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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.

Rewards for Idea Generation and Mobilization: Good/Bad Idea?

A question that I often get from managers and senior executives is should the organization provide rewards to encourage idea generation and mobilization?

I have seen a wide array of tactics deployed to encourage idea generation and mobilization. In my forthcoming book, Intrapreneurship, I explore how leading organizations foster entrepreneurship by employees by enabling them to leverage their ideas. In this blog post, I draw on material that I put together for my book to answer the question of whether rewards should be given for idea generation and mobilization.

I believe that no rewards should be given for the generation of new ideas. By rewards, I am referring to extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, American Express gift cards, or even recognition as “Idea Generator of the Month.” In my experience, extrinsic rewards do not work because they set the wrong precedence and can be easily gamed. Employees should not be rewarded for a required activity (you do not reward employees for coming to work on time!). Contributing ideas needs to become second nature and part of the work fabric, and employees should not be rewarded for the same reason that they are not rewarded for carrying out their regular job responsibilities. I might even suggest that for those employees who do not contribute ideas, disincentives and negative reinforcement be used. Similarly, managers who do not foster employee creativity and build a constructive environment should be coached or moved out of their management position.

The other reason that I think rewards do not work for idea generation is simply that they can be gamed. For example, when a reward is given for the most ideas submitted, employees might submit a large number of low quality ideas in order to get a reward. Here, you may get employees contributing worthless ideas in order to get gift cards or to get a leg up on their peers. This may have the opposite of the desired impact, as Alcatrel-Lucent discovered. They offered new car for best idea for part of a “Stretch Your Mind" event. As Guido Petit, senior director at Alcatrel-Lucent commented, “It was a big event, but a bad practice…It created more negative energy than positive energy because there was one happy person and 149 unhappy people…And although the contest tripled the ideas generated, none of them became products.”[1]

I do believe that rewards play a vital role in fostering the mobility of ideas. Employees who take time out of their schedules to communicate ideas to their peers need to be rewarded. Simply put, this behavior is not natural and cannot be expected. Moreover, employees’ actions to look beyond their own interests and collaborate with their peers needs to be recognized and rewarded. In some organizations, employees are polled regularly for the names of the people from whom they received the most ideas and the most valuable ideas, and asked to describe how they furthered the idea. The employees then write a personal letter of thanks and appreciatio,n which goes a long way in showing their gratitude. In some cases rewards will be given across departments, where one department will use part of its budget to reward an employee in another unit who has helped the department with its ideas. Such peer-to-peer recognition of the value of idea mobilization is energetic and vital.

A case in point: Whirlpool convened a research team in the Alps for the sole purpose of creating exciting new products, but the team returned with only non-starters. David R. Whitwam, Whirlpool’s recently retired CEO, didn't give up. Instead, he decided innovation could occur along with normal work, with every employee’s contribution. The first successful step towards an innovative scale-up was convening an Innovation Team to examine every department and ask employees for ideas—and no idea was outrightly rejected.[2] The team included employees from almost all departments and almost all functional areas.[3] They created a screening process to review every idea, focusing on customer needs, not existing technology or skills.[4] Every idea was graded and recorded. The review board persists as a crucial component of the innovative effort, and is still in place to this day. The grading scheme focused on customer needs and Whirlpool core competencies to maximize the possibility of finding the very best ideas.[5] Quickly, Whirlpool created internal courses on innovation which focused on two components of creating good ideas: product development skills (such as emphasizing customer needs) and venture capital skills (such as marketing and implementation concerns).[6] Whitwam demanded that employees come to him with ideas—any ideas—if their managers won’t listen.

Those who complete the company’s internal course on innovation skills (a five and a half day process) and then oversee the generation and advocacy of a few products can become I-mentors, or Innovation Mentors.[7] These mentors are key figures in the Whirlpool innovation process because they serve as innovation managers: their role is not to control or oversee, but to support and advocate for those with ideas, and to connect ideas with departments or people who might benefit from them.[8],[9] Mentors nurture the beginning stages of innovation. The role of mentors is not limited to seeking ideas, but also includes actively generating them. I-mentors lead team meetings in which employees reflect on customer knowledge, business trends and their own experiences, and “insights” are developed and recorded.

Whirlpool supports employees who act like entrepreneurs, and funds their ideas, not just by providing time, but also investing in employee business notions and allowing them to open businesses within the organization.[10] For instance, one employee, Josh Gitlin,  dreamt up in-home cooking classes across the country, using Whirlpool’s KitchenAid® line as well as other Whirlpool products. The generous budget for innovations also has a carrot for managers: managers’ pay is linked to revenue derived from new products and services.


[1] Dutton, G. "Innovation Acceleration." Training, January 15, 2010.

[2] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[3] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[4] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[5] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[6] Dolezalek, H. “Imagination Station.” Training 40, no. 6 (2003): 14.

[7] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[8] Melymuka, K. “Innovation Democracy.” Computerworld 38, no. 7 (2004): 31-2.

[9] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[10] Arndt, M. (2002) “Whirlpool taps its inner entrepreneur.” Business Week Online, Feb. 7, 2002.

Role of Internet-based Information Flows and Technologies in Electoral Revolutions: Ukraine’s Orange Revolution

Volodymyr V. Lysenko and I have co-authored a paper that examines the role played by Internet-based information flows and technologies in electoral revolutions. Recent events have drawn attention to the use of Internet-based information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the political process. For instance, ICTs played an important role during attempts at electoral revolutions in Moldova in April 2009 and Iran in June 2009. 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 1-2 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. The paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of First Monday.

Questioning: A Lost Capability among Executives

This blog post is not meant for those who are content to let their $110,000 MBA diploma hang on the wall as an indication of a job well done.  Nor is it designed for those persons who feel that now that their education is complete, they have all the necessary tools for success.  I encourage managers and executives to read and participate in this posting if they feel that there is a next step in the educational process...one that is more critical to success than showing off that graduation tie!

We are bombarded with information at a near constant rate. Managers face information overload challenges at their organizations.  They have to contend with information that is emitted from a wide assortment of agents and objects, and this information might arrive through various information channels and devices. Consequently, it is impossible to inspect and process all the information one receives. Some information nuggets receive attention and are carefully considered, while other nuggets might get lost (or are even purposely ignored), and yet others, might be acted on without enough consideration.

What is troubling to me is how frequently managers assume that information that stems from the external world is right or appropriate for their organizations. Often this gets exhibited as follows: a manager gets his recent issue of Harvard Business Review and skims through it during a business trip (of course, only after the manager has exhausted the batteries on the laptop). The manager reads a few articles, finds one or more them to be interesting, and then without much questioning begins to think about how to duplicate practices or approaches described in their own organization. Most managers take a lazy approach when it comes to evaluation of information from external sources. Consider the last time that you really took the time to evaluate information coming from an external source (e.g. a consultant or a recently released business book that touts the next buzzword) with the same amount of care as information that comes from your direct reports. Much of this lazy approach, in my opinion, can be linked to the MBA mills. During MBA programs, degree candidates are rushed through the fundamentals of accounting and finance, given tours of the latest practices in human resource management and information systems, and spend their time working through team and trust building exercises. These are all nice, but do not teach managers the art and science of questioning. Moreover, in some course and management approaches, questioning, especially, the questioning of authorities and authoritative sources is frowned upon. This is common in disciplines such as accounting and finance, where students are made to drink from the fire hose in terms of the terminology and techniques. Student learn to marvel at external information, especially information published in the so-called authoritative sources, rather than to critically evaluate it.

Most managers with whom I speak admit that they have a long way to go in terms of harnessing their questioning capabilities. Key aspects of a questioning capability include:

1.      Knowing how to develop questions for a given context

2.      Knowing when to ask questions

3.      Knowing how to evaluate and process answers to questions

4.      Knowing how to develop an effective, and efficient, questioning process that is refined, and optimized, on a regular basis

Being busy, or overworked, or just being fearful of consequences, are not legitimate reasons for questioning. To retain the human and intelligent aspects of organizations, one must question. Questioning prompts us to seek clarification, act intelligently and mindfully, and promotes constructive discourse.

I would like to hear your thoughts on questioning. Do you ask difficult questions of external information? What are some reasons why you are less critical of information that come from external versus internal sources? What challenges do you face in terms of asking difficult questions? Do you think questioning is a lost capability within current enterprises?

Building the Business Case for Knowledge Management and Innovation Programs

Resources are needed in order to invest in knowledge management and innovation programs. Whether it is discretionary resources to acquire a new system for knowledge discovery or cash to buy gift cards to be used as incentives to promote knowledge sharing among employees, it is important to remember that resources can make, or break, a knowledge management effort. Not all resources are of a monetary nature. Many times, the most valuable resource required is attention. Employee attention to the knowledge management effort (e.g., a new method for codifying knowledge) is also salient for success. To get employee attention, in most cases, you need the attention of senior executives, who give their attention to the projects in which they invest significant resources. So, there is no getting around the fact that securing resources for knowledge management is a critical issue.

Unfortunately, few managers know how to write business cases that attract the necessary resources for their knowledge management and innovation programs.Business cases are strategic artifacts aimed to sell internal and/or external stakeholders on the merits of a project. Upon reading a business case, one should come away with a clear strategic understanding of the project and its value proposition, confidence in the project team, assurance that the budget for the project is reasonable, and awareness that the high-level project plan is sound. Based on my experience, I would suspect that out of every 20 business cases for a knowledge management related effort, about one is funded at the level requested, up to three are funded at 30% or below of what was requested, and the rest are not funded at all!

First, the scarcity problem means that organizations do not have unlimited resources (e.g., capital, or even more intangible resources, like managerial attention), meaning all needs are not going to be met. Recognizing the criticality of the scarcity problem means that when an organization considers a case for investing in knowledge management, it is going to be evaluated against every other case that is asking for resources. Too often, knowledge management business cases do not understand or account for this reality, and go by the wayside.

The second thing to understand is that knowledge management efforts need to show payoffs. In an organizational context, payoffs are compared across projects that are candidates for investments. Business cases that are able to demonstrate payoffs that are worthy of the effort (time, cost, personnel, etc) of the investment, and present convincing arguments on why the payoff will better the organization towards its future objectives, stand a high chance of being funded. Simply claiming a high payoff is not sufficient. The business case presented must be sufficiently evidenced to show that achieving the payoff is reasonable.

From the outset, one must realize that making the case for a knowledge management effort and calculating payoffs is not easy, when compared to making the business case for a new piece of manufacturing equipment, such as new welding machine or a color photocopier. Investing in a piece of new machinery can be directly tied to increases in product quality and/or quantity through multiple metrics (e.g., lower defect rates, finished products per hour, etc). Calculating the payoffs for investments in knowledge management efforts is not as easy, nor is it as direct, and first-order effects are difficult, if not impossible to measure. Knowledge management efforts lead to changes in behaviors, approaches, and methods that, on their own may not have direct bottom-line impacts. However, when these are mapped and traced to organizational processes, the impacts can be measured and articulated. Needless to say, this is often a more time consuming and creative effort than simply measuring direct impacts as in the case of outcomes from a new piece of manufacturing equipment.  Equally important is that there is a lag time between when one invests in a knowledge management effort and when one witnesses outcomes that result in payoffs. Accounting for this lag time is not easy, yet it is essential to building an adequate business case.

The third, critical realization that we need to appreciate is the fact that investing in knowledge management is akin to a group as a whole investing in a common effort. Consider the case of investing in initiatives such as the promotion of fair trade practices. Most people agree that increasing the adoption of fair trade practices benefits society. The challenge arises when we ask who wants to take responsibility for investing in these efforts. If taxes were raised to support these efforts, would you be happy? Rational individuals often want others to bear the cost of these common efforts and gladly enjoy the benefits, yet hesitate to initiate responsibility. A similar predicament faces knowledge management efforts. Departments within an organization want their peers’ units to invest in a common effort. Each department might see knowledge management as an effort someone else should put up resources for and hence defers spending its own resources. In some organizations, knowledge management efforts might be viewed as a tax levied on a department’s resources. This tax, is something every department either does not want to pay or wants to pay the lowest possible amount; yet any outcomes from the tax, such as infrastructure (e.g. a new intranet) is of interest to all. Moreover, the departments may get upset if they see the common effort they invest in does not perform up to par. This is akin to how one feels when one drives down a poorly maintained road, knowing that one has paid taxes for its upkeep. Knowledge management is seldom viewed as a profit center in an organization. It is important to remember that building a business case for a knowledge management effort is often similar to trying to build a case for increasing investment in an effort common to the whole organization.

The above three challenges, while severe, are not insurmountable. To learn more about how to build a good business case for knowledge management and innovation programs, please send me an email and stay tuned for my forthcoming article in Business Information Review.

Without a good business case, knowledge management will remain a theoretical, and even an impractical, concept in organizations. Good business cases give individuals a chance to put theory into practice, by providing resources for implementing knowledge management programs, processes, and technologies. Writing good business cases requires time, effort, and practice. Seldom is one born with the ability to write good business cases.

Information Systems ‘Backsourcing’: Knowledge Re-integration Challenges

Akshay Bhagwatwar (University of Washington), Ray Hackney (Brunel University), and I have authored a paper that examines the knowledge integration challenges faced by organizations as they try to recover from backsourcing endeavors. The paper will appear in a future issue of Information Systems Management.

Abstract
Backsourcing is motivated by opportunities arising from changes in the business situation, redefinition of the character of outsourced service declining in quality or due to the discovery of flaws in the contract. The situation of backsourcing clearly has major implications for an organization in terms of monetary investments, IS infrastructure and changes in employee requirements during and after the process. The research in this paper consequently acknowledges a serious challenge involving the management of systems within organizations following backsourcing events. This paper considers a detailed analysis of two case studies of backsourcing: JP Morgan Chase (USA) and Sainsbury (UK). A major contribution of the paper is to identify important strategies to be followed in backsourcing projects to ensure efficient knowledge re-integration. In this respect, it is believed the paper is unique in identifying emergent suggestions for strategic backsourcing decision making through a series of insightful observations.

Bhagwatwar, A., Hackney, R., and Desouza, K.C. “Considerations for Information Systems ‘Backsourcing’: A Framework for Knowledge Re-integration,” Information Systems Management, Forthcoming.

Cyberprotest in Contemporary Russia forthcoming in Technology Forecasting and Social Change

Volodymyr V. Lysenko and I have authored paper that explores the possibilities of the Internet as a tool for supplying information necessary for the organization and mobilization of successful opposition movements, especially under non-democratic regimes. Examples of the roles the Internet plays in the political processes in Russia are discussed in detail. In particular, the recent cyberprotest cases of the Ingushetiya.ru website and the movement to release political prisoner Svetlana Bakhmina are investigated. Besides showing the Internet’s significant role in organizing modern protests, these cases also demonstrate that in environments where practically all traditional mass-media are under the authorities’ control, the Internet becomes the major source of alternative information. Our paper offers a look at how deploying technologies can bring about social change, even in some of the most difficult political environments.

The paper will appear in Technology Forecasting and Social Change. Volodymyr and I will present the paper at the Harriman Institute for the Etiology and Ecology of Post-Soviet Media Conference at Columbia University on May 7-9, 2010.

Measuring Agility of Networked Organizational structures via Network Entropy and Mutual Information

Yuan Lin, Sumit Roy, and I have authored a paper that examines the use of network entropy and mutual information to measure the agility of networked organizational structures. The paper will appear in Applied Mathematics and Computation.

Abstract
While the agility of networked organizational structures is important for organizational performance, studies on how to evaluate it remain scant, probably because the difficulty in measuring network evolution. In this conceptual paper, we propose two measures – network entropy and mutual information – to characterize the agility of networked organizational structure. Rooted in graph theory and information theory, these two measures capture network evolution in a comprehensive and parsimonious way. They indicate the uncertainty (or disorder) at the network level as well as the degree distribution at the individual level. We also propose an algorithm for applying them in the scenario of adding links to a network while holding the number of nodes fixed. Both simulated and real networks are used for demonstration. Implications and areas for future research are discussed in the end.

Lin, Y., Desouza, K.C., and Roy, S. “Measuring Agility of Networked Organizational structures via Network Entropy and Mutual Information,” Applied Mathematics and Computation, Forthcoming.

Speaking at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University on Political Cyberprotest in Contemporary Russia

I will be presenting a paper at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. The paper, Political Cyberprotest in Contemporary Russia, co-authored with Volodymyr Lysenko, a doctoral student of mine at the University of Washington Information School, was accepted for the Etiology and Ecology of Post-Soviet Media Conference (May 7-9, 2010).

Technologies may be intertwined with politics. In particular, the Internet has the potential to cause enormous social and political changes in today’s society. In this research we discuss possibilities of the Internet as a tool for supplying information necessary for organization and mobilization of the successful oppositional movements, especially under the non-democratic regimes. We pay special attention to: in-built capabilities of the Internet to promote active popular involvement in the political process; possibilities of the Internet for democratization of authoritarian regimes; attempts at Internet censorship and possibilities to counteract them; the roles that the new Internet-based media are playing in the power shift in society; the roles that the Internet played in the success of the color revolutions in former Soviet countries; and the roles that new information elites play in social change. We discuss in detail recent examples of the roles the Internet plays in the political processes in Russia.

While in free societies opposing political forces have practically unlimited access to mass media, in Russia the authorities control almost all traditional means of mass information.  Only the Internet retains the possibility of limiting control by the Russian authorities. Thus the purpose of our research is to establish whether the Internet in Russia can fulfill the function of ensuring the flow of information necessary for successful dissident activity. Accordingly, we seek to answer the following research question: Does the Internet provide an effective tool for politically-interested people in Russia to conduct dissident activities under the authoritarian regime?

Besides showing the Internet’s leading role in organizing modern protests, our research also prove that in the information environment where practically all traditional mass-media are under the authorities’ control, the Internet becomes the only powerful and effective source of alternative information about the real situation on the repressed territory.

About the Harriman Institute: Founded in 1946, the Harriman Institute housed at Columbia University is the oldest academic institution in the United States devoted to the study of the countries of the former Soviet Union, East Central Europe and the Balkans. (For more details: http://www.harrimaninstitute.org/)

About Columbia University: Columbia University, a member of the Ivy League, was founded in 1754. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States. (For more details: http://www.columbia.edu)