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

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nurturing Cross-Divisional Innovation

In a brief article in the July-August 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Adam M. Kleinbaum, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Business School, and Michael L. Tushman, his dissertation advisor at HBS, summarize findings of research they conducted investigating the best way to nurture cross-divisional innovation at a corporation.

Kleinbaum and Tushman recommend that managers "shape and cultivate" the corporation's informal social networks in order to "efficiently find and exploit innovations." Their research indicates that the type of network participant to focus on changes as the innovation process moves from the exploration phase to the implementation phase.
  • In the exploration phase, "idea brokers" — individuals who maintain broad networks throughout the organization — are best situated to "draw connections between — and recognize collaborative opportunities for — technologies, markets, or people that might otherwise never come into contact."

  • In the implementation phase, individuals with deep relationships across divisions are best positions to "mobilize the organizational support and resources necessary for execution." Deep relationships "enable the exchange of fine-grained and tacit information, help actors navigate the unfamiliar terrain of partner divisions, and allow cohesiveness to build within the network, increasing trust and reducing intergroup rivalry."
The role of managers is to facilitate the cross-divisional interactions of both the idea brokers and the "make it happen" employees. Managers must also proactively manage the transition between the exploration and implementation phases.


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Monday, September 29, 2008

Two-Day Trip North of Xi'an

My brother, his fellow teacher, and the ten exchange students with whom they're visiting China traveled by bus out of Xi'an today to see sights in the northern part Shaanxi Province.

A highlight was the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, aka Huangdi or Xuan Yuan, the mythical ancester of the Han people.

The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor on top of Mount Qiao

You can read a reminiscence of one visitor's series of visits to the tomb here.



Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Investigation of On-the-Job Morale

However important one may believe good morale is for employee performance, it can seem a vague concept, invoked with only casual understanding of its characteristics, drivers, and impacts.

In a May 2007 Harvard Business Review article, Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher and Amabile's husband, report on research that clarifies how morale fits into the causal flow that determines how well employees perform.

Amabile and Kramer don't actually use the word "morale," which generally refers to the overall esprit de corps at an organization. Rather, they talk about the "inner work life" of individuals — the interplay of three mental phenomena that are triggered by workday events:
  • emotions

  • perceptions of the organizational context of one's work (e.g., the degree of collaboration and cooperation, the degree of openness to new ideas)

  • motivation
To gather data on, specifically, knowledge workers' day-to-day state of mind, Amabile and Kramer arranged for 238 professionals working on various projects at their companies to keep daily diaries for the duration of the projects. Each day's entry had a standard format to capture the day's events and the employees' feelings. There were
several numerical questions, asking participants to rate their own perceptions of various aspects of the work environment, their mood, and their motivation that day, as well as their own work and the team's work that day. There was also an open-ended question asking people to list the main work tasks they engaged in that day. The most important question was also open-ended; it asked people to biefly report one event that stood out in their minds from the workday.
The diary entries enabled Amabile and Kramer to trace how workday events affected the employees' inner work lives, and how the latter, in turn, affected employee and organizational performance.

In considering the role of managers — after all, the actions of managers are one type of workday event — Amabile and Kramer were disappointed to find that most managers are oblivious to employees' inner work lives and, concomitantly, to the impact of those inner work lives on performance.

Amabile and Kramer argue that alert managers recognize that they can promote high performance by
  • facilitating employees' progress with their work

  • treating employees decently as human beings
Managers facilitate employee forward progress with job tasks by
  • providing direct help

  • providing adequate resources

  • reacting to successes and failures with a learning orientation (as opposed to purely evaluative orientation)

  • setting clear goals, and explaining the rationale for the goals and for any changes to the goals
When a manager's actions impede progress, that behavior sends a strong signal. People trying to make sense of why higher-ups would not do more to facilitate progress draw their own conclusions — perhaps that their work is unimportant or that their bosses are either willfully undermining them or hopelessly incompetent.
The underlying reason for the positive impact of facilitative and respectful manager behavior is that it makes it more likely that employees will have "good days" — days on which they feel happy, have positive perceptions of the workplace, and are intrinsically motivated to meet goals. And it is on good days, that employees get the most accomplished.

Amabile and Kramer conclude: "Far and away,the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and managers appropriately recognized their work."

So, if you want to maintain good morale — and to realize the associated boost to performance that it brings — paying attention to how your actions affect employees' emotions, their perceptions of their work context, and their motivation is vital. Seems like common sense, but as Amabile and Kramer point out, helping employees maintain a positive state of mind is all too often not at the front of managers' minds.


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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925 - 2008

(The New Zealand Herald)



Friday, September 26, 2008

The Producer Role in Managing a Hollywood-Style Project

I've discussed the "Hollywood model" for designing and carrying out projects in a couple of previous posts. Now I've come upon a valuable study of how such projects are managed by the person in the producer role.

In "Nexus Work: Managing Ambiguity in Network Based Projects," Elizabeth Long Lingo, a research associate at the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, and Siobhán O'Mahony, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Management at UC-Davis, report on results of an ethnographic study they conducted of the practices used by people responsible for getting a network-based (Hollywood model) project on track and keeping it there.

The group Lingo and O'Mahony studied were country music producers in Nashville. These individuals play what Lingo and O'Mahony call a "nexus role" in the creative process: They are responsible for integrating the work of a variety of experts whose contributions are potentially competing in terms of aesthetic values, expected roles, and identification of what will be a hit in the market. Producers have to achieve this integration without direct authority over the various experts — notably, musicians and label personnel — contributing to a particular project.

(click to enlarge)

As indicated in the above graphic (Figure 1 from the paper), Lingo and O'Mahony found that there are three types of ambiguity1 inherent in creative projects, all of which producers must manage:
  • Ambiguity concerning how to measure quality/define success.

  • Ambiguity concerning the scope of each person's involvement in the project.

  • Ambiguity concerning the transformation process, i.e., the manner in which the individual contributions of the principal artist, label personnel, session musicians, recording engineers, and the artist's manager will be transformed into a coherent whole that will sell well. This is the infamous problem of there being no known formula for producing hits.
The key point that Lingo and O'Manhony make (with considerable redundancy in their paper) is that the "nexus work" producers do (see the "Nexus Work Practices" box in the graphic) involves:2
  • Managing the ambiguity concerning how to measure quality by using relational practices to create "a shared quality aesthetic that would guide what the group produced."

  • Managing the ambiguity about who does what when — the "potentially competing claims of control over individual performances, the choice of songs, and the overall direction of the creative product" — by using relational practices to articulate role boundaries.

  • Coping with the irreducible ambiguity of the transformation process by building creative capacity — talent, songs, and label support — in order to "generate options, be open to opportunities and handle problems [the producer] could not articulate or anticipate a priori." Notably, during the actual recording process, producers obsess "about creating the best possible conditions for 'magic' to occur"; they concentrate on creating "a positive working environment that [is] conducive to improvisation, experimentation and suggestion."
Lingo and O'Mahony summarize their findings as follows:
By showing specifically how those in the nexus role responded to this call for invention, we contribute a more refined understanding of network based projects — a critical postbureaucratic form of organizing ... By specifying the precise types of relational work practices that individuals in the nexus role use to reduce ambiguity and cultivate a creative contribution from those upon whom they depend, we also identify a more relational type of brokerage where individuals use their unique position to achieve mutual benefit as opposed to political advantage.
Finally, Lingo and O'Mahony note that further research is needed to determine whether their findings concerning the nexus work of music producers apply in other entrepreneurial settings.

1 Lingo and O'Mahony adopt as their definition of ambiguity, "multiple and potentially competing understandings of the same situation."

2 Definitions of music producers' nexus work practices are provided in Table 1 in the paper.


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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coaching to Help a Learner Develop "Deep Smarts"

In the September 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, and Walter Swap (pdf), professor emeritus of psychology at Tufts University, cover key points from the research exounded in more detail in their book, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom.

As Leonard and Swap explain in a 2005 interview,"deep smarts" is a term they coined
to express our belief that there's a certain subset of expertise that deserves to be identified by itself, because though it possesses many of the general characteristics of expertise it is also a very particular kind of expertise.

. . .

For one thing, it involves having an ability to recognize patterns based upon extensive experience, and so is very contextualized expertise. For example, someone who may have a lot of book learning but not a lot of real life experience won't be able to look at a new situation and say, "Aha, that reminds me of a time when I did X," and that memory suggests a way to act. So deep smarts are connected in a person's mind to rich context. There are a lot of tacit dimensions to this kind of practical wisdom, such as the person with deep smarts may not actually be able to recognize or to put into so many words where that knowledge came from — but is nonetheless able to react quickly and wisely.
One of the HBR article's exhibits provides an overview of Leonard and Swap's advice for helping a person develop deep smarts. The basic method guided experience, i.e., individual on-the-job coaching of the learner by someone who has already accumulated deep smarts. Leonard and Swap identify four particularly fruitful situations for such coaching:
  • The skills to be learned involve interpersonal relations, so there is no set of absolute steps but rather an array of possible responses to the actions and emotions of others. Examples: working with a board of directors, negotiating a merger or acquisition, handling a talented prima donna.

  • There are many tacit dimensions to the skills, so even an expert may not be able to make them all explicit. Examples: closing a sale, dissipating tension in a meeting, creating a new perfume or best-selling wine.

  • The knowledge is context-specific, so it's appropriate to be adaptive rather than apply formulas. Examples: managing in a foreign culture, manufacturing with proprietary, plant-specific equipment, handling sexual harassment cases.

  • The situation is new, so there is great uncertainty. Examples: launching a new service product in a new market, using a new mode of manufacturing.
The coach's job is to provide feedback as the learner is handling the above types of situations.

In the aforementioned interview, Leonard offers an example of a person with deep smarts who particularly resonated with me because he reminded me of one of my best teachers in graduate school:
In the [Deep Smarts] book, we tell a story about two missile companies competing in the 1980s for a government contract that if won would provide literally billions of dollars to the company over the subsequent 30 or 40 years. The two competitors sent up six prototype missiles but none of them was really up to the performance demanded. In one of these companies, a scientist who wasn't even on the project team — but who had 20 years of experience in building missiles — called the project team together in a large auditorium, because these are very big systems, requiring large development teams. Speaking without notes, the scientist proceeded to walk them through a complete redesign of the missiles from fore to aft, including software and hardware that he'd come up with on his own, working alone over the period of a week. And after they closed their mouths, because they were really in awe of his performance, the project team members realized that the implications of his redesign were that 400 people would have to work for a year and a half to make all the changes. Nevertheless, their faith in this guy was so strong and their understanding of the redesign and of everything that he'd proposed was so favorable that they went ahead. They won the contract and they still have it; so that's an example of how a person with deep smarts can save the day.
In Leonard and Swap's view, guided experience is actually a matter of having the learner recreate the knowledge in question (as opposed to transferring the knowledge in a "listen to me as I explain" fashion).


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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Training in Support of Microlending Clients

Microlending has been much in the news over the last several years. In fact, Muhammad Yunus, the best known proponent of microlending — through the Grameen Bank which he founded in Bangladesh — was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

2006 was also the year that Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale, and Martin Valdivia, research director a Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo, issued a paper (pdf) reporting their research indicating that "microfinance institutions can improve client outcomes cost effectively by providing entrepreneurial training along with the credit." Specifically, clients who received training showed improved business knowledge, practices, and revenues.

Karlan and Valdivia also found that the client training has a positive impact on the microfinance institution itself. Both repayment and client retention improved, which meant higher profitability.

Another key finding was a negative correlation between the interest a client expressed in receiving training and the magnitude of the impact of the training on the client's business practices and results. Karlan and Valdivia note that this result suggests that microfinance institutions should be wary of charging a fee for training, since a fee may especially deter the clients who would benefit most.

The training Karlan and Valdivia evaluated was delivered to clients of FINCA Perú, a small non-profit microfinance institution. Some of the clients were in three particularly poor districts of Lima; others were in the area of Ayacucho, the capital of the Andean province of Huamanga.

In Lima 98% of FINCA's clients are literate; in Ayacucho the client literacy rate is approximately 85%. Most of the Lima clients have finished secondary school, and 40% have some post-secondary schooling; in Ayacucho only about 30% of clients had finished secondary school. This difference in the level of formal schooling led the researchers to use somewhat different training programs in Lima and Ayacucho:
The training materials in Lima were organized in two modules. The first module introduced attendees to what a business is, how a business works, and the marketplace. Clients were taught to identify their customers, competitors, and the position of the business in the marketplace and then learned about product, promotional strategies and commercial planning. The second module explained how to separate business and home finances by establishing the differences between income, costs, and profit, teaching how to calculate production costs, and product pricing.

. . .

In Ayacucho, the training program was grouped into 3 modules with topics less advanced than those taught in Lima. ... Module 1, “Manage Your Business Money,” begins by defining the differences between money for personal expenses and for the business. Women are taught how to calculate profits and about the use of profits for the household and business. Sessions cover how to handle selling to customers on credit, how to record business expenses, how to prevent losses, and the importance of investing in the business. ...

Module 2, “Increase Your Sales” begins by providing an overview of five key elements in sales: 1) customers, 2) business product or service, 3) product placement, 4) pricing, and 5) marketing. Many of the following sessions are dedicated to providing women with practical means of applying these concepts. ...

The third module, “Plan for a Better Business,” teaches members how to incorporate planning into their business. Sessions begin by presenting why planning is beneficial and what traits characterize a successful business. Attendees are instructed on how to solve business problems and how to introduce new products or changes. Later sessions teach the tools needed to prepare a sales plan, calculate business and loan costs, search for new resources, and handle unexpected problems and opportunities.
The research was carried out by assigning clients randomly to treatment and control groups.
The treatment groups received thirty to sixty minute entrepreneurship training sessions during their normal weekly or monthly banking meeting over a period of one to two years. Control groups remained as they were before, meeting at the same frequency but solely for making loan and savings payments.
Karlan and Valdivia note that follow-on research is needed to evaluate the degree to which the positive impacts of training are sustained.


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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Laughter is the Best Medicine XXI: IQ Trainwrecks

If you're looking for some instructive amusement, you can try browsing at IQ Trainwrecks, which bills itself as "A Website Dedicated to Information/Data Quality Disasters from Around the World." IQ Trainwrecks is maintained by members of the International Association for Information & Data Quality (IAIDQ).

IAIDQ define Information Quality as “meeting or exceeding ‘information customer’ expectations”. As for an IQ trainwreck, that's defined as "a problem that affects real people in the real world that has, at its heart, poor quality information or a failure to manage the quality of information."

Here's a sample of what you'll find at the IQ Trainwrecks website:

"A little while ago we shared the story of the Irish Rail train that left the platform at the correct time but somehow forgot 300 passengers, and left with just one visually impaired passenger.

"From a reliable source we have recently learned of the findings of the investigation into what happened. It is a salutory lesson in the importance of processes, and the importance of controls and checks on processes.

"The normal practice for the Irish Rail service is for passengers requiring assistance in boarding to be boarded last. Due to some minor operational issues on the platform that evening, it seems that a controller took the decision to have the visually impaired passenger boarded before the other passengers — reversing the normal run of the process.

"The guard on the train, having satisfied himself that the visually impaired passenger had been boarded safely, proceeded to give the signal for the train to leave — on the assumption that if the last passenger had boarded it was time to go. It would seem that at no time did the presence of 300 people on the platform and the absence of people on the train register with the guard or the controller, so the train left.

"A simple process short-cut, taken for a doubtless sound operational reason, gave information to the guard which, in his view of the process, meant it was time to go. At the risk of a bad pun we could say that ‘tunnel’ vision set in. Any number of small checks (such as a random check on carriages to see if there were any people in them) might have prevented the embarrassing problem.

"The 300 passengers were accommodated on a different train which made an unscheduled stop on its route to connect with a special shuttle service that was laid on to bring the passengers to their destination. Efficient scrap and rework.

"Our source also informs us that the revenue control ticket check statistics for the train that left the passengers behind showed 100% compliance that evening."


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Monday, September 22, 2008

Fall Equinox 2008

To mark this year's Fall Equinox, here is a graphic of the celestial sphere, as diagrammed for students in astronomy courses taught by Guy Worthey at Washington State University . . .

The annual equinoxes and solstices fall along the ecliptic — the apparent path of the sun, relative to the stars on the celestial sphere, over the course of a year.



Sunday, September 21, 2008

Day Trip South of Xi'an

Julia has posted several pictures from the trip she and her fellow students took today to sights south of Xi'an. My favorites:

Julia: "Well I can't even explain these steps with words so I hope a picture will suffice, although this picture doesn't even capture all the steps. Let's just say by the time I got to the top I was proud of it. And the view was amazing! We were at the peak of a mountain [Zhashui Dong] and we could look down and see the town and this military training camp in the valley."

Julia: "... then there were these Buddhist monks giving us incense and then I turn around and see a huge golden Buddha against the wall. Well they told us to make a wish and then put our incense in this sand pit. It was interesting."

(You can see some images of the eighteen-kilometer tunnel one drives through to get from Xi'an to the mountains the students visited here.)



Saturday, September 20, 2008

Clotaire Rapaille's Top 10 Selling Mistakes

The September 29 issue of Fortune provides a handy list of the top 10 mistakes salespeople make, as outlined by consultant Clotaire Rapaille. Though he expresses himself in the florid style that gives business writing a bad name, Rapaille provides ample food for thought.

The list (liberally paraphrased):
  1. Not feeling the customer's pain — Relate what you have to offer to something that is making your prospect distinctly unhappy.

  2. Making money the goal — Take a professional view of your job, i.e., make your primary goal meeting customer needs, not raking in commissions. The commissions will come as an outgrowth of genuinely exerting yourself to address customers' interests.

  3. Seeing sales as just a job — Don't rest on your laurels; keep working toward closing new deals.

  4. Getting upset — Generally speaking, you shouldn't take "No" as the prospect's final answer.

  5. Failing to prepare — Anticipate what the prospect will say, and have relevant responses ready.

  6. Over-preparing — In order to be ready to improvise smoothly, mentally rehearse various scenarios that could unfold during your sales call. This will get you ready to have a productive conversation (as opposed to unloading a more or less robotic spiel).

  7. Depending on customers' rationality to persuade — You need to assess what sort of sales pitch a particular prospect will find persuasive. (Rapaille overgeneralizes, claiming that "America is essentially adolescent" and, therefore, that it's a mistake to treat American customers like adults, interested in rational sales pitches.)

  8. Acting phony — Imagine yourself into a frame of mind in which you truly believe in what you are selling. If you have to pretend to believe in your product, your lack of conviction will undermine your efforts.

  9. Neglecting the relationship — Reach out to your customers, making thoughtful gestures that will reinforce their opinion that you're a likeable person who thinks of them even when a potential sale is not immediately in the offing.

  10. Not appealing to basic drives — Rapaille is speaking here of the survival and sex drives. For some reason, probably his own desire to outdo his competition, he refers to these drives as "reptilian." If you merely think of them as essential parts of our animal nature, you'll still get the point — that you should include appeals to people's basic instincts in your dialogue with them. (You should usually find that there is no need to be crass about this.)


Friday, September 19, 2008

Earl Palmer, 1924 - 2008

Premier drummer Earl Palmer, died today. In the video below you can hear him talk a bit about his drumming on the 1953 recording of the Professor Longhair song, "Tipitina." Palmer then performs "Tipitina" with Allen Touissant on piano and Alvin "Red" Tyler on sax.

Earl Palmer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Dave Kropf provides a retrospective of Palmer's long career here.


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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Huashan Mountain

Today my brother's band of ten exchange students traveled about 120 miles east from Xi'an to visit Huashan Mountain.

Map of Huashan Mountain
Source: www.maps-of-china.net

The students reached the top of the North Peak, starting by cable car, and then continuing on foot.
Source: Pei-Yuan Qian



Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is management a profession?

As documented by Rakesh Khurana, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, there has been a shift over time in the nature of business education.

In his 2007 book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession, Rakesh explains how business schools, beginning with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881, aspired to training managers who would approach their jobs with the same commitment to benefiting society that is expected of traditional professions, notably medicine and law.

In an interview published by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Khurana identifies four characteristics of a profession:
  1. An agreed-upon body of knowledge.

  2. Schooling by faculty whose knowledge and guidance are recognized as authoritative by their students. In other words, students do not view going to a professional school as largely a matter of developing a social network and acquiring a credential.

  3. Governance that directs members of the profession to "use their knowledge and the practice of their work to benefit others rather than engage in self-dealing or self-interest."

  4. Continuing education.
According to Khurana, many of today's MBAs "want the status of a profession without any of the constraints of a profession. A profession is not only about the benefits that you claim. It's also about what you renounce." Khurana argues that nowadays business schools, in effect, offer vocational education rather than professional education.

My own view is that the concept of "professional" has two contemporary meanings — the traditional meaning that Khurana seeks to preserve, and a "lean" version of the concept that retains the expectations of continuously updated, specialized knowledge and of ethical dealing, but leaves out the expectation of working in the first instance for the benefit of society. I'm comfortable with using both senses of "professional" so long as it is clear which is meant in any given context.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When is a difficult person not a difficult person?

You can find a range of useful negotiation teaching materials at the site for the MIT Sloan School of Management course in Negotiation and Conflict Management, as taught in Spring 2001 by Mary Rowe, MIT's Ombudsperson and an adjunct professor at the Sloan School.

A taste of these materials is Prof. Rowe's list of circumstances in which a difficult person — someone who is hard to negotiate with — may be less daunting than his/her normal self. These circumstances include:
  • When I perceive the “difficult person” to be “like me.”

  • When someone else deals with the difficult person who does not find the person difficult.

  • When the person gets his or her way.

  • When the person is not feeling threatened.

  • When the person agrees with me, or listens to me.

  • When it is useful for me for the person to be difficult (with someone else).

  • The person may not seem to be difficult to himself or herself.

  • When other people are around, and constrain the difficult person.

  • When we are alone together and the person relaxes.

  • When the issues are depersonalized.

  • When we both can laugh.

  • When the person recognizes superior power, and calms down.

  • When the person is effectively sanctioned.

  • When we all are focused on a common goal, and immersed in the work.

  • When the person is well-prepared.

  • When I am not in the person’s way.

  • When the person is appreciated/recognized.

  • When the person recovers from illness, or from being afraid or anxious.

  • When I see it’s just the person’s outward style, and learn to like and trust the person.

  • When the stress is off both of us, and “the time is right.”
Note that Prof. Rowe is not trying to arouse false hope of being able to change a person's personality. Rather, she is offering ideas for circumstances to seek, or seek to create, that could make dealing with the person more manageable.


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Monday, September 15, 2008

Help With Using Many Eyes Visualization Software

As a follow-on to my recent post about Wordle, and an earlier post about Many Eyes visualization software, I'd like to mention that Wordle is now included as one of the visualization types offered at Many Eyes. Also, you can access a 6½-minute Many Eyes tutorial written by Rich Hoeg here. This tutorial complements the Gallery & Tour available at the Many Eyes site.


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

What questions should a devil's advocate ask?

Suppose your company has developed a new strategy, and you've been given the job of serving as devil's advocate (or as a member of a strategy review panel). How should you go about probing the strategy's soundness?

In an article in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui suggest a half dozen questions to ask:
  • Is this a realistic strategy for long-term success?

  • What can we learn from history?

  • Do vital information and dissenting views about strategies reach decision makers?

  • Have we assessed the true advantages — and liabilities — that come with scale?

  • Have we considered all our options?

  • Would we bet on it?
Once answers to these and any other relevant questions have been carefully discussed, the devil's advocate (or review panel) prepares a report of its findings. A company that believes in intelligent risk management will take the findings seriously in deciding whether the draft strategy requires revision.


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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Winning Ways in Business Gaming

A brief article in the August 29 – September 4 edition of Mass High Tech provides a good overview of how companies are borrowing from the world of gaming to conduct some of their business.

The article's author, freelancer Dann Anthony Maurno, gives particular attention to IBM, which last year issued a report (pdf) on the subject of what business can learn about leadership from watching how people participate in massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs). In a sidebar (here slightly edited), Maurno summarizes the points of similarity between business and online gaming described in the IBM report, namely, both environments:
  • Bring together large numbers of participants in highly complex virtual environments.

  • Enable participants to self-organize, develop skills, and take on changing roles.

  • Require constant risk taking, iterative improvement, and willingness to accept failure.

  • Provide incentives that are clearly linked to contribution and performance.

  • Make participants' capabilities openly known.

  • Require collaboration and a leader who can influence collaborative approaches.

  • Provide sophisticated and varied communication channels (e.g., instant messaging, online chats and forums, voice over IP [VoIP]).
Maurno quotes George Dolbier, CTO of IBM Games and Interactive Entertainment, who observes, "The online community is teaching us you can accomplish large and complex goals" via teams working together with little supervision. Other achievements of game designers that have direct application in the business world are intuitive design and embedded support, which together contribute mightily to usability.


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Friday, September 12, 2008


You can use Wordle, software created by Jonathan Feinberg, to produce a word cloud for any text whose word frequencies you'd like to represent visually. In the example below, I generated a Wordle word cloud for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. (You can read the text here.)

(click to enlarge)

Depending on how much time you want to spend playing, you can customize various attributes of your word cloud, namely whether or not common words are included, capitalization, the font, the layout, and the color scheme.

For a (very incomplete) indication of how Lincoln compares to some politicians of today, you can look at Wordle word clouds for several of the speeches delivered at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions here.



Thursday, September 11, 2008

Huaqing Hot Springs

one of my brothers, a high school math teacher in Baltimore County, is currently in the middle of a five-week visit to China. He is there with another teacher and ten students taking part in an exchange program with a school in the city of Xi'an.

Xi'an is most famous for the terracotta warriors that were unearthed in a rural area near the city in 1974. My brother's group visited the warriors site today, and then went on the the Huaqing Hot Springs, a place I'd not heard of before, though I gather it's regularly included on Xi'an tourist itineraries.

While waiting for my brother to share his own photos of Huaqing, I had a look at images available on the Net, a couple of which are below.

The Dragon Fountains at the Huaqing Palace
Source: MichaelJM

One of the Huaqing pools, with Lishan Mountain in the background
Source: bechamel

One of the visiting American students is keeping a blog during the trip, which you can read here.



Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Zappos.com Builds Customer Loyalty

Like any typical consumer, among my most frequent encounters with successful training are conversations with adept, helpful customer service representatives (CSRs). (Of course, I've also had my share of disappointing and frustrating encounters with poorly trained and/or poorly guided CSRs.)

Well-trained CSRs are the name of the game at zappos.com, an Internet retailer specializing in shoes, but also offering clothing, handbags and luggage of all types, and accessories.

One recent account of Zappos' approach to building customer loyalty — a key to long-term financial success in Internet retailing — is provided by a May 2008 blog post at the website of Harvard Business Publishing. Bill Taylor cites Zappos as a standout for original thinking, steadfast execution of its business strategy, which centers on customer service excellence,1 and transparent thinking.

The specific focus of Taylor's post is Zappos' successful use of its employees as, in effect, brand ambassadors. Based both on reports of others and on his own direct observation at the Zappos call center in Henderson NV, Taylor explains that Zappos' "smart and entertaining call-center employees are free to do whatever it takes to make you happy. There are no scripts [for the CSRs to read from], no robotic behavior, and plenty of legendary stories about Zappos and its customers." (You can read one such story here.)

The superior performance of Zappos employees in building customer loyalty is largely due to careful selection for cultural fit, and to training "that immerses them in the company's strategy, culture, and obsession with customers."2 The training extends over four weeks, three of them in the classroom, followed for CSRs by a week of guided call-handling at the call-center.

After the first week of training — during which trainees receive an entry-level salary — they are offered $1,000 to walk away from the job. The thinking is that the company needs to weed out people who aren't really drawn to the CSR job as defined in the Zappos culture (what I would call people who lack the requisite critical caring). About 10% of new CSRs accept the offer.

You can learn more about Zappos' approach to its business by reading CEO Tony Hsieh's "Top 10 eCommerce Lessons" and by watching the video below, which presents an interview with Hsieh.

1 For example, in a departure from the practice of many Internet retailers, Zappos publishes its 800-number on every one of its webpages.

2 A basic component of Zappos' culture is its set of ten core values, which you can read here.


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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Impact of Learning" as an Evaluation Metric

I'm generally not particularly inspired by the material in Chief Learning Officer magazine, but there were a couple of articles in the September issue that I read because they offer useful advice on evaluating training in a practical, meaningful way.

The first article, by Jim Naughton, explains use of "impact of learning" (IOL) as one's measure of the degree of success achieved by training initiatives.1 The IOL approach has three steps:
  1. Create a map of the linkage from business goals to training initiatives and identify success metrics, i.e., measures reflecting the degree to which the intended outcomes of the training have been achieved.

  2. Gather data on the success metrics and individual success stories.

  3. Develop an impact report with compelling stories of individual and overall success, so executives clearly see the impact of training on organizational issues they care about.
The problem with the IOL approach is that executives are wont to ask whether the impacts detailed in the impact report were obtained at reasonable cost. This is where the second CLO article proves helpful. In the article, Michael Echols addresses the question of how to measure the value training initiatives create. He points out that measuring value added by training requires:
  • getting agreement from top management on the value of changes in the specific outcomes the training is intended to affect (e.g., growth in revenue, employee engagement, retention, productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, cash flow).

  • using sound statistical analysis to estimate the impact of training, while controlling for other significant factors that influence the outcomes being tracked.
Echols provides a case study of how Chrysler used the methodology he describes to evaluate a proposed program of dealer training.

1 This previous post makes similar points concerning a practical approach to evaluating training. For a discussion of how to elicit the trainee's evaluation of training, see this post.

2 This previous post makes similar points concerning how to measure the value that training initiatives create.



Monday, September 08, 2008

Daydreaming Supports Creativity

The two previous posts with quotes from Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda concerning how poetry comes to be were inspired by a recent Boston Globe article.

In "Daydream Achiever," Jonah Lehrer summarizes some of the research on daydreaming that scientists are currently conducting and reporting. Scientists have
demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind — so fundamental, in fact, that it's often referred to as our "default" mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings — such as the message of a church sermon — the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks [a reference to the "Aha" that led to creation of 3M's Post-it Notes].
Nadezhda Mandelstam's description of her husband's method of composing his poems sounds as though a form of daydreaming is involved:
As many poets have said ... a poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. ...

... At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a ‘poem’.
Note what Nadezhda says about the final stage "of listening to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a 'poem'." This sounds like what Jonathan Schooler, the scientist whose work Lehrer describes in the most detail, suggests about the relationship between daydreaming and creativity.

Schooler has shown a correlation between the amount a person daydreams and his/her score "on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections." It is important, however, to note that
Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type consists of people who notice they are daydreaming only when asked by the researcher. Even though they are told to press a button as soon as they realize their mind has started to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type, in contrast, occurs when subjects catch themselves daydreaming during the experiment, without needing to be questioned. Schooler and colleagues found that individuals who are unaware of their own daydreaming while it's happening don't seem to exhibit increased creativity.

"The point is that it's not enough to just daydream," Schooler says. "Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight."

Mandelstam's intense attention to the verbal object gradually emerging in his head, and then to burnishing it before declaring it finished, echo Schooler's thoughts on the creative form of daydreaming.

You can read more about the work of Schooler and other scientists investigating how the brain produces fresh insights in the article Lehrer published in the July 28 issue of The New Yorker. A key point for businesses is that constant pressure on employees to produce will prevent them from developing innovative ideas. Employees need time for relaxed thinking in order to be creative.


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Sunday, September 07, 2008

How Mandelstam Created His Poems

The views of Osip Mandelstam concerning how poets "develop" imagery, as explained in his essay, "Conversation About Dante," featured in yesterday's post.

As a follow-on — and a lead-in to discussion in subsequent posts concerning the creative process — I quote below portions of the memoirs of Mandelstam's wife, in which she describes how Mandelstam composed his poems. (Nadezhda Mandelstam refers to her husband as "M.")

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

As many poets have said — Akhmatova (in ‘Poem Without a Hero’) and M. among them — a poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. …

… At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition. The ‘hum’ sometimes came to M. in his sleep, but he could never remember it on waking. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a ‘poem’. …

I noticed that in his work on a poem there were two points at which he would sigh with relief — when the first words in a line or stanza came to him, and when the last of the foreign bodies was driven out by the right word. Only then is there an end to the process of listening in to oneself. …

If the poem won’t ‘go away’, M. said, it means that there is something wrong with it, or something ‘still hidden in it’ — a last fruitful bud from which a new shoot might sprout. In other words. the work is not finished.

. . .

The process of composing verse … involves the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words is an attempt to remember what is still to be brought into being (‘I have forgotten the word I wish to say, like a blind swallow it will return to the abode of shadows’ [a quote from one of Mandelstam's poems]). This requires great concentration, till whatever has been forgotten suddenly flashes into the mind. In the first stage the lips move soundlessly, then they begin to whisper and at last the inner music resolves itself into units of meaning: the recollection is developed like the image on a photographic plate.

… M.’s feeling that form and content are absolutely indivisible evidently came to him from the process of working on his poetry, which was always born from a single impulse — the initial ‘ringing in the ears’, before the formation of words, already embodied in what is called ‘content’. In ‘Conversation About Dante’ M. likened ‘form’ to a sponge — if a sponge is dry and contains nothing, then nothing can be squeezed out of it. The opposite approach is to think in terms of finding the ‘right form’ for a subject matter conceived independently of it. M. damned this approach (also in ‘Conversation About Dante’) and called its proponents ‘translators of ready-made meaning’
(From pp.82-83 and 224-225 of the 1973 Penguin paperback edition of Hope Against Hope. Hyperlink added.)


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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Osip Mandelstam on Dante's Imagery

Yesterday's post quoted the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam talking about Niko Pirosmanashvili, a visual artist. As background for tomorrow's post, I'd like to cite something Mandelstam had to say about a fellow literary artist. The quote below comes from Mandelstam's "Conversation About Dante," a lengthy essay about the work and technique of a poet whom Mandelstam revered.

Mandelstam uses Canto XVII of Dante's Inferno to illustrate his most fundamental idea about how imagery is used creatively. Canto XVII tells of Dante's descent from the seventh circle of Hell to the eighth, known as Malebolge. Because there is no route for going on foot, he and his guide Vergil ride on the back of Geryon, whom Dante describes as a winged beast with the tail of a scorpion but the face of an honest man (see the image by William Blake below).

"Geryon Conveying Dante and Virgil Down Towards Malebolge," by William Blake (1824-1827)
Source: National Gallery of Victoria (Australia)

Mandelstam's description of how a master poet like Dante uses imagery:

"Now let's try to grasp all of Canto XVII as a whole, but from the point of view of the organic chemistry of Dantean imagery, which has nothing in common with allegory. Instead of merely retelling the so-called content, we will look at this link in Dante's work as a continuous transformation of the substratum of poetic material, which preserves its unity and aspires to pierce its own internal self.

Dante's thinking in images, as is the case in all genuine poetry, exists with the aid of a peculiarity of poetic material which I propose to call its convertibility or transmutability. Only in accord with convention is the development of an image called its development. And indeed, just imagine an airplane (ignoring the technical impossibility) which in full flight constructs and launches another machine. Furthermore, in the same way, this flying machine, while fully absorbed in its own flight, still manages to assemble and launch yet a third machine. To make my proposed comparison more precise and helpful, I will add that the production and launching of these technically unthinkable new machines which are tossed off in mid-flight are not secondary or extraneous functions of the plane which is in motion, but rather comprise a most essential attribute and part of the flight itself, while assuring its feasibility and safety to no less a degree than its properly operating rudder or the regular functioning of its engine.

Of course, only by stretching the point can one apply the term 'development' to this series of projectiles constructed in flight, which fly away, one after the other, in order to maintain the integrity of movement itself.

Canto XVII of the Inferno is a brilliant confirmation of the transmutability of poetic material in the above-mentioned sense of the term."

[From The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. by Jane Gary Harris (Ardis, 1979), p. 414]



Friday, September 05, 2008

Niko Pirosmanashvili, Georgian Artist

To offer something cultural as a counterpoint to news of strife among Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Russia, here's a sample of the work of the important self-taught Georgian artist, Niko Pirosmanashvili (1860-1918). Pirosmanashvili mostly painted signboards and pictures, primarily on oilcloth and wood.

"Roe," by Niko Pirosmanashvili
Source: kosmyryk.typepad.com

A collection of Pirosmanashvili images are shown in the video below.

"We cannot help but bow down before the splendor of his "illiterate" (not anatomically correct) lions, his splendid camels standing alongside oddly proportioned human figures, and his tents which overcome the one-dimensional flatness of his medium through the power of color alone. If the French had known of Pirosmanishvili, they would have come to Georgia to study painting."Osip Mandelstam (The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. by Jane Gary Harris, p. 162)

Giorgi Shengelaya produced a critically lauded film biography of Pirosmanashvili in 1969.



Thursday, September 04, 2008


Thanks to a post at Global Voices Online, I now know more about "Guantanamera," one of my favorite songs. As explained in the Wikipedia entry for the song, its authorship is not entirely clear. At a minimum, Joselito Fernández, whose 100th birthday was yesterday, was the first person to promote the song. He also claimed to have written it.

In any event, it is now acknowledged to be Cuba's single most popular song. You can watch a rendition by Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, and Hugo Garzón below.



Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Ram Charan on Combating Bureaucracy

In a nutshell Ram Charan, a respected strategy consultant, recommends five things to do to get around bureaucratic barriers in your organization:
  • To identify roadblocks, ask, "What do we need to do to allow us to move faster?"

  • [my personal favorite] Streamline — keep management layers to five or fewer.

  • Identify indecisive managers, and work with them to try to fix the problem. If they cannot move faster, let them go.

  • Make sure everyone has ready access to information they need for their decision-making, as opposed to letting managers get away with hoarding information.

  • Celebrate, reward monetarily, and promote people in your organization who get around bureaucratic barriers and achieve results expeditiously.
Charan has been urging these ideas at least since he published Execution in 2002.


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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Paradox of Power

As the US presidential campaign grinds on, it seems useful to consider what we know about how leaders who are effective exercise their power. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley, published an article in Greater Good Magazine that provides an overview of what research reveals concerning this question.

Keltner talks about the "paradox of power":
... a new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it's used responsibly, by people who are attuned to and engaged with the needs and interests of others. Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.

This research debunks longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people obtain it, and how they should use it. But studies also show that once people assume positions of power, they're likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view. This presents us with the paradox of power: The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

The power paradox requires that we be ever vigilant against the corruptive influences of power and its ability to distort the way we see ourselves and treat others.1
Keltner's short article is well worth reading. He refutes several myths, including the myth that Machiavellian types are the most effective in exercising power:
It is not the manipulative, strategic Machiavellian who rises in power. Instead, social science reveals that one's ability to get or maintain power, even in small group situations, depends on one's ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence — reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions — prevails over social Darwinism.
Thus, essential skills would-be leaders should cultivate include exactly the aforementioned areas — conflict resolution, negotiation, team-building.

As for resolving the power paradox ("What people want from leaders — social intelligence — is what is damaged by the experience of power"), Keltner recommends learning about the qualities leaders should have (see above) and rejecting irresponsible leaders, "who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force." Conversely, when in a leadership position — whether in government, in business, in a non-profit organization, or at home — a person should strive conscientiously to exercise the qualities that are the marks of responsible leadership.

1 The nature of social intelligence is discussed in this earlier post.


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Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day 2008

Firemen's Labor Day Parade, 1929
Source: Library of Congress