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

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[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.

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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.

What does a “trusted advisor” really mean?

You may not yet be familiar with Cisco and its ‘trusted advisor’ approach – in which the equipment provider is raising the bar and advising its clients rather than just selling to them. But what is a ‘trusted advisor’ and how do you achieve that status? Professor Lee Schlenker from EmLyon’s Chair of Emerging Economies and Technologies reports:

What does a “trusted advisor” really mean?

I recently had the opportunity during a CIO Conference in Zurich to ask Chris Hughes, one of the three founders of Facebook, if he saw a link between “trust” and “truth” in the practice of business today. Chris responded “no there probably isn’t… at least not in the media industry”. I followed up with the question in that case who does he trust? After a few moments thought, he replied, “I guess those that open up to me.”

The notion of the “trusted advisor” has become a key theme in the IT industry today. IBM, Microsoft Oracle, and a myriad of other firms are claiming that the development of trusted advisors constitutes a powerful value lever inside their companies and in their eco-systems. But what exactly is a “trusted advisor”, what does it mean in the context of the IT industry, and what lessons can be learned for the CIO?

Information systems have long provided a mirror of how management sees their employees, their customers, and their working environment. This image of work today is cloudy at best: most employees, not to mention their own managers, have increasing trouble in defining the contours of their professions, their job requirements, and even the foundations of trust in their organizations. As Daniel Goleman reminds us, workplace realities today are shaped by the absence of job security, the preference of “portable skills” over “technical competencies”, and a form of managerialism based as much mistrust as on trust.

Most CIOs readily admit that the truth isn’t in the figures, but in what the figures represent. Information systems vehiculate competing visions of how managers can shape professional behaviour in today’s workplace. On one hand IT systems are developed to reinforce the traditional concept of control, which suggests that information systems provide a coordinating mechanism based on asymmetric relations of power to guide behaviour for the good of the corporation. . One the other, IT systems are expected to enhance trust, which contrastingly refers to a coordinating mechanism based on shared values and norms used to deal with uncertainty. The multiple sources of uncertainty today in the market, in the corporation, and in the meaning of work have pushed managers to look beyond the limits of control to the potential value of trust.

How can the CIO and his team work to build trust in this context? Vanessa Hall, author of The Truth About Trust in Business, suggests that in our virtual world the task is more daunting than ever: “seeing is believing” doesn’t convey the same meaning when information technology replaces face to face interactions. Blind trust based on accumulated experience proves difficult where physical meetings with our customers and our own managers are increasingly rare. Trustworthiness, based a personal or product based reputation doesn’t hold up much better in an environment in which everything is marketed. In a technologically intermediated world, Hall argues that we are left to focus either on contextual trust – understanding what will work in a special context or referred trust – relying on the opinions of those we admire. In contrast to blind trust, contextual and referred trust are finite resources that can be progressively nurtured or rapidly consumed by managerial practice

Our recent “Journey to Value” workshops[1] with Microsoft’s European Operations Centers have underlined both the challenges and the opportunities of building trust in the organization and in its relationships with its business partners. Kees Pronk, Senior Director Partner & Field Operations for Microsoft EMEA, opened the workshops with the challenge that “trust is built on a clean track record of reliability, credibility and a well-developed interpersonal awareness.” Although most of the participants agreed that trust should be a key ingredient of good management –, one manager argued passionately that trust had nothing to do with their jobs – employees “just needed to get on with it”. “Getting on with it” proved a challenge in itself, for most of the group felt quite uneasy, if not frustrated, by the lack of corporate directives on how to reach the group’s ambitious goals for the fiscal year. The complexity of the challenges proved a third issue, for few of the customer and organizational challenges at hand could be solved by traditional top-down command and control processes.

The workshops’ exercises and outputs proved quite informative. The discussions on “truth ” and “trust” demonstrated to many the importance of personal engagement in reaching organizational objectives. The discussions on “getting on with it” brought to light both where existing practices and experiences could be channeled to get work done, and where top management needed to provide more input to move the team forward . The exercises around the ladder of trust demonstrated how the group could use the wisdom of their peers in building operational value levers one step at a time to meet financial objectives. Finally, the group’s conclusion that truth was less about storing the facts in a database and then archiving them for posterity, than about building and strengthening relationships inside work and out.

A few potential experiments that can help CIOs and their teams build trust within their organizations and with their business partners include:

Open up your communication challenges. Extend your information systems to address not only formal institutional communication, but to capture and air the information communication once reserved to talk around the coffee table. Encourage management to go beyond the facts to document the rationale behind the decisions that have already been made, and the tough choices that lay ahead.

Develop information systems that encourage bottom up input . Compare the benefits and risks of “unbounding” the enterprise systems that mirror organizational truths. To what extent can 2.0 technologies break down the barriers around data to shed light on the stories behind the facts?

Encourage management to explore the nature of organizational issues. Which problems are well documented and can be solved by optimizing processes or applying best practices. Which problems elude organizational answers that have been answered by experts.

Note: Editorial published in CIO Connect, April 2010

The Chair of Emerging Economies and Technologies at the EMLyon focuses on how the interplay between innovative technologies and business models is transforming management teams, organizations and markets. I am publishing thereafter a pre-release of the first edition of CEET InFocus for your information and potential suggestions. Your comments are invaluable and would enable us to improve our newsletter has been designed by our Chair to foster conversation around our customer value propositions for students, faculty and business partners.

Should you want to be included in the distribution list of the CEET InFocus newsletter, please contact Professor Lee SCHLENKER, ChairEET