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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Incorporating Risk in Strategy Planning

As a follow-on to a recent post that touched on the importance of incorporating risk management in strategy development and execution, I'd like to note the five-step process for doing this that McKinseyites Kevin Buehler (a director at McKinsey), Andrew Freeman (a senior expert on risk), and Ron Hulme (also a director) lay out in an article in the September 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Buehler, Freeman, and Hulme (BFH) argue that
Engineering and managing a company's evolving risk portfolio has become an organizing principle for strategic choice, and companies that succeed in doing this generate far higher returns on their equity than those that stick with their traditional portfolios. That's partly because when they focus on their natural risks [risks for whose management they have a competitive advantage], they can typically support high debt levels: Interest payments — unlike dividends — can offset taxes. Companies can also save on operating costs ...
The five steps in the process for optimizing corporate risk management that BFH recommend are:
  1. Identify and understand your company's major risks. Typically, this means analyzing and managing 4 to 6 risks.

  2. Decide which risks are natural for your company. These are the risks your company should embrace; other risks should be transferred to third parties or mitigated through such means as insurance.

  3. Determine your company's capacity and appetite for risk. Capacity for risk is determined by probabilistic assessment of such critical items as cash flow at risk. For example, in the case of cash flow at risk, the key question is: What is the probability of cash shortages or surpluses over each year of the planning period?

  4. Embed risk in all decisions and processes — investment, commercial, financial, and operational. The key questions: Are critical business decisions made with a clear view of how they change your company's risk profile? Are core business processes consistent with your approach to risk?

  5. Align your company's governance and organization around risk. This means having systems and infrastructure in place for monitoring and managing the risks your company has assumed.
BFH clarify what this process looks like in practice by describing how it was used successfully by TXU Corporation (now Energy Future Holdings), a Dallas-based company with a portfolio of energy subsidiaries.

BFH point out that "developing an institution-wide approach to risk requires a lot of education," which means a training plan should be part of the process of moving to the risk mind-set and culture that BFH advocate. The aim is to ensure that "the organization is aligned from top to bottom with a common understanding of the company's key risks and overall level of exposure" and that those making decisions know how to correctly factor risk considerations into their analysis (e.g., they know how to calculate risk capacity).



Saturday, August 30, 2008

Training Cotton Farmers in Africa

At one point while I was traveling in Germany last month, I found myself in immediate need of a clean shirt, so a bought one on sale for 5 euros. It turned out to be a product associated with the Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) project, whose aim is to improve the social and economic conditions of small cotton farmers in Africa.

CmiA's specific goals are:
  • Improvement of cotton growing, moving towards sustainable production. This includes using water, fertilizers, and pesticides in the best way for achieving high yields without damaging the environment. It also includes encouraging parents to send their children — girls as well as boys — to primary school, and helping farmers access markets without being forced to accept artificially low prices set by monopolistic buyers.

  • Enhancing the competitiveness of African cotton. The farmers' cotton is of high quality, which makes it attractive on the world market — if its price is competitive. CmiA helps farmers learn optimized management practices that enable them to maximize their gross margins.

  • Corporate responsibility in dealings affecting cotton farmers and the environment.
CmiA's effectiveness is evaluated using five sustainability indicators:
  • Children completing primary education

  • Efficiency of water usage

  • Pesticide use (avoidance of overuse)

  • Fertilizer use (avoidance of overuse)

  • Farmers' income (including timely receipt of payment from buyers)
CmiA's three-year pilot phase in three countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, and Zambia — is just now coming to an end. I will be watching to see how learning from the pilot is used to widen CmiA's impact.


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Friday, August 29, 2008

Designing a User-Friendly Website

There is a wealth of detailed documentation of computer how-to's at various IBM websites and pages. One series of articles I particularly like offers guidance on website design using open source software (such as the content management platform, Drupal). As long as you don't need edgy aesthetics and unusual navigation at your site, the IBM recommendations provide a solid grounding in how to achieve user-friendliness.

(click on image to enlarge)

The four phases of website design: analysis, design, prototype, and development

Source:IBM developerWorks

The above graphic gives you an overview of the website design process à la IBM. The article in which the graphic is embedded provides detailed recommendations for each of the four phases of the process.


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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Getting an Employee's Manager on Board with a Training Program

My latest find, as I keep a lookout for practical and credible advice that fellow training practitioners are offering, is an article by Jeffrey Berk, COO of KnowledgeAdvisors.

In the article, Berk concisely lays out ten best practices for managers whose employees are attending training programs. His list fits my own views, and I encourage taking a look.

To help with improving the results obtained from training, Berk also suggests a half dozen questions to ask when a learner comes back from a program:
  1. What percent of learning actually was applied to the job?

  2. When did the learner apply the learning (e.g., time-to-job impact)?

  3. What are the major barriers to applying the learning on the job?

  4. Did you set expectations with your manager before the learning event?

  5. Were you provided adequate resources to optimally apply the learning?

  6. Did you determine specific uses for the training after it took place?
This combination of best practices and evaluation questions from Berk both embodies useful guidance and illustrates how straightforwardly one can talk about training issues (i.e., no jargon is needed).


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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do layoffs help a company shore up its financial position?

Since 1995, Wayne Cascio, a professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver, has been studying how companies fare following implementation of layoffs aimed at cutting costs. The conclusions he draws from this research are summarized in an interview David Creelman published at hr.com in 2006.

A key question from Creelman is "How do companies that see employees as sources of renewal respond when they are under economic pressure?" Cascio's answer:
I found, counterintuitive to companies that see their people as costs, that the best companies get people involved. They see their people as part of the solution instead of part of the problem. ...

There is a mental set that senior managers have when they see employees as assets. They think about downsizing as the last resort instead of the first one. I studied a little firm in Vermont called Rhino Foods. They are a specialty-dessert manufacturer. When times got tough they used teams of employees to come up with creative alternatives to laying people off. One of the things the company did was lend its employees to customers, suppliers and local businesses. The company was then able to bring the employees back in the spring when demand picked up for ice cream.

I call this a warehousing strategy — a warehousing of employees. ... It takes some creative strategies to work around the obvious solution of cutting people.
Cascio emphasizes that the best approach is not pre-determined. Instead,
... responsible restructurers go out of their way to communicate with employees through a lot of different media. They try to promote business literacy and help employees understand how the business works, how it finances itself and how it markets its products. This gives employees a better grasp of possible solutions. When you do this, people really sign on as partners and are willing to look for some creative alternatives.
The principle I would emphasize, based on observing behavior in management simulations I've facilitated, is that cutting costs, unless you're absolutely sure you're cutting fat, will compromise revenue. This is the fundamental reason that employee layoffs generally are not associated with improved financial results over the long term.


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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Randy Sabourin on Business Improvisation

To build on several previous posts dealing with improvisation, I'd like to call attention to what Toronto-based training consultant (and jazz guitarist) Randy Sabourin has to say on the subject of using improvisation in business.

In an article published at ChangeThis.com, Sabourin lays out his understanding of business improvisation — what it is and isn't, how it can be understood by using jazz improvisation as an analogy, and how it is actually put into action.

A more concise explanation of Sabourin's thinking is available at his website, where he defines business improvisation as
the ability to access creativity in the moment and under pressure, to resolve or direct the resolution of a situation to meet your objectives. It is the ability to converge composition, creativity and execution to achieve success.
Sabourin emphasizes that
Business improvisation is not “winging it” nor is it blustering your way through a situation. In fact improvisation is a skill that is mastered through preparation, practice and patience.
He elaborates the analogy with jazz:
In a typical jazz song, the musicians agree to play a particular song, in a specific key at an agreed upon tempo or speed. One instrument plays the "head" or melody to establish the song for the listeners. After the head is played, several musicians take turns playing improvised solos; at some point a musician establishes the melody again and the song ends. ...

There are a number of important lessons that can be drawn from the jazz analogy. First, the musicians must know their craft. They’ve practised for years and studied scales, musical theory and other musicians’ techniques.

Second, they know the chord changes of the song and the notes of the melody. There are many places in the song where improvisation can take place, however they always occur within the boundaries of established key, tempo and chord progression.

With these as the background, solo improvisations can occur in real time, in ways that are rarely the same. The solos appear to be effortless and spontaneous within a framework that, when done in concert with the rest of the musicians, create true art.

In business improvisation the same premises apply. In order to successfully improvise you must know the material, you must be prepared, and you should be a master of the content you’re presenting.
Sabourin provides an overview of the four steps into which he divides the business improvisation process:
  1. Attention — Listening non-judgmentally in order to gather information about the situation you're in — a situation that, for some reason, differs from what you expected.

  2. Acceptance — Taking the situation as it is, rather than trying futilely to control it. Concentrating instead on using the information gathered in Step 1 "as an input into the revised decision-making process is essential to effective improvisation." Sabourin emphasizes that "acceptance ... also means understanding and playing within the rules of engagement. In other words, there is an agreement amongst the players on the framework, the objectives and the ways in which people will work to achieve common goals."

  3. Adaptation — We "blend salient facts with our creativity and adapt to the new situation," rather than clinging to old approaches that are now a poor choice for achieving our objectives.

  4. Advancement — Helping get to a solution by "offering something that moves the situation forward. ... The message is 'I’ve listened, I understand and accept, I’ve thought about it and here is what I think.'" Good communication skills make a real difference in how effectively this step is handled.
Aside from the practicality of the approach he offers for using improvisation in business, what impressed me about Sabourin's thinking was his emphasis on the importance of preparation, since this matched my own view of what enables people to improvise good solutions to problems.

"Practice practice practice" is the key for getting oneself — and one's team — ready to tackle a problem, issue, or opportunity that suddenly emerges and requires quick action. All the prior practice in developing skills and understanding one's behavioral tendencies when under pressure prepares one for "evaluating a situation and making the best of it by combining materials at hand, practice and experience, and creativity."


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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Elusiveness of Self-Knowledge

Yesterday's post is an example of how routinely assessment instruments come up in discussions of how to characterize the qualities and competencies of effective businesspeople. These references to assessment tools that include self-assessment beg the question, How well are people able to do a self-assessment?

Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has been investigating this question for many years, and his answer is cautionary. It seems that people often do not know themselves well and can only improve their self-knowledge by taking particular steps to uncover nonconscious traits and motives that play an important role in determining their decisions and actions.

As Wilson explains in his book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, "Understanding the causes of our responses is crucial to avoiding unwanted influences on our feelings and behavior." Unfortunately, "much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness."

Wilson offers two approaches to achieving accurate self-knowledge. One is captured in the rationale that lies behind 360-degree evaluations: Learning what others think about your behavior and performance can be enlightening.

The other tack to improved self-knowledge is observing one's own behavior and the conditions under which it occurs, as opposed to trying through introspection to figure out why one does X rather than Y.

If you don't have access to Wilson's book, you can get a good idea of his thinking from "Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value and Potential for Improvement" (pdf), a 2004 article he co-authored with Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia.


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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Measuring a Leader's Social Intelligence

I prefer getting my updates on cognitive science from Scientific American, so when I came upon "Social Intelligence and the Biology Of Leadership" in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, it was one of the exhibits, rather than the text of the article itself, that was of most interest to me.

The exhibit in question lists the seven qualities that authors Daniel Goleman (Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations) and Richard Boyatzis (Case Western Reserve University) use in their 360-degree instrument, the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory, to assess an executive's social intelligence.

In a brief article (pdf) published by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, Goleman explains:
The ingredients of social intelligence as I see it can be organized into two broad categories: social awareness, what we sense about others — and social facility, what we then do with that awareness.

Social awareness refers to a spectrum that runs from primal empathy (instantaneously sensing another’s inner state) to empathic accuracy (understanding her feelings and thoughts) to social cognition (“getting” complicated social situations).

... Social facility builds on social awareness to allow smooth, effective interactions. The spectrum of social facility includes self-presentation, influence, concern, and synchrony (interacting smoothly at the nonverbal level).
The seven social intelligence qualities that Goleman and Boyatzis put forward are:
  • Empathy — Sensing others' feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.

  • Attunement — Listening attentively to others and thinking about how they feel.

  • Organizational awareness — Reading a group's emotional currents and power relationships.

  • Influence — Wielding effective tactics for persuasion.

  • Developing others — Sensing others' development needs and bolstering their abilities.

  • Inspiration — Inspiring and guiding individuals and groups.

  • Teamwork — Working with others toward shared goals. Creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals.
(Definitions, except for that of "attunement," come from the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.)


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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Buddy Harman, 1928 - 2008

Session musicians, even the best, are little known to the fans of the name stars for whom they play. Even since I read Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, a memoir by the drummer who performed on such recordings as Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," I've been more attentive to the work of the session drummers on some of my favorite recordings.

One such is Buddy Harman, who died on Thursday. As recounted in the obituary that appears in today's New York Times, the hit records on which Harman performed include Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

Another Orbison hit on which Harman performed is "Only the Lonely," which you can listen to in the video below.


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Friday, August 22, 2008

Trey McIntyre Project at Jacob's Pillow

At age 39, Trey McIntyre has decided to make his Trey McIntyre Project a full-time dance company. Their debut was this week at Jacob's Pillow, where I caught their program this evening.

Dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project performing "Leatherwing Bat"
(Ben Rudick in the Boston Globe)

The program opened with "Surrender," which had its world premiere on Wednesday. This duet for Chanel DaSilva and Jason Hartley was set to "The Loco-Motion" performed by Grand Funk Railroad, "Dance of the Mirlitons" from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," and John Lennon's "Real Love," performed by Regina Spektor. Aside from the clashing colors of the costumes (red white and blue for Hartley; purple, black, and pink for DaSilva), the dance was an impressive item. McIntyre has an unmistakable gift for inventing movement — for the whole body — that honors the music without overdoing things, e.g., by incorporating literal mimicry of lyrics. I would note that the ending, in which the man and woman get beyond initial tension to acknowledged love, was on the treacly side.

The second piece was a second world premiere (first presented Wednesday evening). "Leatherwing Bat" is named after one of the Peter, Paul and Mary songs to which the dance is performed. The other cuts McIntyre uses from the "Peter, Paul and Mommy" album are "I Have a Song to Sing, O!," "Day is Done," "Going to the Zoo," "Boa Constrictor," and "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." This piece too lived up to the hype McIntyre has enjoyed in recent years — the choreography was strikingly imaginative and fluid.

The final piece, "The Reassuring Effects (of Form and Poetry)," dates from 2003. Set to Dvořák's Serenade in E (Op. 22), it was surprisingly unsatisfying even though McIntyre's facility with gestures, lifts, and ensemble movement were much in evidence. The basic problem was the thinness of the movement McIntyre devised for his eight dancers' feet; his use of the available ballet vocabulary was quite limited.

All in all, my view of McIntyre's decision to try to make a go of running a full-time company is wholeheartedly positive. He needs to work on imbuing his work with more depth, but there is no gainsaying his high degree of skill in crafting musically grounded and visually engaging movement.



Thursday, August 21, 2008

Visit to The Mount

Today I went with a couple of friends to Lenox MA to visit The Mount, the home of Edith Wharton (1862-1937), which is in the process of extensive restoration.

The Mount was built in 1901-1902 in accordance with Edith Wharton's own design. (She was assisted by architects Ogden Codman, Jr. and Francis L.V. Hoppin.) Wharton lived in the house until 1911.
Source: www.edithwharton.org

The Italianate walled garden at The Mount. Edith Wharton designed the estate's gardens, with assistance from her niece, Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959), a respected landscape designer in her own right.
Source: www.edithwharton.org


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Integrating Strategy Development and Execution

I've written several posts dealing with the balanced scorecard, a concept developed by Robert Kaplan and David Norton.1 Kaplan and Norton have now embedded the balanced scorecard concept in a management system designed to ensure that strategy development and strategy execution are carried out in a coherent, integrated fashion.

Kaplan and Norton explain their thinking in "Mastering the Management System," published in the January 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review. This article is a distillation of the authors' Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to Operations for Competitive Advantage, published last month by the Harvard Business School Press.

The Kaplan-Norton management system has five stages, forming a closed loop:2
  1. Developing the strategy.

  2. Translating of the strategy into objectives and initiatives, including process improvement initiatives. This stage includes developing a balanced scorecoard of performance metrics and targets for each objective.

  3. Creating an operational plan to accomplish the objectives and carry out the initiatives.

  4. Putting plans into action, monitoring their effectiveness, and extracting lessons from how the plans are playing out. This involves two types of meetings: Operational review meetings to review performance of departments and functions and to address any problems; and strategy review meetings to review the balanced scorecoard and the intiatives that are underway.

  5. Testing the strategy by analyzing cost, profitability and correlations between the strategy and actual performance. Management revisits the assumptions underlying its current strategy and determines if any adaptation of the strategy is needed, thereby closing the management system loop.
Kaplan and Norton note that soundly devised strategies generally have a useful life of three to five years.

Kaplan responds to astute questions about the management system in an interview Harvard Business School published August 11. Of particular interest is his response to the question about what he will be looking at next:
I have recently become sensitive to a gap in our strategy map/BSC [balanced scorecard] framework by not paying sufficient attention to enterprise risk management (ERM). Obviously, many large financial institutions, despite having risk management departments, have suffered massive losses from failure to understand the risks they took on. All companies, not just financial ones, need to have better methods to assess and monitor their risks. Quantifying financial, operating, technological, and strategic risk is far from trivial, and much needs to be learned to make enterprise risk management more effective. ...

ERM objectives and metrics could certainly have a home in the financial BSC perspective for increasing and sustain[ing] shareholder value, along with the traditional objectives of revenue growth and productivity improvements. And companies should have objectives in the process perspective to manage and mitigate the risks associated with their strategies. I am persuaded that embedding risk management objectives in strategy maps and scorecards should be a high priority for where increases in knowledge and professional expertise could add substantial value to an organization. And reviews of a company's risk position should be part of the monthly strategy review meetings.
I will be watching to see what Kaplan and Norton come up with in the area of assessing and managing risk.

1 Previous posts on use of balanced scorecards are here, here, here, here, and here.

2 If this topic is of interest, by all means read the entire article because it is full of tightly integrated detail spelling out how to handle each of the stages in the management system.


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Katrina McPherson on Improvisation in Dance

In a couple of previous posts, I've cited views of an academic and a musician concerning the value of improvisation for promoting reflectiveness and generating fresh ideas.

I'll continue this theme today by noting the work of Katrina McPherson, an accomplished video dance maker from Scotland. In a video clip available on YouTube, McPherson describes how she came to realize that she could go too far in trying to pin down every element of a taped performance in her pre-production storyboard. She had had past experience with improvisation, and this helped her recognize that leaving scope for spontaneity in the dancers' movements and/or the camera movement would raise the quality of the performance as presented in her final video.

As a side note, I'd mention that McPherson talks a bit about how fundamental framing is in creating the video version of dance movement.

In fact, as you watch the video clip, you'll see that a basic long shot is frequently juxtaposed against a closer shot so that you can see for yourself the effect of framing. In this regard, the video serves as a reminder of how the notion of "framing," discussed in yesterday's post, arose as a metaphor drawn from film-making.


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Monday, August 18, 2008

An Overview of Frames, Framing and Reframing

In negotiation and conflict situations, the ability to reframe constructively is often vital for a successful outcome.

For a good overview of frames, framing, and reframing, you can turn to a 2003 article by Sanda Kaufman (Cleveland State University), Michael Elliott (Georgia Institute of Technology), and Deborah Shmueli (Haifa University) posted at the Beyond Intractability website.

The article explains:
  • What frames are.

  • Why frames are important.

  • The sources and forms of frames — with particular attention to identity frames, characterization frames, power frames, conflict management or process frames, risk and information frames, and loss versus gain frames.

  • Reframing.

  • Frame analysis and reframing as conflict management tools.
The conclusion of the article sums up the main points:
Frames play a significant role in perpetuating intractable conflict. As lenses through which disputants interpret conflicts, frames limit the clarity of communication and the quality of information, as well as instigate escalatory processes. These frames, imbedded in personal, social, and institutional roles, are often quite stable over time, even through the ebb and flow of many dispute episodes. As such, they contribute to the intractability of the conflict. In addition, frames interact, often in ways that tend to reinforce the stability of other frames. Yet, in at least some intractable conflicts, changes in the context of the dispute or purposive interventions designed to alter frames have led to reframing that, in turn, has increased the tractability of the conflict. Strategies to accomplish this reframing include frame analysis and the construction of forums designed to enhance communication, understanding, and trust.
The same principles apply in less extreme conflict and negotiation situations.


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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Center for Creative Leadership on Mentoring

In the August issue of its Leading Effectively newsletter, the Center for Creative Leadership summarizes in a straightforward and practical way the "7 Jobs of a Mentor". According to Wayne Hart, a senior program associate at CCL, these seven jobs (somewhat edited) are:

Developing and managing the mentoring relationship — Assess your readiness to act as a mentor and your interest in doing so. Assuming you decide mentoring is for you, link up with a mentee and get to know the person more deeply, including his/her career and personal goals. On an ongoing basis, you need to work on building trust, setting goals, and keeping the mentoring relationship productive and congenial.

Sponsoring — As needed, you open doors and advocate for your mentee to enable him/her "to develop new skills and gain meaningful visibility." Typical ways of sponsoring involve "seeking new opportunities for your mentee and connecting him or her with people in your network."

Guiding and counseling — To the degree it is helpful, you can be a confidant and sounding board for your mentee. "You may help your mentee explore and understand emotional reactions or personal conflict or explore ways to deal with problems." You should be ready to tactfully "warn your mentee about behavior that is a poor fit with organizational culture" or that is apt to elicit unwanted responses from others.

Protecting — Keep an eye out for potential threats to your mentee (e.g., problematic rumors) so that he/she can forestall them or prepare appropriate responses before problems have a chance to mushroom. "Protecting may also involve cutting red tape or helping your mentee avoid assignments that aren't a good fit."

Teaching — You transfer knowledge, share experiences, and use discovery techniques to help your mentee learn.

Modeling — Your mentee will learn from watching how you handle "ethics, values and standards; styles, beliefs and attitudes; methods and procedures." Keep in mind that your mentee will undoubtedly make adaptations that fit his/her position and personality.

Motivating and inspiring — You need to support and encourage your mentee, encouraging him/her to take on challenges, to learn, and to develop confidence. "When you help your mentees link their own goals, values and emotions to the larger organizational agenda, they become more engaged in their work and in their own development."

As you would expect, the CCL article makes a point of also listing the mentee's responsibilities. The most important of these are to be:
  • Honest and open.

  • Receptive to feedback and the mentor's insights.

  • Proactive about seeking information and feedback from the mentor and others.

  • Committed to following through, i.e., to pursuing goals, investing time in learning, and taking steps toward needed change.

  • Willing to give feedback to the mentor. "The mentee needs to be able to let the mentor know what is or isn't working well in the relationship. If there is a good feedback loop between both parties, the relationship will be more flexible, course corrections can be made, and the relationship will deepen."
You can read more about the value of mentoring in "Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World," an article by Thomas J. DeLong, John J. Gabarro, and Robert J. Lees that appeared in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review.


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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal

First published in 1952, the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal helps in assessing critical thinking skills in five areas:1
  • Making accurate inferences

  • Recognizing assumptions

  • Engaging in sound deductive reasoning

  • Interpreting information (i.e., determining what conclusions one can draw, beyond a reasonable doubt, from available information)

  • Evaluating arguments (i.e., determining whether an argument is both important and relevant to the question at hand)
Harcourt Assessment, the publisher of the Watson-Glaser instrument,2 provides norms for over 40 groups — industries, occupations, types of position (e.g., executive, manager, supervisor), and students at various levels.3

You can see sample questions here (pdf).

1 Goodwin Watson and Edward M. Glaser, Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Yonkers, New York: World Book Company, 1952).

2 Harcourt Assessment is part of Pearson, Inc. as of January 30, 2008.

3 Norms are indicators of what a particular group of individuals with specified characteristics — a "norm group" — did when confronted with the test items. For example, the norm group of accountants showed a somewhat different profile of scores on the Watson-Glaser instrument from the norm group of bank tellers.



Friday, August 15, 2008

The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Program of the US Air Force has put a wealth of materials related to ADR online.1

For example, among the documents made available form the second Worldwide ADR Conference held last year at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, is an excellent treatment of "Negotiating with Difficult People" (pdf), presented by Linda Myers, Associate General Counsel in the Air Force's Office of the General Counsel.

Myers' presentation covers:
  • Remaining calm in a difficult negotiation situation.

  • Staying focused on your goal — getting your interests addressed.

  • Establishing common ground.

  • Acknowledgeing differences while expressing optimism that they can be resolved.

  • Creating a favorable climate for negotiation.

  • Putting a problem-solving frame around the other party's statements.

  • Deflecting attacks.

  • Exposing tricks.

  • Helping the other party accept a good outcome without losing face.

  • Aiding your cause by educating the other party.

  • Making sure the final agreement can be implemented with manageable risk.
What I find so appealing about this 21-slide overview, is that it applies to any type of negotiation with a difficult counterparty, not just to the types of disputes the Air Force typically has to handle (i.e., acquisitions and contract disputes, EEO complaints, labor-management disputes, and environmental disputes).

1 In the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996, ADR is defined to include "any procedures in which parties agree to use a third-party neutral to resolve issues in controversy, including but not limited to, facilitation, mediation, factfinding, minitrials, arbitration or use of ombuds, or any combination thereof." Less formally, you can think of ADR as a "set of common sense techniques and processes to resolve disputes in a faster, cheaper, less adversarial, less formal manner that can achieve as good results or better than the traditional means of settling disputes." (Source: "Appropriate Dispute Resolution" [PowerPoint], a briefing for Tinker Air Force Base Supervisory Personnel.)


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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Explicit vs. Tacit Knowledge

The University of Malaya publishes lecture notes for some of its courses online. I was interested in seeing what the course on "Information Technology and Knowledge-Based Economy," offered by Ng Boon-Kwee, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, amounted to. Notes for seven of the eight course lectures are online, but only those for the final two lectures — dealing with the "Knowledge Based Economy" — are not password protected.

The material in the notes for Lectures 7 and 8 is a well-organized presentation of basic concepts — data, information, knowledge, etc. I was particularly interested in the summary Boon-Kwee provides of the distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge:

Tacit: Personal, context-specific.
Explicit: Can be codified and explicated.

Tacit: Difficult to formalize, record, encode, or articulate.
Explicit: Can be codified and transmitted in a systematic and formal language.

Development process
Tacit: Developed through a process of trial and error encountered in practice.
Explicit: Developed through explication of tacit understanding and interpretation of information.

Tacit: Stored in the heads of people.
Explicit: Stored in documents, databases, Web pages, e-mails, charts, etc.

IT support
Tacit: Hard to manage, share, or support with IT.
Explicit: Well supported by existing IT.

Medium needed
Tacit: Needs a rich communication medium.
Explicit: Can be transferred through conventional electronic channels.

Boon-Kwee concludes his lectures by defining the three elements of knowledge management — knowledge acquisition, knowledge sharing, and knowledge utilization. I will be looking at knowledge acquisition and knowledge sharing in later posts.


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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Clark Quinn on eLearning

As a quick refresher on how to approach developing eLearning, the "Seven Steps to Better E-learning" laid out by Clark Quinn serve well.

Step 1: Make sure you are designing training that will equip learners to do something differently — better — following the training. It's not adequate simply to impart new knowledge. It is essential to answer the "so what" question by pointing learners toward appropriate application of the skills and concepts they are learning.

Step 2: Streamline your content. To do so, adopt layouts that have ample white space, understandable bullet points, emphasis of key words and concepts (e.g., through bolding), and attractive, meaningful use of color.

Step 3: Get learners emotionally engaged. In the introduction to the training, focus on how the course will help the learner. Set expectations about what lies ahead. For example, provide advance warning of particularly challenging material, so the learner knows to slow down and not be anxious about perhaps having to backtrack in order to master the material.

Step 4: Provide context and a conceptual framework. Make sure learners understand why a particular concept is important and how it relates to the other material they are learning. This is vital for retention and for appropriate application of learning.

Step 5: Provide ample examples. The examples should include instances in which an employee makes a mistake and has to correct the problem. Quinn argues, "Good examples indicate the context, model the underlying thought processes as well as the actual steps, and connect the application of the concept to varying contexts. Making them meaningful in an emotionally satisfying way, including good story telling, is an additional enhancement."

Step 6: Provide well-calibrated opportunities to practice. The exercises learners do should be neither too easy nor too hard for the typical members of the learning audience. Application of concepts should be embedded in relevant scenarios, so learners get experience applying their learning in meaningful contexts. Quinn likes using games, with the level of difficulty gradually increasing.

Step 7: Provide closure that promotes retention. If possible, summarize specifics of the individual learner's performance, so he/she is reminded of areas of strength and areas where mastery is not yet complete. Explain how the learner will be able to continue practicing back on the job. Finally, remind the user of the larger context — how the skills learned will contribute to achieving his/her organization's goals and mission.



Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Evaluating Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking in Tandem

Since ideally one wants people to develop skill in communication, creative thinking, and critical thinking in tandem, it is helpful to have a rubric to guide simultaneous evaluation of all three areas. Barbara Wright, a professor of music at the University of Charleston in West Virginia, has developed such a tool (MSWord).

The Wright rubric defines 4 levels of expertise, which I have adapted below to make the rubric more relevant to the business setting:

Level 4 (highest)

Communication — Demonstrates a clear awareness of audience and task; displays a clear logical order, with logical transitions; uses precise language and word choice; uses engaging delivery strategies that enhance understanding; has few errors in usage and grammar and speaks in complete sentences.

Creativity — Responds to creativity in a substantial and well-developed manner; engages in creative processes, with substantial results and detailed reflection on the processes.

Critical Thinking — Consistently draws warranted, non-fallacious conclusions; thoughtfully analyzes and evaluates alternative points of view; consistently identifies the relevant arguments and accurately interprets evidence.

Level 3

Communication — Establishes and maintains a clear purpose; maintains a logical sequence of ideas; uses some precision and variety in language; incorporates presentation strategies to enhance understanding; occasional errors in usage and grammar do not interfere with audience understanding.

Creativity — Demonstrates a good understanding of the nature of creativity; engages in creative processes, with useful results and solid reflection on the processes.

Critical Thinking — Accurately interprets evidence; offers analyses and observations of alternative points of view; justifies most results/reasons; identifies relevant arguments most of the time.

Level 2

Communication — Establishes and maintains purpose adequately; demonstrates some ordering and sequencing; employs some variety in language; attempts to incorporate some presentation strategies that enhance understanding; commits a number of errors in usage and grammar, but they do not interfere with understanding.

Creativity — Demonstrates only a vague awareness of the nature of creativity; engages in creative processes, but with skimpy results and only some reflection on the processes.

Critical Thinking — Misinterprets some of the evidence; fails to identify significant counter-arguments; is superficial in evaluating alternative points of view; justifies some results.

Level 1 (lowest)

Communication — Has confused focus and purpose; offers information that is irrelevant, with little or no development of ideas; has only chaotic organization; does not have control over sentence structure or word choice; uses presentation strategies that interfere with understanding; makes severe errors in usage and grammar that interfere with understanding.

Creativity — Does not demonstrate any awareness of the nature of creativity; engages in creative processes with little or no reflection on the processes.

Critical Thinking — Produces biased interpretations of evidence/information; fails to identify counter-arguments; does not explain reasoning; exhibits close-mindedness, using arguments based on opinion only.


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Monday, August 11, 2008

Internal Branding

I'd like to to follow up on an earlier post about the concerted effort Absa Bank made in 1998, following amalgamation of four South African bank brands into one Absa brand, to ensure that its employees would deliver on the brand promise of quality service to customers.

Julia Scheffer completed a master's thesis (pdf) in 2005, which, though generally heavy going, does provide further detail concerning the specific steps Absa took internally as part of its overall effort to achieve its branding aims. As summarized in a chart on pp. 196-197, the goals of the bank's plan for communications to employees concerning the new Absa brand were to:
  • Undo confusion.

  • Share information.

  • Obtain employee buy-in.

  • Change customers' perceptions of the bank.

  • Provide in-depth knowledge of where Absa was heading and why.

  • Explain the financial implications of the amalgamation.

  • Explain the long-term financial benefit.

  • Gain market share.

  • Ensure optimum solutions for customers.

  • Retain customers.

  • Suit customer convenience.

  • Support simplified systems.
In their content, the communications to employees covered:
  • The fact that Absa was a single commercial bank.

  • The time frame for the changeover from multiple banks to a single bank.

  • The benefits and implications for employees.

  • The benefits and implications for customers.

  • The benefits and implications for other stakeholders.

  • The cost implications for Absa Group.

  • Product implications.

  • The fact that Absa was readying itself for the future.

  • How divisions were being consolidated.

  • The importance of the steps being taken for the bank's survival in a changing environment.

  • Leadership's emphasis on ethical operations and being forward-looking.

  • The prospect of gains for everyone from the consolidation.

  • The nature of the infrastructure changes being introduced.

  • Management expectations of employees.

  • The fact that consolidation would enable Absa to be more true to its mission.
An array of communication actions and channels were used:
  • Electronic channels — The launch was done live on the ABSA Channel, an in-house TV channel, and the message also went out via email.

  • Print media — Communication via ABACUS, an internal publication; information packs sent to all managers; personalized letters to employees; tent cards for tables.

  • Group dialogue and discussions held via Absa communication representatives and "action line" employees.

  • Private discussions with Branch Managers.

  • Absa Communication Centre (a call center for answering employees' questions).
Employees also attended a series of branding orientation sessions which introduced them "to the core values of the new brand by setting up the Brand Wall, which was a series of posters and web pages dedicated to various facets of the new brand." And, as noted in my earlier post, employees attended specially designed "I Am the Absa Brand" training workshops that taught them what to do in specific situations in order to achieve solid customer satisfaction.

In sum, Absa Bank's comprehensive communications program both for motivating employees to embody the single bank brand, and to equip them to do so effectively, is an instructive model for other companies attempting similar brand building.


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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Intrade's State-by-State Predictions for the Presidential Election

If you want to follow the shifting fortunes of the US presidential candidates, as reflected in their state-by-state share prices on Intrade's prediction market, the US map at electoralmap.net provides a graphical picture that is updated at least weekly.

The candidates' share prices reflect how the Intrade market participants collectively view John McCain's and Barack Obama's respective prospects for winning each state's electoral votes.

For example, if the price for Obama in a particular state is "50," this means that participants collectively view Obama's chances of winning the state as 50-50. If Obama's price is above "50," participants are giving Obama a better than even chance of winning the state. Conversely, if Obama's price is below "50," participants are giving Obama a better than even chance of losing the state.

You can view electoralmap.net maps dating back to May 24. If you want to watch how Intrade participants have shifted their state-by-state predictions, click on "animated map."



Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Ethical Dimension of Influencing Up

Late last month Marshall Goldsmith, a recognized expert on coaching, wrote on his blog about how organizations can and should encourage employees to speak up when they believe an ethical lapse may be in the offing.

In his post, Goldsmith offers a helpful set of guidelines for "encouraging upward challenge and preserving corporate integrity." In brief:
  • Anyone asked to do something that he/she believes could be unethical has a responsibility to speak up.

  • If your manager does not respond satisfactoriy to your expression of concern, you should escalate to the next level of management.

  • A manager who discourages upward challenges should be fired.

  • Any employee guilty of an ethics violation should be fired — regardless of the value and quality of the employee's work.

  • "Employees who do not feel comfortable using the normal chain of command" — for example, because of fear of how their manager will react — "should be provided with an alternative mechanism for upward communication" and "be trained on how and when to use these alternate channels."

  • "Managers should proactively ask for suggestions on how to improve the organization, rather than passively waiting for employees to express concerns."

  • "Both managers and employees should be trained on how to encourage and provide upward challenge."
Marshall Goldsmith offers additional thoughts concerning upward influence in the video below. (The first half of the video deals with modern business leadership; Goldsmith's comments on influencing up begin at 5:44.)



Friday, August 08, 2008

Farming in Ashfield

On July 27, many of the farmers in the rural town of Ashfield MA got together to discuss the way their farms have evolved and how they can strengthen their business results. Excerpts of the discussion are shown in the video below.

Western Massachusetts farmers are fortunate in having an organization in place that promotes local agriculture and provides resources farmers can tap to build their business acumen. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), founded in 1993 and based in South Deerfield MA, defines its basic aims in its mission statement (pdf):
CISA links farmers and communities to strengthen agriculture and enhance the economy, rural character, environmental quality, and social well-being of western Massachusetts and partners with other organizations in its region and around the country to sustain agriculture.
Now that high oil prices are causing broad rethinking of how to supply consumers with goods of all types, the movement to encourage food purchases from local farms is accelerating, and CISA is helping our farmers capitalize on this development.

CISA has produced manuals for farmers — such as Harvesting Support for Local Agriculture and Creating Successful Agritourism Activities for your Farm — and a series of tip sheets:
  • Keys to a Successful Relationship

  • Pricing and Invoicing

  • Creating a Farm Web Site

  • Online Stores

  • Blogs

  • Email Newsletters

  • Customer Service

  • Developing a Marketing Plan for Your Farm

  • Merchandising

  • Using Paid Advertising as Part of a Marketing Plan

  • Working with the Media: Public Relations and Publicity

  • Workshops and Classes as a Marketing Strategy
You can read a brief case study (pdf) of how CISA has helped one local farmer in the 2007 annual report (p. 7).



Thursday, August 07, 2008

First, Get Their Attention

I've commented previously (starting with my very first post) on how vital it is for people to genuinely care about what they're doing if they are to perform with maximum effectiveness. Of course, this is not a novel thought, but it is one that doesn't always get the emphasis it should.

An example of the importance of "critical caring" that I came upon recently shows up in the first chapter of Action Coaching: How to Leverage Individual Performance for Company Success, by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo (1999).

The question is how to get someone to recognize the need to adjust his/her self-perception in order to bring it into line with reality. A clear-eyed view of oneself is a pre-requisite for devising appropriate steps to address performance issues.

Dotlich and Cairo list several examples of situations in which individuals can be induced to de-skew their self-perceptions. These situations are based on Dotlich's and Cairo's own experience as coaches.
  • Via 360-degree feedback, having "not only your boss but your direct reports and customers tell you that what you believe to be your tolerant attitude is actually passive-aggressive behavior."

  • "Testing a new behavior in a work situation as part of an experiment and sharing your feelings about how others reacted to you with your coach."

  • Benchmarking through "[v]isiting another company and talking to someone who had to deal with the same difficult workplace changes that you're now going through."

  • "Being confronted by your coach and told that the situation has reached the point where if you don't learn to develop in a certain way you will no longer be on track for a leadership position."

  • "Receiving information from your coach about the CEO's vision for the company, revealing why certain policy changes have been made and the need for you to make dramatic changes in the way you manage."
Having established that it is essential for a coachee to to care enough about doing a better job that he/she sincerely internalizes an accurate self-perception, Dotlich and Cairo go on to detail their action coaching approach in the remaining chapters of their book.



Wednesday, August 06, 2008

21st Century Journalism XXVIII: The Rwanda Initiative

An important change introduced following the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was concerted effort to improve the performance of Rwandan news media, some of which were implicated in the genocide.

Recognizing Rwandan journalists' and aspiring journalists' need for solid practical training, Allan Thompson, a journalism professor at Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication in Ottawa, launched the Rwanda Initiative in January 2006. The Initiative is a joint effort between Carleton and the School of Journalism and Communication at the National University of Rwanda (NUR). The NUR journalism school has only been in existence since 1996.

The introduction to the Initiative's blog reviews the situation the Initiative seeks to address:
The media sector in Rwanda was devastated by the 1994 Genocide. Most professional journalists were killed, exiled or implicated in the slaughter through their involvement with hate media. The media sector remains traumatized. Many working journalists lack professional training and the journalism school is chronically short-staffed.
To supplement Rwanda's slim cadre of journalism educators, teachers from Carleton serve as visiting lecturers at NUR. In addition, the Initiative helps with curriculum development, runs an internship program for Canadian journalism students at Rwandan media organizations, and collaborates with NUR in organizing media-training workshops for working journalists.

As Thompson explained in June of last year, "The essence of Carleton's Rwanda Initiative has been to address both sides of [the] media equation, to build the capacity of the media in Rwanda and to foster an interest in Africa among a new generation of Canadian journalists."

The Rwanda Initiative has also sponsored internships in Canada for Rwandan journalism students. You can read about the experiences of one of the interns, Eugene Kwibuka, in the July-September 2007 issue of Intercultures Magazine. In his article Kwibuka mentions his experience covering the trial in Montreal of a suspected genocide participant, but he concentrates on explaining how the Rwanda Initiative's training has helped him and his fellow students:
The big difference between [the Canadian lecturers'] way of training and that of Rwandan lecturers is the fact they put a particular emphasis on practice rather than theory. They step in journalism classrooms equipped with materials like cameras, computers and notebooks. They show students how to use them, then assign them to do stories. They make students learn by doing.

Most journalism students at the National University of Rwanda will tell you that what they enjoy about Canadian lecturers is practice. They love being introduced to new techniques of how to pitch a story, how to take a nice shot, how to use ambient sounds in a radio story and how to deal with ethical issues in journalism. It’s helpful that the lecturers who are teaching them these techniques are themselves practicing journalists or have been journalists for a long time.
A little later today, I will be meeting with a friend (American) who taught literature at NUR several years before the genocide. I will be interested to hear his thoughts about the approach the Rwanda Initiative is taking to helping the country's journalists become more professional and more effective in promoting understanding in their country.


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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

US Army Primer on Arab Cultural Awareness

As a follow-on to my earlier post looking at what readers of the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute were recently told about the cultural profile of Arab men, I'd mention that you can see what the US Army provides in the way of basic cultural information concerning Arabs by reading through the set of factsheets (pdf) on this subject that the Army Training and Doctrine Command published in 2006. (The factsheets link takes you to a page at the Federation of American Scientists website.)

I'd also mention that I came upon this set of factsheets while browsing the UNESCO Open Training Platform offerings, a helpful resource discussed in a December 2007 post.


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Monday, August 04, 2008

Brazilian Companies Invest in Training

In its July 2 edition, the New York Times reported on the shortage of highly skilled workers that Brazilian companies are facing as the overall growth of the Brazilian economy moves along at a brisk pace of about 5% a year.

Because the Brazilian education system has not been providing the numbers of skilled workers that are needed, companies like Petrobras (oil), Vale (mining), Ultrapar (petrochemicals), and Embraer (aircraft) are making substantial investments in internal training programs. As Andrew Downie, author of the Times article, explains:
Some [companies] teach basic literacy and arithmetic to janitors and manual workers. Other more advanced courses help factory and production line workers better understand math, science and composition. And major companies are increasing the amount of on-the-job training they give to engineers and professionals.
Downie gives particular attention to Embraer's Engineering Specialization Program, instituted in 2001 because
company directors realized that with only three Brazilian universities offering courses in aeronautical engineering there would not be enough graduates available to help them design, build and sell planes in a rapidly growing market.

So the company created a program that selects the country’s best engineering graduates and puts them through an 18-month specialization course.
In June, Embraer opened a new Personnel Development Center at its plant in São José dos Campos. According to the company's press release (pdf), "The Center will be the focus of all of Embbraer's educational, training and development programs, thus optimizing logistics and the funds invested." One of the Center's two buildings will be the new site for the Engineering Specialization Program.


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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Kauffman Foundation Report on Training in India

Last month the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City MO released a report examining how India has been able to upgrade its workforce in rapidly growing industries despite continuing pervasive deficiencies in the country's school system.1

The full report, written by Vivek Wadhwa, Una Kim de Vitton, and Gary Gereffi (WVG), is 77 pages long. The Harvard International Review provides synopsis.

WVG's central conclusion is that Indian companies in IT and other sectors, such as business-process outsourcing, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, financial services, retail, hospitality, and education,
have adapted and perfected western practices in workforce training and development, and now take workers with poor education and weak technical skills and turn them into highly productive technical specialists and managers able to compete on the world stage.

... We conclude that out of necessity — because of educational weaknesses; skills shortages; competition for top talent; turnover; and rising salaries — leading businesses in India have developed highly advanced, innovative practices and that these are allowing industries in India to become globally competitive and grow rapidly.
The message to companies in the United States is "go thou and do likewise."

So what exactly have companies in India been doing to recruit and retain talent and to equip their workers to compete at an international level? WVG conclude that
India has learned and perfected the best practices of leading companies that have been outsourcing their computer systems and call centers.

... Indian industry ... has built innovative and comprehensive approaches to workforce training and management. The initial focus was on training new recruits and filling entry-level skill gaps. Now, these companies are investing in constantly improving the skills and management abilities of their workers and in providing incentives for them to stay and grow with the company. There is also widespread collaboration between industry players and academic institutions to accelerate the growth of needed talent pools.
WVG identified seven areas in which Indian companies are using innovative HR practices:
  • Employee recruitment

  • New-employee training

  • Continuing employee development

  • Managerial training and development

  • Performance management and appraisal

  • Workforce retention

  • Education upgrades
The specific innovations for which WVG give Indian companies credit are:
  • thorough integration of HR development efforts into day-to-day operations, employees' career advancement, and company reward systems.

  • application of technology to managing and integrating the processes listed in the previous bullet.

  • basing executive-level decision making on these processes.
Details concerning how the 24 Indian companies WVG studied most closely handle recruitment and retention, new-hire training, ongoing employee and manager training, and formal performance management are provided in the Harvard International Review synopsis. Numerous examples are provided in the full version of WVG's report.

1 If you have trouble accessing the pdf file of the report from the link on the Kauffman Foundation website, you can go to the Social Science Research Network to download the file.

2 Vivek Wadhwa is an executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, and a fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Una Kim de Vitton is a doctoral candidate in the organizational behavior department of Harvard Business School and the sociology department of Harvard University. Gary Gereffi is the director of the Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness at Duke and a professor in Duke's sociology department.


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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lou Hampton's Suggestion for Impromptu Speaking

If, with little advance notice, you're asked to speak before a group, what to do?

Lou Hampton, a Washington DC-based speech coach and media trainer, offers a four-step method to organize an impromptu presentation.
Hampton's method (here slightly edited) is easy to remember and straightforward to execute:
  1. Think of three questions you are frequently asked about the topic. (Or think of three issues you can talk about, and turn them into questions.)

  2. Open with, "Here are the three questions I'm being asked about [topic]."

  3. Ask yourself the first question and then answer it. Repeat for questions 2 and 3.

  4. Conclude with a call for action ("So what I need from you is..."), or a forward-looking statement (e.g., "So here is what we will be focusing on in the next quarter.")
I've tried this method and been happy with the results. I'd just add that, as always, you need to shape your remarks in a way that suits the particular audience to whom you are speaking. This means, as far as possible, anticipating what will be of relevance to them, choosing stories and language that will resonate with them, and being receptive to their questions and comments.



Friday, August 01, 2008

David Michalek's "Slow Dancing"

I went to Jacob's Pillow this evening to see three examples of the hyper-slow-motion clips photographer David Michalek made last year of forty-six dancers and choreographers (six of whom performed as duos, meaning there are forty-three clips altogether). You can get a small taste of what I saw in the brief video below.

In a program note, Michalek provides some details concerning how the "Slow Dancing" clips were produced:
Each subject's movement (approximately five seconds long) was shot on a specially constructed set using a high-speed,high-definition camera recording at 1,000 frames per second (standard film captures thirty frames per second). [Elsewhere, Michalek mentions a speed of 3,000 frames per second.] The result is approximately ten minutes of extreme slow motion that enables the viewer to share priviledged information about the complexity of the simplest gestures and to witness details that would normally escape the naked eye.
Last night, three of the dancers performed in the Doris Duke Studio Theatre in conjunction with projection of their "Slow Dancing" clips. In addition to seeing the clips themselves, the audience got to watch a live rendition of each dancer's five-second phrase, and also each dancer performing a choreographed solo.

Shantala Shivalingappa, a native of India, was the first performer. Her clip was an exquisite phrase of classic Kuchipudi dance, which, just as Michalek intended, was profoundly illuminated by being radically slowed down. Shivalingappa's solo was a rich, lyrical piece developed in collaboration with Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Holley Farmer, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company", was next. Both her clip and her solo exemplified Cunningham's distinctive movement style.

The final performer was Fang-yi Sheu, until recently a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, who divides her time between her native Taiwan and New York.Her clip was notable for the close-up it provided of how Graham contractions fit into a dance phrase. Sheu founded the LAFA & Artists dance company (Flash) with choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava in May of last year. Pagarlava choreographed the silken solo Sheu performed to "Song V" by Philip Glass.

My thought after watching just of tiny portion of "Slow Dancing" is that this is a treasure that one absolutely must see to appreciate. However vividly you may think you can imagine the impact of the full-scale film clips, the real experience is infinitely richer than imagination and small-scale computer videos can produce.

I must also mention the performace by Hālau I Ka Wēkiu that I saw earlier in the evening on the Pillow's outside stage. Hālau I Ka Wēkiu is a hula school founded in 1998 in Pauoa, O'ahu.

The school was represented at the Pillow by thirty dancers and two musicians, in addition to artistic directors, Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang. The group has traveled to the East Coast from Hawai'i to mark the school's tenth anniversary with a modest tour. The chance to see their traditional and respectfully choreographed contemporary hula pieces, accompanied by songs in Hawai'ian, was a moving bit of direct contact with the islands' culture (more specifically, with the culture of the island of Kaua'i).