Friday, July 30, 2004

Virtual Networking

I recently heard from two friends. Both mentioned intriguing developments in the world of networking. (Note, I don't pretend to be the source for cutting edge technical developments, so bear with me if this seems like old news.)

Bill Ives uses trackback to observe not only how many hits his blog gets, but also where those surfers linked from. In this way, Bill discovers new sites related to his own.

As Bill described the technology to me, I thought that surely this will expand more broadly across the Internet. Imagine if each site could automatically share recommendations: "If you like this site, check out these other popular sites that link to the page you're reading now."

No sooner had I started pondering that than I heard from Neal Young (not Neil Young). Neal tipped me off to StumbleUpon, a membership service that creates a Friendster-like network devoted entirely to sharing Internet finds. By comparing my preferences to others already on the system, StumbleUpon suggests new websites for me to explore that others like me have recommended.

Taking off from Amazon's famous use of this idea, there are more and more sites that provide members with recommendations based on what others with similar profiles have enjoyed. Music, for example.

It's a bonding capital bonanza! The Internet is great at bringing together people with similar interests. I wonder how many out there are finding success using the Internet to build bridging capital?

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Consultant's Bible

I recently volunteered to help a wonderful team of organizational consultants under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay OD Learning Group. Six of us banded together two months ago to provide our combined expertise in the service of a local nonprofit. When we started, we were all strangers with no leader and only a vague idea where we might find a client ready to join our hoped-for summer project.

Our experience so far has been thrilling. We have melded our diverse professional strengths into a collaborative team and established a strong relationship with our client. (I might add that we found our client by networking, of course, employing the power of both network closure and structural holes in the process.)

Things are really "clicking" in every aspect of our project. There are plenty of reasons why, but I want to highlight one in particular right now. It's an easily accessible resource that two months ago provided our group of leaderless strangers with a powerful shared vision of authentic consulting.

Peter Block published Flawless Consulting in 1981 and the book has since gained wide acclaim as the Consultant's Bible. Before I read the book, I was put off by its pretentious title, but having read it I am now a true believer. When Block says "flawless" he doesn't mean know-it-all perfectionism. He means being authentic at every stage of the consulting engagement. In particular Block stresses that consultants must not only respect client wants but also directly and openly ask for their own.

A book with a philosophy like that could be handy in managing all kinds of relationships, but Block adds lots of specifics just for consultants (be they internal or external). He covers at length many aspects of consulting, including contracting, client resistance, diagnosis and discovery, data collection, feedback, engagement, and implementation. The goal of Block's approach in each step is to build a 50-50 authentic collaboration between consultant and client, and thereby maximize the impact of the consultant. Block's book is also very practical. Each chapter overflows with examples of consultant-client dialogue that get his point across as if you were watching a live demonstration.

No matter what your area of expertise, if you want your professional advice to have impact even when you don't have the authority to insist, Block's Flawless Consulting should be on your bookshelf.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Systems Thinking and Social Network Analysis

I'm looking forward to diving into my growing stack of books and articles on social networks. For example, see Stephen Borgatti and Pacey Foster's Review and Typology of The Network Paradigm in Organizational Research.

Before I take that plunge, however, I'm still absorbing my first reading of Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, which I discussed in a recent post.

I am stuck by the similar themes of these authors. Borgatti and Foster survey the current boom in network research and see it as "part of a general shift... toward more relational, contextual, and systemic understandings." Meanwhile, Senge describes the goal of his book as "destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces" so that we can then build "learning organizations."

Though they start with similar goals, Senge and social network analysts approach organizations with a dramatically different set of tools. Broadly speaking, Senge's toolbox includes

(1) Systems thinking,
(2) Personal mastery,
(3) Mental models,
(4) Building shared vision, and
(5) Team learning.

Within this framework, social networks lie closest to systems thinking, which Senge describes as "a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge, and tools that have been developed to make full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them more effectively." As he elaborates on systems thinking, Senge even draws networks (or flow charts) to explain the "systems archetypes" that are the building blocks of organizational behavior. But the ingredients of his networks lie in a completely different dimension than individual people and pairwise relationships of SNA. The nodes of Senge's networks are not people but concepts like "Success," "Problem," and "Results."

Senge's book is powerful and persuasive. It will stay with me throughout my social network research, challenging me to consider both the strengths and the limitations of social networks in describing organizational behavior.



Monday, July 26, 2004

Slacker's Parable

I was travelling last week, with all kinds of interesting scholarly books and papers in tow. I should have known better, though. Once I got out of the office, the urge to take a break from heavy thinking was irresistible.

Even without my cracking a book, fate still conspired to teach me a powerful lesson about how vulnerable is our tightly optimized, interconnected world.

I was eager to return home Friday after finishing a series of meetings in Washington, DC. But my flight from Dulles to Logan was delayed by stormy weather. Adding insult to injury, the airline changed gates for my flight four different times.

When my fellow travellers and I finally boarded our plane, it was hard to believe our hours of wandering concourses C and D were over. Sad to say, they had just begun. Not long after our plane pulled away from the jetway, the pilot announced that there was quite a wait for clearance from air traffic control. In fact, the pilot's legal allotment of duty hours was going to expire before we could possibly finish the 90-minute flight to Boston. We pulled back to the jetway.

There were no other pilots to fly our plane, but there was another flight to Boston, at another (familiar) gate. A flight attendant informed us that there was space for most of us to board that flight, but probably not all of us.

They opened our plane and a human stampede raged to the next gate. As the very last person off our ill-fated plane, I was in bad position to make the next flight, but in perfect position to watch the emerging drama. Rather than stand hopelessly at the end of the new line, I sat by the new gate and watched two poor airline attendants try to handle the situation at the head of the line.

At first, it was kind of funny watching the fireworks as the airline attendants lost their cool in the face of an entire planeload of angry passengers desperate to change their reservations. There were roughly two lines, each 100 people long. No one knew which line to stand in to get a seat on the next flight to Boston, and the airline attendants kept getting angry at each new ill-informed person at the head of the line.

The tragic humor wore off when a few savvy travellers stopped by to tell me the really bad news. With all the cancelled flights from Friday and the Democratic National Convention coming up Monday, there were no seats available from Washington to Boston for the rest of the weekend. This was not funny!

About twenty of us didn't make it on the last flight to Boston. We were told to report to yet another gate and stand in another enormous line for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations. There I had the good fortune to stand next to Thomson Nguy, Alliance Manager of Siebel Systems, Inc. We passed much of our time in line reflecting on how hard it is to build close relationships (between people, processes, or anything) without setting up the potential for unexpected catastrophe. Consider two hours of rain, a busy airport, and one tired pilot. Taken separately, each one of these is no big deal. Add them together in a tightly optimized system, stir with one national convention, and the resulting chain reaction can leave a couple dozen people homeless over an entire weekend.

When Thomson and I got to the head of the line, the customer service agent tried to tell us that we were on our own to find lodging for the night! 

Is it possible to optimize too much? Does slack do more than add cost to a system? What happens to relationships in organizations focused on assigning responsibility and minimizing costs? I've been thinking about all these questions recently, and this experience has become for me a good parable to help shed more light on the issues.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Systems Thinking: Beyond Responsibility

In a recent post I mused, "When you depend on information from me, which of us is responsible for ensuring that I have provided you with information that is accurate and up-to-date?"
Just asking that question made me squirm a bit. In that situation, does it really help matters to decide who, exactly, is responsible?
Today I came across a great response to this question of responsibility. In The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge suggests another way:

"In mastering systems thinking, we give up the assumption that there must be an individual, or individual agent, responsible. The feedback perspective suggests that everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system. That doesn't imply that everyone involved can exert equal leverage in changing the system. But it does imply that the search for scapegoats -- a particularly alluring pastime in individualistic cultures such as ours in the United States -- is a blind alley."

Senge illustrates his point with a simple and powerful example: the US-USSR arms race. Which superpower is responsible for the absurd quantities of nuclear weapons in their collective arsenals? Asking "who is responsible" does less than nothing to resolve this kind of standoff. Senge offers the perspective of systems thinking to neutralize our attachment to personal responsibility and to focus our attention on the deeper issues embedded in relationships.

Senge also uses his Cold War example to show how we often miss real and important complexities by distracting ourselves with unnecessary artificial complications. Computer science PhDs like myself are used to tackling big systems with many variables. Senge calls this detail complexity. However, we can model the Cold War as two hostile agents with nuclear capability and still have an awfully difficult situation. Senge calls this dynamic complexity, where cause and effect are subtle, and the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.

Senge describes how we get in trouble when we rely too heavily on detail complexity to understand the world. Most organizational problems fundamentally involve dynamic complexity.  The more we try to couch these problems in terms of details, the more we lose sight of subtle issues of cause and effect, and the more we compromise our ability to manage the problem effectively.

Though its written from a 1980s perspective, The Fifth Discipline remains one of the most talked about books in the field of organizational development, and it is still the book on organizational learning. To experience the cutting edge of Senge's brainchild, check out the Society of Organizational Learning (SoL).

Monday, July 19, 2004

A Cross-Talk Crisis?

The experience of blogging has gotten me thinking about what kind of community we bloggers are building. Read the following passage adapted from Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow and see how it feels:

"The kind of community [bloggers] create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. These communities are more fluid and more concerned with the [interests of] of the individual.... The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another. They share their ... problems.... But in another sense [bloggers] may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some [blogs] merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.... We can imagine that [bloggers] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they do not. "

What was Wuthnow really talking about? Not bloggers, but self-help groups.

I came across this passage from Wuthnow while reading Putnam's Bowling Alone. Putnam discusses self-help groups as one of only four clear exceptions to the increasing civic disengagement of America. (I'll share the other three in a moment.) But, as Wuthnow makes clear, we should be careful not to expect too much engagement to emerge from self-help groups. For example, many self-help groups specifically prohibit responding to other members in the group, which is called "cross-talk."
The parallels between such self-help groups and RSS-armed bloggers seem striking to me. Blogs and news aggregators allow us to express ourselves and tune in to others as we wish, but my preliminary impression is that blogging doesn't generally promote cross-talk.

Another striking parallel between blogging and self-help groups: Blogging is an especially fast-growing part of one of Putnam's other four clear and encouraging movements against the tide of civic disengagement, which are
1. Youth volunteerism
2. Telecommunications and the Internet
3. Grassroots evangelical conservatism
4. Self-help groups
I am thrilled to see #1 on the list above, and honestly scared of #3. As for numbers 2 and 4, I am happy to see any signs of increasing civic engagement, but I am also concerned that we not lose track of cross-talk.
Thankfully, there are other Internet forums besides blogging (such as e-mail lists) that traditionally invite plenty of cross-talk. I have also seen e-bulletin boards with strong community goals that insist on cross-talk -- an honor code to keep lurkers from diluting the communal sense of engagement. I will be curious to see how these cross-talk-rich forums fare in comparison to blogging.
(Note: Wuthnow's quote comes from Sharing the Journey.)

Friday, July 16, 2004


I just attended a KM Pro discussion on "Keeping Content Fresh." We started with the question: How can organizations identify and remove stale content from their web portals? As we debated different technologies for managing content, the underlying discussion really turned into a debate about responsiblity. When you depend on information from me, which of us is responsible for ensuring that I have provided you with information that is accurate and up-to-date?
Before I go any further, I'd like to acknowledge that just debating content management (much less resolving it) is quite a modern privilege. Once upon a time, literacy was a rare and precious thing. Now our society is not only predominantly literate, but most of us operate mini publishing houses as well, via our PCs. See recent posts by Bill Ives for more on this historical perspective.
The super-abundance of literacy that contributes to the issue of content management reminds me of the typical rush-hour traffic jam. Technology (like the automobile) that liberates the privileged few of 1904 can burden the many of 2004, when everyone else's liberation starts to get in the way of my destination.
So what is the tele-commuter to do? (Or anyone else on the information superhighway, for that matter?)
A number of people at today's discussion shared their struggles to ensure that new content (ie, information placed in some shared repository) is reviewed for accuracy. This noble goal seems increasingly unrealistic. In organizations where more and more people are producing more and more information (some of it even useful to others), any centralized editorial board can easily become a very costly and expendable bottleneck.
Without a central editorial board, who manages the flow of information? Several participants spoke of the need for systems to sense interdepencies and update shared information automatically. We focused especially on healthcare, where a doctor prescribing a drug via his PDA can receive automatic alerts to inform him of new guidelines, side effects, or even interreactions with other medications currently prescribed to the patient at hand.
That sounds great, but I think it's important that we don't go too far in expecting our Palm Pilots to anticipate our needs.
Information storage grows ever cheaper, communication bandwidth ever wider, and search technology ever more adept. Sure, we have a quality control problem, but the benefits of mass electronic publishing far outweigh the pitfalls. I am more convinced of this every time I use Google and find just want I wanted, despite the typos and outdated links.
And so I might wish to push my blog upon the world with weighty claims of importance, and others might wish to hold me or some system responsible for alerting them to new developments in organizational effectivness; but for most of us, most of the time, I think the key is to look up what you want, when you want it.
You might be wondering, surely there are some situations where I do have a responsibility to inform you of new developments? Yes, of course there are. However, I think that these situations are becoming increasingly rare, especially here on the Internet. I expect to say more about that next week.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Using IT for Learning: The Unpopular Road to Profitability

Recently I met with Stephanie Watts, assistant professor in Boston University's Information Systems Department. Stephanie and her colleagues at BU have been doing intriguing work studying the relationship of business and technology.

In collaboration with Dowan Kwon of Concordia University, Watts has investigated the different ways that firms evaluate their use of IT, and how those differences relate to firm performance.

The most common mode of evaluating IT is based on efficiency. The firm views IT as a means of increasing process efficiency and automation, focusing on exploiting existing competencies.

Less often, firms evaluate IT based on learning. Here the firm views IT as a means to enhance knowledge transfer or support repositories of organizational experience.

By studying over 100 firms in the US and Canada, Watts and Kwon observed that managers of IT typcally focus more on efficiency and less on learning. Furthermore, as a marketplace becomes increasingly competitive or fast-changing, firms in that market will focus their IT ever more exclusively on efficiency and not learning. However, those managers who do evaluate IT in terms of learning generally achieve higher returns, based on overall firm performance.

Click here for the full paper in pdf.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Valdis Krebs speaks about terrorists and social network analysis

Valdis Krebs is a noted expert on social network analysis. See John Robb's blog on intelligent defense for more information on his upcoming conversation "Analyzing Terrorist Networks" with Krebs, which will be broadcast 20 July 2004, 10AM Pacific, 1 PM Eastern.

Community and Internet -- Friend or Foe?

American community is in decline, according to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.

Not one to just sit around while my community declines, I have taken action: I am blogging about social networks and community building. I am e-mailing colleagues with similar interests. I am downloading pdf files and reading all kinds of papers about social capital. And a couple weeks ago I joined a worldwide virtual community (or VC) filled with debates about social networks and community in the Internet Age.

Community building is hard work! Staring into my computer screen all day is wrecking my vision, and I can feel carpal tunnel setting in. Does anyone know any good blogs on these topics?

Yes, it has crossed my mind that just maybe the Internet is not an entirely constructive force driving the pulse of American community. Looking for informed opinions on this topic, fittingly enough I turned to an online virtual community. As I stumbled into the realm of disembodied electronic strangers (for I am new to this VC) the idea that the Internet could help build community felt like a sick joke.

How surprised I was to discover encouraging news. "Being Wired Encourages Human Contact," writes sociologist Keith Hampton in the Spring 2004 issue of MIT Spectrum:

The big findings, [Hampton] says, are that contact leads to contact. "If we have contact online, we'll have more contact offline, and the opposite tends to be true as well," Hampton says. "People generally don't use just one medium or the other, and e-mail certainly doesn't lead to a decrease in the size of our social circles. In fact, communicating on the Internet can increase our interactions by affording new types of relationships, for example, by helping us get to know our neighbors when we otherwise might never have."

The short article goes on to explain the interesting neighborhood studies that led to Hampton's conclusions. To stay abreast of Hampton's work, check out his blog.

So (getting back to the title of today's post) are community and the Internet friend or foe? Hampton gives us good reason to say they may be friends, and certainly they are not mortal enemies.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Reputation and Trust (aka "Network Closure")

After my recent post on community-building, I heard from a couple people discrediting Robert Putnam's arguments in Bowling Alone. In fact, the Institute for Social Network Analysis of the Economy (INSAE) provides a comprehensive list of resources for the aspiring social network practitioner. This list includes Bowling Alone, but only for the sake of criticizing it: "This book has popularized the notion of 'social capital.' His definition is plausable [sic], but not one that is born out by social network studies."

For another well-regarded cut at Putnam, see Burt's "Structural Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital." You may recall Burt and his structural holes from one of my posts on Raytheon last week. A structural hole is a gap between two groups in a social network. As I explained in that post, these gaps often provide opportunities for innovation. Burt argues persuasively that structural holes provide much of the value of social capital.

The counterpart to "structural holes" is "network closure." For those of you wondering what "network closure" is all about, let me illustrate with a small personal example. I recently decided to find myself an acupuncturist. So when my friend Katrina, who is a massage therapist, hosted a party, I asked her for a recommendation. She introduced me to a friend of hers, Robert, who happened to be at that very party. Now I am confident that Robert will serve me well for two important reasons.

First, Katrina knows about Robert already and she told me his work is outstanding.

Second, because of my relationship with Katrina, I have much more influence on Robert's reputation than does a stranger who met Robert through the Yellow Pages. Already Katrina has told me she wants to hear about my experience with Robert so she can better inform her future recommendations. Not only does Katrina influence the opinions of her own friends and clients, but she also leads a learning circle of several health practitioners that includes Robert, and therefore she also affects how other members of the circle perceive Robert's work. My experience with Robert, good or bad, will influence his future referrals not just through Katrina but also through other members of their learning circle. And so Robert has a powerful incentive to provide me with the best service he can, in order to build and promote his own reputation.

The power of reputation rests on the idea of network closure, which is the degree to which everyone knows everyone else in a network. In a subgroup or "clique" where everybody knows everybody else, reputation can have currency much more powerful than money. Promises within the group can be trusted because the consequences of breaking a promise would be catastrophic. Anyone who mistreated a fellow member in such a group would quickly find himself ostracized by the entire group, his reputation ruined.

Within such a tight-knit group, the common trust becomes a valuable resource. With trust, fellow community members can engage in all kinds of everyday transactions without wasting time and energy ensuring protection from fraud. Without trust, each individual must look out for his own protection at every turn, relying on extensive research, legal contracts, and other safeguards.

So, we have seen that structural holes and network closure both provide value as different kinds of social capital. Structural holes, those gaps between groups, drive innovation. The tightly inter-conntected bonds of network closure promote trust through the power of reputation.

Getting back to Putnam, why does INSAE criticize him for his treatment of social capital in Bowling Alone? It seems to me that INSAE's criticism is misplaced. In Bowling Alone, Putnam refers to the complementary strengths of bridging capital (across groups) and bonding capital (within groups) that are completely analagous to structural holes and network closure. But since the main point of Bowling Alone is American community, not American innovation, Putnam rightly focuses on bonding capital in his pronouncements about social capital in general. I think Putnam would view INSAE's criticism as missing his main point -- that American community is in perilous decline.

But I have also heard critics tackle Putnam on precisely his main point. Could it be that despite Putnam's exhaustive research, American community is not in decline? Did Putnam look for results to support his thesis and ignore other kinds of burgeoning communities in America? Internet-driven virtual communities, for example? I find it hard to believe that American community is actually growing despite everything Putnam says, but I'm asking around to hear others' opinions on this one. If you want to chime in, let me know. I'll post what I hear soon.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Weekend Edition: Ernest Shackleton

Journalist Alfred Lansing tells an inspirational tale of patience, courage, and leadership in Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage.

With the goal of landing on the Antarctic continent and marching coast to coast, Ernest Shackleton led twenty-seven men aboard the ship Endurance in 1914. After battling pack ice for six weeks, the Endurance became permanently stuck in the Weddell Sea, just off the coast of Antarctica, in January 1915.

Incredibly, Shackleton led all of his men back to civilization alive. They faced many life-threatening perils, but the biggest adversaries the men fought were boredom and hopelessness. Faced with ice-laden sea that was impossible to sail through or march upon, Shackleton and his men could do nothing but hunker down on the barren ice, where they camped for well over a year. Finally, when the natural sea currents brought them close enough to land, they took to their life boats for the final amazing chapter of the journey.

For anyone battling through life transitions, Shackleton's story is good sustenance. During those long months when every option for action was cut off, Shackleton wasted no energy trying to create opportunties that didn't exist. He simply instilled his team with patience and hope. When a real opportunity finally presented itself, Shackleton and his team were more than ready.

I discovered Lansing's book at the library and read it purely for pleasure, but it also relates to organizational effectiveness. The story of Shackleton has recently inspired leadership seminars, notably one offered through Linkage, Inc.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Reaching Out without Tiring Out: News Aggregators

This week I finally figured out how to revise my blog template, and so I've made a few improvements. You'll notice a big "Subscribe Here" link to the right that provides an Atom feed for those with news aggregators. I've also added links to a couple other interesting blogs. Patti Anklam uses social network analysis in her business consulting practice and muses about related topics. Bill Ives got me blogging in the first place (thanks!) and covers many areas related to portals and knowledge management, with weekend diversions to gumbo recipes, blues music, and other fun things.

Since I haven't installed an aggregator yet, I am still walking and not yet running through the world of other blogs. I expect to start running soon and then additional links from my site will follow.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Good Ideas at Raytheon and Big Holes in Our Own Backyard

Good Ideas at Raytheon

Michael Erard of the New York Times wrote a great story in May 2004, “Where to Get a Good Idea: Steal It Outside Your Group.”

The article discusses the work of Ron Burt, noted sociologist at the University of Chicago. Burt has observed that innovation is almost never a “heroic act of creativity.” Instead, innovation is an “import-export game” brokered by people who connect otherwise distinct groups. A mundane idea in one setting can become groundbreaking somewhere else, if just one person recognizes and exploits the “import-export” opportunity. Burt coined the term “structural hole” to describe the gaps between groups where this kind of innovation can occur. Click here for Burt’s full treatment (50-page pdf) of this idea.

Erard writes about Burt’s engagement with Raytheon:

Mr. Burt, whose latest findings will appear in the American Journal of Sociology this fall, studied managers in the supply chain of Raytheon, the large electronics company and military contractor based in Waltham, Mass., where he worked until last year. Mr. Burt asked managers to write down their best ideas about how to improve business operations and then had two executives at the company rate their quality. It turned out that the highest-ranked ideas came from managers who had contacts outside their immediate work group. The reason, Mr. Burt said, is that their contacts span what he calls "structural holes," the gaps between discrete groups of people.

For those of you who want the details, Burt’s paper offers solid statistical evidence to back up this claim, as well as many others. (Want better performance reviews, faster promotions, or a higher salary? Then go start bridging structural holes.)

Structural Holes in Our Own Backyard

To me, the most striking aspect of Burt’s work at Raytheon is that Raytheon did not mention it at last week’s knowledge management seminar.

Burt’s results clearly pertained to the topic at hand. The presenters described their overall mission as improving “the systematic processes that create, capture, share, and reuse knowledge [at Raytheon].” Burt’s results, obtained by studying the Raytheon organization, reveal very strong ties between specific social patterns (namely, bridging structural holes) and exactly these goals.

Considering the hours devoted to explaining Raytheon’s IT efforts, it puzzles me that the dramatic and statistically validated findings of Burt didn’t get a mention. I'm also struck that no one brought it up in the Q&A that followed. Perhaps many in the audience, like myself, didn't know about Burt's results at that time, even though they were written up in the NY Times one month before. Could the same be true of the knowledge management staff at Raytheon?

My guess is that Raytheon's employees do know about Burt's study of their own management team, but that our KM community at large does not typically pay attention to these sociologists. Perhaps Burt is too academic? But we don't need to be PhD sociologists to find ways to apply findings like Burt's. It's good business. See Bill Ives and Adriaan Jooste's comments from a recent KM Cluster for another take on managing people and innovation in the knowledge economy.

In recent months I have grown increasingly involved with a couple sociological organizations that relate closely in my mind to knowledge management (in particular The Mass Bay OD Learning Group and the International Network for Social Network Analysis). I expected to discover a thriving cross-over between these groups and our local KM groups. So far I have found few social connections between them, even at meetings (like Raytheon's) where the topical connections are obvious.

My instinct is to lament this situation. Can't we all get along? But as Ron Burt points out so well, what I really see is not a problem, but an opportunity.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Knowledge Management and Six Sigma at Raytheon

Raytheon, the high-tech defense contractor, presented at last week's joint meeting of the Boston KM Forum and the New England Chapter of KM Pro. The afternoon-long program reviewed the progress of the award-winning Raytheon Six Sigma program.

Larry Chait of KM Forum and Lynda Moulton of KM Pro co-MC'd the event at Bentley College in Waltham. They noted that their monthly meetings are increasingly well attended, as evidenced by the fifty KM practitioners who were there to hear Raytheon's story.

Highlights from the presentations:

Roberta Preve spoke about "Knowledge Management -- Hidden but Alive & Well." She explained how Raytheon captures, shares, and re-uses knowledge. Ironically, Roberta is not yet well-versed on this topic (by her own admission) because her predecessor just retired. Raytheon was refreshingly open about their work in progress, and revealing blemishes like this one to a KM-savvy audience seems like a good way to stimulate dialogue about possible solutions. On this particular topic (retirement brain-drain), a notable expert I recommend is David DeLong of the MIT Age Lab.

Keith Cromack spoke about "Transforming the Organization -- An Information Approach." One of his big themes was Less is More. Raytheon does not need more information; they need to reduce information overload. For an amazingly thought-provoking article related to this, see "Can You Have Too Many Choices?" by Christopher Caldwell in the March 3, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.

Christine Connors spoke about "Practical Approaches to Sharing Information at Raytheon." She explained how Raytheon has developed a Google-like tool to help users explore the company's enormous universe of data. Her biggest plug was for The Bentley College Design and Usability Testing Center, which provided invaluable assistance in overhauling the initially clumsy UI.

As interesting as the presentations were, I found what was not discussed even more thought-provoking. I'll write about that next time.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Officials Announce First Six Sigma Church in Massachusetts

Welcome to the twilight zone, where truth is stranger than fiction:

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Todd Mitchelson, Parish Minister of the First Church in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, announced today the congregation's groundbreaking initiative, "Six Sigma Church."

"We are a healthy and growing congregation," said Mitchelson, whose 350-year-old church has ridden a recent wave of activism to achieve levels of membership not seen since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson. "But we don't intend to rest on our laurels. Six Sigma Church will align our entire organization with the needs of our customers."

Developed at Motorola in the 80s, popularized by super-CEO Jack Welch in the 90s, and practiced by countless other corporations since then, Six Sigma is a comprehensive system to improve the quality of organizational processes. Traditionally perceived as the domain of Fortune 500 manufacturing firms, Six Sigma has never been practiced by a local church, until now.

Mitchelson elaborated with a reference to 9/11, "We can't always count on world events to bring new customers to our doorstep. Now when we are riding high is the ideal time to throw out our assumptions and ask, 'How can we do even better?' Our customers demand the best worship experience possible. That's our core business, and we intend to remain a leader and innovator in the worship industry. That's why we are committed to Six Sigma Church."

Harry Snyder, the Six Sigma expert tapped by Mitchelson to lead Six Sigma Church, explained just how Six Sigma works: "Six Sigma is a totally unique and revolutionary system that will achieve not 10% gains, not 20% gains, but incredible breakthrough gains for First Church, Cambridge! Six Sigma makes every other system you've heard about obsolete! When you are ready to take your church to the next level, then you are ready for my Six Sigma Transformational Workshop! Hallelujah!"

Though I did fudge a few names and liberally paraphrase a couple quotes, the above news item is in fact what is happening in my parts these days. Believe it or not.

Some of you may be asking, what is Six Sigma? And I can answer: Good question! But more specifically, I can say: Be careful who you ask. There are characters out there who will brainwash you with enthusiastic gobbledy-gook. Indeed, they have written entire books in such fashion.

For a sensible explanation of Six Sigma, I recommend The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing Their Performance, by Peter S. Pande, Robert P. Neuman, and Roland R. Cavanagh.

Pande et. al. start with a great executive summary of Six Sigma which culminates with their five-step "Ideal Six Sigma Roadmap":

1. Identify core processes and key customers;
2. Define customer requirements;
3. Measure current performance;
4. Prioritize, analyze, and implement improvements; and
5. Expand and integrate the Six Sigma system.

Very solid stuff. But it makes me wonder what, precisely, is the revolutionary part. Maybe it's the origin of the name itself? "Six Sigma" describes any process which successfully meets all customer requirements 999,997 times out of 1,000,000. A great goal, but it sounds expensive, right? Actually, proponents of Six Sigma argue that done correctly, meeting that level of quality will dramatically increase profits by transforming the core culture of the organization. If that sounds like too much of a stretch, you could still launch your organization on a Five Sigma initiative (999,800 right out of 1,000,000) and do well. But you'd miss out on the catchy alliteration.

Now that we've steered clear of the overly evangelistic system-mongers (who are by no means exclusive to Six Sigma), how does the church come into the story?

It turns out that my very own First Parish Church, Cambridge, has appointed a committee to re-engage the congregation in every aspect of worship. (And before I go any farther, let me clarify that our church is in no way evangelical, nor strictly speaking Christian. Actually, we're not even theistic when you really come down to it. The point is, I have no religious message to preach here. By now you may be asking, "What then is worship?" But I digress. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.) How could I say no to such an invitation?

And so I, your faithful blogger, am chairing the committee responsible for re-engaging our entire congregation in the core "business" of our church. We are still early in our initiative, but I have already learned a lot. Foremost, I have grown to appreciate my colleagues' refined sense of organizational process. If I just sit back and keep my mouth shut, my fellow committee members say things like, "First we should ask the congregation how we're doing now. Then we should analyze the feedback, pick the most important issues to tackle first, and set up a process to address these on an ongoing basis. As we progress we can get more feedback and bring new issues into the process." I swear none of them has heard of Six Sigma, BPR, TQM, or any other "revolutionary system."

But we do have one advantage in our "Six Sigma" effort over other churches. As my friend Chris Bell put it so well in another committee meeting: "We're Unitarians. Process is all we have."

Stay tuned to this site for occasional updates on "Six Sigma Church."

Monday, July 05, 2004

A Call to Arms for Community Building

A few weeks ago I met David Crowley, the founder and president of Social Capital, Inc. Crowley's organization aims to revitalize American civic engagement one town at a time, starting with his hometown of Woburn, MA.

For those of you with professional or academic interest in social capital, I recommend Crowley's list of links and resources. Given that you're reading my blog on the internet right now, you might be particularly interested in Keith Hampton's work on sociology and IT.

Listening to Crowley tell his story, it was clear that one book in particular had played a pivotal role in defining his career: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam.

I had heard many others talk about the significance of this book, but Crowley's story finally got me to read it. What I found was a staggering collection of statistics that bury the reader under one inescapable conclusion -- after rising for most of the 20th century, American community involvement has declined dramatically since the 1960s.

For me the most powerful message of the book was the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. You might expect that as Americans drop out of one kind of community (church, for example), they get more involved in another (professional associations, say). But Putnam shows us that this is wishful thinking. Across the board for the last forty years, Americans have been isolating from each other in just about any way you can think to measure.

As if the decline of American community weren't bad enough, Putnam goes on to show how community involvement relates directly to all kinds of measures of general well-being. For example, the average couch potato derives as much health benefit from joining one monthly club (a bridge group, for example) as he would from quitting smoking. By letting our sense of community slip away from us, we are not only losing touch with our neighbors, but we are also sacrificing our health, wealth, education, and safety, to name just a few.

In the latter sections of the book, Putnam attempts to unravel the mystery of why Americans are isolating and to suggest remedies to counter these effects. Here he is less successful but still thought-provoking. The major villian appears to be TV, with supporting roles played by suburban sprawl and increasing pressures of time and money. The first two (TV and suburbia) sound right to me, but I wonder about the last one. Haven't we battled the pressures of time and money since WAY before 1960?

Putnam also shows that enduring progress and setbacks in community involvement happen generationally. This is an important point, because most of the changes we see in our own lives are very real but not generational. Within a single generation (my own Gen-Xers, for example) community-minded behavior certainly does change as we mature, raise families, and eventually retire. But these age-related changes are very predictable and we can count on each generation to follow the inevitable rise, fall, and rise (health-permitting) of community involvement.

Real change in American community happens on a grander scale as the oldest generation dies off and the newest is born to replace it. Looking at things this way, we see that even as 30-somethings, the generation of my grandparents was significantly more civic-minded than Gen-Xers are now. And Putnam shows that these kinds of differences between generations persist through all the phases of life. This realization makes Putnam's call to community all the more urgent, because our most civically engaged generation in history is dying off right now, with no worthy heir yet in sight.

What can we do about this? Putnam offers some rather grandiose rallying cries. I recommend something simpler: one day next month, when you might have watched TV, invite some friends over for dinner.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Weekend Edition: TdF

This year perhaps the Olympics relegate it to second place, but otherwise the Tour de France is the greatest sporting event going. It's an unbeatable combination of athleticism and strategy, over three dramatic weeks. Thank God for Lance Armstrong, without whom we'd get no coverage of this event in the US.

Lance is a contender to win his sixth straight tour. No one has ever won more than five (consecutively or otherwise). At thirty-two, Lance is older than any previous winner of the Tour. He's also dogged by the French press, who are not big fans of his.

I am as inspired as anyone by Lance's battle back from cancer, but his arrogance is too over the top for me to go that crazy rooting for him. I'm ready for some up-and-comers to spice things up.

Still, I respect Lance for starting this year's tour strongly. With his second place finish in the Prologue today, he has put crucial seconds between him and all his main rivals for the grand prize.

To get the faintest glimmer of what the world's best cyclists are capable of, check out the profile of the 13th stage of this year's Tour.

Friday, July 02, 2004

The Ethics of Social Network Analysis

Yesterday I read a sobering paper, "Ethical and Strategic Issues in Organizational Social Network Analysis," by Steve Borgatti and Jose Luis Molina, two leaders in the field.

The authors consider ethical problems unique to social network analysis (SNA): foremost that anonymity is impossible when researchers are asking who knows whom. Related to this, SNA differs from typical social science research in that the typical report reveals detailed individual responses (in a network diagram) rather than boiling all the data down to summary statistics.

The dangers to participants in SNA studies are therefore significant. A study may compromise their private information or even threaten their careers depending on the questions asked and who reads the results.

The authors note that without immediate action on this issue, the future of SNA is in jeopardy. To protect the interests of the public and preserve the viability of their own academic field, they propose a basic set of ethical guidelines. For starters, they suggest providing full disclosure of the ramifications of any SNA study to all potential participants, making participation voluntary, and providing all pariticipants with direct feedback.

They also note that current SNA practitioners live in a "golden age" when the general public is still naive about SNA. When the public understands the implications of SNA, then we can expect that participants in SNA studies will be much more likely to lie (aka "respond strategically") in order to put themselves in a better light.

By aggressively facing the ethical concerns of SNA now, we can hope to preserve the viability of this valuable research tool.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Innovation and Networks

What drives innovation in a successful organization?

Over the last few days I've discussed innovation along the lines of Duncan Watts' book Six Degrees. Watts engagingly describes how innovation relates to adaptation and recovery.

But how can we encourage innovation in the first place? That is a burning question at many businesses, often moreso than issues of adaptation and recovery.

Interestingly, Watts does not address this question, even though it certainly relates to networks. Many other experts and professionals have worked very hard at answering this question, however, and I'll survey some of their work today.

In their book The Hidden Power of Social Networks, Rob Cross and Andrew Parker devote a chapter to "Developing a Sense-and-Respond Organizational Capability." Through several case studies, they discuss some of the different dimensions of communication that dictate an organization's ability to innovate. Whereas a traditional social network reveals "who knows whom," Cross and Parker discuss how other questions can reveal different kinds of relationship networks that are equally critical in a creative organization, such as

* Whose expertise are you aware of?
* Whom do you have access to?
* Whom do you seek when you want to brainstorm?
* Who energizes you, or de-energizes you?

Peter Gloor at the MIT Center for Coordination Science leads a team studying Innovative Collaborative Knowledge Networks. They look at networks defined simply by "who e-mails whom." They have developed a visualization tool that mines the e-mail archive of an organization and produces an animated network. The movie reveals the evolving social network structure over the life of the organzation. Their investigation is shedding light not just on the structural qualities of successful innovative organizations, but also on how communication patterns naturally evolve as a single organization shifts between phases of innovation and more stable forms of collaboration.

Other notable work in this area that I know of --

Debra Amidon of Entovation International has traveled the world advising companies how to achieve breakthroughs in knowledge innovation.

Synectics is a global consulting firm specializing in creativity.