Category Archives: Strategic Management

Sorting the sheep from the goats

Earlier this year I filled out a lot of diversity forms. It fascinates me that Great Big Corporations are very hot on diversity in terms of gender, age, race, disability, sexuality and religious belief but are almost always strongly normative in all other respects.  They want you to be just like them (so you fit in) AND a member of a minority (to prove they don’t discriminate).

An organisation’s cultural norms are often explicit.  Many organisations have a list of expected behaviours mapped neatly on to grades and called “Competencies”.  So if your temperament isn’t suited to ‘acting as a local leader driving forward change’ or whatever it might be, then you’ll never make it to Grade D. At the very least you are expected to espouse their cultural values – the Five Cs or Six Ss or Three Bears, or whatever was thought up for them by the consultancy they hired.

This post could go in so many directions.

  • The banality of these corporate values would be a good one: Enron’s were Communication, Respect, Integrity and Excellence, which says it all, really.
  • Whether to tick any of the boxes marked ‘other’ on the diversity forms. The box marked ‘other’ next to Sexuality is particularly worrying.  (Yes I **** sheep*, but there’s no consent problem because I only **** dead ones).
  • The fact that they don’t offer Atheist, Agnostic or Humanist under Religious belief, merely offering the option of ‘None’.  Technically right, but subtly discriminatory against Agnostics and Humanists if you ask me.

However I’m going to limit this post to the question of cultural norms; to the question of

‘How we do things around here’.

You see, I sound cynical about corporate culture and professional competencies, but I’m not. In fact I buy into both of them big time.  It doesn’t half make it easier when everyone is capable of doing their job well and behaves more or less acceptably. For the individual, it is hard to work with people whose behaviours or morals scrape on your nerves. And for the organisation, it is much easier to get a team to pull together if it doesn’t include mavericks, sociopaths, the suicidally depressed or pathologically dishonest, or even people who just don’t get on with each other.

Of course birds of a feather flock together to some extent, so some selection is done before applicants apply. The financially motivated are attracted to investment banking, literate arts grads veer towards the media, and those with social consciences virtuously accept the lower pay in the third sector.

However, when times are bad more people apply for fewer jobs and organisations really do have to do that screening.  So they use psychometric testing, Myers-Briggs and all sorts of other tools to make the selections for them.

Now the questions in my mind are:

1. How ethical is it to reject a candidate because of character traits?

and

2. How ethical is it NOT to?


* Eat. Obviously. What did you think I meant? Revenons à nos moutons.

PS: How amused am I that the recommended tags for this post are: “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator” “Goat” “Livestock” “Domestic sheep” “Reuters” “Grazing” “Flood” and “Cattle”? That’s right. Very.

PPS: How did “Reuters” get in there?  Suggestions in the comments thread please.

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How will the corporation subvert Web 2.0?

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

It’s an exciting idea, the way that Web 2.0 will transform the world of work, making collaboration the norm by providing wikis, bosses opening up dialogues by posting blogs that are open for comments, replacing meetings with discussion boards.

But before we get to that nirvana, we will have to live with the worrying answers to the question ‘how will the corporation subvert Web 2.0’

In the long term the Luddites always lose. In the long term the organisations which embrace Web 2.o will over-take those which resist it, just as Amazon has flooded out the bookshops and iTunes and Spotify have all but destroyed the the record companies.

What worries me, is the nature of that embrace.

Web 2.0, briefly, comprises the tools and attitudes that enable me to blog and enable you to rate my post and comment on it.  It’s FaceBook and Twitter and citizen journalism and mash-ups and crowd-sourcing and ‘Here comes everybody’.  It’s MySpace instead of A&R  It’s Wikipedia instead of the Brittanica. It’s Twitter instead of… well… instead of no Twitter. Web 2.0, so we all thought, is a force for democracy and good.  It cuts out the parasitical middle-person, it empowers individuals and enables them to form groups and enables those groups to face down corporations and governments.  It puts artists directly in touch with their audience. It enables me to publish this and you to read it with no more cost than our time. It turns base metal into gold and chocolate into a slimming aid.

There are, it seems, two current views of what happens when Web 2.0 meets the Enterprise.  In the first view, Web 2.0 brings about innovative, hierarchically flat organisations where knowledge is freely shared, where anyone who comes up with a bright idea can get it aired and taken up, where discussion boards pwn meetings and where gatekeepers and barriers to innovation are no more.  Google is reported to be just such a place.  The other view is that Web 2.0 and the enterprise are oil and water:  executives and managers will resist Web 2.0 either because they don’t get it, because they think it is a distraction, or because they are just plain running scared.

But I am not convinced by either.  Web 2.0, combined with an internal search engine, are powerful surveillance tools.  Any well-governed Wiki will tell you exactly who made which changes when, and far more neatly than you can track the changes in Word.   You can capture Instant Messenger logs and run searches on them in a way which you cannot tape and search conversations by the water cooler.  Nobody minutes meetings any more, but a discussion forum can be there for as long and the server farm lasts and longer.

Web 2.0 facilitates networks and interactions, but it also makes them more visible, and therefore easier to track.  We already know that the web is destroying privacy.  These days it takes diligence, vigilance and consistency to hide in cyberspace.  It is hard not have your name published by other people when school mates tag you on photos in FaceBook.

So it is surprising that hierarchical organisations don’t espouse Web 2.0 tools more actively, and this supports the theory that this is because execs and managers just don’t get it.

As something of a Web 2.0 evangelist, that places me on the horns of a dilemma.  A trilemma, actually. Do I:

  1. promote Web 2.o tools because they empower people and democratise knowledge
  2. stop promoting Web 2.0 tools because they expose people by turning situations which they are used to considering private into permanent searchable records or
  3. use the argument that they can improve audit and accountability in order to get them into an organisation because they are just so flippin’ COOOL?

For some of the thinking that led me to this impasse see:
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom – Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta


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Selling collaboration services within an organisation

Selling collaboration services and development services within an organization? – Art Gelwicks recently posted this as a question in the SharePoint Users Group on LinkedIn, and I found myself writing more than would fit in a discussion forum. So here it is.

Are you selling ‘bottom up’ by putting SharePoint out there and letting people use it spontaneously, or are you selling ‘top down’ by finding a sponsor with a requirement and using SharePoint to fulfil it?

There are pros and cons to both. The keys to working out these pros and cons for your organisation are

  • culture
  • use cases and
  • champions

Culture

How your organisation takes to SharePoint depends in part on the culture. Some cultures are enthusiastic about collaboration tools like Instant Messaging, Live Meeting and SharePoint, and others see these sorts of tools as time-wasters. Here’s how to work out which one yours is.

Goffee and Jones do a great 2×2 for the culture of an organisation. They say that the glue that enables a team (department, company) to work together is either sociability or solidarity; organisations with high sociability scores are ‘networked’ and organisations with high solidarity scores are ‘mercenary’. There’s more to it than that, their book is very readable and includes diagnostic tools.

I have seen people in departments where the glue has been sociability take well to the collaborative features of SharePoint like discussion forums, alerts, review workflows and MySites. I’ve not tested this, but if your organisation is networked (and read Goffee and Jones to decide if it is) then a bottom up approach would probably work well. Look out to see whether the people are already comfortable with tools like Instant Messaging and LiveMeeting, whether they are active on Twitter, LinkedIn and FaceBook, and whether Monday mornings start with a chat about the weekend. This isn’t about people who are early adopters of technology, it’s about people who like technology because it is a social and work enabler.

By contrast I have seen people in ‘mercenary’ organisations who are so busily focussed on deliver-deliver-deliver that they don’t have time to ‘waste’ learning how to use a new tool like SharePoint. In an organisation that’s mercenary (again read Goffee and Jones – they mean it in a particular way) you need a sponsor and a project. Work out what your sponsor’s driver is and fulfil it. They may want to cut down storage costs, or improve a specific set of working practices, or control the published versions of training material.

Find a sponsor with a specific need and fulfil that need.

Rinse and repeat.

This brings us on to:

Use Cases

One of the problems with SharePoint is that it’s a swiss army knife of a tool – useful for such a large number of things that it’s hard to stay focused on just one or two. In a ‘mercenary’ organisation the problem is handled for you – your sponsor has a specific task and you focus on that. The challenge is in the ‘networked’ organisations where everyone who comes across SharePoint wants to play with it all, now, as soon as possible, shiny, shiny, new, cool.

Rolling out the whole of SharePoint across the whole of the organisation is a distraction for them and a management nightmare for you. You need to identify a single use-case, but it is much harder because there isn’t a single obvious business requirement and there may not be a single sponsor. Worse, you may have a sponsor who has a vague vision like ‘collaboration’ or an unrealistic one like ‘getting everyone to use their My Site like an internal FaceBook profile’.

If you are going bottom-up you need to roll out solutions to one or a maximum of two use-cases at a time. To find out which one, put together a survey and ask what stops people collaborating well right now. Word it terms of how they work, not in terms of the SharePoint features so:

  • full mail-boxes – not – emailing urls
  • ‘shared’ drives you can’t share – not –local control of permissions
  • documents you don’t know are out of date – not – control over the full document life-cycle
  • keeping track of document sign-offs – not – workflows

Pick one of the popular ones, create a simple solution, and run with it.

Let’s read that again.

Pick one. Not a couple because they’re similar. Not three or four because Internal Communications want them (that’s your sponsor-and-project scenario and a very nice place it is to be too). Not two or three variants to cover all the bases. Just one.

Create a simple solution. Yes, there are half a dozen different ways to build and display a discussion forum in SharePoint. If you can’t tell which one works best, then put together one that works well and stick to it.

Then run with it. Get it out there. Get it used. Get comments and feedback. Improve it.

Only then move on to the next one. Bite size chunks. Could be as close to a month apart, but bite size chunks for you and your users.

The subtext here is simplicity. Turn off the ability to make subsites, remove most of the templates, switch off the themes. Lock it down. Shut it down. SharePoint is a casket of magical delights. You can always open a lid you’ve kept shut, but it is much harder to shut down a lid on something you’ve left open. SharePoint baffles new users and new organisations with choice. Lead them step by step through those choices.

And finally:

Champions

People like SharePoint. They really like SharePoint. Not everyone, but enough.

These people who like SharePoint are your friends. They are natural evangelists, experimenters and testers. They’ll pester you for the features that you’ve turned off, and they’ll come up with workarounds that’ll have you blessing and cursing them by turns. But they’ll promote it and provide free consultancy to their co-workers and come up with solutions to problems you didn’t know existed.

Really work your champions. Create a user forum and refuse to answer questions unless they are posted there. You’ll feel very prissy, but your Champions will gravitate there and get to know each other and do half your support work for you. Invite them to do in-house webinars on cool things in SharePoint, (20 minutes demo, 10 minutes Q&A). Create a SharePoint community of pratice with these people at its core. Take their advice on how to move your service forward.

So, how to sell collaboration services?

They key is asking the right question; in this case not ‘how do you roll-out SharePoint’ but ‘what does your organisation want to use SharePoint for?’

Oh, and bite size chunks.

Always bite size chunks.


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Book Review: WorldCom ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’ by Cynthia Cooper

Extraordinary Circumstances

Extraordinary Circumstances

I’ve wondered for a while why there are over half a dozen books about the collapse of Enron, but only two about WorldCom. Maybe it was because Enron happened first.  Maybe it was because Enron disappeared but WorldCom survived in the form of MCI, who presumably have lawyers. Maybe it’s because Enron’s story is sexier and more complex.

One of the few books available about WorldCom was written by the Vice President of Internal Audit, Cynthia Cooper: Extraordinary Circumstances the Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower.  Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way: it’s written in the present tense and has no illustrations, and both these things are constantly annoying.

So what actually happened at WorldCom?  According to Cooper, it was a fairly simple accounting fraud, well hidden but nowhere near as specialised as the off-balance sheet stuff at Enron, and it was committed to save the company not so a Fastow-figure could skim off illicit cream for personal gain. Basically, WorldCom played PacCom in the 1980s and 1990s munching up telecoms and internet companies but failing to integrate them.  Cooper asserts that it wasn’t the fraud or exposing the fraud that killed WorldCom; it became a dead company walking when the internet bubble burst in 2000 and sucked telecoms into its wake.

The most engaging section of the book is when Cooper tells the story of the few months before and after she and her team of internal auditors discovered the fraud, reported it to the internal audit committee and all hell broke loose. WorldCom had become a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of acquisitions but it had no single set of operating systems. You can only only make savings from acquisitions by doing the boring operational stuff of cutting out duplication and waste. Instead it was faced with the rising costs involved in managing a hodge-podge of companies, falling revenues as telecoms tanked, and a share-price that burst with the bubble, and that was when CFO Scott Sullivan instigated the fraud. WorldCom started making a loss, but Sullivan reported non-existant profits by moving the cost of renting lines from operating costs to capital, to the tune of $3bn over 5 quarters and (according to Wikipedia) by over-stating sales.

The final few chapters of the book are among the most interesting. It’s clear that CFO Sullivan was, as the judge said, the architect of the fraud. Cooper says she could not decide in her own mind about CEO Bernie Ebbers’ guilt. The book is well lawyered, so although these doubts are phrased in the present tense they are located in the section before the jury came to their verdict.But in Cooper’s mind at that time at least the case against Ebbers was not-proven. Ebbers is serving 25 years, mainly on Sullivan’s testimony.  Sullivan has just finished a 5 year jail term.

The case against Ebbers hinged on the financial pressure he was under following the fall of telecoms stocks.  In April 2002 PacCom’s cigar-chewing, cowboy booted CEO packed up his stuff and left. He faced personal bankruptcy. He had been the king of the deal, driving forward to one takeover after another, and Cooper comments on how his personal style changed as he grew in hubris and then fear kicked in. By the end of his tenure he’d cancelled the free coffee and was issuing memos telling staff not to use the colour copiers. All his wealth was in WorldCom stock, and he borrowed against it, so when telecoms stocks collapsed he effectively ended up with ‘negative equity’ to the tune of $300 million dollars. Even so, there is no concrete proof he instigated, encouraged or permitted the fraud.  The only evidence against him was Sullivan’s testimony saying that Ebbers told him to commit fraud quarter by quarter by telling him ‘we must make the numbers’.

It’s hard to tell if this was plausible deniability in action, or a matter of style.  Cooper implies the latter, and the implication that a nod is as good as a wink in the C-Suite, or the C-Suite of WorldCom at least, is one of the other interesting aspects of the book. Because it’s a first person account, Cooper reports what was said and what she thought at various meetings throughout her career.  Most corporate auto-biographies are not about how people interact, being the narrative equivalent of a series of photographs of the mighty hunter clutching his rifle, one foot on an animal’s corpse.  Those biographies leave me wondering to what extent the C-Suite is a foreign country and how differently they do things there. Cooper casts some first-person light on this, and WorldCom appears to have been political and focused but less testosterone-fuelled than Enron, running at a rapid pace on cryptic comments, laconic remarks and inference.  One could argue, though Cooper is careful not to, that Ebbers is a modern-day Henry II.  If so, then the disparity in sentencing is troubling, to say the least.

As a British reader, there were two things I found intriguing which Cooper didn’t even notice.  One is that the main players are actively religious: Ebbers started each board meeting with a prayer, Cooper’s main contact with colleagues out of work is through their Church.  The second is that both WorldCom and Enron were companies located in the South, these are stories of hicks made good who went bad.  That’s not to say the patricians on the East Coast don’t do the same – look at our current banking crisis and the Wall St scandals of the 1980s.  Cooper mentions but does not explore the cultural differences between the various organisations that ultimately comprised WorldCom.

The book (like this review) is over-long and (unlike me) Cooper leaves it up to you to do your own analysis or not as you see fit.  But there is one extraordinary Ozymandias-like vignette:

It’s November, 2004.  The double glass doors to the executive suite are locked.  I peer through to see drops of water leaking from the ceiling in several spots, and a dimly lit room, many of the lights burned out and the remaining ones flickering, a ghostly symbol of the fall of a company and an executive team that once seemed invincible. The guard unlocks the doors and we file in.  Brown cardboard boxes are everywhere, each labeled with the name of a former WorldCom executive. There is barely room to walk. It feels as if we’re somehow trespassing on private property.  I read the names of people I used to work with as we slowly walk through. Bernie’s office is completely empty, not even a hook on the wall.


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