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Writing of a different style, fiction, or at least I hope so…Overcommitted

It is 8 AM and Sam Houston is on his way to his office in downtown Chicago. He drives from his house in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago, then catches a train into the city. During his roughly seventy-five minute train ride, he has learned to balance his laptop, notebook and pencil, his blackberry, and his triple shot frappuccino coffee. He begins his trip by reviewing his agenda for the day, thinking through his upcoming meetings, his to-do list, and the projects under his supervision.

For some reason, today Sam finally comes to the realization that he is overcommitted.  He thinks to himself, "I need to cut things off my lists!" (Good for you, Sam!) As Sam tries to think of solutions, he cannot resist the temptation of going through the mail that came in during the night. Alas, he sees that both Susan and Charlie have asked him for ‘small’ favors that would require him to be part of two different teams- one exploring strategic priorities for the organization, the other making a decision on which vendor the organization should choose for its new social media platform re-design. Sam knows that he cannot turn these opportunities down; they are both critical to his career, not to mention that he does owe both Susan and Charlie favors for their help on one of his past efforts. Sam tries to think how he might organize his tasks and prioritize his ‘big ticket’ items. As he works on his list, he hears the soundtrack of ‘We are Champions’ by Queen playing, and he rushes to silence his ringtone by answering his blackberry. His wife is calling to remind him that he has three social events on his calendar in the next two days. Reluctantly, Sam acknowledges that he had promised to attend two school events for his children and visit his in-laws for a birthday celebration. Becoming frustrated at his increasing commitments, Sam has now forgotten what he was doing before the phone call and he is also reminded that he is only two stops from Union Station. He begins to pack his stuff up, takes a moment to enjoy his now cold caffeine drink, and takes a quick glance at the headlines from the Chicago Tribune. The train makes its entry into Union Station and Sam walks briskly to the exit where he hails a cab to take him to his offices in the Merchandise Mart. As he takes the elevator up and heads into his office, he makes a mental promise to himself, "No more commitments today. No matter what, I have to say no!" Sitting in his comfy leather chair and taking a moment to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan from his office window, he is interrupted by his assistant who tells him about an emergency meeting that is being called by the CEO. Sam realizes that today may not be the right day to say no…

Can you connect with the above scenario! Unfortunately, (and yes, I do mean unfortunately) may of us can. As much as we try, we never seem to manage our ever increasing commitments. We over-commit and continuously extend ourselves. Many of us  can do this for seemingly good reasons. We want to seem helpful or we do not want to allow opportunities to slip us by.  Other times, we may have underestimated the resource and time investment that the various commitments would require of us. Commitments do come due, and troubles build as the timelines draw near. We get irritable and annoyed with ourselves and the tasks at hand. As a result, the quality of our work suffers, both in terms of the output that we deliver and the process that we employ to arrive at the output. In the final analysis, we, as individuals, suffer. Our quality of life is impacted.

If you have strategies, decision-tools, or process frameworks that you use to manage your commitments, both in terms of identifying how to decide what commitments to take on and how you manage your ongoing commitments, please share them with me... and with Sam!

P.S. My wonderful students of IMT 580 the last year brought me a fiction book. I enjoyed reading it. So, here is my first attempt at writing what I hope is fiction (based on reality, of course!)…Stay tuned for the entire book, if I ever manage to stay focused on my current commitments!

Optimizing Idea Generation for Innovation

I have spent the last few days meeting a number of executives from technology giants like Microsoft, to smaller, yet highly innovative firms, such as biomedical research institutes. During my meetings, I engaged in very interesting conversations, most of which centered around helping organizations design sustainable innovation programs. A key question that kept coming up is how organizations should get their employees to be more effective, and efficient, in generating ideas that can advance the business cause.

One challenge for organizations is directing their employees’ energy toward spaces that need ideas. Deciding whether the focus is domain-specific (perhaps limited to engineering, sales, or accounting), or cross-domain is a first step. Another option is identifying the future areas that an organization would like to enter. For example, if the organization is thinking of entering a foreign market, it should solicit ideas about entry strategies, clients to work with, and finding the markets that are ripe for investment. The ideal organization will update its focus areas on a regular basis as conditions in its internal and external environments change. Of A.G. Laughley’s leadership at Proctor & Gamble, Tim Brown comments “He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they've got the right idea or not.”[1]

In addition, the organization should appoint key personnel to govern the ideas being generated in each area. These individuals can serve the role of contact points for employees who would like to submit ideas. They can also champion the focus areas and develop specific guidelines on how to submit ideas, specify what kinds of ideas are needed, and determine how ideas will be evaluated when submitted. The contact personnel is also important in transferring ideas between domains.  An idea submitted to one focus area may be more suitable for another one. In addition, there might be opportunities that are submitted in one domain which should be pursued as cross-domain collaborations. For example, CEMEX, the highly innovative cement manufacturer, has an Innovation committee composed of three directors, three VP’s, and one outside consultant. The team is responsible for defining the broad themes for innovation and structure for the innovation process.  Often, the committee considers strategic areas that are outside of the core product; recent focus areas included “integrated construction solutions for affordable housing, ways to support regional development, and making it easier for customers to do business with CEMEX.”[2]

Once focus areas are defined, it is equally important to communicate them to employees and inform employees across the hierarchical levels and functional divisions that they may contribute to these focus areas. It should be clear to employees that the work they do on a daily basis is related to at least one of the focus areas. Some organizations erroneously think that their mission statements are the best guide to how employees should focus their idea-creating. But if you asked a sample of employees in your organization to repeat the mission statement, by my estimates, less than15% would be able to give you a half-baked recital. Most employees do not see the relevance of these glorified statements as they have not been translated into terms that matter to their daily work. One useful strategy that I have seen work is to build archetypes that resonate with employees of what an idea contribution might look like in each of the focus areas.

To learn more about how to design innovation programs at your organization, or to optimize your current innovation processes, please send me an email.


[1] Brown, T. (2009, October 24). Corner Office: He Prizes Questions More Than Answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from Interview by Adam Bryant of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/business/25corner.html

[2] Sull, D. N., Ruelas-Gossi, A., & Escobari, M. (2004, January 26). What Developing-World Companies Teach Us About Innovation. Retrieved March 2010, 22, from HBS Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3866.html

Co-Evolution of Organizational Network and Individual Behavior: An Agent-Based Model of Interpersonal Knowledge Transfer – International Conference on Information Systems

Yuan Lin, my doctoral student, and I have a paper accepted at the Thirty First International Conference on Information Systems. The paper describes our ongoing efforts to develop robust models for studying the dynamics of knowledge transfer within organizations.

AbstractThis study focuses on the co-evolution of informal organizational structures and individual knowledge transfer behavior within organizations. Our research methodology distinguishes us from other similar studies. We use agent-based modeling and dynamic social network analysis, which allow for a dynamic perspective and a bottom-up approach. We study the emergent network structures and behavioral patterns, as well as their micro-level foundations. We also examine the exogenous factors influencing the emergent process. We ran simulation experiments on our model and found some interesting findings. For example, it is observed that knowledgeable individuals are not well connected in the network, and our model suggests that being fully involved in knowledge transfer might undermine individuals’ knowledge advantage over time. Another observation is that when there is high knowledge diversity in the system, informal organizational structure tends to form a network of good reachability; that is, any two individuals are connected via a few intermediates.

Lin, Y.A, and Desouza, K.C. “Co-Evolution of Organizational Network and Individual Behavior: An Agent-Based Model of Interpersonal Knowledge Transfer,” In Proceedings of the Thirty First International Conference on Information Systems, St. Louis, Missouri (December 12-15, 2010).

Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects

Sandeep Purao and I have a paper accepted at the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in the Electronic Government Track (Development Methods for Electronic Government, Minitrack). The paper analyzes the IRS’s Business Systems Modernization Project using sentiment analysis.

Abstract
We describe results from historical analysis of a large-scale, public sector effort: the IRS Modernization Project that has already spanned a decade and consumed more than 3 billion dollars. The results focus on analysis of Sentiments and Confidence expressed by different stakeholders, as found in various documents. We explore how such analyses may provide a window on project progress and potential early clues that may contribute to preventing undesirable outcomes in the future.

Reference: Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “Looking for Clues to Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects: A Case Study,” In Proceedings of the Forty-Forth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-44), Los Alamos, CA: IEEE Press, Kauai, HI, (January 4-7, 2011).

Role of Internet-based Information Flows and Technologies in Electoral Revolutions

My paper with Volodymyr Lysenko on the role of Internet-based information flows and technologies in electoral revolutions is now available on First Monday.

Internet–based information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the information flows they support have played an important role in the advancement of society. In this paper we investigate the role of Internet–based ICTs in electoral revolutions. Employing a case study approach, we examine the part played by ICTs during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2000–2004). Roles and activities of the dissenters, as well as their associates, the incumbent authorities and their allies are analyzed with regard to Internet–based technologies during the electoral revolution in Ukraine. The case of the Orange Revolution is particularly salient, as even though only one to two percent of the Ukrainian population had access to the Internet, this was sufficient to mobilize the citizens towards an eventually successful revolution. This paper lays the groundwork for further investigations into use of ICTs by political dissenters.

Lysenko, V.V. and Desouza, K.C. “Role of Internet-based Information Flows and Technologies in Electoral Revolutions: The Case of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” First Monday, 15 (9), 2010, Available Online at: [LINK]

Large IT Projects as Interventions in Digital Ecosystems

Sandeep Purao (IST, Penn State University) and I have a paper accepted for presentation at the International ACM Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (MEDES’10) (BangkokThailand).

Abstract: Large IT projects, such as the US Government’s Internal Revenue Service Business Modernization Effort, can take a decade or more and consume billions of dollars. Traditional approaches to the study of such projects emphasize concerns such as requirements monitoring, progress tracking and risk mitigation. We propose an alternative approach guided by a digital ecosystems view instead of a hierarchical, decision-oriented view. We argue that this perspective is more suited to understand how such projects evolve and cause changes in the underlying digital ecosystem characterized by not only the IT infrastructure but also the transactional relationships among stakeholders. We illustrate our arguments by drawing on an archaeological case study of the IRS effort, and discuss implications of the digital ecosystem perspective for the study of large IT projects.

Reference: Purao, S., and Desouza, K.C. “Large IT Projects as Interventions in Digital Ecosystems,” In Proceedings of the International ACM Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems (MEDES'10), Bangkok, Thailand (October 26-29. 2010).

Communicating the Business Value of Innovation

Innovation depends upon consistent communication. Yet different stages of the innovation process require different kinds of communication. Companies who have recognized the different elements of the innovation process are able to target their communication mechanisms to encourage the strongest possible results from organizational innovation. Ideas can be brand new and relatively unconsidered or rather mature and half-implemented, and understanding clearly the distinctions between those types of ideas and communication mechanisms around them can inform organizations about how to best discuss and encourage innovation.

Consider the stage of idea generation and mobilization: One example of a company that has successfully created numerous channels for communication of ideas is Whirlpool. One strategy used by Whirlpool explicitly for idea generation was having an Innovation Team (people conversant with desired business goals and objectives as well as current operational capacities) go to each department and solicit ideas from employees. The Innovation Team included a cross-section of the company, including members from many functional areas and levels of hierarchy. During the idea collection process, all ideas were recorded and listened to without evaluation. By having a team composed of people from across the company and having that team travel to each department, normal rules of hierarchy and ordinary routines were disrupted sufficiently that employees could communicate without needing to find a way to communicate across the hierarchy.  Ethicon Endo-Surgery conducts team events encouraging cross-team functionality. For instance, the "battle of the masterminds" allowed employees to collaborate in teams to solve a particular problem. This may not necessarily be  a medical problem, but it instigates analytical thinking and cross-team collaboration.

Mars, the candy company, hosted a conference for its employees, and gave each one a nametag with RFID components that lit up when the employee was near someone they didn't know. Social networks were mapped out on a huge overhead projection that changed in real-time as employees met new people. This project was backed by social network analysis done with academic researchers, who interviewed employees to find out their current connections and devised this plan to increase the networking for the entire organization. The technique of social network analysis can provide a way for organizations to see whether or not collaboration across hierarchies and divisions is happening, and if so where--thus allowing them to analyze why. Social network analysis can illustrate pockets of communication that could be particularly ripe for idea generation. Peer-to-peer networks which have been derived from this concept  are deemed the best forms of communication are now getting popular day by day.

The next stage is the advocacy and screening of ideas. The joint processes of advocacy and screening involve the bubbling up of ideas and the filtering out of ideas into separate categories. Advocacy leads to increased communication about potential innovations, as well as encouraging the refinement of scope and intent of ideas. Screening is the process of identifying which ideas are suitable for development at a particular time, with particular capacities in mind. These two processes must occur together, as a communicative endeavor. At the end of this stage of the innovative process, high priority and high probability ideas have been identified. More extensive screening processes will also include categorization of ideas for the future, high-risk but high-gain ideas and ideas for mobilization.

Creating groups of advocates can be a challenging process. At Boeing, when executives decided to support radical process innovation they chose to create a specific team designed for the sole purpose of finding and advocating for big, radical innovations -- the group was called Phantom Works. The goal of Phantom Works was not to be the sole source of innovations, but to inspire change throughout the organization by asking questions, supporting ideas and demanding radical changes. In effect, Phantom Works is an advocacy group, supporting the idea generation and advocacy stages of the innovation process. Phantom Works also helped with communication between departments and sought ideas and technologies that could be applied in new areas of the organization. The creation of a business unit for purposes of radical innovation demonstrates organizational commitment as well as creating an advocacy body that can help incumbent organizations develop and sustain advocacy and idea generation.

These are just a few examples of how to communicate the business value of innovation. To learn more about how to communicate the business value of innovation within your organization, please contact me…

Understanding the barriers to communication in these discrete phases of the innovation process allows executives and organizations to make rational choices about what types of communication to pursue. These stages of innovation each have particular challenges, but anticipating those challenges and taking steps to minimize them can significantly increase the success of long-term innovation in an organization. When discussing the business value of innovation, organizations must be sensitive to the current stage of the innovation process. A newly hatched idea simply cannot be talked about in the same way as an idea that has passed through advocacy, screening and experimentation and is currently being mobilized for use in a new area of the organization. Innovations have differing levels of maturity, and communication must reflect those levels. Furthermore, creating an open and collaborative culture can assist communication at all levels of the innovation process.

On Questioning Questions in Organizations

Reflect on how much of your day is spent asking questions and answering questions. How many questions do you ask a day, what kinds of questions do you ask, and why do you ask the questions you do. Try having a conversation with a colleague, or a friend, without asking questions, how long might you go without asking a question? The simple answer: not too long. Questions, and questioning, make for an integral aspect of our lives. Yet, how many of us take the time to be mindful about the questions we ask and how we answer questions. Within organizations, the asking of, and responding to, questions, makes for a critical mechanism through which we elicit information and construct dialogues. Managers that ask good, and hard, questions of their employees in an efficient, and respectful, manner are respected by their employees. Conversely, managers who ask ‘dumb’ questions (yes, there are things like dumb and stupid questions), and do not following basic etiquette when doing so, are more likely to be dismissed by their employees as being incompetent. Similarly, employees are perceived as smart (or foolish) based on the questions they ask and their ability to respond to questions. For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the concept of questions and the mechanics of questioning.

Questioning plays a critical role in organizational discourse. We often hear statement such as: ask the hard questions, question the status-quo, or there is nothing like a stupid question, among others. These statements give lip service to the concept of questioning. Managers are some of the most poorly trained questioners. Students in disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and law, are explicitly taught how to question. Business students almost never examine the art, and science, of questioning in a thoughtful manner. As a result, one of the most cited reasons for organizational failures (such as corporate scandals or committing to a failed course of action), is the inability for those who were observing the disaster unfold to be courageous enough to ask the right questions (and seek appropriate answers). Just imagine what would happen if a psychologist did not ask questions appropriately or if your physician did not ask the right questions to diagnose ailments. Would we tolerate this level of incompetency? Probably not!

Organizations need to urgently embrace the art and science of questioning. I believe that organizations will be healthier if individuals knew how to ask the ‘right’ questions and how to respond to questions. Being deliberate about the concept of questioning will lead to organizations expelling less effort in achieving their goals and objectives. I am currently beginning to write a few articles on questioning. While most of my writing will be for a business (management) audience, they are relevant to fields such as engineering, new product development, and education, among others. I want to encourage all readers to share their experiences with me on the topic. What do you think about questioning? How do you differentiate a good question from a bad one? What kinds of questions do you ask and why? Do you know of people who ask the ‘right’ questions, if so, why do you think they are successful in asking questions? These are just some of the questions that I would love to get answers to. If you have other reactions to the issue of questioning, please do share them with me.

If you would like me to come to your organization and conduct a workshop on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee that if your organization gets smarter at the art and science of questioning, it will be a more ‘intelligent’ and ‘mindful’ place.

Keynote Address at the 2010 Computational Social Science Society Conference: From Hunches to Evidence Driven Policy Design

I will be giving a keynote address at the 2010 Computational Social Science Society Conference (CSSS). CSSS 2010 is hosted by the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity and the Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems at. For more information on the conference, please click here [LINK].

From Hunches to Evidence Driven Policy Design: Leveraging Information through Simulation

Constructing public policy, whether at the national or local level, is a complex undertaking. Complexity arises from the number of stakeholders involved, varying agendas and incentives, resource constraints, a multitude of interacting variables, multiple time horizons, and even political climates. Due to these complexities, we too often categorize political and social problems as ‘wicked’ and unanalyzable. The default option is to take a haphazard approach to policy design, most often the outcome of the ego-based debates and negotiations of the decision-makers. In this keynote address, I will argue for a move from hunches (or intuition) to evidence driven policy construction. Today, due to the advancement of computational power and modeling techniques, we can simulate complex scenarios. Simulation gives us an ability to move policy construction from an activity primarily driven by historic case analysis and intuitions, to more of an applied science, where we can actually predict and control phenomenon. Through simulation we can, with reasonable certainty, ascertain the cost, benefit, risk, impact, and value proposition of a given policy. Using examples from simulation projects, such as a project that examined strategic options for dismantling terrorist networks, I will demonstrate how we can move policy design from being an ‘art’ to more of a ‘science.’

Conference on Intelligence and Nuclear Proliferation: Threat Identification, Policy Formulation and Decision Making, June 3-5, 2010

I will be speaking at the Conference on Intelligence and Nuclear Proliferation hosted by the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) at King’s College London in June. Kristen Lau and I have authored a paper that examines how information management failures led to an inability to adequately assess and detect nuclear threats in recent times. Lack of adequate information management capabilities have led to numerous international crises surrounding nuclear non-proliferation. For example, the inability to predict nuclear tests by India in 1998, the colossal failures surrounding assessments of Iraq’s WMD capabilities in early 2000, and today, the challenge of addressing Iran and North Korea.

Intelligence and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Programs: The Achilles Heel?
Intelligence is a critical component of all counter-proliferation activities. It allows us to assess and determine what makes up the current threat environment in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. When informed with an accurate assessment of the situation, policy makers are better suited to counter the proliferation threat. However, success and failure hinge upon how well information is managed during the intelligence process. The intelligence process as it relates to estimating nuclear capabilities or intentions is wrought with many challenges and complications. The denial and deception techniques employed by states running covert weapons programs and the dual-use nature of many weapons components create many difficulties for intelligence organizations. Additionally, illicit transnational networks obscure the situation further by serving as a source, for both nation states and non-state actors, for acquiring dual-use commodities and technologies. These challenges can lead to the miscalculation of a state’s capabilities or intentions. As was seen with the case of Iraq in 2003, western intelligence services grossly overestimated the capabilities of Saddam’s regime. This paper presents a comparative analysis of three cases of nuclear proliferation: India, Pakistan and Iran. Drawing from the analysis, the authors examine the lessons learned and propose recommendations for future counter proliferation policy and strategy.

To read prior papers published on this topic, please see:
• Desouza, K.C., and Lau, K.A.* “Managing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Information Management Perspective,” International Journal of Public Administration, 31 (13), 2008, 1457–1512. [LINK]
• Desouza, K.C. “Information and Knowledge Management in Public Sector Networks: The Case of the US Intelligence Community,” International Journal of Public Administration, 32 (14), 2009, 1219–1267. [LINK]