Teams’ knowledge use and performance (under stress)

Just a short note – check out  Heidi Gardner’s Harvard Business School working paper Feeling the heat: The effects of performance pressure on teams’ knowledge use and performance (pdf)

Why do some teams fail to use their members’ knowledge effectively, even after they have correctly identified each other’s expertise? This paper identifies performance pressure as a critical barrier to effective knowledge utilization. Performance pressure creates threat rigidity effects in teams, meaning that they default to using the expertise of high-status members while becoming less effective at using team members with deep client knowledge. Using a multimethod field study across two professional service firms to refine and test the proposed model, I  lso find that only the use of client-specific expertise (not the expertise of high-status members) enhances client-rated performance. This paper thus reveals a paradox affecting teams’ use of members’ knowledge: the more important the project, the less effective the team. This paper contributes to the emerging literature linking team-level expertise utilization (instead of just recognition) with performance outcomes and also adds a novel, team-level perspective to the literature on inter-firm relations.

This is close to being an organizational collaboration pathology – huh? Now, it’s clear that having some slack time to build up social capital is essential (for building up trust and more – we’re talking of forming, norming, storming phases in teams) while in reality teams don’t always get that time (it’s a fast-paced multi-project world after all).

But putting on the heat on teams with an overblown performance focus seems to aggravate effects we know by the name of group think (and the related fall-back to well-established patterns when the going gets rough). And group norms kill creativity:

Unfortunately groups only rarely foment great ideas because people in them are powerfully shaped by group norms: the unwritten rules which describe how individuals in a group ‘are’ and how they ‘ought’ to behave. Norms influence what people believe is right and wrong just as surely as real laws, but with none of the permanence or transparency of written regulations…the unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.

Now what role may social software play in this situation? I agree that just mimicking Xing or LinkedIn in the hope of supporting and facilitation intra-company knowledge networks is bound to fail (and more, it’s following a flawed paradigm, social networks in companies should be understood as emergent properties of this complex social system we call organization). Designing the knowledge environments (and tools) for smart and action-oriented workers tasked with creative jobs is not easy (and very dependent of actual context too), letting the connections between interdependent teams simply emerge is a challenge. Just think of the various relations we entertain to people not in our actual company network (freelancers, alumni, competitors and complementors, partners, …), these are complex systems too:


Distributed leadership

I definitely should embed more videos, there’s so much good content available. So here’s one hightlight, David Weinberger presenting at LeWeb ’08 (I was there and I must say that this was one of the more impressive talks, get more of this at the LeWeb08 YouTube playlist). Got triggered into posting this by Matthias’ comment on the last post, and the interview on CEOs 2.0 I did lately with Frank Roebers of Synaxon AG and Prof. Dr. Niemeier from Centrestage for the upcoming DNA digital book (sorry, german language interview but when I post an excerpt I will give an english summary).

Live TV : Ustream

Communication (and coordination?) in complex organizations

Stumbled upon this Harvard working knowledge paper by Adam Kleinbaum, Toby Stuart, and Michael Tushman via Mike Gotta who highlighted the opening quote:

“The social system is an organization, like the individual, that is bound together by a system of communication.” − Norbert Wiener (1948, p. 24)

The paper asks which groups are most likely to communicate with others in a large organization, regardless of social-and physical-boundaries and finds that category-spanning communication patterns are demonstrated primarily by women, mid- to high-level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions.

It is available for free download as a pdf. Here’s the abstract:

This is a descriptive study of the structure of communications in a modern organization. We analyze a dataset with millions of electronic mail messages, calendar meetings and teleconferences for many thousands of employees of a single, multidivisional firm during a three-month period in calendar 2006. The basic question we explore asks, what is the role of observable (to us) boundaries between individuals in structuring communications inside the firm? We measure three general types of boundaries: organizational boundaries (strategic business unit and function memberships), spatial boundaries (office locations and inter-office distances), and social categories (gender, tenure within the firm). In dyad-level models of the probability that pairs of individuals communicate, we find very large effects of formal organization structure and spatial collocation on the rate of communication. Homophily effects based on sociodemographic categories are much weaker. In individual-level regressions of engagement in category-spanning communication patterns, we find that women, mid- to high-level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions are most likely to participate in cross-group communications. In effect, these individuals bridge the lacunae between distant groups in the company’s social structure.

I like the approach, and the systematization of the three types of boundaries. Moreover the results reminded me of McAfee’s empty quarter thoughts, esp. if we understand that building bridges is one thing that may emerge with the adoption of social software in the enterprise. Yes, to achieve the boundaryless organization, putting social web elements to use is a good idea – especially to support lateral, cross-division, cross-function and cross-rank communication patterns. Yet, I guess that breaking up the silos all the way, i.e. to achieve and leverage “cross-division, cross-function and cross-rank” cooperation and collaboration, will be a lot harder. Connectbeam‘s Hutch Carpenter highlights the status quo and the real issues to deal with, i.e. integrating the user experience and adding layers that do more than mere enterprise search:

Adding social computing features to existing enterprise silos certainly helps, but fails to connect the larger organization. […]

We have not yet seen the emergence of a full-suite vendor that addresses the different needs of the market. Expect to see enterprises with multiple social computing apps for the foreseeable future.

Being Free within Organizational Structures

Next reboot-session where I am again actually taking notes is “Being Free within Organizational Structures – A conversation on achieving “free working” in a more traditional environment” by Robert Slagter:

Within the existing structures of a larger organization it is not trivial to be a “free worker”, even when the organization embraces the idea.

– goal: insights in how to cope with “old school” structures

– what does being free mean for knowledge workers (e.g. when, where and with whom and how; choose topics that align with passions; use tools that work best for me; …)

– organizations aren’t keen on providing freedom (yes, I know that one’s obvious) & freedom comes at a price (more responsibility; less structure and predictability; less guidance; …)

– Robert says that some people seem to be quite comfortable within their “iron cages“, well, yes, in fact living in walled gardens feels safe.

– Simple model of barriers that prevent people from venturing into a more free kind of working: 1. Myself & the people around me 2. Work setting, organization, technology

Now Robert asks us for our experiences and tricks to deal with these barriers, some topics discussed:

– problems stem in part from an outdated understanding of work

– we also need a new role understanding of leadership

– while the need for coordination of big tasks doesn’t disappear (and organizations will continue to thrive) a more 21C-way of working may appear alongside – flexible ad-hoc value networks, business ecosystems, companyconglomerates, etc.

– to leverage the full potential of your knowledge workers you better design for emergence and adaptivity, ie. allow for heterarchic configurations

For me it’s a different kind of game, as an independent consultant your work is life and life is work (still, work-life balance is a problem sometimes). In fact the line between work and leisure time is blurring, but out of free will. Still, as a freelancer you’re less bound and restricted by a boss (no, multiple clients don’t mean multiple bosses …) and most of the barriers I experience are self-set-up and well-thought out 😉

Leading and Creating Collaboration in Decentralized Organizations

Partly note to myself, partly note to those readers who don’t abhor a good research paper now and then: This looks interesting, in HBS First Look (of May 29):

Leading and Creating Collaboration in Decentralized Organizations” by Heather M. Caruso and Todd Rogers with Professor Max Bazerman

From the introduction:

Many employees note that, in decentralized organizations, it is harder to deal with other divisions or departments of their organization than it is to negotiate with outside suppliers or customers. In ordinary cases, this intraorganizational coordination failure which can cost substantial sums of money. […]

Often, instances of coordination failure stem from the failure to appropriately structure the organization around the key interdependencies within the organization – whether that suggests organizing by function (e.g., sales, marketing, manufacturing, engineering, etc.), by product group, or by region. Yet, even when organizations are able to design divisions around the appropriate dimensions, there will always be a need to integrate information across the resulting units. We focus this paper on improving information coordination across these organizational units to maximize organizational effectiveness.

While social software is not explicitly mentioned, I think that it has potential for the described kinds of organizational problems and tasks: Effectively supporting an organizational design thinking that envisions emergent, boundary-crossing and adaptive collaboration.

Here’s the full pdf of the article.