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

Thursday, May 31, 2007


As an outgrowth both of training I've worked on for a large advertising agency, and of discussions with a friend who is interviewing with various marketing-oriented high-tech businesses, I've been following for some time the growing use of sociologists' techniques by businesses bent on strengthening their ability to appeal to customers' tastes and to optimize technology.

Among the specialists in business use of sociology is Marc Smith, senior research sociologist at Microsoft Research. In a March 2007 interview with Kate Greene of Technology Review, he offered insights into how analysis of data relating to the social phenomenon of online communities can help in making such communities more valuable for participants and for businesses.

Smith starts with the question, "What makes some collective actions more successful than others?" Or, specifically with respect to online communities, what are the important behavior patterns and structural aspects of such communities that determine how healthy they are?

Smith uses Netscan data1 to develop answers to these questions. For instance, a project called Community Buzz
uses the data to help us see the network structure of the community and [the] main ideas that are generated from the community. The idea is that Community Buzz takes data from Netscan and indexes it according to the behavior of people in the community, [based on] the patterns of message creation.
Participants are segmented according to the roles they play in the community. This is done using social networking concepts, i.e., by looking at whom they talk to and how often.

The role that is most important for building the community is that played by "answer people," a typically small cadre of knowledgeable individuals who care enough about the subject or product under discussion to go to the trouble of answering questions raised by other members. Other segments Community Buzz tracks are newbies and spammers.

To analyze the actual content of messages and how the content changes over time, the Community Buzz analysts use data visualization techniques, such as tag clouds and trend lines.

Trainers and documentation specialists need to be familiar with research into the behavior and conversations of online communities. Such communities are increasingly important for performance support and for facilitating collaboration. Therefore, knowing how to assist them will pay off in terms of keeping employees' knowledge and skills up-to-date and in terms of expediting conception and completion of work projects.

1 "The Netscan System provides detailed reports on the activity of Usenet newsgroups, the authors who participate in them, and the conversation threads that emerge from their activity. Using the Netscan tool users can get reports about any newsgroup for any day, week, month, quarter, or year, since September 1999."


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Integrative Thinking Is/Is Not

Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto, offers a good example of is/is not analysis in the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Martin's subject is integrative thinking, which he defines by contrasting it to what it is not, namely conventional thinking.

Martin lays out four steps that leaders go through (quite possibly with some iteration) in order to solve a problem or meet a challenge. For each step, an integrative thinker handles the decision-making process differently from a conventional thinker. The steps are:
  1. Determine salience
    Integrative thinking is: Seeking less obvious but potientially relevant factors. Integrative thinking is not: Focusing only on obviously relevant features.

  2. Analyze causality
    Integrative thinking is: Considering multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables. Integrative thinking is not: Considering one-way, linear relationships between variables (in which more of A produces more of B).

  3. Envision the decision architecture
    Integrative thinking is: Seeing problems as a whole, examining how the parts fit together and how decisions affect one another. Integrative thinking is not: Breaking problems into pieces and working on them separately or sequentially.

  4. Achieve resolution
    Integrative thinking is: Creatively resolving tensions among opposing ideas; generating innovative outcomes. Integrative thinking is not: Making either-or choices; settling for the best currently available options.
Martin concludes his article with the thought that integrative thinking is a skill that people can hone; it is not a gift shared by an elite few.


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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More on Podcasts in Training

About a year ago, I wrote a post on using podcasts in training. Now Anders Gronstedt, a marketing and training consultant, has published a complementary squib in the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review that offers seven guidelines for producing training podcasts:
  • If you're concerned about the initial investment, start small. You can use free software, such as Audacity, for producing your podcasts.

  • Pilot the initiative with the audience that will be most receptive. Gronstedt suggests that your salesforce is likely to fit the bill.

  • Promote the podcast idea to employees so that they're motivated to give it a try.

  • Use a format employees will enjoy. Radio-style is a good bet.

  • Keep the episodes short. A good rule of thumb is 15 minutes for podcasts and 5 minutes for videocasts.

  • Encourage feedback from users. You can provide an internal forum or blog where employees can post reactions, ideas for additional topics, and suggestions for improvement.

  • Encourage all employees to produce their own shows. This can help with collaboration, community building, and knowledge management.
A good summary of the entire podcasting production process is here.



Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day 2007


An image from the period in which today's holiday, which was created to commemorate Civil War soldiers, was called Decoration Day because people marked the day by decorating veterans' graves



Sunday, May 27, 2007

Getting Your Intranet Up to Snuff

One of the more frustrating documentation projects I've worked on involved trying to help a client improve their intranet. There were two basic problems: the project leader declined to devote time and attention to the project (computer literacy was not his strong suit), and the IT person who was responsible for handling updates always had other things to do. It was a hopeless situation because the client was not able to replace this obviously inadequate duo with people genuinely committed to getting the job done.

I take some slight consolation in knowing that my experience was my no means unique. On May 14 the Wall Street Journal, noting how widespread the problem of user-unfriendly intranets is, published several articles offering advice on how to correct the situation. Two of the articles were particularly useful.

In the first article, Andrew Blackman lists typical intranet problems — missing information, duplicate information, information that is out-of-date, and information that is less-than-easy to find — and then describes some of the tools and strategies companies are adopting to mitigate these problems.

A key goal is to establish a virtuous circle in which people use an intranet, find it helps them with their work, are motivated to contribute themselves, and thereby make the intranet more appealing to others. It's important to ensure that contributions are easy to enter into the system (though there does need to be a level of oversight for quality control).

Improvements to the intranet search function are centered on returning both relevant documents and the names of people with relevant expertise:
For example, when users of Microsoft's intranet product, SharePoint Server 2007, type in a query, they receive not only a list of relevant documents and articles, but also a list of people who are experts on the subject. The people are presented in order of "social distance," with people you've named as your colleagues appearing at the top, followed by your colleagues' colleagues and finally everyone else.
A neat adjunct is a presence awareness feature that lets you know the availability of an internal person whose name comes up in response to a search query.

Finally, a hugely valuable feature — providing work teams with collaborative workspace — is increasingly built into intranet software.

The second article is an interview Vauhini Vara conducted with Kara Coyne, director of research at Nielsen Norman Group, a technology consulting firm that conducts a contest each year to find the world's best intranets. Along with the informational value of a good intranet, Coyne touts its motivational value:
... managers or leaders on a team will put videos online or announcements. Employees really watch these things, really read them and get motivated by them.
When asked about common intranet shortcomings, Coyne cites clutter, unintuitive navigation, and weak search functionality. Her suggestions for relatively easy improvements include posting daily news items and making sure content is interesting and current. Coyne's hope for intranets of the future is that they will be
much cleaner, much more beautiful, and much more straightforward — getting rid of all the headings and categories and boxes and branding.
She also points out that some of the most popular features on intranets are not necessarily what would first come to mind. It turns out that employees really like things like being able to post classified ads, request a special meal at the cafeteria, and check the schedule of recreational activities.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Donald Schön

In my periodic browsing at MIT's Open Courseware website, I came upon a January 2007 course offered by the Urban Studies and Planning department called "Reflective Practice: An Approach for Expanding Your Learning Frontiers." Taught by Professors Ceasar McDowell and Sebastiao Ferreira, this course is

"an introduction to the approach of Reflective Practice developed by Donald Schön. It is an approach that enables professionals to understand how they use their knowledge in practical situations and how they can combine practice and learning in a more effective way. Through greater awareness of how they deploy their knowledge in practical situations, professionals can increase their capacities of learning in a more timely way. Understanding how they frame situations and ideas helps professionals to achieve greater flexibility and increase their capacity of conceptual innovation."
Since Donald Schön (1930-1997) was new to me and obviously an important thinker and practitioner, I began exploring his writing and found that it touched on many of the subjects I particularly care about in my own work, notably, reflectiveness as a boost to learning, reframing to escape seemingly intractable conflicts, and improvisation.

To give a sense of Schön's thinking in each of these areas, here are some quotes from his work:

Reflection on action
... with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen ... [problems] must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling and uncertain.1
We [Schön and co-author Martin Rein] see policy positions as resting on underlying structures of belief, perception, and appreciation, which we call "frames." We see policy controversies as disputes in which the contending parties hold conflicting frames. Such disputes are resistant to resolution by appeal to facts or reasoned argumentation because the parties' conflicting frames determine what counts as a fact and what arguments are taken to be relevant and compelling. Moreover, the frames that shape policy positions and underlie controversy are usually tacit, which means that they are exempt from conscious attention and reasoning.
Improvisation (reflection-in-action)
[R]eflection-in-action ... involves a surprise, a response to surprise by thought turning back on itself, thinking what we’re doing as we do it, setting the problem of the situation anew, conducting an action experiment on the spot by which we seek to solve the new problems we’ve set, an experiment in which we test both our new way of seeing the situation, and also try to change that situation for the better. And reflection-in-action need not be an intellectual or verbalized activity. ... [M]y favourite example of reflection-in-action is jazz, because if you think about people playing jazz within a framework of beat and rhythm and melody that is understood, one person plays and another person responds, and responds on the spot to the way he hears the tune, making it different to correspond to the difference he hears, improvisation in that sense is a form of reflection-in-action. And so is good conversation which must be neither wholly predictable nor wholly unpredictable. If it’s wholly predictable, it’s boring and not good, and if it’s wholly unpredictable, it’s crazy. Good conversation, which all of us have some gift for, involves a moving between those extremes in a kind of on-line observation and action which is so natural and spontaneous to us that we don’t even think about the capacity we have to do it. And in much of this activity we need not think about what we are doing in explicit, verbal or symbolic terms, but sometimes we must. For example, when we get stuck. Or, for example, when we want to teach somebody else to do what we know how to do.3
1 Schön, Donald, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, 1983), pp.39-40.

2 Schön, Donald and Martin Rein, Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies (Basic Books, 1994), p.23.

3 Schön, Donald,"Educating the Reflective Practitioner," presentation to the 1987 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington D.C. (http://educ.queensu.ca/~russellt/howteach/schon87.htm)


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Friday, May 25, 2007

Business Acumen XVI: Globalization and Equity

As a follow-up to an earlier post dealing with the impact of globalization on productivity, I'd like to highlight equity considerations.

The main equity issue is the impact globalization is having on countries' income distributions. Three Wall Street Journal reporters, Bob Davis, John Lyons, and Andrew Batson, published a report yesterday that offers insight based on both statistical data and field investigation.

Income distribution data indicate that
[a]s trade, foreign investment and technology have spread, the gap between economic haves and have-nots has frequently widened, not only in wealthy countries like the U.S. but in poorer ones like Mexico, Argentina, India and China as well.
To answer the question why, Davis, Lyons and Batson turn to economists, who point to the central role played by job skills and education. Those with low skills have, in many cases, seen their wages rise, but not as fast as the wages of skilled workers.1

The social implications are important. If globalization creates a sizeable group of losers alongside the winners, the efficiency arguments in favor of free trade and free movement of capital lose some of their cogency. There are plenty of people willing to say, or at least think, "tough luck" when the equity issue is raised, but this verges on social darwinism, which is not a particularly defensible social policy.

Better to focus sincere attention on how to share the fruits of economic growth more equally, while directing education and training resources toward the low-skilled and their children.

1 The article is accompanied by several statistical charts, which you can access here.



Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tuition Aid Pays Off in Loyalty

What happens if a company has a tuition reimbursement policy? Do employees who use it tend to stay longer, or do they abscond shortly after completing their coursework?

In its May 21 edition, the Wall Street Journal reports on research indicating that the answer is the former. For instance:
One new study, by Stanford graduate student Colleen N. Flaherty, found dramatically lower attrition among participants in a tuition-reimbursement program at an unnamed nonprofit institution. Among employees hired the year after the program started, only about 33% of participants had left the employer within five years, compared with about 60% of employees hired the same year who didn't use the tuition program.
Erin White's article cites similar findings (pdf) of Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School. Cappelli's research showed that tuition assistance can help both with retention and with recruitment of high-quality employees.1

White points to the Employee Scholar Program at United Technologies as a particularly comprehensive program — and one that has demonstrated positive impact on retention.

The moral of the story: Companies aiming to attract and retain top-notch talent need to make sure that their tuition reimbursement policy supports this goal as robustly as possible.

1 The papers of Colleen Flaherty and Peter Cappelli are available online for $5 apiece through the Social Science Research Network.


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An MIT Take on Critical Thinking

The latest bulletin from the Open Courseware (OCW) project at MIT alerted me to a seminar on Argumentation and Communication given by Prof. Cherie Abbanat (Urban Studies and Planning) this past fall. The courseware Prof. Abbanat has posted online could be quite helpful to someone wanting to work independently on honing critical thinking skills.

In her syllabus, Prof. Abbanat summarizes the aim of the seminar:
This Communication and Argumentation seminar is an intensive writing workshop that focuses on argumentation and communication. What does it mean to make an argument? What are the different types and styles of arguments that you can make? What are the different forms of writing that you need to learn in order to be successful here at MIT and when you move into the professional world?
One of the early assignments is indicative of the approach to writing that Prof. Abbanat teaches. The assignment involves analyzing an op-ed essay using these questions:
  • What is the thesis of the article?

  • What types of evidence does [the author] use to support his thesis?

  • Can you categorize the evidence used?

  • What research does he do for this project?

  • What research does he rely on others for in order to make his points?

  • What are the conclusions?

  • How well are his conclusions supported by the evidence he presents?

  • Can you find holes in logic?

  • Can you take issue with some of the evidence he relies on?
Prof. Abbanat's focus on critical thinking skills is evident.

In addition to the course description, syllabus, calendar, list of readings, and assignments, Prof. Abbanat provides pdf files with lecture notes and guidelines for various types of writing that are a regular feature of most knowledge workers' lives. The lecture notes address:
  • Effective oral presentations

  • Preparing briefings and memos

  • Arguments and debates
The writing guidelines include:
  • How to Analyze an Argument

  • Guidelines for Decision Memos

  • Guidelines for Effective Informational Memos

  • Guidelines for Writing Effective Essays

  • Guidelines for Effective Briefings
You can stay apprised of OCW news and new course offerings by subscribing to the monthly OCW newsletter here.


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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Role of Training in Building Customer Loyalty

A little over a year ago, I talked about Fred Reichheld's findings concerning what builds loyalty among profitable customers. As a follow-up, I'd like to call attention to what Reichheld has to say about the role of training in promoting customer loyalty.

In the May 2006 issue of Training magazine, Reichheld was interviewed by Joe Kornik, editor-in-chief. When Kornik asked how training can help with loyalty, Reichheld said:
The biggest shortcoming I've seen in the training industry is the lack of a linkage from what the organization says is their ultimate goal and the way the employees treat the customers. Training is not just a way to increase customer service, but it's a way to help employees put themselves in a better position to be able to drive profitable growth for the company. That seems like a simple connection, but rarely do I see companies making that connection because they have no real way to measure it. They measure profits, but they have no way of measuring how many of their customers are being turned into loyal customers or promoters. That's the missing link in most corporations today.1
Reichheld points out that training alone cannot offset the negative impact on loyalty of misguided company policies that annoy customers, lead them to complain to friends and acquaintances, and ultimately detract from a company's financial performance. Reichheld goes on to say:
Employees are much more proud and energized to be in a place where the real mission is to treat the customer right. ... If you're going to be earning a portion of your profits through these types of dirty tricks [e.g., nuisance fees at banks], and you're going to require that your employees enforce them, then you can spend on training until you're blue in the face, and it isn't going to make any difference in the end.
So, the bottom line is: Don't just "train" employees to do the right thing for customers. Make treating customers (at least those not inveterate game-players) part of your business model.

1 Reichheld offers his solution to the measurement problem in The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth, published by the Harvard Business School Press in 2006.


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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Impulse to be Judgmental

I've discussed healthy and unhealthy ways of judging people in a previous post. It's a subject that comes up from time to time in my conversations with colleagues, most recently last week over lunch with a college classmate who works at a large insurance company. In the wake of that conversation, I was particularly alert to what Shankar Vedantam, a favorite journalist, had to say on the subject in today's Washington Post.

Vedantam embeds his discussion in the context of political battles in Washington, which is not something I want to deal with, so I'll extract the material directly related to research on the double standard that all too often governs how people judge others vs. how they judge themselves.

The issue Vedantam highlights is actor-observer bias:
When we do something wrong ourselves — drive 60 mph in a 40-mph zone, for example — we explain our actions in terms of situational factors. We say we are speeding because we are running late, or that we got held up at work. But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual.
Vedantam references Scott Plous, a Wesleyan University social psychologist, who explains how this bias
[has] to do with how our perceptions inform our judgment — when we act, our perceptions are tuned to our own situation. When others are acting, however, we are not automatically aware of all the things in their situations that could be influencing them.

Experiments have shown that our tendency to see the actions of others as dispositional — reflecting their innate nature — persists even when we are explicitly told otherwise. Psychologists have conducted experiments in which they asked some volunteers to take an unpopular stance while others were asked to judge the volunteers. Even when people knew the unpopular positions had been assigned to the volunteers by an experimenter, they still tended to say that the volunteers genuinely held those positions.
This phenomenon is food for thought for anyone aspiring to be fair in personal and professional dealings.


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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Fundamental Questions for Talent Management

Development Dimensions International has put together a booklet encapsulating their take on best practice in talent management. Two sections I found particularly handy list fundamental questions an organization must answer in order to have a coherent talent management strategy and ensure that needed talent is developed.

First, slightly edited, five questions to help in clarifying the organization's talent management strategy:
  • What are the pressing business drivers for developing our talent?

  • What business value should we expect if we're successful at talent management?

  • What will determine leadership success and failure in our organization?

  • Are we prepared to differentiate focus and investment in our employees based on their leadership potential? If not, why not?

  • What actions do we take to improve our talent?
Once the executive team has answered the above questions, they can go on to assessing the adequacy of the existing pool of talent within the organization. Five more questions to ask:
  • What are our most significant business challenges?

  • Do we have a sufficient pipeline of talent to address these challenges?

  • What may be happening in three to five years that would affect the number and type of leaders we need in order to be successful?

  • Where are our most significant leadership gaps? (E.g., you may have enough potential leaders to drive innovation and product development, but too few to handle the organization's anticipated global assignments.)

  • How are regular talent audits integrated into our business and strategic planning process?
With a clear picture of what human talent will be used for and where there currently are gaps, the organization can design team and individual development plans that implement the talent management strategy.


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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Putting Your Best Foot Forward in a Media Interview

Before recycling my copy of the May 2006 issue of Training magazine, in order to make room for this year's issue, I took another look at its contents. One two-page article by Tim O'Brien, a communications consultant, particularly caught my eye. It offered a compact checklist for preparing for a media interview that is well worth highlighting. O'Brien recommends:
  1. Identify the objectives you want to achieve during the interview. For example, you might be aiming to communicate your company's plans for keeping its product portfolio state-of-the-art, or the steps the company is taking to protect the environment.

  2. Anticipate questions that are likely to come up, and prepare honest, persuasive responses.

  3. Package your answers so they are clear, concise, and free of jargon. (This is the skill I personally am focusing on improving.)

  4. Lead with your key point, and reinforce it with facts, examples, statistics, or anecdotes.

  5. Rehearse, preferably with another person on hand to play the role of determined interviewer.
I would add to O'Brien's checklist my own caveat that you aim for authenticity, as opposed to coming across as too rigidly packaged and overly rehearsed.



Friday, May 18, 2007

Unfettered Research on Prediction Markets

The Wall Street Journal recently published an important column that provides a useful reminder of how prediction markets can assist with decision making. In a nutshell:
These markets often predict more accurately than experts. Why? They draw on the knowledge of people who might otherwise be ignored. Their anonymity frees participants from pressures to agree with opinion leaders. And they create straightforward profit incentives that encourage participants to search for better information.
Robert Hahn, executive director of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center, and Paul Tetlock, a finance professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote this column in the context of concern over how regulatory restrictions on Internet gambling may inhibit use of prediction markets for research purposes. (The Iowa Electronic Markets are spared because they qualify as an educational tool.)

Hahn and Tetlock explain that the AEI-Brookings Joint Center has published a plan, "endorsed by more than 20 leading researchers" that "suggests the creation of a safe harbor for small-stakes, not-for-profit prediction markets to encourage experimentation." The sort of research contemplated includes investigating
how to increase the depth of the markets and make them less susceptible to manipulation. It could also address politically contentious questions, such as how to prevent criminals from benefiting from the use of these markets ...
One can only hope that this highly visible advocacy for freedom to research the ins and outs of prediction markets will bear fruit.



Thursday, May 17, 2007

Delusions of Differentiation

Among the most important and the most difficult skills to teach business people is how to differentiate their companies. Last week, Bart Cleveland discussed this issue in his Advertising Age blog. Cleveland asks, "[W]hat makes your agency unique? Tough one, huh?" Then he goes on to say:
I've worked for quite a few agencies in my career, and this question remains a malady that plagues all. Time to 'fess up to the fact that we, the experts in differentiating brands from their competitors, are not measuring up to our own standards.

We say the same things the same way. We give fancy names to our unique branding process and think that's enough distinction. We parade our award-winning work before prospective clients as if that alone could communicate our creative abilities. When pitching new business, we create a dynamic brand execution on spec to illustrate our superior insight. We do all of these things and still most clients eye us as one and the same.

It's apparent that who you are, not what you do, will set you furthest from the competition. An agency truly different in soul will reflect this sense of self in its work.

... Your identity must be about your approach, how you view your work.
Nike has just handed over a big piece of its brand to Crispin. Could it be they seek an agency whose own brand is constantly redefining the ad industry? It's obvious that agencies with identities connect more readily with marketers who have them, too.
Cleveland's screed will be incorporated in my training on differentiation, to be supplemented by examples from industries outside of marketing communications.



Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Sixteen Costa/Kallick Habits of Mind

The Habits of Mind organization provides a collection of reading matter and tools to help people of all ages understand how best to contribute to and gain from communities of learning.

There sixteen habits of mind that learners are encouraged to cultivate are:
  • Persisting

  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

  • Managing impulsivity

  • Gathering data through all senses

  • Listening with understanding and empathy

  • Creating, imagining, innovating

  • Thinking flexibly

  • Responding with wonderment and awe

  • Thinking about thinking (metacognition)

  • Taking responsible risks

  • Striving for accuracy

  • Finding humor

  • Questioning and posing problems

  • Thinking interdependently

  • Applying past knowledge to new situations

  • Remaining open to continuous learning
This list, and accompanying material accessible through the Habits of Mind website, were developed by Arthur L. Costa, emeritus professor of education at California State University, Sacramento, and Bena Kallick, an education consultant. Though the wording is not entirely to my (dry) taste, the concepts certainly are, and I encourage reading the concise descriptions of the items on the list provided here (pdf).


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Value of Blogging

I can't help but notice that those who criticize blogging are generally not familiar with the variety of bloggers and the range of blog quality.

A useful counterpoint is provided by Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist who maintains a frequently updated blog that addresses both economic and political topics. Last summer, he published an eloquent brief in favor of his style of blogging in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can read the full text of "The Invisible College" here. An excerpt:
I would like a larger college, an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things. People whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well. It would be really nice to have Paul Krugman three doors down, so I could bump into him occasionally and ask, "Hey, Paul, what do you think of .. ." Aggressive younger people interested in public policy and public finance would be excellent. Berkeley is deficient in not having enough right-wingers; a healthy college has a well-diversified intellectual portfolio. The political scientists are too far away to run into by accident — somebody like Dan Drezner would be nice to have around (even if he does get incidence wrong sometimes).

Over the past three years, with the arrival of Web logging, I have been able to add such people to those I bump into — in a virtual sense — every week. My invisible college is paradise squared, for an academic at least.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. 1918 - 2007

"The key theme for any business is learning its boundaries: relating the firm, the markets, and the technology to your particular strengths.”
           — Alfred Chandler

As explained in the appreciative obituary published by the Harvard business school, Alfred Chandler had a long, distinguished career in which "he chronicled and analyzed big businesses around the globe in a prolific and extraordinarily influential corpus of books and articles."



Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day 2007


Patricia Ruppert Nelson aka Mom



Saturday, May 12, 2007

Hoping that Experience Doesn't Count for Much

Circuit City's decision to fire 3400 of its highest paid employees — generally, its most experienced staff — has received a good deal of attention (for instance, from James Surowiecki in the New Yorker). Now that the retailer has indicated it expects to show a loss for its first quarter, which runs from March to May, the wisdom of its approach to trying to boost profits is naturally being questioned even more than when it was first announced.

In a May 2 article in the Washington Post, Amy Joyce quotes a company spokesman as attributing poor sales in March and April "to a combination of economics and the companys poor forecasting and planning."

It is too soon to know for sure why Circuit City's sales have been weak. Still, I will be surprised if it turns out that the jetisoning of experienced salespeople was not significant. As I have learned from watching numerous management simulations, there is a strong tendency among managers to underestimate the strength of the relationship between certain costs, such as higher salaries for more experienced employees, and sales revenue. As James Surowiecki points out, "lost opportunities may be hard to measure, but over time they can have a huge impact on corporate performance."



Friday, May 11, 2007

Tom Davenport re the Balanced Scorecard

Since I've written several posts both on use of analytics in business and on the balanced scorecard,1 it seems appropriate to call attention to thoughts Tom Davenport, professor of IT and management at Babson College, offers on the relationship between these two subjects.

Citing research by David Larcker and Chris Ittner, Davenport argues that companies using balanced scorecards have generally not taken the essential step of identifying how their scorecards' nonfinancial and financial measures are linked. Davenport goes on to say,
Over the next few years, I’m confident that more companies will pursue “cause-and-effect reporting,” or perhaps it will be called “analytical reporting.” They’ll know the quantitative relationships between key nonfinancial measures and financial performance. Some leading companies in performance measurement already do. Hilton Hotels, for example, determined that a 5 percent increase in customer loyalty—a key scorecard measure for the company—translates into a 1.1 percent increase in revenue the following year. ...

Firms do this sort of analysis by gathering and analyzing performance data over time, by running statistical analysis on the measures, and by occasionally performing controlled experiments to eliminate other sources of variation than the selected variables. It’s not easy to do, but it’s fantastic to have a clear idea of what drives your business. Simply balancing your scorecard is no longer enough—you need to know what scores drive what other scores.
I'd note that Davenport's views on identifying the cause-and-effect relationships among scorecard measures is consistent with a broader point that he makes frequently, namely that careful analytical work is vital to effective business decision-making. In other words, in Davenport's view, the power of intuition is often overstated.

1 Earlier posts on scorecards and analytics are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Meditation and Attentiveness

Alerted by an article in the May 8 edition of the New York Times, I took myself over to PLoSBiology, an online peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science, to read a report about research concerning the link between training in meditation and the ability to allocate attention efficiently.

The research was carried out at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, directed by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. As explained in a synopsis written by Rachel Jones, the research shows that
intensive training in meditation can alter the way in which the brain allocates attentional resources to important stimuli, allowing people to improve their performance on a demanding visual task.
Specifically, Davidson and his colleagues investigated
whether volunteers who received three months of intensive training in a particular type of meditation, known as Vipassana meditation, would allocate attentional resources more efficiently and therefore show enhanced performance on the attentional blink task, a task that taps into similar skills used during training without directly involving meditation [see below]. Vipassana meditation encourages “non-reactive awareness”—a state of mind in which individuals cultivate awareness of stimuli without judgments or affective responses to those stimuli.
The "attentional blink" is the inability to pay attention to a second stimulus if it appears within a half second of a first stimulus. In the attentional blink task,
volunteers were asked to identify two “target” stimuli—for example, two particular numbers—in a stream of rapidly presented “non-target” stimuli—for example, letters—which are irrelevant to the task.
The results were that the participants who received intensive training in Vipassana meditation uniformly improved in their ability to detect the second target, while only 70% of a control group that received much less intense training improved.

Note that the volunteers were not meditating during the task itself. This indicates that
intensive mental training can produce lasting and significant improvements in the efficient distribution of attentional resources among competing stimuli, even when individuals are not actively using the techniques they have learned.
My conclusion from this research is that it is reasonable for people to try to boost their productivity by undertaking training in Vipassana-style meditation.



Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Stony Brook's News Literacy Course

Today's New York Times brought the welcome news that Howard Schneider, late of Newsday, has made evaluating the quality of news reports a central area of study at Stony Brook University's school of journalism, a new undergraduate program launched just this past fall.

In an article by Alan Finder, Schneider explains the purpose of his News Literacy course:
You’ve got to know which stories you can count on if you’re going to make decisions based on them ... Our point here is that for the rest of your life, the news media is your biggest continuing education course.
Schneider tells his class that "to stay open to information that does not conform to your views" is especially hard, and encourages them to use critical thinking skills to identify when they are being given reliable reporting and when they are not.

It's especially encouraging that students seem to recognize the value and broad applicability of what they are learning in the News Literacy course. The number of sections is increasing from three this spring to twenty next fall.

Finder quotes a sophomore as saying, "I think I learned more skills that I'm going to use for the rest of my life than I did in any other course in college." This is a heartening testimonial to the feasibility of improving critical thinking among people who are willing to learn.


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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Herb Cohen on Negotiation

In its October 30 issue of last year, Fortune had a squib on negotiation expert Herb Cohen's favorite lines for use at appropriate moments in a negotiation. As you read through the list below (slightly edited), you may think, as I did, that these lines are old and hoary. But, on second thought, they can be deployed effectively because their intent (in italics) is not defeated even if the other party is quite familiar with them.

"How did you come up with that number?"
You invite the other person to share his/her thoughts — valuable if you're not a mindreader.

"Where were we?"
Look like you care, but not that much.

"Let me check with my wife/husband/boss/banker, etc."
Helps you steer away from saying yes prematurely.

Pretend you don't understand. The other person will speak. You get more information, and the other person is less able to get away with unfair tactics.

"If things change, give me a call."
Be willing to walk away, and put the burden on the other party to come up with a reasonable proposal.

For a persuasive counterpoint to Cohen's views on one particular aspect of negotiations, namely the role of deadlines, you can have a look at this Harvard business school note.



Monday, May 07, 2007

Business Acumen XV: How Globalization Affects Productivity and Costs

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has just published its 2006 annual report and included, along with the numbers at the back, a valuable essay on globalization.

Written by Michael Cox, the bank's chief economist, and Richard Alm, a senior economics writer at the bank, the essay spotlights the productivity and cost impacts of globalization. Cox and Alm list ten ways in which globalization raises productivity and reduces cost:
  • Lower communication and transportation costs — These lowered costs help consumers both directly and — through impacts on production costs — indirectly.

  • More flexibility in production — Labor, capital, and other resources are less constrained, thanks to cheaper communication and transportation.

  • Stronger competition — The more efficient firms are generally the ones that survive.

  • Greater specialization — People and nations are able to focus production on what they do best. Furthermore, specialization enables deepened expertise and faster innovation.

  • Larger market size — Larger markets offer the potential of expanded sales and profits — an enhanced incentive to entrepreneurs to take on the risks of investment and innovation.

  • Greater economies of scale — With larger markets, producers can spread fixed costs over a broader pool of customers. The upshot is lower prices.

  • Broader capital markets — Entrepreneurs can shift assets to wherever they are likely to earn the highest return.

  • Markets that are more contestable — With markets more open to competition, the incidence of monopolization, with its attendant excessive prices, is reduced.

  • Greater knowledge spillovers — As the knowledge economy becomes more globalized, general information and research cross borders more freely, contributing to increased production efficiency.

  • Spread of nonrivalrous consumption — Examples include TV, movies and use of the Internet. One person's consumption does not diminish another's, so cost per customer falls as the products in question flow around the globe.
There are, of course, issues of equity that need attention in conjunction with any assessment of the impacts of globalization. This is a subject that I will take up in a subsequent post.



Sunday, May 06, 2007

Organization Development Competencies - All 141 of Them

Though the list is long (141 items), and anybody referring to it for self-development will want to give concentrated attention to only a subset of items at any one time, the organization development (OD) competencies published in 2001 by the Organization Development Network is useful as a comprehensive view of what is involved in serving effectively as an organization development practitioner.

The first three-quarters of the list (108 items) consists of the more technical OD competencies, organized according to the phases and aspects of an OD effort:
  • Marketing

  • Enrolling

  • Contracting

  • Mini-assessment

  • Data gathering

  • Diagnosis

  • Feedback

  • Planning

  • Participation

  • Intervention

  • Evaluation

  • Follow-up

  • Adoption

  • Separation
The final quarter of the list (33 items) covers the softer skills an OD practitioner must cultivate. These competencies fall into the areas of:
  • Self-awareness

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Other soft skills (e.g., "Interpret cross-cultural influences in a helpful manner" and "Use the internet effectively")
I'd point out that the division between technical and soft skills is not a sharp one. For instance, a number of the skills in the early portion of the list — e.g., "Help the client trust the process" and "Deal effectively with resistance" — require strong interpersonal finesse.



Saturday, May 05, 2007

Careerism, or Taking the Low Road

I began thinking about the issue of careerism when it came up repeatedly in a biography of John Boyd (1927 – 1997) that a colleague sent me. Boyd was an Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist.

Defined at wordnet.princeton.edu as the practice of advancing your career at the expense of your personal integrity, careerism is inimical to teamwork and professionalism, both essential for competitive value creation in most modern business organizations.

In 1988 USAF Major Michael L. Mosier published an illuminating discussion of Air Force careerism that is readily applied to civilian contexts. Mosier points out that "treating" careerism is complex for several reasons:
  • Diagnosing careerism requires insight into a person's motives, which can be difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, making false assumptions about why a person is acting in a particular way undermines trust.

  • The structure of incentives in an organization may be promoting careerism.

  • Ambition and a competitive spirit, which taken too far can shade into careerism, provide energy for high performance.
Mosier emphasizes that careerism and self-interest are not identical. The key consideration is whether a person, in pursuing his or her own interests, is doing so in a way that contributes to achieving organizational goals and upholding ethical standards. In other words, the question is whether the person is treading the high road or the low road.

Mosier suggests three steps to "get a grip on careerism":
  • Make sure everyone knows what careerism is and isn't. I'd add that everyone similarly needs a concrete understanding of what professionalism is and isn't.

  • Ensure strong, ethical leadership at all levels in the organization.

  • Eliminate any personnel policies that foster careerism.
Speaking in positive terms, it is crucial to create incentives and norms that reward professionalism and excellence.



Friday, May 04, 2007

Business Acumen XIV: Business Week's Company Data

When it comes to freely available compilations of company data, the Company Insight Center being beta tested at BusinessWeek.com is well worth investigating.

The site covers 42,000 public companies and, with less extensive data, 322,000 private companies in the US and overseas. Information compiled for a given company includes:
  • financials

  • company and industry news

  • stock quotes from exchanges around the world

  • customizable stock price and volume charts (with the ability to compare the company to indexes and other companies you select)

  • charted return on investment in the company

  • key competitors

  • biographies of executives and board members

  • executive compensation
All the displayed information is heavily interlinked so, for example, you can easily switch from viewing information on Amazon to viewing information on a competitor such as Best Buy.



Thursday, May 03, 2007

Guidance on Planning Your Career

Among the myriad self-help books on managing your own career, one has stood out since it was published in 2001: What Every Successful Woman Knows: 12 Breakthrough Strategies to Get the Power and Ignite Your Career, by Janice Reals Ellig and William J. Morin.

I was introduced to the book by an article by Toddi Gutner in the December 24, 2001 issue of Business Week. Gutner summarizes the 12 strategies in a sidebar (here very slightly edited):
  1. Take stock of where you are and set goals for the future.

  2. Fit in and adapt before you initiate change.

  3. Make sure your job has profit-and-loss responsibility.

  4. Develop mutually useful relationships with your bosses.

  5. Create your own power base with people inside and outside the organization.

  6. Speak your mind, but be relevant.

  7. Build your brand and toot your own horn.

  8. Spend time on significant projects.

  9. Devote 80% of your time to working your job, 20% to managing your career.

  10. Have technical, business, and people skills.

  11. Be wise about office romances and follow established procedures to address sexual harassment.

  12. Act with authority: Communicate a vision, take risks, and make things happen.
Though the Ellig/Morin book is specifically addressed to women, the 12 strategies are basically unisex — another indication of their robustness.



Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A "Forum for Emerging Leaders"

As a follow-on to an earlier post, I'd like to call attention to leadership training at Scottsdale Insurance Company, information about which came my way compliments of Training magazine.

It is apparent from reading Training's write-up of the Scottsdale "Forum for Emerging Leaders" that the training emphasizes "focus on influence, not control," one of the key principles put forward by James Kelly and Scott Nadler, the experts on leadership cited in my earlier post. Indeed, Scottsdale explicitly decided that its leaders were those employees "viewed by others as being influential — either because they had a history of influencing others' decision-making or were being tapped frequently by others for their input, expertise or point of view." Note that the Scottsdale definition of leadership does not include any requirement that a person have direct reports.

Aside from the broadened definition of leadership Scottsdale uses, I was naturally interested to see what topics the leadership training gave primary attention to.

Chosen with the aid of the participants, these topics, in addition to leadership itself, were business acumen and negotiation skills.



Tuesday, May 01, 2007

John Kotter's 8-Step Change Process

Among management advisories, none has stood the test of time better than the 8-step process for change management that John Kotter, a professor at the Harvard business school, laid out in his 1996 book, Leading Change.

The eight steps are:
  1. Increase the feeling that change is an urgent necessity

  2. Build the guiding team

  3. Get the vision right

  4. Communicate for buy-in

  5. Empower a broad base of people to take action

  6. Create short-term wins

  7. Don't let up until the vision is reality

  8. Make the change stick by creating a supportive organizational culture
Neatly organized additional detail is provided at a website devoted to The Heart of Change: Real Life Stories of How People Change Their Organization, a 2002 follow-up to Leading Change.


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