll come back to.


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Monday, March 26, 2007

Job Descriptions That Do Their Job

Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal had an encouraging article by Erin White about a new tack some companies are taking in their job ads. The idea is to use normal English to paint a picture of what a job actually entails.

Companies are moving in this direction because they want to reduce turnover due to unpleasant surprises new-hires often experience when they are confronted by the day-to-day reality of their job responsibilities. As White explains, typical recruitment ads
didn't help applicants understand the work they would do. Instead they featured jargon-laden task lists, and emphasized education and experience requirements.
There was also a problem with recruiters glamorizing jobs, instead of setting reasonable expectations for the challenges employees are expected to tackle and the culture within which they will be working.

All of this caught my eye because I have long been using job ads as a way of getting a feel for what a potential client does and what sorts of knowledge and skills their employees need to master. I've also worked with clients on performance management systems, so I'm well aware of the fundamental importance of clearly defining each employee's actual responsibilities.

Which brings us to job descriptions. What should they include and how should they be formatted? The National Federation of Independent Business provides a good set of guidelines, compliments of Jason Kovac of WorldatWork. There are five items on Kovac's list:
  • Make it clear, concise and accurate — Note that the summary introducing the job description should be about four sentences long, providing an "overview that describes the purpose of the job and how it fits into the organization..."

  • Prioritize — Start the list of responsibilities with those that are most important and that absorb the bulk of the employee's time.

  • Allow for flexibility — "With lower-level positions, you want to be as specific as possible when describing a position, but as you assign higher-level roles in your company, it's best to stay as general as possible" in order to accommodate exercise of independent judgment by your more senior employees.

  • Keep up-to-date — Revisit your job descriptions at least biannually. For particularly dynamic jobs, six-month review is advised. When doing your updating, invite employee input concerning actual tasks and time requirements, and take long-term company goals and new technology into account.

  • Look ahead — For instance, if you would like an employee to develop the ability to handle certain tasks down the road, you can include those tasks in the job description at the bottom of the list of responsibilities. Then move them up the list as the employee's skills expand.
CCH Inc. provides a template and three sample job descriptions here (rtf).


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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Road Map for Process Improvement

Reliable advice on how to get a demanding job done is golden. Such advice is what Michael Hammer provides in his article, "The Process Audit," published in the April 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The job in question is planning, implementing and monitoring improvement in business processes, such as order fulfillment or insurance underwriting. Hammer's advice is to assess two sets of characteristics:
  • Process enablers — characteristics of a process that enable sustained high performance.

  • Enterprise capabilities — characteristics of the enterprise that allow process improvements to take root.
The aim is to identify enablers and capabilities that are weak, and then to determine the order in which to address these weak points in order to make steady progress toward transformation that substantially improves cost control, quality, speed, profitability and other key business results.

Hammer derived his five process enablers and four enterprise capabilities from research conducted with a number of companies over a five-year period. He calls the framework in which the enablers and capabilities are assessed the Process and Enterprise Maturity Model (PEMM).

Process enablers are characteristics essential for any process to perform well:
  • Design — subdivided into purpose, context (customer needs, related processes), and documentation. The ideal is a fully comprehensive specification of how the process is to be executed (who does what, what steps are carried out in what order, etc.).

  • Performers — subdivided into knowledge, skills, and behavior of those who execute the process. This is where training needs make their most prominent appearance.

  • Owner — subdivided into identity, activities, and authority of a senior executive who has responsibility for the process and its results. A senior executive is necessary in order to have effective management of the cross-functional aspects of the process. Note that process owners may need training in order to handle their responsibilities well.

  • Infrastructure — subdivided into information systems and human resource systems (hiring, development, rewards and recognition) supporting the process.

  • Metrics — subdivided into the definition and the uses of the measures the enterprise monitors in order to track the process's performance.
Enterprise capabilities are characteristics that equip an enterprise to develop and sustain high-performance processes:
  • Leadership — assessed in terms of awareness, alignment, behavior, and style of senior management as they oversee enterprise processes.

  • Culture — with emphasis on the teamwork, customer focus, responsibility, and attitude toward change that are necessary for effective cross-functional work.

  • Expertise — assessed by looking both at the skills of the people guiding process improvements, and at the soundness of the methodology they use.

  • Governance — covers the mechanisms in place for managing complex projects and change initiatives. Assessment focuses on the sophistication of the process model, accountability for enterprise performance, and integration amongst processes.
Hammer defines four levels of maturity for each of the enablers and capabilities. For example, at the lowest level (not counting near or complete absence, which is level zero):
  • the enablers are present only to a weak degree. The process in question is reliable and predictable, but falls well short of optimal.

  • the capabilities are limited. For example, "There is a widespread belief that customer focus is important, but there is limited appreciation of what that means."
By contrast, at the highest level:
  • the process enablers support high performace that encompasses not only the enterprise itself, but also its customers and suppliers.

  • the capabilities are similarly present in full flower, not only within the enterprise, but also in the enterprise's interactions with customers and suppliers.
Hammer's article is a must-read for anyone concerned with optimizing enterprise results. In particular, training and development specialists can use Hammer's model as a basis for their contributions to senior-level discussions of how to design and execute ambitious change initiatives.


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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Laughter is the Best Medicine VII

As you can tell from this earlier post, I'm on the side of those who believe there is such a thing as a stupid question. At the same time, I certainly advocate giving someone who raises a dubious question the benefit of the doubt.

I was reminded of all this as I was looking at Chris Whitten's WikiAnswers website. He includes a page that lists "Amusing Questions." All of the questions do invite laughter, but a lot of them can also be read as sincere. For instance, when somebody asks "What kind of skills do you need to become an opera singer?" my instinct, which I'm sure is typical for teachers and trainers, is to say, "Excellent question. Let's talk about that."

Still, as I read down the list, I couldn't help smiling at many of the items. Some of my favorites:

How long does it take to get to the moon from Canada?

What illnesses will someone face in the future if they have recently stopped eating cement?

Can you purchase a life insurance policy on your ex-husband who is ill?

Would it be weird to name your son Sparkplug?

How can you get your Ford Escort to start if your dad has disabled it?

Was the first steam engine invented?

Are there any websites that list celebrities who are willing to date people who are not celebrities?

What are all the events that happened in Europe during World War 2?

How do you get addicted to rocks?

Can the mortgage company evict you and force you to sleep under the interstate bridge?

Does smoking a cockroach give a high?

What do you do if your husband left you and now lives with another woman and is engaged to her but you are pregnant and he wants you to wait for him?

Were there any important people places or events having to do with World War 2 that begin with the letter X?

If your 1998 Regency just started to blow cold and overheat could it be because you put some chicken oil in the coolant tank?


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Friday, March 23, 2007


Although business listings at LibraryThing.com are thin so far (relative to non-business topics), this social networking site is a promising source of ideas for books to investigate as you monitor what published material is available in the training and development field.

All you need to do to gain access to the information compiled by LibraryThing — from other users and from sources like the Library of Congress and Amazon — is to create a username and password for yourself. If you wish, you can then enter for free up to 200 books in your personal collection in the cataloguing part of the site. Or you can search for books of interest in the lists others have created of their own libraries.

I've found that the most fruitful technique is to search by tags, such as "management," "learning organization," and "negotiation."


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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Essentials of Negotiating Value

One of the first things any experienced business negotiator tells someone relatively new to the game is that a negotiation typically begins well before the two sides sit down to work out a deal. And, at least in the case of a continuing business relationship, the post-negotiation period carries forward an ongoing, cyclical process.

The main points to keep in mind during each of the three phases of the negotiation cycle are listed below. By taking care during each phase, you maximize your odds of realizing the full value — as perceived by the other side — of what you are offering.

Prior to sitting down to hash out the deal
  • Build relationships with key contacts, working to establish credibility and trust.

  • Gather information about the interests of the industry, the other company, and, if relevant, the ad agency. Find out the other company's decision criteria and decision process.

  • Work on influencing the decision criteria.

  • Prepare for the deal-making discussion: Review interests, identify all your currencies ("bargaining chips"), develop your going-in proposal and rationale, anticipate objections, identify alternatives and your walk-away position, test your aspiration level.

  • Pull together a competitive analysis, i.e., the specifics of your and your competition's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Maintain a positive attitude.

  • Make sure the people representing your side are a good fit both to the people on the other side and to the situation.
During the give-and-take discussion
  • Create a positive climate. Align expectations and promote commitment to a win-win outcome.

  • Confirm the other side's interests, probing as necessary.

  • Propose a solution. Test the solution.

  • Address objections and demands in terms of the client's interests (as opposed to positions).

  • Propose alternatives and trade-offs.

  • Make concessions thoughtfully, with an expectation of reciprocity.

  • Make a firm offer, striving for a win-win result.

  • Ask for commitment by pinning down next steps, along with other specifics of the decision process going forward.
After you've struck a deal
  • Say thank-you, review the agreement, and reinforce the value of having made the effort to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.

  • Celebrate the successful outcome with the client.

  • Follow-up, including measuring the actual results of the deal.

  • Seek feedback. Respond to input concerning appropriate improvements and ways of enhancing the deal.

  • Look for additional opportunities to collaborate with the client on profitable business.

  • Obtain references from the client for use in your marketing.
The classic book on the practical details of effective negotiation is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. A 2005 follow-on is Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro.



Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Your Personal Network of Business Associates

As a follow-up to my earlier post on organizational network analysis, I'd like to call attention to Rob Cross's enumeration of the dimensions you should consider in cultivating your own personal network of associates.

Prof. Cross recommends thinking in terms of:
  • Position in the hierarchy — You need contacts at all levels.

  • Business unit and departmental position — Especially as you rise in your organization, you benefit from contacts across business units and departments.

  • Physical proximity — Thank goodness for modern communications. There is no reason nowadays to restrict regular contact to people in close physical proximity.

  • Structured interactions — Remember that informal contacts (as opposed to formal meetings) can be enormously valuable for learning, strategizing, and getting tasks accomplished expeditiously.

  • Time invested in maintaining relationships — Match the time you invest to the importance of each relationship.

  • Length of acquaintanceship — You need a range from long-time confidantes, to recent additions who bring you fresh ideas and feedback.
In general, you should consciously aim to avoid bias in your choice of the people with whom you maintain close relationships (e.g., mostly interacting with those in your business unit or with people you've known for many years). And it goes without saying that you need to reach out to people with whom you have common interests, as opposed to waiting for people to approach you.



Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Vernal Equinox

The spring equinox occurs today at 12:58 p.m. EST. I'll be out walking Pumpkin to mark the moment. The sun will be directly overhead and we will cast no shadows as we tromp along through the slush left from last Friday night's snowstorm.

Sunwheel at UMass

Over in Amherst, at the University of Massachusetts campus, they have
something more elaborate
planned. To greet the day, a group will gather at sunup at the sunwheel that friends of the firmament have built near Alumni Stadium. There will be another gathering at sunset. In between, anyone wanting to review celestial basics can join Judith Young of the UMass astronomy department for "a presentation explaining the equinoxes and solstices, the cause of the seasons, the Sun's path in the sky, the phases of the Moon and the Moon's 18.6-year cycle, and the story of building the Sunwheel."

Warm clothing is advised since the high for the day is expected to be around 38°F, with the wind making it feel like 27°F.



Monday, March 19, 2007

Help with Organizational Network Analysis

Awareness of how work really gets done at your organization is a prerequisite for optimizing performance. For many years, Rob Cross, professor of management at the University of Virginia, has been producing practical guidance on network analysis, a powerful technique for identifying who talks and works with whom. His expertise is captured in the book he and Andrew Parker published in 2004, The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations.

You can also learn a great deal about the ins and outs of network analysis by visiting the website of the Network Roundtable, of which Cross is the research director. For example, you can work through a set of six tutorials (registration required) covering the five steps in the network analysis process:
  • Pick an appropriate group and design a survey

  • Create and administer the survey (UVA software is available)

  • Visually analyze network results

  • Quantitatively analyze network results

  • Identify recommendations and assess progress
For brief descriptions of the steps (with slightly different boundaries between them), you can go to Rob Cross's own website.



Sunday, March 18, 2007

Business Acumen XIII: Media Coverage of Africa

You can get an idea of the quality of information accessible through the international citizen media site Global Voices by having a look at this post by the US-based blogger Benin "Mwangi". He provides an annotated list of business media organizations focused on Africa. Just by clicking a few of the fifteen links in the post, you can see first-hand the depth of information available coincerning African business doings, opportunities, and challenges.

It's notable that Global Voices is cited in The State of the News Media 2007, published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as one of just four "high achievers" — defined as online news sites that excel in more than two of the five content areas the evaluators used in their assessment of quality:
  • user customization

  • user participation

  • use of multimedia

  • site depth

  • editorial branding
For anyone wanting an efficient way of surveying events around the world, Global Voices, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, is a must-monitor site.


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Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day




Friday, March 16, 2007

Davenport and Prusak on Knowledge Management

In their 2000 book, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know, Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak start their concluding chapter with some commonsense guidelines that provide a good starting point for any company wary of getting immersed in a complex, unproductive knowledge management project.

Davenport and Prusak recommend:
  • Start with high-value knowledge. For example, improving your base of knowledge about your major-account customers may offer particularly large rewards in terms of revenue and profit growth.

  • Start with a focused pilot project and let demand drive additional initiatives. For example, if your company is experiencing difficulty in retaining valued customers, you might decide to focus on this issue. It likely has a knowledge component, which you need to identify and manage.

  • Work along multiple fronts simultaneously — technology, organization, and culture.

  • Don't put off what gives you the most trouble until it's too late.

  • Get help throughout the organization as quickly as possible. "Knowledge management is a highly political undertaking."
Depending on your company's particular situation, the knowledge you manage will be in such areas as best practices, lessons learned, product development knowledge, customer knowledge, knowledge about human resource management, and knowledge about business methods.



Thursday, March 15, 2007

Planning Employees' Development à la Ken Bain

In two earlier posts, I cited Ken Bain's main findings concerning how the best college teachers handle their job. Having gone back through Bain's book, I realized it would also be useful to highlight Bain's specific findings concerning how outstanding teachers prepare for a course.

Good teachers design their courses with the aim of fostering learning. To business trainers, fostering learning may seem an obvious goal, but the fact is that many college teachers define their primary mission as "covering the material" of whatever portion of their discipline a particular course addresses (which may be part of the reason for concern that college students are often underserved, as discussed in these posts).

Bain lists "a baker's dozen of specific planning questions we heard most often" from the best teachers. In the summary below, I've taken the items in his list that are most relevant to employee development and adapted their wording to the business context.

Accordingly, Bain-inspired recommendations for fostering employee development include asking these questions:
  1. What skills, abilities, or qualities will we help employees develop, and how will we encourage their interest in these skills, abilities, and qualities?

  2. What mental models are employees likely to bring with them that we want them to challenge? How can we help them construct that intellectual challenge? (For more, see this earlier post.)

  3. What information will employees need to understand in order to progress in their skill-building and to challenge pre-existing assumptions? How can they best obtain that information?

  4. How will we help employees when they have difficulty with specific learning tasks?

  5. How will we confront employees with issues that require creative thinking, and encourage them to grapple (collaboratively, as appropriate) with the issues?

  6. How will we find out what they know already and what they expect from development activities? How will we reconcile any differences between our expectations and theirs?

  7. How will we help employees learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning and thinking, and to assess information more effectively, analytically, and actively?

  8. How will we find out how employees are learning, and how will we provide feedback?

  9. How will we communicate with employees in a way that keeps them thinking?

  10. How will we spell out the standards we will be using in assessing employees' work? Why do we use those standards? How will we help employees learn to assess their own work using those standards?

  11. How will employees and we best understand the nature, progress, and quality of their learning?

  12. How will we create a natural critical learning environment, i.e., an environment in which we embed the skills and information we wish to teach in tasks that employees will find engaging — authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge employees to rethink their assumptions, and incite them to examine their mental models of reality? How will we create a safe environment in which employees can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again?
In any organization heavily dependent on employees' continuous learning, as more and more organizations are, this set of questions can guide a modern and strategic approach to facilitating such learning.


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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lonnie Pacelli's Tips on Managing Up

Lonnie Pacelli, president of Leading on the Edge International, has put together a good list of thirteen do's and don'ts for managing up. You can read his full list, complete with folksy explanations, here, but I'd like to call attention to these items:
  • First, and foremost, understand your boss. For instance, communicate in the way your boss prefers. When is face-to-face communication best? When does he/she prefer e-mail? How about phone conversations? Adapt your style to the boss's style. For example, avoid doing things that are your boss's pet peeves.

  • As far as possible, handle problem-solving yourself, rather than dumping problems on your boss. A classic article on this point is "Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey?", by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass (Harvard Business Review, 1974). Enlist your boss's help when his/her experience and/or influence is needed for solving a problem.

  • Be specific about what you need in the way of resources, and explain why, detailing benefits relative to costs.

  • Embrace integrity. Since trust is enormously important and valuable, and hard to regain once lost, respond honestly to questions from your boss. (Tact is a plus.) Show your boss that you can be counted on to intelligently follow company policies and procedures.

  • Keep your commitments. If something you've agreed to is looking undoable in the agreed time frame, talk with your boss about priorities and what sort of rescheduling may be feasible.

  • Present options. Pacelli: "Some of the best decision making meetings I've been in with my bosses have been where we had meaningful dialogue around two or three viable options to resolving a tough problem. My job in the process was to frame up the options, provide facts to support each option, and provide a recommendation. Sometimes the recommendation was taken, sometimes not; the most important thing was that a good decision was made because there was good informed discussion."

  • Make your boss look good. This is part of the relationship of trust that you need to maintain.

  • Avoid surprises. It's one thing to take responsibility for solving problems yourself. It's another thing to see a problem emerging and neglect to give your boss a heads-up so he or she can decide on any intervention while the scope of the problem is relatively contained.

  • Admit mistakes. A reasonable boss knows that mistakes happen, especially when an employee is doing something new, working under unusual time pressure, or dealing with ambiguous circumstances. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, discuss with your boss the best way to correct the situation, and think carefully about the lessons you can draw from the experience.
I recognize that the above tips assume that you and your boss have a basically healthy relationship. If such is not the case, then mutual efforts to build a productive working relationship are in order, a topic I'll save for another day.



Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nurturing Creativity

A recent Advertising Age newsletter arrived in my inbox with a link to an article about the "Creativity 50" list published annually by Creativity magazine. The article included brief quotes from a half dozen of the honorees.

One of these quotes particularly caught my eye. It comes from David Roman, president-worldwide marketing communication of Hewlett-Packard's personal systems group. In talking about how to build a creative culture, Roman says:
It's about providing a learning culture, which includes a tolerance for mistakes. If you're going to push the limits, not everything is going to be perfect. You also have to have experienced talent who understand what doesn't work and who will change it quickly — and who can immediately recognize and accelerate what does work.
The reason this comment caught my attention is that it reminded me of a situation I found myself in some years ago. A student in one of my economics classes needed help with a paper. I steered her away from an approach she was considering that I was confident would not be fruitful, but, at the same time, I worried that maybe I was being too directive. The student was an especially talented person — she has since gone on to win a major national prize for her writing — and I was concerned that I might be stifling her thinking.

In the years since, I've continued to be conscious of the need to beware of imposing my own perspective on a student; I try to walk the fine line between helping students use their time productively and allowing them to follow a path to learning that fits their own interests and aspirations. It's encouraging to come upon occasional reinforcement of the view that restraining some impulses a student has is helpful, as opposed to overbearing.


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Monday, March 12, 2007

Simulations and Incidental Learning

I've been looking into research on the learning impacts of computer-based simulations and so-called serious games, and in the process I keep coming upon references to a hyperbook published by Roger Schank and Chip Cleary in 1995.

The book is well-organized and easy to browse. What I'll highlight here is one of the main topics, namely the five "teaching architectures" around which Schank and Cleary organize their thinking.

The first four "deal with the difficult problems of getting students involved in their own learning and letting them learn through performing tasks that they care about." The last of the five accommodates situations in which students are pursuing their own interests.

Schank and Cleary's five teaching architectures are:
  • Simulation-based learning by doing — Note that creating simulations involving interpersonal interactions requires incorporating sophisticated models of human institutions and behavior.

  • Incidental learning — People often pick up knowledge "in passing," without the specific goal of learning it. In the Schank-Cleary schema, incidental learning "is based on the creation of tasks whose end results are inherently interesting, and which can be used to impart dull information." My own view: The term applies to any learning that is a natural by-product of addressing learning objectives in a way that reflects the multiple dimensions of the real world in which the learning will be applied.

  • Learning by reflection — "Sometimes a student doesn't need to be told something, but rather needs to know how to ask about it. It could be that the student has a vague plan he wishes to mull over. Or perhaps the student has a problem and needs to figure out a way to approach it. Or maybe the student has finished a project and wishes to think back on how he could have done it better. In such cases, a teacher's job is to open the student's eyes to new ways of thinking about his situation, to help the student articulate the situation and generate ways of moving forward."

  • Case-based teaching — Two ideas come into play here: "experts are repositories of cases, and good teachers are good storytellers." Schank and Cleary recommend use of cases in situations in which people in learning-by-doing mode discover that they lack some necessary information. At such a juncture, the teacher steps in with a relevant case example that exposes the learners to the needed information in a memorable context.

  • Learning by exploring — Students pursue topics they have chosen themselves. To enable efficient, accurate learning, the students are provided with easily accessible Q&A interactions with experts. For the sake of breadth and depth, those interactions are in large measure enabled through technology, e.g., computer-based access to substantial databases of information. It is important that multiple viewpoints be represented.
In the spirit of my recent post on helping people strengthen their command of the 3Rs while learning technical skills, I am particularly intent on continuing to explore best thinking on how to achieve both intentional and incidental learning in business simulations.


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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The eKitchen at Lewisham College

It's hard to think of a more productive use of electronic technology in training than a set-up that spares students from having to huddle around their teacher and crane to see what the teacher is demonstrating.

At Lewisham College in London, as reported at silicon.com, culinary students are benefiting from technology that makes following the steps in preparing a dish much easier than in a traditional training kitchen:
Remote control cameras, flat screen monitors and videoconferencing — not what you'd expect to find in a teaching kitchen. But in Lewisham College's interactive kitchen theatre — dubbed the 'eKitchen' — classes are filmed on motorised cameras which are controlled by students.

As the lesson unfolds they can zoom in on particular parts of the dish being prepared by the teacher, with the images displayed on flat-screen monitors on each student's desk.

The video is also recorded so it can be distributed as a DVD to students or broadcast over the web. The content can also be loaded into the college's virtual learning environment so students can access the material from home or the learning centres.

... a similar set up is offered for beauty and construction students.
The impact on retention and successful completion of the culinary training is evident in the increased numbers of students passing what in England is called the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), and doing so at all five levels of assessment.


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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Fostering Reflection

Whenever an employee is having trouble recognizing needed attitude and behavior changes, or an employee knows what needs to be done but can't seem to bridge the knowing-doing gap, a manager can help by coaching the person in reflecting on the performance issues involved.

David Dotlich and Peter Cairo, in Action Coaching: How to Leverage Individual Performance for Company Success suggest these questions (edited a bit):
  • Do you think you've changed in any way since you came onboard?

  • What is most troubling about the feedback you've gotten? Why?

  • In retrospect, what do you realize you'd like to have done differently? What would you change?

  • Why do you think the organization wants you to develop in the direction we've been discussing?

  • Before we finalize the action plan we're working on, let's consider one more time: Are there other doors to open that we've missed? alternatives to the actions we've penciled in?

  • What aspects of the action plan get you most excited about your career and your future here?

  • What scares you the most about the ways you're being asked to change?

  • What issues are we leaving to deal with later?

  • If we're sitting here three months from now [or some other suitable amount of time], what might we expect to have happened?
The key point: The entire coaching discussion is premised on recognizing that what matters is taking action — specifically, action that moves the employee toward agreed developmental goals while also furthering achievement of the organization's goals.



Friday, March 09, 2007

"I am the brand"

The transfer of the brand concept from physical goods like toothpaste and automobiles, to services like dentistry and auto repair, requires careful thought not only about what the brand promise is, but also about what it looks like when embodied in the actions of employees. I'm constantly watching for concrete examples — good and not so good — of how companies selling services pursue their branding mission.

I recently came upon a positive example — the Absa Group, a large financial services firm based in South Africa.

Back in 1998, after several episodes of acquisition and consolidation, the organization that went into business in 1991 as Amalgamated Banks of South Africa began operating under the single name, Absa. As reported at brandchannel.com,
Initial research indicated that over 90% of customers who belonged to the banks that were to fall under the Absa banner would remain with the group. Capitalizing on this good fortune, the brand managers at Absa focused on providing personalized client service, and stressed to their employees that this service was to extend to every level of the bank.

In this vein, Angela Bruwer, General Marketing Manager of Absa, points out that "A bank has no tangible product it sells except for client service. Our goal was to provide great service and promote the Absa brand through our people — how they spoke to clients, how they interacted with each other, even how they dressed."
All employees attended training where they learned specific steps to take in various situations to ensure that the Absa brand promise was delivered in a meaningful and consistent fashion to customers. The aim of the program was foster ability and willingness in each employee to live up to the proposition, "I am the brand."

The Absa efforts are paying off, judging from the fact that Absa was voted the #1 banking brand in South Africa in the 2006 Markinor survey. (In the early '90s when the organization was just getting going, it had virtually no top-of-mind recognition, according to brandchannel.com.)


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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Inkling Prediction Markets

The Chicago Tribune published an article in February about inkling, a company Adam Siegel and Nathan Kontny launched in late 2005 to enable interested parties to participate in public prediction markets and to run secure, private markets.

By registering for a free inkling account, you get access to the inkling interface for setting up your own prediction market. This is an easy way to get hands-on experience with the concepts and process involved.

And then, because the inkling application is coded as a widget, it is easy to add a prediction market you've created to your blog or website if you decide that that's something you'd like to do.



Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Chesterfield University

In an unusual move for a local government, Chesterfield County VA decided about five years ago to adopt the corporate university model for its employee training. Since then, Chesterfield University has developed into a central element in the county's strategy for delivering services effectively and efficiently to residents.

Chesterfield County is shown in yellow, to the SW of Richmond

Chesterfield University's curriculum is organized to build eight competencies that internal HR specialists identified as core to meeting the county government's objectives:
  • communication

  • continuous learning

  • leadership

  • planning and organizing

  • interpersonal skills

  • flexibility

  • reasoning

  • customer-focused service
Focus groups of employees from all levels of the county government wrote behavioral definitions for the competencies, with some supplementary input gathered by HR. The definitions cover four levels of employee:
  • frontline

  • supervisor

  • manager

  • executive
Training is delivered in instructor-led sessions, via self-paced print materials, on CD-ROM, and through intranet- and Web-based courses (the latter from SkillSoft).

Among the benefits the county believes it has realized from Chesterfield University are:
  • employee access to an umbrella learning resource

  • tight fit of the training curriculum to county strategic goals and core competencies

  • partnerships with nearby schools and outside training vendors

  • less duplication of training efforts

  • direct involvement of knowledgeable county personnel in creating and delivering training
Chesterfield County's emphasis on organizational learning is something that they clearly believe is delivering results for them. However, the FY06-FY08 plan for Chesterfield University indicates that measurement of training effectiveness (aside from course evaluations by participants) is only now getting close attention. Interested observers will have to wait to see what this planned measurement effort produces.

In the meantime, a 2004 citizen survey shows general improvement in satisfaction scores between 2001, just prior to creation of Chesterfield University, and 2004, when Chesterfield University had been in operation for about two years. For example, as shown in the chart below, the percent responding Very Satisfied or Satisfied to the question
Taking into consideration the services provided by Chesterfield Couny, how satisfied would you say you are with the value of services provided relative to taxes paid?
rose from 50.0% in 2001 to 83.8% in 2004.

Click on image to enlarge


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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Deborah Tannen on How to Apologize

Among other things, yesterday's Congressional hearings on outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center raised the issue of how to apologize. In an article in today's Washington Post, Dana Millbank describes the contrasting approaches taken by Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the recently fired chief at Walter Reed, and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who headed Walter Reed between 2002 and 2004, when he became Army surgeon general.

Anyone reading the Millbank article can extract important do's and don'ts for apologizing, but to assist in boiling the lessons down to the basics, the Post provides a sidebar summarizing guidelines recommended by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University who is noted for her expertise in interpersonal communications.

The Tannen guidelines are a bit drier than the Schlenker-Darby protocol outlined in my earlier post on this subject, but she makes the same key point, namely that a genuine apology both acknowledges fault and expresses sincere concern for the other person.

Tannen specifies four essential parts to an apology. You must:
  • admit fault

  • say you understand the effect your actions had on the other person

  • show that you are truly sorry

  • promise to fix the problem you caused and never to do it again
Aside from situations in which there is a legitimate legal or political concern associated with the first item, putting this approach to apologizing into practice is a habit any sincere person will exercise.


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Monday, March 05, 2007

Fundamental Tensions

A few months ago, I was interviewing several people at a renewable energy company to get the background information I needed to write a case study for their upcoming teamwork training. Each interviewee provided an important part of the picture, while also corroborating what I was hearing from colleagues, or offering an alternate point of view.

One senior manager provided an especially important insight. He talked about several "fundamental tensions" those making decisions at the company had to resolve.

One was the tension between pressing for increased output from their factory in order to increase current revenue vs. devoting time to process improvement in order to strengthen the company's ability to generate revenue in the future. Another was an unfortunate tension between some old-timers, who had been with the company since its early years when it was more research-oriented, and some newer employees, who had been hired, among other things, for their commitment to getting competitive products rapidly into the market.

I couldn't help but be reminded of this company's situation when I read an interview headlined "Unnecessary Tension" published in January in the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal's Carol Hymowitz spoke with Ken Favaro, co-chairman of Marakon Associates and co-author with Dominic Dodd, a senior associate at Marakon, of The Three Tensions: Winning the Struggle to Perform Without Compromise.

Only one of Favaro and Dodd's tensions tightly matches what was emphasized in my conversations at the renewable energy company, but the basic advice Favaro and Dodd offer still applies. That basic advice is to stay out of traps that ignore the interdependencies between apparently conflicting goals.

The three tensions — and associated traps — Favaro and Dodd discuss are:
  • Profitability vs. growth — "Top-line growth gives you the ability to achieve scale, reputation and credibility in the marketplace, which, in turn, draws in talent. All of this is necessary to generate healthy margins and, of course, healthy margins are necessary to generate the resources you need to keep the top line growing. At any point in time, top-line growth and bottom-line margins conflict with one another, but over time they are highly dependent on one another."

    "A key trap is to grow revenue without growing customer benefit. If customers are getting a lot of benefit from choosing your product or service, they're willing to pay for that — and then you don't have to cut prices and sacrifice margins."

  • Short term vs. long term improvement — "Should you cut investments today in order to boost current earnings or increase investment in order to position the company for future earnings? Both are necessary and dependent on one another. Current earnings provide the ability to invest in future earnings. And you need future earnings in order to get the license to invest."

    "The trap here is tying your level of investment to whether or not you've achieved an annual earnings target. That causes uneven investment, especially in cyclical businesses. ... What should drive investments the most are prospects for future returns."

  • Improving the parts of a company vs. the whole — "A company to some extent is only as good as its individual parts. But the individual parts can be good or bad depending on what they are gaining from being part of the whole."

    "A common trap here is thinking that autonomy means you can't ever interfere or promote sharing of ideas and practices across units. You end up institutionalizing silos.

    "On the other hand, if you centralize everything, you constrain business units to the point where they can no longer respond to their customers and competitors in an optimal way. ...

    "The solution is for a CEO or a head of a business unit to recognize that he or she is both a coach and a conductor. Coaches know the strengths and weaknesses of their individual players and how to improve on these. Conductors get performance out of a group. And what enables a CEO to be both coach and conductor is the capacity to create shared values, common practices and a shared sense of identity."
Indeed, the renewable energy company was undertaking teamwork training not only to impart skills in such areas as dealing with different personal styles and running effective meetings, but also to reinforce management's day-to-day efforts to "create shared values, common practices and a shared sense of identity."


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Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Platform for Developing Custom Simulations

In two earlier posts, I looked at use of simulations in military training. I've now become aware of a Maryland company's effort to interest civilian businesses in using simulation tools that are based on technology the company originally created for military decision-making and training projects.

The PC-based mōsbē Lite Simulation Development Platform, created by BreakAway Ltd includes a simulation engine, authoring tools, and a variety of modifiable "assets" that enable users to create their own simulated worlds, environments and scenarios. Judging from the examples provided at their website, most of the currently available ready-made assets are military in nature (eg., armored transport vehicles); I will be checking to see how rapidly BreakAway builds a reasonably comprehensive portfolio of assets more suited to civilian scenarios.

The mōsbē platform is sold on a license basis, with licenses ranging from simply allowing a user to participate in a simulation, to equipping a developer with the full array of tools for creating simulations.



Saturday, March 03, 2007

Help with Computer Security

Columbia University's Information Technology department has put together a well-organized, clearly written compilation of advice on how to maintain computer security. All areas are covered, including:
  • Keeping your operating system up-to-date

  • Use of a firewall

  • Anti-virus software

  • Avoiding spyware

  • Passwords

  • Physical security for hardware

  • Risks of using file-sharing software

  • Avoiding phishing scams

  • Backing up
The Columbia site can serve as a model for any organization's user documentation of security policies and procedures. Educating users on maintaining computer security is an ongoing necessity; handling this task in a user-friendly way is essential for maximizing compliance.

(I recognize that a prudent organization automates as much of its security regime as practical, rather than depending simply on user compliance. As a representative case study, you can read a brief article published by Network Computing describing what Dayton University is doing to protect its campus network.)


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Friday, March 02, 2007

Building Technical Skills and Fluency in the 3Rs Simultaneously

As reported in the February issue of Marine News, the El Camino College Workplace Learning Resource Center (WpLRC) has recognized the value of combining training in technical skills with as-needed assistance to learners in strengthening their reading, writing and math skills:
Because so many [sea-going] trainees struggled with the reading and math skills necessary to pass the certification requirements, this past year the WpLRC began integrating basic skills instruction into their STCW [Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping] training. As an example, trainees now get instruction in performing conversions in measurement from English to Metric and for temperature conversions from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Reading and writing skills are integrated into instruction for completing loading plans and for completing Declaration of Inspection (DOI) forms.
In general, I would argue — as I did in this earlier post — that every training program that can incorporate as-needed assistance with the 3Rs should do so.

There is a perfecly sound presumption that training should be tightly focused on specific learning objectives. My own view is that well-designed training can maintain focus on agreed job skill needs while simultaneously helping individuals address reading, writing and math gaps. This is especially true in the classroom setting, where the facilitator can provide individualized help with exercises.

The key is to integrate remedial training in a natural, low-key way. It is also important to handle this element of a training session in a manner that builds on skills specific individuals bring to the class (as opposed to embarrassing participants by highlighting gaps in their command of the 3Rs).


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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Phil Rosenzweig's Cautions Concerning Business Research

Whenever I read some business author's account of research he or she has conducted, I do my best to determine whether we're in the realm of actual knowledge creation or, much less helpfully, in the realm of anecdote.

Phil Rosenzweig, a professor of strategy and international management at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, has just published The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, in which he addresses this issue.

After, among other things, explaining the flaws in research that works backwards from an attractive outcome (e.g., Company X has achieved high profits for three years in a row), Rosenzweig cautions managers to keep five timeless principles in mind. As summarized in a Knowledge@Wharton article, with additional comments by yours truly, these principles are:
  1. Good strategies involve risk, and no strategy is foolproof. Therefore, take Tom Peters' advice on strategy with a grain of salt.

  2. Execution also is uncertain. What works well for one company may not be effective for another company. Beware of casual benchmarking.

  3. Chance plays a greater role in success than managers may want to admit. Therefore, flexibility and quick-thinking are essential complements to strong analytical planning skills.

  4. Bad outcomes don't always mean that managers made mistakes. Likewise, favorable outcomes don't necessarily mean that the managers made brilliant decisions. Again, beware of gurus peddling anecdotally grounded advice.

  5. "When the die is cast, the best managers act as if chance is irrelevant. Persistance and tenacity are everything." I would say that good judgment and common sense are also highly important.
Bottom line: By all means, keep track of research findings in the business management field, but look closely at how the research was conducted, and act on its findings only if you are satisfied that the methodology was sound.


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