Making A List. And Checking It Twice; Gonna Find Out Who’s Naughty And Nice…

by Professor Lee Schlenker,
EM-Lyon, chair of emerging economics & technologies

[photos by antimuseum.online.fr unless stated otherwise ]

Years aren’t measured in just months and days, but in the intensity of our experience.

November 15th wasn’t quite a day like the others. Woken up in our New York City hotel room by an SMS alert at two in the morning, we learned that the police were evacuating Zuccotti Park.  We consequently changed our morning’s plans and decided to visit the sights of Lower East Side. The protestors were now everywhere but occupying Wall Street, the movement’s sympathizers and the curious provided quite a spectacle.  This circus atmosphere clashed sharply with the peculiar beauty and eerie silence of the 9/11 memorial just a street away. The dissonance between the two left us both dwelling on the past and wondering about the future, and convinced more than ever of the need to focus on what’s important.

D18 immigrants occupy

[photo by OWS at http://occupywallst.org/]

The morning’s events led us inevitably to look for coffee off the beaten path.    We found a small convenience store on Lafayette that offered hot drinks a few tables and chairs to rest our feet. The store’s major attraction apparently was neither Starbuck’s nor Ghirardelli’s, but a myriad of conversations of the indigenous population around Chinatown.  The store wasn’t exactly packed at three in the afternoon, but the conversations about the day’s events, projects and challenges occupied every available space.  As we took in a few sips of coffee and several earfuls of conversation, we couldn’t help but think of Paul Auster and Wayne Wong’s film Smoke, and especially Auggie’s conversation with Paul Benjamin about his photo album. Although places are often haunted by similar people and events, their stories are continuously shaped and refined by experience.

Our eyes slowly focused on a police officer sipping his own coffee at the table next to ours, seemingly oblivious to the conversation around him.  Alone, of medium build, perhaps in his fifties, and not exactly fashion conscious, his weathered skin and uniform seemed to underline the troubles of the day, or perhaps of a lifetime.  We were struck not only by the fatigue that seemed heavily draped over his shoulders, but by his intense concentration in filling out some kind of list. We imagined how hard his day must have been, and asked him if he was glad that it was almost over. He looked up from both his paper and coffee, his weary smile and drained eyes seemed to welcome the opportunity to tell his story.

He explained that his day was pretty much hundreds of others in the past – trying to insure that the pain, the energy, and the commotion of the City didn’t get too far out of hand. Much more important in his mind  was the list he was compiling of his favorite songs that he wanted to record for the end of the year.  As he saw that we didn’t quite understand, he filled in the details.  His life had never been easy, but his girlfriend’s condition was even worse – he feared that she would not make it through another year. His work as a traffic officer differed little that of his colleagues: he didn’t want to be just another uniform.  Decorating the house for the holidays, playing the music his girlfriend loved, and by doing so piecing together their collective memories, was his way of making a difference.  The stories people share  when we take the time to listen….

This chance encounter certainly couldn’t compete with the more media-ready headlines that day. To put things in perspective, the jury is out on whether the events of that day will ever “make” history. I’m not even sure that I could find that coffee shop again on Lafayette, let alone recognize the fellow that took the time speak his mind. Yet there was something profoundly human in that fleeting exchange. I hope I will long remember what he was doing his best to share.

With our warmest wishes for the holidays.

free whitepaper: beyond big data, a business perspective

a bird's eye view of number crunching by Lee Schlenker and the chair of emerging technologies (photo Yann Gourvennec htt://bit.ly/picasayann)

By Professor Lee Schlenker

The emerging technologies and methodologies outlined in this paper can increase our abilities to use data to put our business into perspective. The figures are a good place to start in understanding what they reveal about our work and our work place. Frames, which shape implicit convictions about what work is all about, condition how we capture and interpret the data at our disposal. The business horizon separates the realities we see in the market today from the trends that may well define what opportunities the future holds. The case testimony using Big Data, the Cognitive Sciences, Crowdsourcing, and Social Network Analysis suggest that we can gain considerable insight in understanding how decision makers interpret the data. If work is not about doing things but getting things done, how are you using the data to incite managerial action? We know how to work cheaper and faster, but do we know that we are working on things that matter?

Download the free whitepaper entitled Looking beyond the horizon

 
@ 2011 EMLYON Business School/LHST sarl

The Chair of Emerging Economies and Technologies, established at the EMLYON Business School, coordinates applied research and pedagogy on the potential synergies between emerging forms of organization and disruptive technologies. Under the responsibility of Prof. Lee SCHLENKER, current research of this multi-sponsored Chair includes different applications of Cloud Computing, Management 2.0, Mobile computing, and the evolution of IT partner channels. EMLYON is ranked by the Financial Times as one of the top 10 European Business Schools. Devoted to lifelong learning for entrepreneurial and international management, its distinctive quality is founded on teaching innovation and an entrepreneurial approach to management education. The school offers a full range of graduate programmes in stimulating the social responsibility and the entrepreneurial approach to management of its participants.

Improving management’s vision of the realities of business : Processes or Networks?

improving Management's vision of business realitiesIn response to our initial post, C.R. asked for more details on how IT distorts management’s vision of reality. Given the work and resources that have gone into enterprise applications over the last two decades, he asks, why doesn’t IT feed back a true image of how we work? If the daily statistics and scorecards provided by today’s business applications don’t seem to “ring true”, what can an organization do to improve the quality of the data to better reflect individual customers, projects, and opportunities? To understand this challenge, and to explore potential scenarios to improve enterprise applications, we need to first consider how business applications today represent and aggregate data, then explore the fundamental weaknesses in this logic, and finally investigate other avenues of putting the pieces together.

Enterprise applications, including those dedicated to enterprise resource planning, supply chain management and even project management, and are largely based on the principles of business process improvement. A process can best be understood as a set of activities and tasks that managers group together to meet internal or external client demands. Processes thus have four defining characteristics: their origin can be detected in an organization’s recognition of a client need for a product, service or information, they consume resources, and they have a set cost and produce a benefice that ideally meets the clients’ needs.

Improving business processes requires tracking inefficiencies in how an organization captures market demand, supply or measurement. How are an organizational activities and tasks executed to capture client demands? How can an organization improve its capacity to deliver products and services? How does the organization capture and evaluate costs and benefits? Enterprise applications provide responses to these fundamental questions in allowing management to map the current state of existing processes, implement best practices around ideal designs of how these processes should work, and measure organizational progress to these goals.

The resulting ‘process-centric” view of the organization is often a weak approximation of the reality of business practice, and as such limits the usefulness of enterprise applications. One reason for this is that business process improvement was originally designed for organizations producing standardized physical goods, modeling processes around personalized services and/or information delivery has proven a much more difficult assignment. Implementing business processes assumes that management (or their business partners) understand where an industry or a market is headed, an assumption that is sorely tested today in industries ranging from information services to banking to telecommunications.

Moreover, the notion of “best practices” which assumes that there is “one best way” to build product or deliver services has been widely disputed in organizations that have traditionally put a premium on company culture, customization, and understanding individual customer needs. Finally, improving business processes assumes that the employees and managers involved in the targeted processes agree with organizational objectives, and are willing and able to follow organizational guidelines. In many situations, even this assumption is contested by those that prefer focusing on the realities of their organization and their market (i.e. getting the job done) than complying to unrealistic or unworkable company procedures. For all of these reasons, “process-centric” software most often offers management a highly distorted view of the realities of the workplace.

If we abandon the notion of processes, how can business applications be modeled to provide a more realistic view of work? A growing number of management specialists are underlining the importance of networks in understanding how employees and managers actually get work done. In business, networks are interconnected systems of people that share common interests, beliefs, and goals. Social and business networks are used by workers and managers alike to solve problems, to identify opportunities, to build trust and passion, and make sense of their jobs, organizations and careers. These networks cross organizational boundaries; they are composed of centers of influence (the “hubs”) and are held together by the intensity of personal relationships (the “links”).

If most managers understand the importance of their personal networks, improving networks requires understanding how these networks function and how they can be extended and strengthened. Social researchers have identified a number of defining characteristics of networks that potentially can help mangers improve their effectiveness: “power laws“, “degrees of separation”, “discontinuous change“, “fat tails“, etc. These networks are held together by common beliefs, passions, trust or know-how: in other words non-structured information that largely escapes “process-centric” view of enterprise. The power of networks has fueled the popularity of a new breed of the social media applications: LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Facebook are among the better known examples. Will this new generation of software applications help management improve their business?

One value proposition of such network-centric applications is to shift the focus of attention away from an ideal set of activities and tasks (what we “should” be doing) to how employees and managers actually get things done (what they “are” doing). A second insight of a network based view of business is the understanding that networks are self-structuring; people seek to work with those their share their goals, passions and beliefs. A third point of interest is understanding the importance of “non-structured” data, just because we can’t get passions, trust and know-how into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean they don’t largely influence the way we work. Finally, this line of inquiry reminds us that business is essentially a human activity; technology’s role in business is limited to understanding, uncovering and eventually enhancing the human interaction that defines the nature of “work”. For management and their business partners, these propositions constitute powerful levers to improve the value of information technology.

None-the-less, there certainly is a considerable amount of work to be done before applications like LinkedIn or Facebook help managers improve their jobs, organizations and careers. The metaphors of “avatars”, “friends” and “connections” don’t easily translate into the realities of either commerce or industry. The personal information, photos, and videos available in social media today are certainly interesting, but often of little use in driving a business forward. These applications today are largely hard coded; it is difficult or often impossible for end-users to enrich either the information or the software. These applications capture data on how end-users wish to see themselves, rather than how they actually practice business (or anything else…). Most importantly, these virtual networks don’t elucidate today the passions, beliefs, and goals that define how individual professional networks operate. If network-centric applications provide a glance of how the future of enterprise applications can improve business practice, these images need to be brought into focus.

Building software to accurately reflect the work “place”

Although IT vendors can proudly claim that computer technology is nearly ubiquitous in business today, many managers remain quite skeptical of the ability of software solutions to help them learn about the different realities of business practice. In spite of constant technological “innovation”, many clients rightfully question whether any supplier is able to deliver business applications that makes as much sense to their “end-users” as it does to their IT department. As an initial contribution to this blog on Marketing & Innovation, let me set out here some of the foundations that I will try to develop in the months to come.After having listened to hundreds of managers in diverse industries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia, we have the firm conviction that IT is essentially a conversation, and individual markets for IT can best be understood as stories with multiple voices. This view may help explain why many operational managers feel that value of software depends less on its ability to incorporate global best practices than its ability to accurately reflect local visions, contexts and experience. In this era of “anywhere, anytime, anyplace” my ambition in this blog for the coming months will be to explore IT frameworks that amplify these voices to strengthen future success stories of business.

Deploying information technologies to focus on the complexity of business practice will require that vendors and organizations alike give some serious thought to how they design and deploy information technology. Instead of limiting our conversation to choices of information architectures, programming languages and features and functions, we would to extend the scope of discussion to explore how software can enhance or distort our views of our jobs, our organizations, and our clients. In today’s world of mobile workers, dotted-line management, multiple communication channels and “virtual” clients, information technology inevitably plays an increasingly critical role in putting the pieces of business together into a more or less meaningful whole.

The mirror image that most business applications feed back to managers today is biased around structured data, processes, and efficiency metrics. As a result, these applications tend to minimize the importance of non-structured data, networks, effectiveness, innovation and passion. Faced with this distorted view of reality, line management is faced with two options. They can “play the game” by enthusiastically filling in the tables, reports and scorecards that fit their own manager’s view of the market. They can alternatively develop personal information strategies that will help them identify, structure and qualify the knowledge that is important to their assignments, companies, and careers. Rather than blindly filling in the bits and pieces of somebody else’s puzzles, successful managers need business applications that can help them actively restructure information about the specificities of their assignments, customers and clients to get work done.

Let’s take a concrete example in focusing on one of businesses’ key technological challenges today: creating virtual workspaces that will help managers leverage information technology. Forester defines an information workspace as: “a next-generation digital work environment that provides information workers of all types seamless, contextual, role-based, guided, visual multimodal, right-time access to people, content, data, voice, business processes, and eLearning.” Faced with such functional, process-centric jargon, no wonder most managers have trouble understanding exactly how information technology will improve their business…

Let’s suggest a different approach. Assume that the information workspace should be a mirror image of the workplace that we take with us wherever we happen to be working. There are six defining characteristics of the work “place”- how clearly are they reflected in business software solutions today?

  • A vision that defines the meaning of work;
  • Actors : the managers, employees, partners and customers that produce work;
  • Interactions : the events in which we sell and purchase products, ideas and services;
  • Outcomes: the generated revenue steam
  • Gateways : communication channels that integrate the workspace into local context, culture and organization

Our contribution to this blog will be dedicated to conversations and stories designed to help managers leverage technology to learn about their businesses. In the weeks to come we will explore the methodologies, architectures and technologies that can be deployed today to build an accurate picture of the multiple realities of business. Fundamental questions that will be addressed include how can business applications capture experience rather than just the facts and figures? Can we extend the paradigm of search to identify patterns of behavior? What technologies today can help managers focus on non-structured data, networks and effectiveness? What are the technical requirements of applications that will capture organize and enhance individual visions, contexts and experience? In short, how can managers make a better use of information technology to learn about business?