connecting the dots

Is collaboration enough to connect-the-dots?

Connecting the dots is what we call the problem of finding various bits of the answer from various people who may not have been aware of the question to begin with. I described this more deeply in a previous post on the intelligence community’s connect the dots problem:

Imagine 10,000 people on 17 teams, working on 100,000 jigsaw puzzles. Now imagine that some of the pieces have been randomly distributed among the other players. Nobody knows how many pieces are in each puzzle. And some pieces may be missing entirely, or fit into multiple puzzles simultaneously. Each person has a limited number of puzzles that they are aware of, and some may be working on the same puzzle without realizing it.

They need a system that will make it possible for people to know what pieces the others have, for the pieces themselves to find the holes they might fit into, and – here’s the odd one – the holes can describe themselves to the pieces. This one needs one with some blue in it, or a fairly oval shaped connector.

Why do we need to connect dots?

Problem solving – I’m working on a problem. Say its how to satisfy a customer’s tricky technology issue. Say its figuring out how to keep explosive underwear off of airplains, or how a particular frog species might predict global warming effects, or how a certain bacteria may solve the worlds energy crisis, or competing against another technology company in a market sector. These can be extremely difficult problems. They all depend on being able to form a complete picture from a diverse set of information, understanding the implications of that picture and being able to act on that insight.

So. Suppose I’m looking for a cure for cancer. Some other person in my company (or not) is studying the effects of pseudonameotryxlate on diabetes. She notes that this drug seems to limit hair growth, but she’s not certain why. I notice that one of the key processes in this cancer progression is the same process that is involved in hair follicle generation. How am I going to know about the study on diabetes?

What if I had a system that would tell me about things that had to do with hair. What if I had a general awareness of surprising outcomes that people chatted about?

What if I were trying to form a strategy to compete against a certain vendor. And one of the sales reps got a comment from a prospect about that vendor that told us something we didn’t know.

What if I’m on a services team, struggling with some exotic server configuration that I’d never seen before – but someone in my org has….

So what are the components that would be of value to us here (so, so, so – why do I write this way?).

First – you need a system which will capture small bits of knowledge, not just formal documents or even wikis. Fortunately, social media tools are (can be) nicely designed to facilitate and capture question and answer, comments, remarks and corrections. In a good system, these will be indexed and retrievable.

Second – you need a system that promotes some level of ambient awareness – twitter/yammer type capability is very helpful here, as you see a (somewhat self filtering) stream of activity go by that you never really have to deal with, but you’ll notice when something critical pops up.

Third, you need a really, really good search tool. This search should not only identify content, in the form of docs, comments, Q&A and wikis, but should also identify people who may have generated that content, and communities, projects or networks where that activity is taking place.

Fourth- you need to let technology work for you in the form of recommendations based on semantic and statistical analysis. Both the – “these concepts are similar and therefore you might want to check this other one out” idea, and the amazon recommends concept “people who read or write about x also find y interesting”.

In this way you are maximizing the flow and availability of information in your organization, and allowing it to be filtered by a) yourself b) your network and c) technology – which is a winning trifeceta. With you, your network and your technology working in complementary fashion to find information most valuable to you, you have maximized your chances of finding what you need to know and which you may not know to ask about.

A social collaboration system should have each of these components, leveraging the productivity focus of collaboration into a refined ability to connect the dots.

Focusing on the Ends, rather than the Means

Collaboration is a means, not an end. I’ve said it, others have said it. Great. Good. Now lets focus on some of those ends – Many of which have been in the news and media this last couple of weeks for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these ends include:

1. Connecting the Dots

2. Engagement and Motivation

3. Efficiency

4. Innovation

In other words, our hope and expectation is that collaborative environments enable us to be better, smarter, faster, more fulfilled and more fulfilling.

1. Starting with number one, Connecting the Dots:

The big ticket item this week comes from the intel community, or really, our president. To wit:

The front page of the Washington Post had this quote today: “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” Obama said after meeting with senior national security and intelligence officials, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. . . . That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”

This was a failure to connect the dots.

No single data point on Abdulmutallab was particularly concerning, but in aggregate, they were certainly worth pulling him over at customs. (Heck – I get pulled over regularly, and I swear that I’m  deeply patriotic, loyal and completely harmless.)

Some data points: His father warned the US Embassy in Nigeria that he had become radical in his religious beliefs, and could be a terrorist. This could simply be a matter of a religious boy becoming estranged from his family – a not uncommon event, that added his name to one, very large, not tightly watched database.

He held a US visa. As do a gagillion other people.

His wherabouts were unclear or unknown for a long time. Hmm.

He bought his airline ticket with cash.

There were intercepts that mentioned someone that could have been him and a holiday period attack.

I don’t pretend to know all the facts, but this wikipedia page at least pretends to (I would be very carefully trusting its accuracy at this stage of the game).

The point is that for this information to have tripped an alarm, it would have had to come together in a cumulative manner, where it was obvious that while there were no really red flags, there were enough yellow ones to take a closer look.

Was this a failure of technology? Yes. Of process? yes. of Culture? Yes.

Is this problem something you face in your business? Probably. If you work in technology, law, medicine, pharmaceuticals or any business where thinking and problem solving is key. Though the stakes may be lower. Maybe.

Collaborative environments allow for maximum information sharing, common operating pictures and objective and heterogeneous analysis. This is an important step on the road to connecting the dots, but we need to dig down much further. Nancy Dixon has done some fascinating research and writing on heterogeneous problem solving, and she’s on my list today to reach out to.

2. Next lets talk about Engagement and Motivation. Daniel Pink just published an exciting book called “Drive“. I confess that I haven’t read it yet, but I heard him talk about it this morning on NPR. He postulates that humans strive for autonomy and that if you want great results that truly reflect their capabilities as humans, then you must give them that autonomy.

Collaborative cultures are about leveraging mutual autonomy. Really about respecting and leveraging individual expertise – aggregating it and reinforcing it with that of others.

The Conference Board just released a study showing a profound drop in job satisfaction in the last 20 years, with only 45% of people satisfied with their work. This drop crosses every  boundary of job level, company type, education, salary, age, etc. While the survey does not suggest a cause or a remedy, we know that collaborative culture is more engaging than command and control structures.

This may be the squishiest and least respective of the potential values and ends of collaboration, but that may be naive. Do you wonder why your business isn’t better? Why your results aren’t better? Why you struggle to get things done as a business? Gee, if the majority of your employees couldn’t care less, that would be one answer, wouldn’t it?

Will collaboration help reverse this critical trend? Apparently there’s quite a bit of data to suggest that it can. I’ll be working on collecting this. Let me know if you have good pointers.

3. Efficiency.

A great talk by John Seddon (thanks for the pointer, Ken) talks about systems thinking, and the benefits of tracking value rather than metrics or costs. He talks about the nonsense that comes from looking at the wrong goal, and, indirectly, the difficulty of setting good goals.

We know that collaborative teams get more done more quickly. This is partly due to engagement, partly due to avoiding the stupid stuff like cycling documents through email and ridiculous processes (not all process is ridiculous, some is fabulously important, but knowing the diff is key) and absent decisionmaking.

We also know that collaborative teams are more effective at project management and that collaborative project management can be very effective at identifying roadblocks, clarifying goals tracking progress, and solving problems. The wildly popular, but (in my opinion) rarely understood Agile Development method is an example of this.

[I just spent an hour researching what we "know" about efficiency. Lets just say that there's a lot of opinion, and little fact (that's readily available through google. Many of this opinion resonates as very true. Fact is generally anecdotal - lots of great management books, but little real research. This may be partially because we don't know how to define or measure efficiency - its a bit like pornography - we know it when we see it. DO you have a reference?] So – note to self and the rest of us – document efficiency effects of teamwork.

Process can be agile, but it usually isn’t. Collaborative culture helps to build efficient, repeatable processes that embody learning and best practices so that energy can focus on figuring out the new and novel. Unfortunately, the vast majority of process is a beauracracy trying to turn people into dumb operators. People don’t like that very much, and the outcomes are generally awful. We all intuitively know this. Watch the John Seddon video I linked to above – you’ll love it.

Oh – and check out this great slide deck by my esteemed colleage, Michael Edson. It talks about process and capability maturity in a way that doesn’t make you want to fall asleep, run away or gag.

4. Innovation.

This is also extremely difficult to measure, but we seem to be seeing that giving everyone in the organization, as well as its customers,  a voice, and by enabling the back and forth that comes from truly constructive teams, we create an environment that quickly identifies problems and  unique solutions to them. This is, in fact, the definition of innovation – the ability to see things differently and act on them in kind.

In the nineties, technical innovation took place in tiny startups that were gobbled up by big companies. Recent events have made that model more difficult, so people need to figure out how to innovate within larger companies. How do you make a large company act like a small one?

Enable teams of focused passionate people to exist outside the borg, that’s how. Enable ideas to circulate widely. Use the resources of a large company to quickly vet and improve the ideas of small, innovative teams. We could go on.

I’ll be documenting any and all info I find (and I have some, somewhere) on small team innovation and its importance to great companies.

I’ve long argued (around work at least) that real work is a golden braid of collaboration, process and project management, and that we must have all three to really meet the needs. But I’m now focusing beyond these capabilities and toward what they enable as a way to look at what we deliver and how.

You can expect these ends to be an important part of the discussion for how we move forward. Its going to be  very interesting year….