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Networks of Influence: Borderless organizations and Southeast Asian kingdoms

12 Feb

This is what I love about writing in this space!

It allows me to make sense of seemingly unrelated ideas that suddenly burst through, like a magic eye picture. The act of writing helps me form ideas, and the act of sharing helps me find/refer to others that will enhance or redirect those notions. (Sharing publicly is also a lesson in personal bravery for me, telling the world, “This is my idea today, which I concede I may contradict tomorrow.” I like that, too.)

I am finishing up Harold Jarche’s latest book, Finding Perpetual Beta. If you’re interested in organizational growth, knowledge management, technology and change management, I highly recommend that you obtain, read, mark up and share it. One of the ideas that struck me was the importance of exploration at the soft edges of the organization.

In many organizations the outside world is better connected than inside the workplace. This makes it difficult to connect at the boundaries, which is where we have the best opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

At the edge of the organization, where there are few rules and everything is a blur… opportunities are found in chaos. In such a changing environment, failure has to be tolerated. Value emerges from forays into the chaos. (pp. 26–7)

This sounded so familiar to me, but it took me a while to place where the same idea applies in a very different context: traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. Wait, what?!

When I was in graduate school, I studied Southeast Asia and political science. I remember sitting in a class led by the brilliant Al McCoy, as he discussed the structures of authority in traditional kingdoms and sultanates in the islands of what

Borders are hard to draw on waterways. Power was distributed in spheres of influence radiating out from the thrown.

Borders are hard to draw on waterways. Power was distributed in spheres of influence radiating out from the throne.

are now Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, etc. I remember him describing how these were influenced-based networks of rule without formal borders. The king sat on his throne at the divinely placed epicenter of authority, while the edges of his influence—where his network brushed up against others—was where trade, creativity, artistry and knowledge were most active.

As I read Jarche, among others, I see the same things: Organizational walls are becoming porous and unguardable. Hierarchal structures are being transformed into networks and what John Husband has termed wirearchy. I could barely wrap my young mind around the notion of authority without borders and kingdoms without armies to guard them. But great trading post cultures—from Singapore to Samarkand to Timbuktu (to New York?)—grew and their culture thrived precisely because they lay at places where authority dissipated and cultures combined in new ways.

Jarche is quite right to say that there is nothing natural or traditional about hierarchy as an organizing principle. It emerged with modern military and manufacturing. As the social learning age replaces command-and-control, and the notion of the loyal “company man” disappears, organizations and individuals that thrive will develop new ways to find and create value.

As Joi Ito rightly points out, we now inhabit a chaotic, democratic, crowd-sourced world. Finding new ways to develop PKM and ongoing organizational adaptations (“perpetual beta”) are the ways forward.

Reaching out a helping hand to a “lost” coworker

5 Feb

I had a productive and far-reaching conversation recently with a Signe Bishop, a whip-smart colleague in my professional network. She leads management training, both for new managers and (later) experienced ones to deepen their practice, for a large teaching hospital. She sparked me to return to an idea I’ve been marinating for a while.

We agreed that it’s fun, rewarding and often easy to manage engaged, curious, creative employees.

The challenge is to get managers to do the hard work of reaching out to employees who have lost (or never had) that zeal. When our colleagues and those we are meant to manage seem adrift in the flotsam of daily routine and a less-than-inspired workplace culture, we owe it to them—and to ourselves—to reach out with specific tactics to change things.

Our workplaces are only as good as our culture, and a lackluster culture should be addressed head on, with positivity and passion,* but also with techniques that engage. I have always felt that it is my responsibility to create the kind of place where I want to work wherever I happen to draw a paycheck. (Perhaps that comes from the experience that there never really is The Perfect Job.) It rubs some people wrong, but in the long run I’ve won over more than I’ve lost.

When addressing workplace culture, it is akin to… check that!… It IS a matter of change/learning management. In order to change attitudes and, ultimately, performance, a manager (or concerned coworker) needs to create:

  1. Vision: Habits are tough to break. Attitudes and culture that are vibrant continually renew and grow, while their opposite is built on thoughtless habit. The first effort is to build a vision for work that doesn’t feel habitual, but creative and verdant with opportunity. (This might be the hardest of the four, and may follow from the others organically.)
  2. Plan: What would the person like to do? Where do they see their career going in 1 year? 3 years? 5 years? Sometimes folks are not even aware that we have path to choose. I had the benefit of a great manager years ago who pushed me to think big and specific, and it made a world of difference to me years after we parted (she remains a friend). Help people see that getting their current position is just a step, maybe the first step. Crautonomyeate specific plans to track movement, with knowledge that it will be ever-shifting as you travel.
  3. Skills: This is where managers tend to concentrate first (and sometimes, the only area they focus on). Yes, it’s important to develop skills in the context of performance improvement and professional development. We often ask for skill development without reference to the purpose or larger context (plan and vision). WIIFM remains the heart of any learning activity. Skills, and how a person should learn and apply them, need to be explicit and relevant.
  4. Autonomy: This is the flip side of trust. Grant as much autonomy as you can, and trust that people will find their productive way. (If they don’t, they’re not the kind of people you want.) All the planning and skills in the world will not set folks free to find better practices, innovative ideas and happen on new insights.

* For those of you who know me, this will seem really weird. I’m so not the rah-rah, hug-it-out type.

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