Collaborative Decision Making and the Big Salad

Tom’s Diner

DSC01291Some good friends of mine have asked me to take part in what seems like an amazing concept later this year. Rooven Pakkiri and Stuart Mcintyre of Collaboration Matters are eschewing the usual cubicle stylee stand at their next show at UC Expo on the 6th and 7th March. Instead, they intend to build an all-American Diner complete with actors rather than the usual ‘stand’ sales folk.  This really caught my imagination not least because I had paid a recent (last year) pilgrimage to possibly the most famous diner in the world, Tom’s Diner, in New York, the setting for a Suzanne Vega song and Monk’s Diner from Seinfeld.

 

Nighthawks

The idea is to contrast Edward Hopper’s famous painting ‘Nighthawks’ a study in loneliness and alienation in a big city with Josh Ellingson’s modern take of a Diner, Wifi Diner. Ellingson’s work, commissioned for Wired Magazine, shows what is possible when we are all connected. For me, this sounds like it may take a little explaining to a crowd that are used to something very different but it will be a welcome relief and a great introduction Social Business for many. Businesses, in my view, should do more of this. It demonstrates leading rather than following.

 

Watch and Listen

The stand will feature a live debate between thought leaders in the Social space and I will be representing my own company, Artesian Solutions, innovators in Social Listening and will be sharing my thoughts on Social and Social Analytics.  See you there.

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Who makes the decision anyway?

You’re Fired

I know that anyone that watches ‘The Apprentice’ is not doing so for an insight into how a modern business is run but hearing the words ‘You’re Fired’ frequently bellowed through an office door couldn’t be further from my own experience. It represents a clichéd and caricatured view of management that I last saw to ‘comedic’ effect in Terry and June  a 70’s BBC Sitcom. I am sure it is a style that exists but hopefully in a diminishing minority of organisations that haven’t found a way to deal with the bullying and haranguing of greying and dysfunctional dinosaurs.

A New  Generation of Decision Makers

I was born in the 60’s which you have probably already worked out given the reference to Terry Scott and June Whitfield. I don’t recall being consulted by my parents on family decisions too often. Loving and supportive as they were, they were part of a generation that didn’t ask what kind of party we wanted, what cut of jeans we preferred or which destination we preferred for a day out.

Of course their choices were far narrower but this was the generation of parents that pre-dated Parenting magazine let alone Parenting.com.

Compare this with the generation entering the workforce today. Most have been involved in choices that affect them, carefully consulted in family decisions. Some, including those like Montessori educated Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have taken their progressive education and created progressive and hugely successful organisational cultures.

Waning Autonomy in Decision Making

The connection with Alan Sugar’s pantomime boss and the future of BI is this. The purpose of BI is to make better decisions. Those decisions, two decades ago, used to be made by one person (and in the main it was a man) Increasingly those decisions are made by teams, peer groups, special interest groups and the staff that are impacted by it.

Waxing Collaboration in Decision Making

The drivers for the need for increasing collaboration in decision making are largely cultural. This includes the small matter of a whole generation entering the workforce that expect to be consulted and who are sociologically predisposed to sharing responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. This means growing engagement in successful outcomes in organisations from a much broader group.

Until very recently, this was just too difficult to do. The cultural implications aside, how do you poll groups, get their input, collate views, share opinions and establish any kind of consensus without committee’s, sub-committees and employee councils? How to you distribute the information, the hard numbers, that are needed to make a decision that aligns the needs of the business, it’s stakeholders with the needs of those that participate in the business as employees and partners?

Social business tools and their convergence with BI are an enabler. They have made collaboration in decision making possible.

The opportunity is an engaged and an informed workforce that can positively participate in the decision making process. Even if the individual did not support the outcome, they will know that their voice was heard.

No, You’re Fired

If an engaged workforce sounds ‘fluffy’ then ask yourself what’s your organisations largest cost? It isn’t usually paperclips. Estimates vary but some suggest that knowledge workers will account for 80% of the cost in the US labour force in 2012.

If 80% of costs were in a machine would we be content on it idling, running at 25% capacity which some HR studies suggest is the current average level of engagement? I doubt it.

So the manager of yore, jealously keeping information to themselves so that they can exercise power and control and ultimately make autonomous decisions without offering or taking counsel… You’re Fired.

If only BI was as efficient as Facebook

BI, Facebook and Decision Loops

I  was at an analysts briefing event with IBM last week who were sharing their thinking on Social Business and what I believe is the inspired and innovative pairing of Connections Collaboration and Cognos Business Intelligence. IBM’s Social Business Leader for Northern Europe, Jon Mell shared a slide that compared the number of operations it takes to share a photo and gather feedback with friends on facebook and  the number of operations it takes to do the same on email.

This set my mind racing. If there are efficiency gains on something simple like sharing and getting feedback on a photo, imagine the productivity gains on sharing critical business information through Business Intelligence reports.

Why do I say this? Because sharing a photo is typically a single ‘sharing loop’ process. Someone publishes the photo, others contribute with their clever and witty observations. Done.

A single loop … Count ‘em … One. (A quote from Muppet Treasure Island, btw)

The out-dated view of BI is that it is shared this way too. That it’s published and the job is done. This just doesn’t hold true any more and I am not sure it ever did. BI requires many sharing or decision loops. Ten, distinct loops to be precise but some of these are repeated which means there can often more decision loops than a bowl full of fruit loops (an all too infrequent guilty pleasure of mine)

  1. Meaning Loop. Gain and assign agreement on the meaning of the information
  2. Implication Loop. Decide if the implication is neutral or if there is a problem or opportunity
  3. Investigation Loop. If there is an issue then it will be rare that the one piece of business intelligence will provide the full story. This loops is about investigating the problem or opportunity is in more detail.
  4. Solution Loop. Determine possible solutions to exploit the problem or resolve the problem
  5. Decision Loop. To decide on the best possible solution
  6. Action Loop. Once the solution is determined it will be broken down into tasks and assigned to individuals to be actioned.
  7. Progress Loop. Providing feedback on the progress of the solution
  8. Monitoring Loop. To determine if the solution has been successful or if the group need to return to refine the tasks or redo some loops.
  9. Conclusion Loop. Closure. Establish agreement that that there are no further actions and that the problem or opportunity is resolved.
  10. Celebration Loop. Acknowledge the support and contributions of those involved

That’s ten loops which means that if sharing a photograph on Facebook is more efficient than sharing it in the office using email, the productivity benefits of doing ‘real’ business are tenfold.

There are those that are sceptical about Facebook styled social platforms in the office because they may waste time. I understand this, I really do. However, the opposite is true. Organisations need social platforms, particularly for collaborative decision making. Without them, they are wasting time.

BI and Poor Decision making

Good Decision/Bad Decision

This has been something of a preoccupation for me of late. We spend much of our time debating the technologies. We invest valuable time in deciding if we should we go with mega-vendors (IBM, Oracle, SAP) or a challenger? We agonise over should it be cloud or on-premises, mart or warehouse, dimensional or relational? And it is all, frankly academic if the businesses is not making good decisions.

There is no shortage of material that try and make sense of why good people and great businesses make monumentally bad decisions. In the book ‘Thing Again:Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions’ by Sydney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead and Andrew Cambell the focus is on the strategic decisions that have dramatic and highly visible consequences for the organisation.

Good People in Great Organisations Can Make Poor Decisions

An example is one of the UK’s premier retailers Boots which enjoys one of the largest footfalls in the UK. Established in the 19th century, it is now a subsidiary of £20billion Alliance Boots. In September 1998, the Chief Executive, Steve Russell excitedly announced a range of healthcare offerings including dentistry, chiropody and laser hair removal. Five years later, the initiative had lost in the region of £100m and Boots needed to break open the piggy bank and look down the back of the sofa for another £50m just to close down the operation and convert that premier retail space back to being … retail. It almost goes without saying that the changes were implemented by a new CEO, Richard Baker.

Apparently, one of the chief reasons for making the move into Healthcare services was  that a slowdown in the Beauty business ‘had been detected’. However a spokesman was later quoted in the Telegraph as saying that ‘they recognised that these areas are still growing strongly’.

Let’s stop there for a second. Spotting trends in sales and revenue by product category is probably marketing and business 101. And even the most rudimentary business intelligence solution should be trending sales over time. Yet the trend in sales in a key category for Boots was diagnosed as slowdown and only a few months later as growth. Of course, the slowdown may have been a short-term blip but the point of trending is to smooth these out for the purpose of longer-term planning. And, the error in trending might be more understandable had it not been for the fact that the later growth was characterised as ‘strong’.

Of course, I am not on the board of Boots and I have an advantage shared with all those analysts and commentator that put the boot (or should that be Boots) into Mr Russell … hindsight. Indeed, it’s a testimony to the strength of Boots as a high street giant that they can make major booboo’s and still go on to survive and thrive.

The Problem with Decisions …

And organisations are complex systems of individuals and interactions. Large organisations are very complex. This is why organisational decision making doesn’t always stand up to the scrutiny of us as individuals who retrospectively try and apply the logic of rational decision making to such mistakes.

There are a number of problems associated with individuals making decisions. Individuals have bias, self-interest, pre-conceptions. There are also a number of problems with organisational decisions. Groups have to manage conflict, disagreement and there are dynamics that can produce undesirable outcomes like Groupthink.

Today BI’s only Contribution is a Report, Chart or Dashboard

So if we accept that the purpose of Business Intelligence is to help organisations make better decisions (surely there is no debate here?) then Business Intelligence applications have to be more than reports, dashboards and charts.

They need to make decisions easier to collaborate around, they need to link decisions directly to the information that is required to make them. Furthermore decisions need to be open, transparent, accountable not just for the regulators but so that the whole organisation can buy into them.

Decision Making Black Holes

 

A Funny Thing Happens at the Forum

Meetings are one of the most common decision making ‘forums’ we are all regularly involved in. In fact one in five company meetings we take is to make a decision. As a way of making decisions though, they can be problematic. Once the meeting has concluded, the connection between information shared, decisions made and actions taken can be weak even lost. It’s as if the meeting itself were a decision making black hole.

Some Decisions are More Equal Than Others

Some decision making meetings are impromptu for making a timely, tactical decision quickly. Others are regular, formal and arranged around the ‘drum beat’ or ‘cadence’ of a business to make more strategic decisions. The more strategic the decisions and longer term the impact the less frequent the forum so a Senior or Executive Management Team may only meet quarterly for a business review (QBR)

How a QBR ‘Rolls’

A typical QBR will see Senior Managers sharing results in PowerPoint, possibly with financial results in spread-sheets which I would hope have at least been extracted from a Business Intelligence application.

If the SMT are reasonably well organised, they will summarise their conclusions and actions in meeting minutes. The meeting minutes will be typed up by an assistant in a word document and then distributed in email.

Throughout, they will all have been keeping individual notes so will walk out with these in their daybooks. The most senior manager in the room might not do this particularly if it’s their assistant who’s taking the minutes.

Later, actions from daybooks and minutes are likely transferred to individuals to-do lists and all follow-up will be conducted in email and phone calls.

An Implosion of Information, Conclusion and Decision

So let’s recap. Critical decisions about how resources are going to be allocated will be discussed in a ‘QBR’ and yet the artefacts of this critical decision making forum are scattered into Word documents, excel spread-sheets, emails and outlook tasks. Tiny fragments of the discussion, information, conclusion, decisions and activities implode around the organisation. To be frank, the team are now only going to make progress because the forum was recent and can be relatively easily recalled.

Of course, once time or people move on so does the corporate memory of the decision. Conversations begin with ‘what did we agree to do about that cost over-run?’ or ‘why did we say we were ok with the revenue performance in Q1?’

Executive Attention Deficit Syndrome

Many executives complain of a syndrome that feels like ADS. This is because the more senior the manager the more things they will probably have to deal with at an increasingly superficial level. A functional head will probably spend no more than 15 minutes on any one thing. To productively make decisions they will need to be able to have the background, status and related information to hand so that they can deal with it quickly and move on to the next thing. Decision making black holes contribute to this feeling of EADS.

CDM and Corporate Memory

Corporate Decision Making platforms will be successful when they connect;

  • Decisions
  • Information on which the decision was made
  • Insight derived from the information
  • Actions taken on the decision
  • Results of the actions

This means total recall of corporate decisions good and bad so that, over time, decisions can be recalled, evaluated, re-used or improved. A far cry from current decision making forums which whilst functional are inherently flawed, fragmented and are not improving the timeliness and quality of decisions in our organisations.

What 127 Hours Tells us About Social Networks

In an interview this week for Mark Kermode’s Film Review show, Danny Boyle made it clear that he used the success of Slumdog to make a film that might otherwise not have been made. To leverage the success of 2010 most acclaimed film is an indication that 127 hours is more than this years ‘would you?’ movie.

It, it is the true story of Aron Ralston who gets trapped under a boulder whilst canyoneering alone in Utah. The desperate measure that he takes to free himself is well documented so it is not giving anything away to say that he was trapped by his arm, he has a multi-tool (a really cheap one) and a little under 127 hours to debate if he should … or should not.

Before, I go on you might be wondering what’s the connection between BI and Social Networks let alone the connection between Danny Boyle’s latest movie and Social Networks. Those that follow my posts and tweets will know that Social platforms interest me because I think they are changing the way we share and use information in business and will profoundly change the Business Analytics space over the coming years. A social platform has already made it into IBM Cognos 10 because these guys, again, are ahead of the game. Many don’t see it yet because the original use of social platforms have trivialised their significance but it’s there nonetheless.
 
Back to the connection. Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, is an all-American hero. He’s young, fit, strong, intrepid and independent. He is good at what he does, he has spent a lot of time in his chosen wilderness and is able to navigate it with speed and ease. In fact, at one point in his story, he briefly but convincingly takes the role of park guide. The hopelessness of his literal and figurative fall takes a long time to sink in for our hero. Indeed, when it does dawn on him that he could have shared his hiking plan with his friends or family it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call it an epiphany. It’s clearly a powerful realisation for Aron that he’s not a hero, he’s an arse.
 
There is a moment in the movie where Aron says ‘thank you’. It’s a strange moment. I don’t want to give away why it is strange but once you have seen the movie, you will know why. For me, it was significant because he knew that if he made it home alive (which was still, by no means certain) then he would be changed forever. He would live the rest of his life in the knowledge that however strong, smart and experienced he was that those tiny connections we all make each day matter. Sometimes in small ways because it’s just about about sharing. Sometimes in significant and surprising ways.

For me, I am continually and pleasantly surprised by what I learn on the subjects of analytics, organisational leadership, productivity, start-ups and social media in my twitter stream. It’s full of links to content that cover important ideas from solid thinkers. Admittedly none of them are life-saving but, at a stretch, a rare few might be described as life-changing. Each of them make a tiny but positive difference and sometimes someone in my network helps me (or me them) in a surprising way.