Friends with Agendas (FWA)

Why don't companies "get" social? Why do consultants have such a hard time helping clients to leverage social networks and tools for business value? Perhaps it is because in 'doing social,' (rather than being social), you become the FWA. The "friends with benefits" is a well-understood concept, which I will not describe further; but I'd like to introduce its antithesis - the FWA. Your Friends With Agendas.

Early in my first marriage, my hermeneutics professor invited us to his home for dinner. We attended a staid Christian college, where the sense of hierarchy and authority was significant. It was quite the honor for this sophomore to be invited over, and I assumed he was taken by his bright young student and desired an evening of philosophical musing. Networking was not yet a verb, at least not to me, but I understood the importance of the occasion, and my wife and I dressed accordingly. Arriving precisely on time, we were greeted by his unassuming wife and escorted to the living room. There was no pre-dinner alcohol, of course, although no dinner ever needed it more. Perched on the edge of his couch, the good professor addressed me while gesturing for his wife to fetch 'the stuff' from the kitchen. "John, I invited you here because I wanted to talk with you about something important. Something very important to your future." His wife returned, carrying a saucepan and a stack of pennies. My wife wore the same blank expression I hoped I had on at that moment. He began to drop the pennies into the saucepan, one at a time, each landing with a clack as he began his sales patter.

Yes. I had been invited into the learned man's home so he could pitch us to "invest" in waterless cookware. I don't remember the dinner, but we managed to hold in our laughter until well down the road.

Did I understand this man? Perhaps. The salary of a professor at a Christian college in 1981 was likely something short of handsome. Would I ever trust this man again, did I respect him as I had the day before? Not a chance. He had violated the power relationship, and misused his influence to try and earn a few shekels. His agenda trumped his common sense, and he ruined any idea I may have had about furthering that relationship. (Not that he cared, that was never his aim.)

"Monetizing social requires betraying trust." - Stephen Bates. (@batess)

The vendor, the marketer, the employer - each approach "social" with an asymmetrical agenda. There are no true 'win-wins,' for any of these relationships. Mutual value can be established, but this is a nuanced negotiation, not a dictated Terms of Service. Predictive analytics will not tell you how to approach or maintain individuals within your target network. Even considering a network as something to target begins to fray the trust needed for a true network of value.

And speaking of targets, this one is moving. The nodes you want in your network are on the move, literally. They expect to have their network available everywhere, and for their technology to sense and respond based on location, time of day, available data about their plans, and more. You know that friend who just "gets" you? That is what people are beginning to expect from their mobile and social technologies, and the relationships they represent. No latency, and no friction. Count the number of times you hear someone scold their device for a lack of responsiveness. Note how quickly they abandon a task if the device will not cooperate.

The secret to understanding social may lie in rethinking some classic marketing and management 'truths.' This is related to the shift in how work is done, how buying decisions are made, and how disintermedation is preferred in each. Some questions to ponder:

  • What is your budget for relationship building? Is it reconciled against this quarter's earnings, or do you allow for the messiness of human relationships and uncertain timelines to fit within your allocation for network growth and maintenance?
  • By now, you have likely established business value statements for the investment in 'social.' Now, how are you measured by your network? What is their internal value statements for engaging with you? Have you allowed for these to shift, based on their moods and emotions? Are you engaged in a conversation to understand continuously how you're viewed, or are you busy segmenting and predicting based on Big Data?
  • Are you trusting your gut? You know instinctively which Twitter accounts are hitting the mark, and which are just broadcasting. (Hint: Rep Dingell (@John_Dingell) of Michigan is doing it right.) You know the famous gaffes on social media, you know the tune to "United Breaks Guitars." Have you embedded this gut understanding of relative authenticity into your plan for 'social?'

In the past weeks, several offline conversations have raised this - all with the same conclusion. "No one really 'gets' social right yet." Perhaps this is because we have not considered what needs to change in order to become "social," or, to reclaim a term: network-centric. Or, more likely and more sadly, we refuse to do so.

These are not the requirements you are looking for...

How do you “engage stakeholders” and “gather requirements” in 2011? Outside the workplace, people and technology have co-evolved.  We Facebook,” we text, we tweet, some of us “check in,” all while listening to music that is streaming to us on customized or micro-segmented “radio” channels.  We connect with friends long moved away, we coordinate over space and time and find projects and opportunities - and occasionally love (authorized and not).  These are not the people we were five or ten years ago.  Certainly not the people we were twenty years ago.  This is not a good or bad thing, despite regular claims that Google or Facebook or Twitter is the latest thing “making us stupid.”  It just is.

For example, I own a Pizza Acquisition Device.  No, really.  I speak into it, saying “nearest pizza” and it shows me the phone number to the pizza place nearest to where I am standing. One click, and I’m talking to the nearest pizza professionals. It’s pretty cool, you probably have one too.  Thanks to a simple mash up of my “phone’s” microphone, GPS chip, and internet connection with Google’s use of computational linguistics, machine learning, voice recognition, massive geocoded databases, etc. - plus the dialing function of my phone - I can always find the nearest pizza.  (This is not strictly true, as the nearest real pizza is 250 miles away in Brooklyn, but go with me on this.)

Imagine if someone came to me with the need to gather functional requirements.  “I understand you want us to build a pizza acquisition device.”  The result would be, I imagine, a fairly expensive and clunky unit that I would wear in some fashion.  It would not be as elegant as my iPhone, because it would begin with what I think I need absent the technology experience.  The difference between a platform and a point solution is salient here, but I am making a different case:  I am co-evolving with the technology around me.

I saw an article recently detailing how Google spent some time considering how their voice search would work, presuming that people would speak to it as if it were a friend, in full sentences.  Turns out they need not have worried - we’ve already been trained to speak in search terms.  I don’t say, “Hey, I’m standing here in downtown DC, do you know where I can find pizza?”  Automatically, without thinking about it much, I instead say; “nearest pizza,” because I know how search engines work.  We all do.  Google found that the majority of their voice searches are framed in short phrases, as if they were typed into a search box.  Google has trained us on how to speak to the Google machine.

If we are trying to ‘engage stakeholders,’ let’s start with where they are, and recognize that they are evolving based upon their regular interactions with consumer technology. (Keeping in mind the ever-present but often overlooked ‘digital divide,‘ not everyone has the opportunity to evolve at the same pace.) In the public sector, this means understanding that even “non-technologists” have become masters at using smart phones, auto navigation devices, music streaming services, etc.  Ignoring this means you are starting not on the 1-yard line, but from somewhere out in the stadium parking lot.

If we are trying to ‘gather requirements,‘ well, let’s begin with the understanding that they are not lying about on the ground like swollen grapes.  Your users aren’t waiting for you with a list of requirements that you can capture and transcribe. In fact, it’s time to retire the verb “gather” with respect to requirements and move from the hunter-gatherer to an agricultural model of civilization: We need to cultivate requirements based on the evolutionary path of users as they interact with emerging and interconnected technologies.  Put more simply: We need to co-design solutions with users who are often unaware of their status as cyborgs.

Job-Killing Processes

I’ve been wrestling with a thought lately - if organizations are complex systems, and complex systems are continuously self-organizing, then why do we believe formal processes make these complex systems more efficient? Worse, when an organization is in need, why do we engage in process improvement - when what may be needed is process reduction or elimination? This is not the first paragraph to question process improvement, this is not some original Eureka moment.  This is a personal journey, and the enormity of the mistake is beyond what I had considered previously. Friends, more erudite than I, have used similar words before - but for some reason I’m realizing, only recently, a simple truth: the implications for the baseless faith in the machine-based approach to management and the firm are global and profound.

A process-heavy enterprise isn’t cold and impersonal - because humans are still warm and social.  Instead, a process-heavy enterprise creates the need for larger social networks.  Formal processes do not capture the natural evolving paths people take to confront their tasks.  In response, people do what is natural, they use their social network to navigate the workplace - looking inward to find others who have succeeded despite the process.  We know that excessive time spent focused inward leads to burned-out employees, who must work the “second eight” to comply with organizational reporting and the like.  On a larger scale, this wasted effort presents - at the limit - an opportunity cost for the enterprise as a whole.  Perhaps the path to efficiency is to set the conditions for processes to emerge at the point of need, rather than Six Sigma-ing the (majority of) tasks that require creativity and agility.

In the famous early mistakes in business process re-engineering, managers believed once their processes were “streamlined” and “documented” (and embedded in enterprise software tools), they could realize savings by reducing the number of humans.  For routinized tasks, this may be a reasonable assumption - however, what percentage of your workday is routine?  Look to your own environment - do you rely on your social network to find the informal work-arounds for corporate process?  When faced with a challenging problem, do you find solace in the documented process?

Work to Rule. In labor relations, there is a term called “work to rule.”  Simply stated, this means that union workers have a negotiating tool that enables them to paralyze an enterprise - by merely doing only what is considered ‘by the book.’  No creativity, no work-arounds, no focus on task accomplishment - just fealty to the process.  Consider this message:  the way to crash some enterprises is to do what is expected by procedure manuals and process charts.

Business Development. In one company, I observed a set process for preparing contract proposals:  with clear roles, authorities, assignments, formats, and process steps.  Chokepoints were established along the way, when “pencils” down would precede a murder board review to assess the quality of the proposal against the procurement specifications.  These comments were returned to the writing team, who would tackle their task anew. The information technology consisted of shared folders, and the writers laboring over each section would be required to post their documents in the appropriate folder at the required hour.  The work was intense and draining, writers were often unaware of each other’s work, and the review team invariably excoriated the team for the lack of a “single voice” or “storyline.”

In another company, the proposal response was visible at all times to the entire proposal team.  In a shared online space, the sections were worked in parallel, each writer able to observe the other’s ongoing work.  The team met daily to talk through issues, but kept in touch throughout the process through instant messaging and email. There were roles and authorities, assignments and formats here as well - but the process was determined by the writing team, and emerged and adapted based on the demands of the work and the schedule.  As the storyline evolved transparently, there were fewer surprises, people were able to lend value across the work throughout - and the end product was coherent and compelling.  This without a review team’s intervention.

Software Development. In software development, Agile methods are triumphing over waterfall or other linear methods - users are happier because their approach to their work changes as they learn what is possible from the technology solution.  The human and the software evolve together.  The old approach was to gather what people thought they needed, build the software according to specifications, and then train the humans to operate the solution.  There may be a correlation between how much training is needed and how disconnected the solution is from how people work.  When software methods allow the humans and technology to co-evolve, when humans are co-designing the solution during “development” - we seem to have happier humans.

The thoughts bouncing in my head now are:  what needs to be in place to allow for emergent processes? Formal process has a small place - compliance processes dictated by, for example, government regulation come to mind.  However, value-creating processes must emerge from the interaction of the work and the humans.  They cannot be formalized absent the humans or the situational context - if they are, then humans will circumvent them, creating a more inefficient enterprise... or follow them to the letter, and destroy value.  In a real sense, process improvement should be replaced by process enablement.  Let the approach to work emerge from the situational context.

Raising the Dial Tone, Part 2

(Part 1 is archived at Recently, Dennis McDonald offered that transparency and collaboration should be considered as efficiency measures in the Secretary of Defense’s initiatives.  A sharp comment to this post responded by detailing the dire state of the federal procurement system, offering that the system is “completely broken, not superficially but structurally and intrinsically broken.”  The response indicated that collaboration was at best an insufficient tool to address the pathology of the system:

“The problem isn’t a communication breakdown between the people issuing requirements and those implementing them. In most cases that communication is satisfactory. The problem is that most requirements issued on federal contracts are complete birdcage liner written by people who are either totally unqualified to design a product or produced by a process/workflow that is biased toward the most verbose form of mediocrity (i.e. reams of underwhelming requirements).”

In my field of KM, there are many well-intentioned professionals who seek to increase sharing and collaboration among and across their targeted workforces.  This is a good thing.  Following what we know of network science regarding loose connectors, the amplifying effect of linked networks is primarily achieved through loose connectors, also referred to as ‘weak ties.’  This is how disparate networks form ‘small worlds.’

What are these?  Consider the social or professional groups with which you primarily associate.  You may be central to the interactions within this group, helping keep the group together and moving forward.  Network scientists call this increasing network cohesion.

The problem?  You likely spend less energy meeting people with whom you have little in common.  At the edges of your group, there are these people. The folks who don’t show up at every happy hour.  The ones who are known, but not seen as core to the group’s identity.  The accountant who is also involved in community theater.  The developer who takes long weekends in the Spring to cycle across hundreds of miles with a like-minded group.  The conversations here, for the most part, do not involve their work.

But some do.  Sometimes the accountant meets a CFO while preparing for a community production - and banter leads to a greater understanding of each other’s professional perspective.  Sometimes the developer meets an entrepreneur over dinner in a small-town diner as they restoke the cycling fires.  The conversation exposes each to the challenges of the other.  Weak ties are established across two previously disconnected social networks.

Monday morning, the accountant and the developer are back at work.  During a project meeting, they sound different.  As if they’ve been reading a different manual, suddenly expressing views that are not usually heard in the tight group.  The CFO and entrepreneur likewise return to their labors with a new perspective, a new voice tucked away in their heads.  With new contacts in their smart phones.

Who knows what may come of these chance interactions?  We cannot know, but the theory and experience both tell us that diversity in a social system leads to a healthier, more sustainable system.  From a systems science perspective, open systems are more efficient - this openness is not simply a benefit resulting from increased collaboration, but a core characteristic of a healthy system.

Connecting disparate social networks is as important - I would argue more important in many cases - than connecting within the core group.  This is the reason we speak of openness of interaction, transparency of data, and collaboration across agencies and organizations.  We do not - or rather, we should not - pretend that connecting people and opening the conversation will solve thorny systemic issues (health care, national security, acquisition reform); but we should set expectations that a wider dial tone will lead to serendipitous innovation.  Establishing weak ties across disparate networks is the first step towards finding innovative solutions to these long-standing problems.

In our new march towards efficiency, let’s continue to raise the dial tone and open systems.  This is not an end state or resolution, but a necessary path towards shared goals.

How a Memory Palace Fuels the Elevator Speech

My apologies for the mixed metaphor in the title, but I'm pressed for time these days.  I certainly need to improve my blogging frequency, monthly just does not cut it with me. My 'Other' Memory Palace

We recently began to settle on a strategy story line at our little shop, to capture our approach to improving life options for children of color and poverty through education transformation.  Even that is a mouthful, but it gets harder.  Ready?  We aim to:

Accelerate achievement for these children through system redesign in order to realize a personalized learning experience for each child.  We will pursue this by working in a network of selected districts established under umbrella 'innovation zones,' connected by a common information services platform.  We will deliver frameworks for innovation in education and specific tools that have proven effective - recognizing a spirit of both experimentation and measurement.  We will work to establish lasting networks for sustained innovation across the educational system, improving the probabilities that innovation will lead to systemic transformation.  We don't want to lock in our 21st century understanding of learning - we are currently locked into a 19th century approach and have learned the hard lesson of stagnant markets for education.

Whatever you think of the paragraph above (and how many floors would that elevator ride take to explain?), I am able to recite it at will because the pieces live in my childhood home on Long Island.

Allow me to elucidate.

Borrowing from Matteo Ricci and reaching back to 1596, I first rely on the accidental blueprint in my head regarding the home in which I spent my first 16 years (and then a few additional years, but that is a story for a different blog).  As I first heard and talked through our strategy, I walked through my home and placed artifacts or built structures to remind me of the elements.

Walking in my front door, I head first upstairs - in the bathroom I have placed a speedometer to reflect Acceleration.  We were a family of six, with one and one-half baths.  Acceleration was something often requested of the inhabitant.  Walking to the back bedroom, I find Personalization because my sister once painted the walls a hideous blue that refuses to leave my memory.  Walking back up the hall, I stop at the bedroom I used as a teenager.  Here is where I used to exit the home using the window, sliding down the garage roof for post-curfew appointments.  Of course, this reflects System Redesign.  In the smaller front bedroom, I placed imaginary scaffolding to reflect how much I wanted to rebuild the room when sleeping there as a small child.  Hence, Frameworks.  In the fourth bedroom are many boxes containing - the Tools.  The man of the house had been packed up and moved out when I was 11 years old, hence the packing crates with tools.

Walking downstairs, I sidle past the System Architects sitting on my couch - my sisters' boyfriends who curried favor by fixing things around the house - to the dining room which long featured a "swamp cooler" for "air conditioning."  Here I imagine the humidity and flora, including the Cocoon (innovation zone).  In the kitchen, where my mother spent weekends perfecting her sauce in a large kettle (every home on Long Island understands the Italian sauce that lasted all week), I find the Information Services Platform.  Here I pause for a bite of most excellent sausage (Laws), as most of my conversations begin with the new role of the Federal government in education and the opportunities this provides for our endeavors.

So there is my Memory Palace.  Hardly a palace to my recollection, but it's an internalized physical space through which I can wander and survey the elements of our strategy. My childhood home is filled currently with the elements for education system transformation.

Where is your Memory Palace, and what do you keep there?

The United States' New CIO: Metrics that Matter

empty-process President Obama today announced the selection of Mr. Vivek Kundra to be the nation's Chief Information Officer. Back in January of 2009, I had the honor of touring Vivek Kundra's operation while he was the Chief Technology Officer for Washington, D.C.  Several things struck me about the arrangements - a small cubicle farm in the center of the room, with interactive screens on the walls depicting various real-time data about technology projects.  In the corner office, a briefing room where managers, stakeholders, and contractors would gather to determine the fate of poorly performing projects.  The cubicle farm contained his "market" (technology) analysts, who constantly monitored the health of the technology projects under the purview of the CTO office.

This itself was impressive, but what struck me most was his definition of "poorly performing."

When he arrived in the position, he was handed thick paper reports that indicated the progress for each project against classic PMBOK metrics.  These are the lifeblood for information technology system integrators, based on a deep belief that adhering to efficient and learned processes will result in the best client value.  Systems engineering steps are carefully detailed and documented, and Mr. Kundra was invited to review these paper volumes as the tool for overseeing a multi-million dollar IT portfolio.

I need to be careful here, lest I appear  dubious concerning the value offered by the Software Engineering Institute, Project Management Institute, etc.  Not withstanding these noble and enduring "best practice" endeavors, Mr. Kundra made a critical decision that, in my opinion, made all the difference.  Rather than tracking his contractors' fealty to accepted practice, he developed metrics that reflected client value.  These included high-level schedule metrics, as would be expected, but also such things as micro-polling to determine stakeholder 'happiness.'  

I have noticed in some commercial firms the tendency to believe adhering to "industry practices" is akin to "delivering value."  Often, I would see projects that made the internal process group happy - but which were failures in the client's eyes.  Alternatively, some of the projects that were highly rated by the client were often those that failed to have a completed checklist of some sort - a failure that would earn it high-level negative attention.  Project managers were left wondering why they spent hours documenting processes that were not related to client value or happiness.  


Kundra's D.C. team established a manageable set of tracking metrics and displayed them on the interactive screens.  At any given time, you could see how various projects were faring - and drill down to the data elements that provided the "score."  In addition, his staff developed RSS feeds regarding online content/news relevant to these projects, and this became Mr. Kundra's morning newspaper.

With a focus on client value, and an awareness of various perspectives, Mr. Kundra was able to increase visibility and improve management of an elusive concept in the world of IT:  solutions that work.  He did this, I am convinced, by throwing the book away.  By not allowing his office to get distracted tracking processes, but instead focusing on outcome metrics - metrics that matter.

Hello world!

Not sure how this will turn out - I may keep it as a diary only.  I need a way to retrieve ideas I learn from online content, conferences, and the inevitable eurekas that occur during a long shower.  Shower blogging is going to be all the rage, and you (I) heard it here first. Snowden is live-blogging from a KM conference in Boston, and likely has given me words for today's chat with the CFO.

"...A recent exercise (survey technique) showed that there is no correlation between KM and financial performance, but they did find a relationship between KM practices and better performance of strategy, which in turn impacts on financial performance. In order to make it happen (he argues) you have to find very specific leverage points..."


"Basic proposition: Knowledge strategy is not KM but creates a strategic argument for KM. This means looking at three things: what we must know, what we know and what our competitors know."

I concur with one of his commenters that the next part of that presentation sounded too much like systems thinking to me.  I'm in a company that is simultaneously taking on ISO 9001, FISMA, Records Management, and is flirting seriously with Lean Six Sigma.  We have been a heavily "processed" firm for over 13 years, and are currently CMMI-3; but that has always been a focus on software development and project management.  To expand beyond this is going to test my gag reflex, but I have secured a copy of "Lean Six Sigma for Professional Services" so at least I can argue my case against a rising tide.

Side note in this ramble:  The first page of George's tome had a quote that went something like "50% of your activities add no value in your customer's eyes."  I'm certain that is true, which is why I don't usually ask my customer how I should go about creating value for them.  I sell them on the value proposition, and deliver results.  If it takes a glass of wine for a colleague and I to hit on an innovative strategy or compare notes after a knowledge audit session - I expect the customer would question the wine portion of that off-the-clock "work."  (And they would not be expensed for that...)  I expect George will now set about eliminating all this excessive collaboration and messy chit-chat so the customer can see the ROI in each step as we deliver our lock-step, repeatable, professional services.  At some point, I'll get to page two, but it will take some wine.

Interesting Fall ahead.