!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: February 2008

Friday, February 29, 2008

Ethiopia Commodity Exchange

The February 27 edition of the Wall Street Journal brought news of the imminent opening of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECEX) in Addis Ababa.

Source: http://nazret.com/blog

Creation of a mechanism that, in theory, enables farmers to time their sales in light of knowledge of global market prices that has heretofore been inaccessible to them, is an encouraging innovation for a region that has suffered from recurrent instability in production and heartbreaking famines.

At the same time, it seems important to note an aspect of the story that does not appear in Roger Thurow's WSJ article, namely the potential for ECEX transactions to be skewed by corporations with market power that are tied to the Ethiopian government. See, for example, this reaction to the creation of ECEX. The government is the 100% owner of ECEX.

Since this political level of the story is something which I, so far, understand only superficially, I'm now looking to learn more once ECEX is actually up and running.


Labels: ,

Thursday, February 28, 2008

ILO Study of Learning in High Performance Workplaces

In 2002 the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, published a study by David Ashton and Jonny Sung of the University of Leicester that takes a comprehensive look at how organizations can best design and deploy learning activities to support high performance. The entire text is available online. A detailed table of contents is provided here.

Ashton and Sung cite four dimensions that characterize the work practices that distinguish high performance workplaces, i.e., workplaces designed to elicit maximum contributions from all employees in meeting company objectives:
  • employee autonomy and involvement in decision making, often effected through organizing employees in teams

  • support for employee performance, achieved through formal and informal training, feedback, and mentoring

  • rewards for performance, both monetary and non-monetary

  • sharing of information and knowledge, with information flowing in both directions between management and employees
The ways in which learning can support high performance work practices are discussed in Chapter 4. I would particularly note the emphasis Ashton and Sung place on establishing relations of trust within the workplace so that individuals are willing to share the tacit knowledge which underlies much of the value creation in contemporary business enterprises. Fundamental to nurturing trust is establishing a culture in which all employees are treated with respect. (See the section in Chapter 4 on "Translating learning into performance at the individual level.")


Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Laughter is the Best Medicine XVIII: Job Application

The good people at www.art-in-guelph.com (a website for visual artists based in Guelph, Ontario) swear that the application below was submitted successfully to a Wal-Mart in Florida. It's actually a parody that became an urban legend (currently posted on about 11,000 websites), but it's still amusing, so I'm happily passing it along.

NAME: Greg Bulmash

SEX: Not yet. Still waiting for the right person (or one who'll cooperate).

DESIRED POSITION: Company's President or Vice President. But seriously, whatever's available. If I was in a position to be picky, I wouldn't be applying here in the first place.

DESIRED SALARY: $185,000 a year plus stock options and a Michael Ovitz style severance package. If that's not possible, make an offer and we can haggle.


LAST POSITION HELD: Target for middle management hostility.

SALARY: A lot less than I'm worth.

MOST NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: My incredible collection of stolen pens and post-it notes.



PREFERRED HOURS: 1:30-3:30 p. m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL SKILLS? Yes, but they're better suited to a more intimate environment.

If I had one, wouldn't I be there?

UP TO 50 Lbs.?: Of what?

I think the more appropriate question here would be "Do you have a car that runs?"

I may already be a winner of the Publishers Clearing house Sweepstakes.

DO YOU SMOKE?: On the job no, on my breaks yes.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN FIVE YEARS?: Living in the Bahamas with a fabulously wealthy dumb sexy blonde supermodel who thinks I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread. Actually, I'd like to be doing that now.

KNOWLEDGE?: Yes. Absolutely.


You can read a press release marking the 10th anniversary of Bulmash's irreverence here.



Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Navy Virtual Reality Training

You can get an idea of what the US Navy has been doing recently to improve its use of simulation for training by visiting the official site describing how the USS Trayer, a replica of a guided-missile destroyer, is used as an immersive environment (no pun intended) for training Navy recruits.

Navy recruits aboard the USS Thayer, a replica destroyer used in virtual reality training

The Navy's "Battle Stations 21" set-up takes recruits through 17 scenarios that give practice in problem-solving and use of communications and other skills:
  1. Mission brief/Move aboard

  2. Stores on load/off load

  3. Line handling

  4. Main/Auxiliary watch

  5. Roving security

  6. Bridge watch

  7. Lookout

  8. Casualty Control Station

  9. Prepare for General Quarters

  10. Firefighting

  11. Flooding

  12. Mass casualty

  13. Emergency egress

  14. Man overboard

  15. Compartment check-off list

  16. Ship maintenance

  17. Capping ceremony
To maximize training impact, the recruits experience realistic consequences of their decisions and actions.

I have not yet found reports of the actual effectiveness of the Battle Stations 21 training (full use was only scheduled to begin last June), but will be on the lookout for same.


Labels: ,

Monday, February 25, 2008

Advice on Mentoring

I have been underwhelmed by much of what I read on the subject of mentoring because of its obviousness and/or impracticality. A January 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review by Thomas J. DeLong (professor of management practice in the organizational behavior area at Harvard Business School), John J. Gabarro (professor emeritus of human resource management at HBS), and Robert J. Lees (former director of professional development at Morgan Stanley and head of human resources at Ernst & Young) stands out for its grounding in real-world experience and contemporary market realities.

"Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World" deals specifically with the employee development needs of professional service firms, such as consultancies and accounting firms. In today's globalized market, with its intense competition for engagements, senior members of professional service firms are under exhausting time pressure "to execute the business, manage projects, perform administrative functions, and somethimes run a special project for the managing partner." Time for mentoring junior people is, to say the least, tight.

All the same, DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees argue for finding time for mentoring. Otherwise, your firm will suffer from excessive turnover and underperformance.

What does a good mentor do? Based on their interviews with successful professionals, DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees conclude that, in essence, a good mentor
  • is someone absolutely credible whose integrity transcends the message, be it positive or negative.

  • tells you things you may not want to hear but leaves you feeling you have been heard.

  • interacts with you in a way that makes you want to become better.

  • makes you feels secure enough to take risks.

  • gives you the confidence to rise above your inner doubts and fears.

  • supports your attempts to set stretch goals for yourself.

  • presents opportunities and highlights challenges you might not have seen on your own.
DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees also identify four principles of good mentoring (here, slightly edited):
  • Mentoring is personal, i.e., each person mentored has individual needs and preferences that should shape what the mentor offers in the way of guidance. Protégés are looking for "concrete, hands-on feedback from a senior professional who takes a personal interest in their careers."

  • Provide mentoring to both A and B players. DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees estimate that a typical professional services firm has about 20% of its professionals in the A category, and about 70% in the B ("solid citizen") category. Just as with A players, mentoring B players will help the individuals in question contribute more effectively, and it will carry a special payoff since B players are more likely than A players to stay with the firm long-term.

  • Use a variety of means for developing employees, not just choice assignments, which can be in short supply. Other possibilities include shadowing a senior person on an assignment, doing research projects, and conducting pro bono work.

  • Junior people should make it their business to attract mentors; they should also mentor each other. In other words, junior members of a firm should seek out as mentors compatible senior colleagues with whom they share interests and goals. Junior people should also take advantage of opportunities to team up and share expertise, e.g., in completing special assignments.
In sum, a well-managed professional services firm will take positive steps to assure that its junior members receive the career guidance they need in order to build their professional skills and to advance in their careers — without having to seek professional opportunities elsewhere.



Sunday, February 24, 2008

Monica Jakuc, Pianist Extraordinaire

Source: Smith College

I went to the afternoon concert Monica Jakuc organized to mark the occasion of her retirement, which comes officially in June after 39 years of teaching piano at Smith College and performing with wonderful frequency at Smith and elsewhere.

The program:

Three songs by Joseph Haydn — "A Pastoral Song," "Recollection," and "O Tuneful Voice" — Monica on piano and Jane Bryden, soprano, singing.

Premiere of "Morningside," for solo fortepiano, commissioned from Scott Wheeler by the Smith College Music Department in Monica's honor.

Five songs by Poldowski (Irena Regina Wieniawska) — "Dimanche d'avril," "Spleen," "Mandoline," "L'attente," and "Dansons la gigue" — Monica on piano and Karen Smith Emerson, soprano, singing.

The Tarantella from Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17, for two pianos — played by Monica and Judith Gordon.

Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Dvorák, with Monica on piano, Joel Pitchon and Sarah Briggs Cornelius on vioin, Ronald Gorevic on viola, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on cello.

You can read about Monica's discography here.



Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Perils of Outsourcing

The March 2008 issue of Portfolio has a cautionary tale describing how outsourcing a core activity can detract seriously, even dangerously, from accomplishing an organization's mission.

The particular situation Katherine Eban reports on in "Your Hospital's Deadly Secret" is outsourcing a hospital's pharmacy to a pharmacy management company, generally one affiliated with a drug distribution company.

Not only is the outside pharmacy manager likely to have objectives misaligned with those of the hospital's medical staff, who are left with severely limited ability to monitor non-financial aspects of their outsourced pharmacy's performance, but also a hospital's switching every few years from one management company to another, in search of ever lower operating costs, creates further grave elements of risk to the quality of patient care.

Specifically, handoff from one management company to another introduces numerous opportunities for error and confusion about procedures. The concomitant turnover in personnel, exacerbated by excessively cost-focused management practices, means that the competence of pharmacy staff is, on average, lower than in pharmacies that are fully integrated into hospital operations. As Eban puts it in describing the hospital that is her main case study, "the pharmacy became a disengaged temp agency."

A further issue is that the all-important function of identifying and addressing opportunities for long-term quality improvement is given short shrift when pharmacy management is working on a contract that extends for as little as two years.

For me, one of the clearest indications of the fundamentally flawed nature of the outsourcing approach to the hospital pharmacy was the response of the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy to a medication error that led to an infant's death at the hospital in question. Among the corrective actions the board required was retraining of all the pharmacists involved in the incident. Given the high rate of staff turnover at outsourced pharmacies, keeping all personnel fully trained is a fairly hopeless proposition.


Labels: , , , ,

Friday, February 22, 2008

Washington's Birthday 2008

Source: www.allposters.com



Thursday, February 21, 2008

Assessing Organizational Learning Capacity

The March 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review provides a survey tool that you can use to diagnose how well your organization learns, and how well it refines its strategies and processes.

The survey is the centerpiece of the article, "Is Yours a Learning Organization?" by David A. Garvin (professor of business administration at Harvard), Amy C.Edmondson (professor of leadership and management at Harvard), and Frencesca Gino (visiting professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon). You can also access the survey online at los.hbs.edu.

The three-part structure of the survey reflects the authors' view, based on research findings in the organizational development field, that there are three basic building blocks that enable organizational learning:
  • A supportive learning environment — A learning organization cultivates an environment in which it is psychologically safe to ask questions, admit mistakes, etc.; in which differences in perspective are appreciated; in which there is openness to new ideas; and in which people have time for reflection.

  • Concrete learning processes and practices — The processes in question encompass "experimentation to develop and test new products and services; intelligence gathering to keep track of competitive, customer, and technological trends; disciplined analysis and interpretation to identify and solve problems; and education and training..." It is also vital that the organization have systematic means of sharing information (such as after action reviews).

  • Leadership that reinforces learning — Practices to look for include inviting input from others in discussions, asking probing questions, good listening, and providing time and resources for learning from experience.
Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino emphasize that the numeric results of the survey need to be evaluated in comparison to benchmarks, which they provide, drawing on the results of two sets of surveys they conducted in 2006 among 225 executives from a cross-section of companies.


Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Dallas Fed on Financial Risk Taking

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has published an excellent article explaining how the current stress in US credit markets developed. "From Complacency to Crisis: Financial Risk Taking in the Early 21st Century" describes the way in which growing complacency about risk eventually led to subprime mortgage defaults that forced investors to recalibrate their risk assessments, a process that is still undeway.

The opening paragraphs of the article summarize the story that authors Danielle DiMartino (an economics writer), John V. Duca (VP and senior policy advisor at the Dallas Fed), and Harvey Rosenblum (executive VP and director of research at the Dallas Fed) lay out in remainder of their piece:
During the first half of this decade, the belief that new financial products would adequately shield investors from risk encouraged financial flows to less creditworthy households and businesses. By late 2006, U.S. financial markets were flashing warning signals of a potential financial crisis.

In a sign that investors had become too complacent, risk premiums had all but vanished in junk bond and emerging-market interest rate spreads. Then, conditions changed abruptly. In the important and usually stable market for asset-backed commercial paper, premiums on three-month paper over Treasury bills jumped from 0.17 percentage point in February 2007 to 2.15 points in August. Meanwhile, rising subprime mortgage defaults led investors to abandon their sanguine beliefs about the risk of many mortgage and nonmortgage products.

The backdrop for these events was a period of macroeconomic stability that fed complacency about risk. This relatively benign economic environment, when combined with the new, structured financial products, increased financial flows to nonprime mortgage and business borrowers. The result was an overeager acceptance of risk taking that began correcting itself only after mounting subprime mortgage defaults reverberated through the broader financial markets.
At the end of their article, the authors list lessons learned from the credit crisis, including the fundamental need for a return to more sustainable risk taking.


Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Teacher Training in Bhutan

In an earlier post, I wrote about case-writing training provided to forestry managers in Bhutan. The video below, produced by the non-profit organization, TVE Asia Pacific, shows another type of training Bhutan has recently adopted, namely distance learning for the country's teachers.

As you may have noticed, Bhutan has been showing up fairly frequently in the news recently. In line with this rising profile, Bhutan will be featured in this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. You can read background information on Bhutan, and access the festival program, here.


Labels: , ,

Monday, February 18, 2008

Game Plan for Learning

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on how testing helps cement learning, I'd like to call attention to an article that appeared in the New York Times on January 28. In the article, Winnie Hu reports on use of a technology in the classroom that represents a practical application of the principle that people retain more of what they learn when they are regularly and repeatedly tested on the material they're studying.

Source: Southeast Missouri State University

The technology in question is an audience response system. Each student has a handheld keypad that s/he uses to register answers to questions the teacher asks. The students' responses can be displayed in real time so that both teacher and students know how everyone is doing on physics, or math, or history, or whatever the subject happens to be.

And, according to the Karpicke/Roediger research outlined in yesterday's post, this interactive testing is also helping students remember more completely the material the teacher is covering.

Last but not least, there seems to be a strong motivational aspect to the system. The quiz show atmosphere entices most of the students to actively "play along" with the teacher's plan for the day's class.

Companies that use quiz show formats as part of their training are following a similar path to reinforcing and cementing learning. You can read an about a few representative examples here.


Labels: , , ,

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tests are Your Friend

When I was in graduate school, my main study technique for exams was to create lists of questions and answers that I then used to test myself. I was quite satisfied with the results this approach produced.

Now I've learned that there is a name for the process: the testing effect — "enhanced memory resulting from the act of retrieving information, as compared to simply reading or hearing the information."

Last week, Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger, psychology professors at Purdue University and Washington University, respectively, published a paper in Science, reporting the results of recent research they conducted on the testing effect.1 You can read details in a press release posted by Purdue.

The opening sentence of the press release — "Students learn more from taking test than they do by studying" — is misleading. The point is that how you study makes a big difference in how much you retain. You need to make information retrieval — in this context, self-testing — the main way in which you do your studying (once you've read through whatever it is you need to learn). Indeed, at the end of the press release, Karpicke is quoted as saying, "Testing is really most effective when students implement it on their own."

As Karpicke explains,
... during a test there are cognitive processes happening that actually promote learning. Testing is not just an assessment of what you studied. The act of retrieving information actually improves memory because you are practicing a skill. And that's the exact same skill you are going to need to retrieve that information again and again."
The Karpicke and Roediger research also clarifies that you should keep testing your recall even after you have succeeded once or twice in recalling particular concepts.

For instance, just because you are able to recall once or twice that the German word "Wissenschaft" means "science, knowledge," you should not drop "Wissenschaft" from the list of German words you test yourself on from time to time. To promote long-term recall, you should continue asking yourself periodically what "Wissenschaft" means.

1 "The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning," by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger, III, Science, Feb 2008, Vol. 319, no. 5865, pp. 966-968.


Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Differentiation - Easier Said than Done

If you're trying to come up with concrete ways of helping your employees home in on true points of differentiation between what your company has to offer and what is available from competitors, the list of questions supplied in a recent post at brandingstrategyinsider.com can help.

The thesis of the post is that "[o]ften, exploring different competitive frames of reference will help you choose the most powerful brand benefit." All the suggested questions are certainly worth pondering, but for the specific purpose of articulating your point(s) of differentiation, think particularly about these (slightly edited):

Could another brand within our category credibly insert its name into our brand’s positioning statement?

What are the most likely substitutes for our product/service?

What could neutralize our point of difference?

What could make our point of difference obsolete?

What could kill our category?

Note that you don't need to reflect on and discuss a long list of questions to accomplish the goal of identifying and articulating true points of differentiation. Rather, your team should tackle intensively a select group of questions that stimulate creative thinking and iterative refinement of your position statements and value proposition.



Friday, February 15, 2008

Don't Blame Phishing Victims

A research paper (pdf) published in 2006 by Rachna Dhamija (Harvard), J. D. Tygar (Berkeley), and Marti Hearst (Berkeley) indicates why even well-informed and experienced Web users can be fooled by phishing sites. As the paper's abstract explains,
To build systems shielding users from fraudulent (or phishing) websites, designers need to know which attack strategies work and why. This paper provides the first empirical evidence about which malicious strategies are successful at deceiving general users. We first analyzed a large set of captured phishing attacks and developed a set of hypotheses about why these strategies might work. We then assessed these hypotheses with a usability study in which 22 participants were shown 20 web sites and asked to determine which ones were fraudulent. We found that 23% of the participants did not look at browser-based cues such as the address bar, status bar and the security indicators, leading to incorrect choices 40% of the time. We also found that some visual deception attacks can fool even the most sophisticated users. These results illustrate that standard security indicators are not effective for a substantial fraction of users, and suggest that alternative approaches are needed.
I would echo the authors' recommendation that we give up on preventive measures of the "be careful" sort, and move firmly in the direction of hardening Web sites, and the way in which they are accessed, so that people don't have to play the internet equivalent of Russian roulette when using sites to conduct business and obtain information.



Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day 2008



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Prediction Market Hiccups

Thanks to an article by David Leonhardt in today's New York Times, we have an update on how one popular prediction market — Intrade — is doing in predicting the outcomes of the current round of primary elections.

The predictions have been less than accurate, notably, in the case of New Hampshire, which raises the obvious question, Why?

Leonhardt cites the analysis of Barry Ritholtz on his well-trafficked blog, The Big Picture. In a January 11 post, Ritholtz points to three problems with the political prediction markets: their thinness, their small trading volumes, and the low number of dollars at risk.

The small scale of the Intrade market means that
  • if a significant portion of the participants are biased, they can skew the prices. An example is Ron Paul's non-zero Intrade odds of winning any primary in which he is running.

  • sluggish response to new information, with eventual overreaction all too common. Leohhardt suspects that this is due to a shortage of smart money in the market.
Leonhardt concludes his article by noting that as more traders recognize the opportunity to make money off the inefficiency of Intrade's political markets, the level of inefficiency will drop, i.e., more smart money will make Intrade's prices more accurately reflective of true probabilities.



Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lincoln's Birthday 2008

The photo below shows the recently restored cottage on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in northwest Washington, D.C., about three miles north of the Capitol, that was used by Abraham Lincoln during his Presidency.

Photo by Erin Carlson Mast

You can get additional information by visiting www.lincolncottage.org.



Monday, February 11, 2008

"Lady Di" Walker

I've received an email notice from MASS MoCA that Dianne Walker will be spending several days in North Adams giving talks and classes and then performing on February 23.

Walker is a wonderful tap dancer and dance teacher. The video below is the only one I found at Youtube showing her in action. The video is a little over six minutes of what I believe is improv done to the theme from the movie "Black Orpheus," as performed by an uncredited live ensemble.

You can read a February 2005 Dance Magazine interview in which Dianne Walker discusses her approach to teaching here.

You can watch and listen to a 1963 performance of the "Black Orpheus" theme by its composer Luiz Bonfá and Perry Como (singing English lyrics) in the video below.


Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Building Leaders' Emotional Intelligence

One of the readings a colleague and I used for a recent training program that included a large element of learning about how to discuss problems with clients, was Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee (GBM).1

In this post, I'd like to call attention to a section of the book dealing with sustainable learning. Longitudinal research Boyatzis and others have conducted for the better part of two decades indicates that a person who targets particular emotional intelligence competencies to strengthen can achieve clear improvement that, in large measure, lasts indefinitely. As GBM explain,
In contrast to the honeymoon effect of most leadership development programs, the gains lasted years for these MBA students [the participants in the research]. Up to two years after going through the change process, they still showed 47 percent improvement on self-awareness competencies such as self-confidence, and on self-management competencies such as adaptability and the drive to achieve. When it came to social awareness and relationship management skills, improvements were even greater: 75 percent for competencies such as empathy and team leadership. (p. 105)
Five to seven years after the original [competency-based MBA] course, people were showing improvements on additional competencies, not just those on which they'd already improved after three to five years. In other words, once they'd learned how to improve the emotional intelligence abilities that make leaders great, they continued developing new strengths on their own. That finding provides solid evidence that these competencies can continue to be acquired throughout life. (pp. 106-107)
The moral of the story: "...leaders can be made more effective — if they are offered the right tools for learning" and if they adopt a conscious plan to improve specific aspects of themselves that they want to change.

1 Published by Harvard Business School Press in 2002. The paperback edition came out in 2004.


Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Eilen Jewell in Ashfield

Many people in the town of town of Ashfield MA celebrated a Samedi Gras today by going to a dinner in the town hall organized by the proprietor of Elmer's Store (who happens to be Nan; Elmer is long gone). The crowd then went upstairs to listen to Eilen ("eelen") Jewell and her three-man band perform.

The video below gives a taste of Jewell's style. In the video you hear her song "Where They Never Say Your Name" as background for a drive through a rural part of Calvert County in my home state of Maryland.


Labels: ,

Friday, February 08, 2008

The "Weak Man" Argument

In the February/March issue of Scientific American Mind, Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse, philosophy professors at Felician College and Vanderbilt University, respectively, note the existence of a close relative to the ever-popular straw man argument. Talisse calls this second type of false argument the "weak man argument," a technique whereby
a person sets up the opposition's weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival's position as the straw man argument does.
Raley and Talisse go on to point out that
Weak man tactics are harder to detect than those of the straw man variety. Because straw man arguments are closely related to an opponent's true position, a clever listener might be able to spot the truth amid the hyperbole, understatement or other corrupted version of that view. A weak man argument, however, is more opaque because it contains a grain of truth and often bears little similarity to the stronger arguments that should also be presented. Therefore, a listener has to know a lot more about the situation to imagine the information that a speaker or writer has cleverly disregarded.
Among Raley and Talisse's suggestions for fortifying yourself against being misled by a weak man argument is taking the trouble to construct in your own mind the strongest argument against what the other party is saying, and seeing whether your argument against is persuasive. Another suggestion is to ask yourself, "Why should I not believe this?"


Labels: ,

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Competence as an Executive Coach

We all have our own lists of books and articles that have been especially helpful in developing a point of view on one professional topic or another. For me, the issues involved in executive coaching have been most clearly and succinctly covered in an article Steven Berglas, a clinical psychologist and, for some years now, an executive coach, published in the June 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

"The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching" discusses three especially significant pitfalls a company faces when hiring an executive coach for a manager who presents problems in need of fixing.

Pitfall #1 is insisting on a quick fix. Authentic, long-term change in a manager's destructive and/or self-destructive behaviors generally requires considerable effort and introspection to identify inner conflicts that are producing dysfunctional behavior. Imagining that a coach can parachute in and turn problem behaviors around in a wonderfully brief period of time is very often wishful thinking and can in fact worsen the situation.

Pitfall #2 is assuming that changing behavior will solve the problems. All too often, taking a behavioral approach means addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes. As indicated above, what is generally needed is careful consideration of the particular individual's psychological situation, and then devising approaches to correcting the root causes of problem behaviors.

Pitfall #3 is failing to recognize when a coach is abusing his/her power over the client and the client's organization. Berglas describes an example from his own experience in which a coach was allowed to play a major role in deciding on promotions at a company, but made his recommendations exclusively on the basis of personality profiling, rather than a more comprehensive evaluation of candidates' suitability for advancement.

Berglas concludes his article with a commonsense recommendation that those seeking the services of an executive coach pay close attention to hiring a genuine expert, which means a professional with expertise in psychological evaluation and interpersonal dynamics. He also emphasizes that some people, such as depressed individuals and narcissists, are not psychologically prepared or predisposed to benefit from executive coaching, which is aimed at closing skills gaps, not at correcting psychological problems.


Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Systems Thinking Skills

In 1993, Barry Richmond (pdf), a one-time engineering professor at Dartmouth College and then head of his own software development company before his untimely death at 55, published an article on systems thinking skills that holds up well some 15 years later.

"Systems Thinking: Critical Thinking Skills for the 1990s and Beyond" describes seven skills, with examples, that a person must develop in order to be adept at systems thinking:
  • Dynamic thinking — "the ability to see and deduce behavior patterns rather than focusing on, and seeking to predict, events."

  • Closed-loop thinking — Seeing "the world as a set of ongoing, interdependent processes rather than as a laundry list of one-way relations between a group of factors and a phenomenon that these factors are causing." Richmond notes, "Making the system itself the cause of its behaviors, rather than a set of external forces places the burden of improving performance on relations that those within the system can manage." Businesspeople, take heed.

  • Generic thinking — Instead of viewing every situation as a special case, look for "the similarities in the underlying feedback-loop relations that generate" a phenomenon such as a business cycle.

  • Structural thinking — Instead of depending on causal loops to represent dynamic processes, use structural diagrams, which allow more accurate representation of cause-and-effect.

  • Operational thinking — "[T]hinking in terms of how things really work — not how they theoretically work." Operational thinking is important because it enables thinking "more effectively about what the real levers are for managing the process" you're analyzing.

  • Continuum thinking — Important for avoiding either/or, us vs. them thinking. Instead of dealing only with extremes, one should allow for a range of possibilities. Richmond notes, "The development of continuum thinking capability is closely related to the development of generic thinking skills. Both emphasize the ability to recognize the familiar in what appears diverse or distinct. It's the ability to see connections and interdependencies rather than sharp boundaries and disconnections."

  • Scientific thinking — Thinking that enables clear analysis of variables, including variables that do not lend themselves to precise measurement, and that centers on testing explicit hypotheses about cause and effect.
Richmond recognizes that trying to teach all seven of these systems thinking skills simultaneously is unlikely to be effective. Instead, he recommends giving separate attention to development of each skill:
We've found that explicitly separating these seven tracks, then attending to skill development in each, greatly increases learning productivity.
Furthermore ...
By viewing systems thinking within the broader context of critical thinking skills, and by recognizing the multidimensional nature of the thinking skills involved in systems thinking, we can greatly reduce the time it takes for people to apprehend this framework.
If Richmond's article piques your interest, you can learn more about his systems analysis software at the website of isee systems, the successor to the company he founded in 1984.


Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Recognizing and Dealing with Workplace Bullies

In a presentation (pdf) Camilo Azcarate (University Ombuds Officer, Princeton University), Nicholas Diehl (Associate Ombuds, Princeton University), Howard Gadlin (Ombudsman, National Institutes of Health), and Patricia J. Lynch (Corporate Ombudsman, United Technologies Corporation) (ADGL) gave at the first annual International Ombudsman Association conference, held in April 2006, they cited ten characteristic behaviors of workplace bullies that managers need to be alert to. Below, somewhat edited is the ADGL list.

A workplace bully:
  1. is charming in public; this charm is used to seduce the victim with the aim of dominating and controlling.

  2. spreads rumors in private to reduce the victim’s power and damage his/her reputation.

  3. is apparently supportive in private but exposes the victim’s mistakes in public.

  4. distorts reality to make him/herself look good and the victim look bad.

  5. is hypocritical — says the right things but is exploitative and manipulative.

  6. is evasive, does not provide straight answers, and gets angry when confronted.

  7. is pompous and self-righteous and inflates his/her importance.

  8. is passive-aggressive. For example, the bully withholds information and works to isolate the victim.

  9. presents him/herself as a victim and blames others for his/her pain and suffering.

  10. pretends to care, and humiliates the victim under the guise of caring.
ADGL go on to cite several symptoms of possible bullying, namely:
  • high employee turnover

  • high use of sick time

  • increased stress-related disabilities
ADGL conclude with some strategies to consider for dealing with workplace bullies:
  • Be empathetic to the bully, listen to his/her perspective.

  • Offer coaching to the bully to change his/her behavior and view of reality.

  • Increase awareness in the organization of bullying behaviors.

  • Use care in hiring to avoid potential bullies; look for evidence that a candidate is capable of empathy.

  • Use care in promotion to avoid rewarding bullying behavior.

  • Make managers accountable for promoting a culture of interpersonal respect and emotional intelligence.

  • Provide training in interpersonal skills.
A more complete and detailed set of anti-bullying measures is provided in a BNET.com article published last year.


Labels: ,

Monday, February 04, 2008

Assessing Your Employee Recognition Efforts

In 2005, the Society for Human Resource Management published an eight-page white paper on "The Fundamentals of Employee Recognition" (pdf), by Teresa A. Daniel and Gary S. Metcalf.

The whole paper is worth a look, but I'd particularly call attention to the "Climate Assessment for Your Current Recognition Program," which is included as an appendix to the paper. The assessent consists of ten True/False questions:
  1. We show some form of appreciation to our employees every week.

  2. We measure what we reward and we reward what we measure.

  3. We compete, between teams, for gifts and prizes.

  4. Employees get to choose at least some of their projects.

  5. We reward behaviors linked to only one or two key organizational values.

  6. Employees see the rewards we currently offer as valuable.

  7. Employees generally think that our reward programs are silly or demeaning.

  8. Our organizational, departmental and individual goals are clearly defined and understood.

  9. Peers recognize and reward each other.

  10. We recognize small improvements as well as the major ones.
To score your answers:
  • For questions 1, 6, and 10, award one point for each answer of "True."

  • For questions 2, 4, 8, and 9, award two points for each answer of "True."

  • For questions 3, 5, and 7, award one point for each answer of "False."
Daniel and Metcalf provide this guidance on scoring (paraphrased here):
  • If your total is 13-14 points, you can conclude that your recognition program is most likely quite effective in boosting employee satisfaction and keeping retention of especially valuable employees high.

  • If your total is 11-12 points, your program is most likely effective in promoting employee satisfaction and retention.

  • If your score is 7-10 points, you should look for ways to further strengthen a program that is satisfactory, but very likely not nearly powerful as it could be.

  • If your score is 6 or fewer points, you should give serious consideration to overhauling your recognition program with an eye to making it markedly more effective.
A related paper by Daniel and Metcalf on "The Science of Motivation" is here (pdf).



Sunday, February 03, 2008

Engineers Can Help with Brand-Building

I continue to follow news of what tacks American auto companies are trying as they attempt restore their competitive strength. Most recently, I came upon a report of an announcement from Chrysler that it is altering how it designs and engineers new vehicles.

A major aspect of the new set-up is organizing product teams by brand:
The Jeep team will focus on the SUV brand; the truck team is responsible for advancing the Dodge truck brand; and the car and minivan team develops Chrysler's full-size cars, the current midsize lineup and minivan products.

In addition, the future midsize product team focuses on future midsize vehicles for worldwide markets; and SRT [Street and Racing Technology] continues Chrysler's performance branding.
This is in contrast to the 2004 product team set-up, which involved production teams that were platform-based. (For example, there were teams for body-on-frame vehicles, such as trucks, and for front-drive vehicles. See this report in Marketing Daily.)

Now, if things go according to plan, everyone on the production teams, regardless of whether they have a direct marketing function, will be attuned to the importance of giving brand values high priority in discussions of the myriad issues that come up during the process of designing a vehicle and bringing it into production.



Saturday, February 02, 2008

Integrating Risk Management and Knowledge Management

As a follow-on to yesterday's post, I'd like to call attention to the initiative NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) has undertaken that seeks to integrate their risk management and knowledge management processes. The end goal is maximizing the chances of success of ESMD missions.

The person spearheading the initiative is Dave Lengyel, ESMD Risk and Knowledge Management Officer, whose presentations (pdf) on the subject are the sources for the quick overview below.

The initiative involves five practices:
  1. Establish Pause and Learn (PaL) processes — Modeled after military After Action Reviews, these are learning events that occur "at the end of selected critical events in the life of a project. ... PaL meetings are structured and facilitated by specialists who are not project members."

  2. Click to enlarge
    (Note: "MSR" stands for Monthly Status Review. A PaL "hotwash report" is a write-up of the findings that came out of the PaL discussion.)

  3. Generate and infuse knowledge-based risks (KBRs) — A KBR is is one that people scope out, in large measure, by taking into account learning from previous experience. KBRs are the source of many, if not most, of the lessons learned that best practice requires incorporating into project requirements, processes, and plans. The lessons center on which mitigation strategies worked for a particular risk and which didn't. A key part of the knowledge-based risk management process is periodic verification of compliance with the mandate to build on lessons learned when making project decisions.

  4. Establish communities of practice (CoP) — As defined by Etienne Wenger, communities of practice are "groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis." ESMD uses wiki software to facilitate collaborative work by its communities of practice.

  5. Provide knowledge sharing forums — ESMD makes a particular effort to set up events, such as seminars, at which current employees and alumni can meet for discussion of experiences and lessons learned. There are also knowledge sharing workshops in which senior project leaders "share their insights, what they learned and what they might have done differently based on a recent project experience."

  6. Promote experience-based training — This practice is being incorporated into ESMD's project management and engineering training, in part by developing relevant case studies.
A complementary paper on "Building a Healthy Learning Organization at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center," by Ed Rogers, a colleague with whom Dave Lengyel works closely, is here (.doc).


Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 01, 2008

Risk Management at NASA

The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate of NASA — the group responsible for planning and carrying out manned travel to the moon and Mars — has published a risk management plan (pdf) that includes a useful diagram of the risk management process that can be applied (with, perhaps, minor modification) to any enterprise.

As you can see in the graphic below (click to enlarge), each step in the risk management process involves working with inputs to produce output(s) needed as preparation for carrying out subsequent steps:

Continuous Risk Management Process Flow
Source: Exploration Systems Risk Management Plan (2007), p.4

Note that "FMEA" stands for Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, and "FTA" stands for Fault Tree Analysis.