Month: January 2010

What do the Smithsonian Institute, The National Intelligence Community and You have in common?

What do the Smithsonian Institute and the National Intelligence Community have in common?

(warning – i had too much caffeine with michael edson this morning – so this may head into some geeky ground)

The Smithsonian Institute is a federation of 19 museums and other research centers, founded 150 years ago, and dedicated to the “increase and diffusion” of knowledge. The Intelligence community is a federation of 17 Agencies, dedicated to understanding existing and developing threats to national security (The former Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell summarized their mission: “To create decision advantage”.  The new Director, Dennis Blair, is less pithy, but no less focused in his pursuit.)

The Smithsonian has a collection of artifacts and insights that is vast in both its depth and its breadth. No individual has the complete picture of its holdings. The intelligence community has something rather similar – a staggering amount of data to which no individual has full view.

Both institutions are looking at the world ahead, and the staggering, “wicked problems” that it is their priviledge on the one hand and their burden on the other, to solve.

Both institutions have leading edge initiatives to enable their unimaginably vast collections of knowledge, information and experts to come together, so that others can gain new and important insights to further their missions. In the Intelligence community case – it is a life and death race to evolve information availability and analysis such that unpredictable threats are reliably identified and thwarted. In the Smithsonian’s case, it is a heartfelt obligation to connect the curious and expert minds of the world to assets, information, knowledge and experts so that they may cherish and expand the treasure and capabilities of society.

These Institutions have some common obstacles to their goals. They are 3 – vision, technology and culture.

Vision – in order to ignite the energy required to get past the obstacles, each institution must articulate a vision of the future that will engage and direct its human resources.

Technology – both institutions must adopt technology that will unlock data silos,  connect people, expertise and information, and rapidly diffuse knowledge through the system, so that minds can find, identify and develop important issues.

Culture – both institutions have proud histories and legions of dedicated professionals. But their culture, their dedication and their current technologies have created both technical and cultural silos, making the diffusion and recognition of important information nearly impossible. (both are working on it, the intel crowd rather more urgently, and rightly so).

Critical insight into insight – now here the two institutions begin to diverge. The intel community is now working at a feverish pace on a problem which it has long been trying to work on. That is a fundamental understanding of insight. This is a long and exciting (if you’re into that kind of thing) of the nature of insight and whether it can be made more reliable or repeatable. The smithsonian wants to provide it for all – Intel needs it for themselves, and fast.

OK – so who cares, and how does this relate to you? (I may someday write something without the “so – “, but it hasn’t happened yet)

You have “Wicked Problems” – the problems you need to solve today are qualitatively different from a generation before. You are dealing with a rapidly evolving world, and issues that are entangled. Your perspective of these problems is more wholistic because you are more worldly – and that is both an advantage and a disadvantage. You need to identify and overcome the entangled challenges of vision, technology and culture that swirl around the inner knot of insight,  problem solving and most importantly, generating productive action from this insight.

We (that is the generational “we”, rather than the corporate or royal “we”) are inventing a new  generation of work tools, methods and processes that focus on the integration and “cross-contamination” of people, expertise and information and our goal is to get as close to the inner problem of insight and action as possible. Social media may be (at least part of) the “Alexandrian Solution” to the “Gordian Knot” (for those less caffinated and edson-inspired than i – this means taking an entirely different tack on a problem that makes its solution simple or moot).

And in conclusion – I don’t have one – just an exciting journey for us to go on. As we strip mine the problems of collaboration, analysis and insight, we’ll be enabling next generation solutions to next generation problems – in business, culture and security.

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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….