Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Use and Abuse of Standardisation - Introduction

Standardisation - the adoption of uniform standards or ways of doing things - has become very popular. We can see this across all parts of modern economic life and beyond. But has this delivered the economic grail that we all expected? Increasingly, we have our doubts.

Take, as an example, the application of project management techniques. Now we support these, and indeed have written an introduction to project management in a series of posts on this blog. But real problems can arise where the techniques are enforced mechanistically in isolation of the purpose to be served.

Take, as a simple example, the time involved in preparing and administering project plans. Pretty obviously, this has to be related to the size, complexity and importance of the project.

Application of full blown project management techniques to a small project is a bit like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Yet we have recently seen a case where in time terms, project management itself absorbed more then 40 per cent of the staff time devoted to a project. This was not the fault of the project managers themselves, but of the environment in which they were forced to operate.

Take as a second example the concept of skunk works, the topic of a post on another Group blog. Skunk works work because they break a project out of the standardised command and control processes that are such a feature of modern organisations. Whatever the advantages of these processes, they can act to stifle innovation and rapid response.

In all this, we are not saying that standardisation itself is a bad thing, simply that it has to be applied in a common sense way.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The independent professional - getting paid

All independent professionals worry about getting paid. A big firm can carry a slow payer, even write off a debt. Independent professionals do not have this luxury.

In this context, Dennis Howlett carried a useful post on his AccMan blog on the problem that is worth reading by all independent professionals.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Social Networking - A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Interesting article from Clay Shirky on the sociology of on-line groups. It's a little old now, 2003, but still good for all that.

As a collective, we have long been interested in this topic for two reasons. Some of us consult in the area and hence are interested for professional reasons. Then, too, we have tried to us the technology to keep our own distributed network in contact.

The second has been less successful than the first. The reasons are simple. While a fair bit of the new social networking technology aims to facilitate and support the creation of groups, we are already one. So the technology has to fit into existing structures, group dynamics and processes. And here it does not work as well.

A core reason for this is that our people judge the technology in terms of its immediate contribution to their personal and professional objectives in a Group context. Here they judge the time taken to learn to use the technology plus the time taken then to use it against the returns. And too much technology fails this very basic test.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Community Creativity and Development - Introduction

Community development has been a long standing interest of a number of Ndarala professionals both as community activists and in terms of the processes involved. Why do some communities develop, others stagnate? Are there specific things that can be done to enhance community creativity.

This series of posts consolidates an earlier discussion thread on these questions. Again, we are presenting them as an integrated series with this as the first post.

The thread was triggered in part by a discussion on the role that history plays in both impeding and assisting organisational change. In summary, organisational history is often ignored or seen as an impediment, especially by new broom CEO's. Change is required, we must get rid of the past. Yet the reality, at least as we see it, is that cultural change depends upon understanding existing history and culture, is most effective when related to that history. The challenge is to find the right way to understand and respond to both history and culture.

A second linked discussion thread was the difference between individual and organisational creativity. This one was triggered by a post by Jeffrey Baumgartner on Nava Shalev's Global Relocation Portal blog - http://www.globalrelocation.ca/blog/. In this post Jeffrey makes a clear distinction between the two and argues that organisations must consciously manage organisational creativity if they are to maximise individual creativity.

Now that's fair enough. But like the earlier and related concept of the "learning" organisation, management of organisational creativity is actually a slippery topic.

Organisations can, as Jeffrey suggests, adopt policies that will encourage creativity at individual level, they can consciously bring in new people from different areas (I am always astonished at the way organisations want to just recruit people from narrowly defined experience slices), they can use multi-function teams. But is this the management of organisational creativity or simply the creation of conditions that will encourage creativity? Is is possible to go further than this? Does it in fact matter?

As consultants and managers, our experience has been that there are in fact creative organisations, that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, that it does therefore matter. However, getting this across properly to clients is hard because so much of it is "soft" stuff, things that cannot be directly measured. And we live in a measurement age.

How does this link to community creativity and development?

Two of my colleagues - Tom Schwarz (Kinnogene Australia) and David Jago (Smart Meetings http://www.smartmeetings.com.au/) - have been working on the development of new facilitation approaches at community level intended to help communities resolve problems and take greater responsibility for their own development.

This work links to the broader question. Why do some communities develop despite the odds while others in apparently similar positions stagnate or decline?

The answer appears to lie in the presence of key champions. However, when we dig down we find that it is normally the combination of those champions with community history, structure and culture that creates the positive outcome. Champions on their own do not appear to be enough. This equates to the difference between organisational and individual creativity referred to by Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Next post

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Community Creativity and Development - a town like Alice

In my last post I posed the question why do some communities develop despite the odds while others in apparently similar positions stagnate or decline?

I suggested that it was the normally the combination of key champions with community history, structure and culture that creates the positive outcome. Champions on their own did not appear to be enough. I suggested that this equated to the difference between organisational and individual creativity referred to by Jeffrey Baumgartner. As an aside, Jeffrey's web site - http://www.jpb.com/index.php - is worth a visit for all those interested in creativity.

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Neville Schute's A Town like Alice. I was not so much interested in the first part set in Malaya during the Second World War, but in the second half. There the English girl comes to a small Northern Australian cattle town in search of the Australian bloke she met in Malaya. Deciding that the place must change if she is to stay there, she sets it on a development path through business creation, with each business feeding into and reinforcing the next.

I have no doubt that this can work in particular times at particular places. A modern example is the impact on the old gold mining settlement of Nundle (http://www.nundle.info/) of the establishment of Nundle Woollen Mills. However, in most cases more is required.

Take the case of the New England (Australia) cities of Armidale and Tamworth as an example.These cities are traditional rivals. Tamworth has seen Armidale as academic, snobbish and effete. Armidale has seen Tamworth as crassly commercial and narrow. I have stereotyped these views, but it gives the picture.

Some time ago I returned to the University of New England to do some postgraduate work in history. Part of this focused on differences between towns, the way this affected history and development. This led me to wonder why it was that Tamworth and Armidale had such different development patterns, why in the thirty years after 1930 Tamworth had seen business start after business start, while Armidale's business community remained static and largely unchanging.

The usual explanation given at the time for Tamworth's growth as compared to Armidale lay in the economic difference between farming and grazing. The farms around Tamworth created a much larger market place than the more sparsely inhabited grazing properties around Armidale. This was true, but I did not feel that it was a sufficient condition.

When I looked in more detail at business creation in Tamworth, I found a pattern of business creation chains in which one business led to another. I also found that Tamworth business people demonstrated a willingness to put money into new starts, making it easier to get things of the ground. There was no such pattern in Armidale. Tamworth simply had a more entrepreneurial and outward looking culture than Armidale, making it easier to get new things of the ground.

Later, when I was trying to run a national consulting business out of Armidale while also trying to play an active role in community development, I found that many of the same traditional cultural patterns still remained, making it hard to get new things of the ground.

Returning to my starting point, the Armidale/Tamworth example illustrates the difference between individual and organisational creativity.

Armidale has many creative people, generating far more academics, writers, playwrights than Tamworth. It is a hugely attractive city in life style terms. But when it comes to business or doing new things - Country Music is an example - requiring cooperation, Tamworth beats Armidale hands down simply because it has greater community creativity.

Introductory post. Next post

Monday, August 13, 2007

Alan Sarkissian - Audience of One

I been meaning for a little while to mention again that Alan Sarkissian - the Grand Poo-Baa of Audience of One - has finally established his own web site.

Audience of One has been an Ndarala members for several years. Alan himself is a practical marketer with a special focus on the marketing challenges faced by small and medium businesses especially in the professional services area.

The site includes some useful marketing resources.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Community Creativity and Development - understanding existing community structures

In the second post in this series, I looked among other things at Armidale and Tamworth as a case study of the way in which different local history and culture affected development, arguing that Tamworth's faster business development was directly related to its culture.

Anybody who has dealt with cultural issues at organisational or community level knows that culture is hard and slow to change. So if the culture is opposed to something, that thing will be slow to happen. Given all this, is it in fact possible to improve creativity at community level?

In our view, the answer is clearly yes if the approach is linked to and set within a frame determined by the existing culture. We also think that the answer can be yes - although outcomes are less certain - where approaches require cultural change so long as the cultural change issue is approached indirectly. So how might we do this?

As a strategic consultant, my starting point in dealing with change in organisations is to get to understand the organisation's existing structure and culture since these will strongly influence what can be done, more strongly how it might be done. In conventional consulting terms we often call this a diagnostic.

Exactly the same applies at community level. We need a community diagnostic.

Now when we look at the way this is often done we find a focus on economic factors if the core concern is economic development, social symptoms if the driver is a community problem such as violence in indigenous communities. While both are important, our focus is different.

To begin with, the objective of the community diagnostic as I see it is not to prescribe - any solutions or actions come later - but to understand just where the community currently stands. So it is descriptive and analytical.

All communities have their own economic and population structures, their own embedded attitudes, individual power structures and contact networks, their own social infrastructure. These need to be understood.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that the community diagnostic needs to become a detailed sociological study of the type made famous in Australia by Wild's Bradstow, a pioneering study of Bowral. My focus is strictly practical, acquisition of the information required for community development purposes.

Now there is an obvious problem here in that this type of analysis can be very sensitive indeed. There are several ways of handling this, depending on who is doing the analysis and for what purpose.

Where a professional facilitator or economic development professional is being used, then that professional - while needing to understand - may need to make judgements as to how much to say and how to say it. If your client is the local council, how do you tell the council that it is part of the problem?

Things can in fact be a little easier if the diagnostic is being done by a community activist or group of activists for their own purposes, since they will already have some understanding of the dynamics of the local scene. However, they are likely to suffer from bias induced by closeness. Here the challenge is to follow a sufficiently objective process so that biases are exposed and tested. In all cases, the best initial approach is to focus strongly on factual description, avoiding value judgements.

In my next posts in this series I will try to tease all this a little more by focusing on some of the impediments to development, change and improved community creativity.

Previous post. Next post. Introductory post.