Network walking

In Network Thinking I said that as we learn in digital networks, stock (content) loses significance, while flow (conversation) becomes more important – the challenge becomes how to continuously weave the many bits of information and knowledge that pass by us each day. Conversations help us make sense. But we need diversity in our conversations or we become insular. We cannot predict what will emerge from continuous learning, co-creating & sharing at the individual, organizational and market level but we do know it will make for more resilient organizations.

Gina Minks thinks that “This isn’t going to happen till there is a way to measure it, or a way to convince people that we’ve not ever measured anything in a meaningful way. And I’m not just saying that to make Harold freak out.

I’d like to follow up on this as Gina raises a good point. There is an existing managerial culture that says we need to measure things in order to control them. But what happens when most of our work is intangible and the business objective is something not easily measurable, like trust or reputation?

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, champion of continual improvement in manufacturing, way back in 1984 talked about the five deadly diseases of management which unfortunately still ring true today. The fifth deadly disease is a reliance on visible figures only. There is  no consideration of the unknown and unknowable. For example, Deming asks what are the multiplying effects of a happy or unhappy customer. Even in the 1980’s Deming accused the schools of business of merely teaching creative accounting by overly relying on visible figures.

I use an example from my military career when I talk about measurement. Every commander knows how important morale is, even though there is no definitive way one can measure it. We can get indicators and data points, but we have to rely on our understanding of the organization and its environment to have a sense of the current state of morale.

To get more and better information, managers need to be more involved in the actual business. Deming said that managers need to have roots in the company. Another term, coming from the army before it was coined at HP, is the concept of leadership by walking around, AKA MBWA. I learned this concept during leadership training in the mid 1970’s. It works because it ensures that information is not filtered by the bureaucracy.

As Tim Harford wrote in, Adapt: Why success always starts with failure:

There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk.

Today we have the added benefit of technologies that can bypass that thick layer of sweet-talk and (re)enable leadership by walking around – social media:

As a CEO, that’s what I most appreciate about enterprise social software: The way it bridges the gap between what’s personal and what’s business. For example, my company, like virtually all others, has offices all over the world, and visiting them is one of the most important things I do. In the old days, a visit to branch office or an overseas development lab was a blur of new faces and unfamiliar names. But with enterprise social software, everything is different [Tom Kelly CEO of Moxie Software].

Being actively involved in the way work is done and understanding the real issues is what’s necessary to be of service as a manager or even as a workplace performance professional. I  remember working with the head of nursing who was also responsible for performance and training for all nursing staff in a large hospital. I asked to do an on-site performance analysis over several days and as a visitor I had to be accompanied by a member of the hospital staff.

The senior clinician took me around to all floors and let me interview a number of staff. What was surprising to me was that after two years on the job, it was the clinician’s first time on the wards. Just connecting the clinician with the staff saw some immediate results in changing outdated and redundant procedures. I had achieved some organizational performance improvement before I had even completed my analysis!

Getting  managers out of their offices is a low-tech method that can reap major business benefits. Incorporating this mindset into the use of social media then becomes a business accelerator, increasing speed of access to knowledge and empowering people to get things done.

One way to convince managers of the importance of network thinking is to force them to connect with their networks by getting out of their offices, physically and virtually. It’s not a question of what keeps managers awake at night, it’s what can we do to make sure they are awake to their networks during the day. Go for a walk.

Image by Stefan Eggert

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3 Responses to “Network walking”

  1. Jon Husband

    Heh .. I remember using the term “managing by blogging around” at the 2003 CIO Summit in Toronto. People thought it was cute at the time, but didn’t take it seriously.

    In one more year that will have been 10 years ago. The issue(s) haven’t and aren’t going away ;-)