Technology and Organizations

Complements to Leadership: A Culture of Data

I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of workshops on the value of data in support of leadership -- especially leadership without formal authority. A key issue is that the environment is changing such that we have less face-to-face time for leadership. This increases the value of complements to interpersonal leadership, things like training, tools, and feedback from the work itself. A culture of data can also be an excellent complement to leadership. (Slides from the most recent workshop: Notes are available if you download the slides).

In these workshops, I use a John Trumbull painting of George Washington resigning his commission and position as commander-in-chief. I love how the golden light shines down on Washington. Washington resigned as a signal that power should be in civilian hands - he led by letting go. The point of the image in my presentation is to contrast traditional face-to-face leadership with the next image in the presentation, that of shifts in population density before (diffuse) and after (dense) the industrial revolution. Our moves to more global and virtual work are the swinging of the pendulum again -- though not everywhere as noted by San Francisco Bay Area housing prices. But even in the dense Bay Area, leadership needs to work from afar.

Data is a language understood across a global organization. Data is beautifulData is actionable. Data is (often) apolitical. And, yes, I understand the important differences across data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, but data is the starting point.

Data is the starting point for decisions to be made via evidence rather than formal authority. Scott Cook, founder and chair of the executive committee at Intuit, describes “leadership by experiment” (see too, this article by Bryan Eisenberg). Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer highlight similar issues in their book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management .

In the workshop, I then switch to a micro course on lightweight experiments for management decision-making. For my last audience, it wasn't a big leap from their scientific and engineering backgrounds to the idea of prototypes and experiments focused on anticipation, visioning, creating flexible alternatives, and initiating change - leadership behaviors identified by Ireland and Hitt (1999). They have a culture of data already and I expect this is just a new tool in their toolbox.

Data has a special power for situations where you have little other authority. Think about a negotiation: You both are and act (!) more powerfully when you have a good BATNA (Best Alternative To the Negotiated Agreement). Data is what helps you find and develop that great BATNA.

How has data benefited you in situations where you have little or no formal authority? Please add to the comments here. As I tell my audiences, when I walk into an organization, I generally have no formal authority. I don’t have a strong network inside their structure. All I have is my data and what I’m able to do with it. Hopefully I have enough data underlying this post to trigger a few lightweight experiments.

Thank you to Lucie Newcomb of NewCommGlobal for the LinkedIn comment that got me rolling with this.

For some wonderful and sometimes free resources around lightweight experiments, see MovesTheNeedle’s page.

Analytics To Guide Our Careers

It’s time to turn the focus and mechanisms of big data analytics onto the topics of our work tasks, projects, and careers. Organizations continue to apply more and more powerful analytics capabilities to customer identification, customer engagement, and strategic planning. Now it’s time to see what we can learn about how we approach our work and education. (And for those of you who want to know more about business analytics in general, I suggest Jain & Sharma’s new book, Behind Every Good Decision.)
Here is the slide deck from a talk I gave last week (click on the Notes icon within Slideshare for additional links for many of the slides). Predicitive analytics (e.g., analyses that suggest next steps — like Amazon suggesting other books based on your past purchases) offer huge benefits to how we think about the future of work, if we can get to the data. 

From LinkedIn to Elance/oDesk, Coursera, & Watson

I've been studying the benefits of "computer monitoring" since 1984. It wasn't the book, 1984, that triggered my interest at that particular time, but rather being at Carnegie Mellon University where it was, and is, common to intermingle computers, analytics, and work.
In the above talk, I extrapolated from the predictive analytics that LinkedIn uses to suggest jobs which might interest us, to a future where some wonderful combination of a variety of platforms could do much more: Interlinked systems that would know the work we can do, how we’ve done at that work in the past, the people who need work, and even predict the skills we need to learn to move ahead in our goals. Such as system could improve on even the best organizational training and development departments. Here are just a few extant systems that might be at the heart of this approach:
  • Elance /oDesk: Hugely successful platforms for linking people who want to do freelance project work with people who have project needs. Preferences and quality ratings from past work steer you to your next projects.
  • Coursera : One of the top platforms for taking massive online open courses. They know what you know and what you are interested in and have talked about offering career services.
  • IBM Watson : The artificial intelligence that won the gameshow Jeopardy! and is now supporting physicians, financial experts, and human resources directors in their daily work. I would love to see Watson become an ally in getting all of our work done. What do we want to do and what do we want to leave to Watson?
It isn’t much of a leap to see how these three platforms could work together to map out our medium term work futures. We know the projects that need to be done, it just takes a bit of prediction to line up the education that we need to be ready for the next projects.
The technology is likely there, but more of us need to be thinking about how to leverage more advanced technology systems. While teams of chess players have figured out how to ally with mid range computer programs to beat the best humans and super computers , my colleague Christine Isakson and I haven’t found much work on team configuration where machines are in the hiring pool. As Brynjolfsson & McAfee say, we need to learn to race with the machines, not against them.

Up Soon: How Might Google Help Us Plan Our Day?

The discussion above focused on mid range work goals: What project can I do now and what might I do next? What happens if we turn the lens of analytics onto our daily work? In an upcoming post, I’ll consider the combination of analytics and our daily work decisions. My homework:
If you have thoughts to share about the above ideas, or this upcoming post, please let me know by commenting here. Also, thank you to IBM Almaden for the opportunity to give the November 20th, 2014, IBM Research Distinguished Speaker talk.

Sharing Control of the Tools with People Doing the Work: Platform as a Service

I like to say that I know enough about technology to be dangerous. Back in the day of IBM XTs, I could code, tie devices together in new ways, and generally do a decent job of integrating technology and work without getting my hands too dirty. For a while though, I’ve felt that the world has gone beyond my skills and I let the experts do the tech side while I advocate for those trying to get their work done. Recently, I’m seeing some interesting possibilities for all of us to take back some control of the technologies that make up the tools of our work. While large firms will not be setting aside their CIOs anytime soon, and small firms still need tech experts to do their security audits, we can all still get a better grip on our individual and team tools.

Paul Pluschkell , Kandy Founder and Executive Vice President of Strategy and Cloud Services at GENBAND, helped me see a range of possibilities. At the most sophisticated are the tools that help technical people create business applications without getting into or reinventing the detailed programming that would otherwise be necessary. In the middle are specific services that help all of us do things like share files securely without managing the storage decisions one by one. At the most basic, we have tools that let us use a drag and drop, what you see is what you get, approach that otherwise would take some level of programming capability. While I agree that the basics of coding should be part of business literacy, I do not want to have to code or formally access a file server to do something simple like creating a new blog post or sharing a document with my colleagues. I (we) need platforms that take that on for us while giving us the control to more directly do our work.

(Photo credit: NASA. Image of Ed White, first American space walker -- and an image of a technology platform providing great freedom.)

Platforms as a Service

Ben Kepes gave me a simple definition of platform as a service (PaaS): PaaS is where you have a "computing platform that allows the creation of web applications quickly and easily and without the complexity of buying and maintaining the software and infrastructure underneath it” (click here for more). There are platforms across levels of Internet experience (our personal experience and the depth of the interaction).

Basic -- SquareSpace (Website Design for All of Us)

SquareSpace is a drag and drop platform that lets you build your own beautiful website, without knowing any HTML, the basic language of website design. If you do have skills, customization is only a click away. Templates and consideration of the basic needs for shops, photographers, bloggers, artists, restaurants, musicians, and weddings (and everything in between) mean that the power of the web is available to most through the thoughtfulness of the platform.

Midrange -- Platforms that Help Your Organization Get Work Done

Egynte, co-founded by Vineet Jain, a Santa Clara University alum, is a platform for your files and how you store and share them. Egnyte’s vision is that organizations need more control over where their files reside, but that this needs to be strictly under the control of the organization. Whether the file is behind the company walls, in the cloud, or some combination of employee and customer phones, tablets, and computers, Egnyte provides the choice and flexibility through it’s platform.

Consider a construction company working with large files - files too big to be email attachments and files that need to be a single source of truth. Platforms like Egnyte offer secure and effective collaboration strategies that give flexibility and power to the people doing the work. Balfour Beatty used the platform to enable an $800M renovation, while being paperless and saving $5.1M in the process. So much for blueprints.

Sophisticated -- Platforms for Technology Professionals, or Talented Do-It-Yourselfers

Kandy , for example, is a “platform as a service” for integrating communications into your existing applications and business processes. While the Internet, security and all, is increasingly complex, more modularized approaches wrap deep expertise into reusable nuggets that help us get work done. For Paul Pluschkell’s firm, these are “little pieces of Kandy” offering video shopping assistance, a live customer service button, instant multi-party video, and the like. You (or your web developers) don’t have to start from scratch to build in the communications components for your website. The nuggets are there giving more control with less need for technical sophistication.

Toy Genius uses Kandy to enable their expert clerks (lab coats and all) to communicate in real time with customers, including being able to show videos of the toys in action. Clerks can also help customers put the toys into their virtual shopping cart and move through the check-out process. The Internet shopping experience becomes much closer to the brick-and-mortar one, but the inclusion is powered by the platform, not custom software.

3 “Takeaways”

  1. Be sure your IT staff understand that power is to be shared to the point where the work is being done. If there is a way to leverage a platform to let the people doing the work design their own tools, go for it.
  2. Look for opportunities to move to platform as a service, but be sure to understand where your information is being held and how safe it is. Your needs will be specific to your organization so have a good mental image of what information is where and who has access to it.
  3. Feel free to experiment (having taken points 1 & 2 into account). The beauty of the platform as a service is that you aren’t buying, you're renting. Just like AirBnB can let you try out different neighborhoods, try different platforms until you find the one that best suits your needs.

How have you seen technology enable us to share power? Any specific platforms as a service that let you "lead by letting go?"


21st Century Management: Agile, Connected, & Designed for Execution

This week we premier our 21st Century Management executive education program. Designed and offered at Northwestern University’s James L. Allen Center, the program is five days offering:

  • How to lead with all your resources — human, technical and organizational — working in concert
  • How distributed teams, crowdsourcing, cross-cultural settings, and “new machine age” opportunities lead to broader, organization-wide considerations (e.g., building a strategic platform, creating a social business)
  • Key issues that arise during organizational transformation; developing tools for managing challenges, mitigating risk, and balancing priorities
  • New methods for motivating others, engaging teams, and leveraging innovation and networks
  • How to use social network analysis to understand 21st century opportunities


My sessions cover Thursday and Friday, but I’ve had the opportunity to preview many of the slide decks and I’m happily familiar with the work my co-conspirators presented earlier in the week:

Holly Raider has nurtured a seed of an idea into an actionable session for executives.
Mohanbir Sawhney kicked off the week with material from his book, Fewer, Bigger, Bolder: From Mindless Expansion to Focused Growth, and more. 
Nosh Contractor and Paul Leonardi are colleagues with amazing breadth. Here they focused on social networks, strategy, and change.
Loren Nordgren painted a picture of “Motivation 3.0” that I look forward to sharing the next time I cover the topic in my own classes.


Background and More

To any of the involved executives -- here are links to some of the material we will cover and a couple of sneak peeks at what I’ll suggest for further reading (for the rest of you, think of it as a teaser and join us in one of our upcoming versions in July or December):

Where to Start: Lead by Letting Go

As many of you know, I’m blogging toward a book on just how we do that  -- how do we design and lead organizations as the boundaries loosen and work is done by a blended workforce of employees, contractors, freelancers, alliance partners, and computers/AIs?
I had the chance to share some of my starting points with the MarketWatch community. Here are the bullets, but I hope you’ll take a look at the longer version in MarketWatch — and most importantly, please share your own perspective and experiences in the comments. How quickly do you think these transitions will take place? Will it be the same for large and small organizations?

How To Lead By Letting Go

  • Let go of traditional job reviews. Instead of the momentous annual sitdown, provide 24/7 performance feedback as needed. The colorful former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz once fired a manager with no notice after the manager fought so hard for her idea--ultimately successfully -- that she alienated the colleagues she’d need to enact it.’s makes feedback as easy as checking-in on Facebook. Younger workers want more feedback and transparency in their work -- embrace that, as great ideas can come from unexpected places in the organization. 
  • Let go of stay-in-one-place work rules. Marissa Mayer may have had her reasons for cancelling telecommuting at Yahoo, but if you have the right systems, technology, and people in place, flexible workplace strategies are  an important part of most organizations. You get access to a global workforce and the work environment can better match the task.
  • Let go of education requirements of old. Google is hiring more people without college degrees -- if they can do the work. Automattic (the company behind hires into its global workforce by having candidates take on a project as a contractor first.  Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, edX, and many others provide online, often free, ways to keep up the skills needed in the modern workforce. If you do want a degree, realize that you’ll eventually need another one or two to stay on top of the changing needs of the workforce.
  • Let go of traditional mentoring roles.  Mentoring is a two-way street where younger workers can share rapid-fire communication strategies and more senior colleagues can share wisdom around how to value the firehose of information. And like jobs, mentoring relationships can be more fluid with online matching services.

Thank You

Deborah Lohse of Santa Clara University made this post happen. She kicked off the MarketWatch opportunity by interviewing me after my Women of the Channel keynote and then walked me through edits for the OpEd format. 

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