Beyond social (part 1) : decision making

Summary : adding a social layer brings few substantial gains while organizations don’t change their models. No tool with trigger an organizational and structural change that has not been designed and desired. At the most it will cause marginal light shifts. When it comes to improve decision making, indispensable condition to improving the overall performance, access to the wisdom of crowd, to experts and the benefits of open works will remain marginal unless as long as a new model organizing subsidiarity, taking risk management into account and organizing the mobilization of the right resources is not implemented.

Adding a new layer in i the organization, as social, funny and nice as it could be is not enough to trigger deep changes. It often ends in developing communities that will, at best, help some to implement something new one day while they’ll accumulate knowledge and relevancy they won’t be able to put at work because organization and systems prevents it. At best, some rebels will go further, benefiting from a safety bubble created by a clear-sighted manager or sometimes at their own risks. To such an extent that sometimes the killer app of the system becomes the profile…too bad for all the energy spent to stimulate other kinds of usages. I’m not saying that rich profiles have no value, I’m myself convinced that they are the pivot shaft where traditional an social intranets meets but let’s admit that it’s a pity to see the wasted potential of such projects for reasons that have mainly to do with external constraints.

So there’s a compelling need to go beyond the social layer and adoption/engagement logics to enter a structure and system one. As a matter of fact the reason why organizations are still failing at improving productivity with social technologies is that, despite some are really advanced in terms of adoption, is to be found in the difference between usages and a true organizational model. That’s the difference between having to be attractive, even to beg people to adopt new practices, often on top of the official ones and implementing something that becomes the official way things are done (what does not mean it can’t emerge from the bottom). That’s the difference between “usage”, which is a nice way to say things are not mandatory and even superficial and “official operational practice” which secures people and allow a critical mass to go in the same direction, knowing they’re not at risk. In fact there’s one thing worse than an organizationn without an effective collaboration/innovation/learning model : an organization where lots of models co-exist without any kind of coherence and where no one dares to decide which one should prevail and become the norm.

So that’s why I’m started a post series on “beyond social”, which will deal with  what happens or should happen around social projects or even without them. As a matter of fact that’s obvious that the most tremendous improvement and innovation in organization often comes from companies that are not rock stars on the social scene, where organization change started before deploying any technology (when technology is involved, what is not always the case). In short, the more an organization decided to improve decision making, learning, management etc..beforehand, the better social works.

1st part of the series : decision making.

The situation

In a world where markets, needs and solutions move faster and faster, the organization speed of execution should improve accordingly. What mostly determines the speed of executions is the speed of decision and exception handling (what is quite the same because solving a problem is also deciding to put something new at work : having the idea without deciding to put it at work is like having no idea at all). Let’s also add that in world that’s getting more complex every day, making the right decision implies access to relevant knowledge in many domains and the people who own it.

Last point : the increasing difficulty in having people deeply engaged in executing decision when it seems to them that the decision making process was single-way and opaque.

The constraints

Scarce time to act.

Long decision chains.

Decision makers so overwhelmed so they become bottlenecks (mostly caused by upward delegation).

Expert resources hardly identifiable and accessible

Tacit knowledge poorly or not formalized at all, seldom shared, related conversations not captured.

 

Examples

Response to tenders that should be always faster, on more and more complex solutions.

Dealing with a customer incident needing and adhoc action in a short time limit.

Light or substantial changes to me made on a project plan by a team member because of evolving context or unpredictable issue.

 

The idea

Organizations “just” need to bring decision making closer to where the problem that caused the need for a a decision happened. That’s very close to the “gemba” approach that can be found in LEAN, improved by subsidiarity. As a matter of fact, in the LEAN approach someone needs to go on the field to understand and fix the problem while, here, the person who faces the problem is supposed to be empowered enough to do so and forward the problem only if it exceeds his habilitation. And, to be able to face the complexity of issues, the person in question should be able to tap the relevant experts.

The difficulties (non exhaustive list)

They are of several kind

- cultural  : in addition to legacy  internal procedures that prevent the system to work, they are also caused by habits and a piece of culture that is shared by nearly every company which is the need to cover oneself by getting the explicit or implicit approval from one’s manager. The best example is what happened once at Alcatel-Lucent.

- organizational : internal rules that strictly defines one’s field are not a problem, contrary to what we often hear. The problem is how they distribute decision making and accountability. Moreover, if decision is delegated but accountability does not follow, it’s understandable that the accountable person want to get decision making back in his hand.

- managerial : if management naturally inherits from the two previous points, trust is also a matter that counts. Even if it’s supposed to be a global issue, a manager can, at his own level, create a kind of “trust bubble” with his staff, regardless to the global context.

- related to resources mobilization : mobilizing resources is nice but flexibility shouldn’t happen at the expense of critical tasks.Moreover, it can’t rationally happen in a system based on strict resources allocation where it looks like accounting heresy. I don’t even mention the cases where implicit rules or the personality of a manager makes it impossible to directly get in touch with someone to tap his expertise.

- related to accountability : contrary to many received ideas, not everybody wants to male decisions. Or, knowing that decision making always comes with accountability, not everyone want to be accountable, most of all in cultures where failure is prohibited. Most of all, employees do not seem to like managers that give them too much freedom.

- if shorter decision making chains often implies to rely more and more on the wisdom of crowds et consensus seeking, the system can lead to decisions that are better, better understood but taking a long time to be made. The right balance is not easy to find.

 

Leads (non exhaustive list)

-making expertise more accessible and, easier to tap and adhoc collaboration less time consuming.

- clearly organize subsidiarity : state who’s responsible for what and transfer him the decision making authority that comes with. Distinguish the cases where someone has to forward an issue because of criticality, in which case it should be forwarded along the hierarchical chain, or for expertise reasons, in which case it should be forwarded to experts. That has to upsides : setting a clear pattern everyone will follow and reassure people that are never comfortable with vague boundaries that make them subject to the arbitrary appreciation of one manager.

- implement  open work practices to provide enough visibility on people’s action. It will strengthen trust (“I see what you’re doing without having to tell you to report”), organize subsidiarity (“I let you decide but I can intervene if necessary). Considering subsidiarity rules, it’s important to clearly define what information needs to pushed to managers and experts and what should only be made visible for information and possible action.

- if a massive use of experts and crowdsourcing is expected, it’s important to make the pattern manageable and acceptable in terms of cost management. Two possibilities. The first is to adapt to the current  system by stating that anyone (globally speaking or regarding to one’s job or belonging to an expert pool) is supposed to spend x% of his time on such cross department or cross-project activities on a voluntary basis. Then, infer the percentage of his time that his manager will have to make profitable vs. the percentage allowed for global and over-the-flow activities that contribute to someone else’s success. The second possibility will come later, for maturity reasons, and will consists in not caring about costs anymore but track the value created through collaboration and participation. It needs a methodological and technical toolbox that is still in its infancy but will be what will prevail in maybe a decade. (Some will find that has a lot to do with the cost vs throughput thinking made popular by Goldratt).

- coach managers and make sure that in the future no one will get a managing position without being able to work in a decentralized decision making environment based on trust.

- involve people as much as possible to make the decision making process as transparent as possible to ensure better execution.

- build team small enough to make it easier to make decisions and forge consensus.
Examples :
Semco, Morning Star, for decentralization and democracy in decision making, GE for problem solving. Google on time allocation even if, for them, it’s more about innovation than collaboration.

 

And social/2.0 in all that  ?

That’s obvious that enterprise 2.0 or social business have a big role to play in improving decision-making processes

- by making open/visible work possible

- by facilitating the identification of the right resources and providing access to expert communities dedicated to problem solving

- by making the pattern able to work in an asynchronous mode, on a large scale, regardless to people location.

- by facilitating crowdsourcing

- tomorrow, with social analytics and sentiment analysis tools, it will be possible to rely on social data to assess what people feel about a potential decision and option.

But don’t mislead ourselves. Implementing the best tools and exhorting employees to participate, share, network will have very little impact on decision making as long as the points I’ve mentioned are not dealt with. Moreover, examples show that changing decision making rules and working on culture can be successful alone while implementing technologies change very little things as long as the system is not fixed. If we consider my “tool/in the tool/ around the tool” breakdown, this is all clearly “out of the tool”.

Social is not about gathering people and make them talk together and network. It’s about mobilizing the right resources (people and knowledge) at the right time to improve and speed up the execution of any process (formal or informal). It needs rules, not necessarily social ones, that will make social possible.

Considering that when decisions are not made better or faster, very little is improved in the organization, we have the evidence that a social business approach can be key to overall performance…but that the success factors are elsewhere.