Social Networks Research Paper

Introduction: How Groups Communicate

While the fundamentals of group communication remain largely intact, the means by which a group is able to form, interact and coalesce around tasks and common interests has been indelibly altered by technology. David W. Johnson’s definition of group communication, provided in the text of Joining Together, still applies: “a message sent by a group member to one or more receivers with the conscious intent of affecting the receivers’ behavior (2006).” How this exchange takes place is the focus of this paper, with a particular emphasis on how the Internet is continually challenging the definition of a group while creating new ways to form and maintain groups through self-governance.

Joining Together provides a number of factors that impact the effectiveness of group communication, including: group climate, norms, physical setting, seating arrangements, and humor (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). It is within these influences that the blurring of affect becomes apparent when comparing traditional groups to those that exist in a virtual form. While group climate and norms are ever-present with all groups, and are likely the defining characteristics of what makes a group a group, the use of technology requires a re-evaluation of the other influences. Typically, the physical setting is simply removed from the equation altogether, or it is recreated in a virtual reality setting that mimics an in-person interactive environment. Humor may not be as important when the virtual group is focused on a specific task or common interest and the group’s membership spans multiple geographies where the nuance of humor may not transcend the various cultures.

As social creatures, or social animals (de Spinoza) we will always have a need for groups. Acknowledged long before the invention of the Internet, it is clear that humans “are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury (de Spinoza, 2006 based on original work in 1677).”

This need for connectedness and the innate sense of human beings working together toward common goals or in the exploration of common interests is as relevant in the virtual world as it is in the physical world. Technological innovation has simply provided new tools, new methods and new contexts within which to facilitate these interactions and to forge these groups. What remains to be seen is whether the “rules” by which group members communicate and interact are still applicable, or if these need to evolve as well.

How Technology is Changing Groups and Communication

To fully appreciate the impact of the most recent technological revolution and its impact on how humans interact, relate to the world, and form groups, it is instructive to look back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press forever changed how people were able to communicate across geographies and cultures.

A thought leader on modern communication technology and media, Howard Rheingold, made this comparison in a 2005 Technology Education Design (TED) Conference presentation entitled Way-New Collaboration. He explained that the ways in which human beings organize socially has been co-evolving for millennia, tracing back to the days when hunters of the great beasts of the time would exchange their surplus food for things of value, thus forming communities of trade and interdependence. Forming groups for survival is an innate behavior, but forming groups around an intellectual commons traces its roots to the period immediately following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, which enabled “new forms of collective action … in the spheres of knowledge, religion and politics (Rheingold, 2005).”

Just as the printing press had a transformational impact on society in its day, the Internet is making a similar impact today. Rheingold describes a number of characteristics of the new technology that make it conducive to group formation and communication, including: ease of use, openness, self-instructing, enabling connections and intentionally group forming (2005). With the introduction of email, it was possible to bypass hierarchical and traditional structures to communicate directly with people who were previously unreachable, and this has only been intensified by web logs (blogs) and “wikis” that allow anyone in the world with access to a computer and an Internet connection to publish to a worldwide audience.

And that world seems to be getting smaller with each technological advance. If the printing press made it possible for one person’s thoughts to be accessible to many others around the world, the Internet has only accelerated this effect and decreased the barriers to entry that once existed. Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment (1967) ultimately became the basis for the subsequent “six degrees of separation” theory, and the later book Six Degrees, in which the author demonstrates that even on a planet populated by billions of people living in hundreds of nations and within thousands of cultures and subcultures, we are all frequently closer than we realize to others. (Watts, 2003)

“This is not really the small-world phenomenon – it’s more like a small-group phenomenon,” posits Watts in Six Degrees (2003, pg. 41). What this research pointed out for Watts, and others, was the way people would be able to use this relative proximity to get messages to others whom they could not previously connect with, and to create groups based on common interests or common goals where such a group could not have existed in the past because of the lack of a means to connect and hold such a group together.

While it was not clear at the time, Milgram’s research and the subsequent exploration of the “six degrees of separation” helped to create the framework for today’s Internet-based social networks. If one person has, conservatively speaking, five friends and five close acquaintances, and each of these friends has a similar set of friends and acquaintances, this quickly becomes a social network which, at only the second degree, consists of 60 people. (See Figure 1)

The business social networking tool LinkedIn is based on this construct, in which any member is able to assemble their own first level of contacts, friends and associates and then visualize through this first degree a second and third level of contacts. To help make these contacts more meaningful, LinkedIn introduced professional and common-interest groups which members could join, leading to a clustering effect that helped to align the interests of the LinkedIn members and create new linking possibilities based on common backgrounds or interests.

Figure 1: A branching network to demonstrate degrees of separation.

Scholar and author Dr. Clay Shirky offers a perspective that helps to explain the evolution of how groups communicate, while acknowledging that the change from a structured group environment to one that is virtual in nature has inherent risks:

“How do groups get anything done? How do you organize a group of individuals so that the output of the group is something coherent and of lasting value, instead of just being chaos (Shirky, 2005)?”

It was with this question that Dr. Shirky opened his TEDGlobal presentation at Oxford University and described the principle change from the old model of groups to the new and emerging model. The old model required a structure typically spearheaded by an institution, and the old model was burdened by high coordination costs to create a system of governance, to create parameters for group membership, and to coordinate and curate the efforts of a select membership in the support of the institution’s stated goals. The new model, which allows groups to form spontaneously around a common set of goals or interests, is made possible by the Internet and has a built-in cooperative infrastructure (Shirky, 2005).

In The Real Life Social Network, Google researcher Paul Adams outlined the evolution of the Internet in very simple terms: it was originally created as a way to link documents together using hypertext language, and in that form the Internet was static. This is sometimes referred to as Web 1.0, or the first iteration of the Internet. Over time, the Internet “evolved” to facilitate interactive content and media, and in its present state the Internet is becoming more social, “a web built around people.” This social web is commonly called Web 2.0, differentiated from Web 1.0 because of the dynamic environment that not only enables connections but also actively builds an identity across multiple sites for participants. According to Adams, “people are spending much more time interacting with other people, and much less time consuming content from websites. This shift is not about any one particular social network; it’s about people connecting to each other online. (2010).”

In a study commissioned by Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), the concept of the “mobile community” is defined as “an extension of physical community merged with online community (Rhee & Lee, 2009).” The authors identified four quadrants in which mobile communities are emerging: work, relations, services, and entertainment. (See Figure 2) Each quadrant is further defined by a driving purpose, such as efficiency of work between coworkers in an organization driven by financial goals, or sharing of common interests fulfilled by entertainment. Some of these communities are highly structured, particularly those in the work environment, while others are dynamic and often characterized by a continual state of flux.

Figure 2: Virtual (mobile) communities by purpose and composition.

The main point of the Samsung study was to evaluate the potential of mobile phones and devices in the commercial market corresponding to the increased demand for connectivity and belonging. With ubiquitous access to the Internet, not only from a fixed location such as a computer but also from mobile devices, the notion of “community” has also evolved or morphed from a sense of place or locale to “groups organized around common values and common interests (Rhee & Lee, 2009).” Even the concept of a telephone has changed dramatically in the last decade, from a tool that supported dyadic, one-to-one communications to a device that supports many-to-many interactions with rich layers of media, location and information that round out the dimensions of virtual communication, taking the place of the physical settings of the more traditional communications of the last century.

Analyzing Group Communication in a Virtual Context

Joining Together outlines three ways that group communications can be analyzed: interaction among members, the communication network in the group, and the nature of one-way and two-way communications within authority hierarchies. (Johnson & Johnson, 2009)  It is still possible to analyze the effectiveness of group communication and the quality and patterns of interaction in a virtual context, but the methods must evolve to keep up with the technology and stay relevant to a revised schema of group interaction.

In a recent presentation at Rollins College, Dr. Clay Shirky explained how groups have changed from what was once a “center to edge” structure where they were held together by either institutional structure or culture. Groups today, particularly those that interact virtually, are dynamic and the members are able to interact with no rigid structure, protocol or convening authority (2010).

For starters, it is instructive to look at the ostensive and performative models of organizational process, initially described by Feldman & Pentland in 2003 and further elaborated upon in a Boeing research study entitled Models of Collaboration as the Foundation for Collaboration Technologies. The ostensive aspect of the model is a description of intent; how is the collaboration intended to work. The performative aspect provides the real-world application of the theory, accounting for the human element that will inevitably create variation in the intended process (Poltrock & Handel, 2010).

“Collaboration would be easy if everyone could work independently toward a shared goal without any need for interaction. In reality, collaboration requires managing the dependencies among people, processes, and objects. [There are] three basic types of dependencies – flow, sharing, and fit (Poltrock & Handel, 2010, pg. 104).”

To measure the effectiveness of group communications outside of a homogeneous entity, it would be necessary to isolate the interpersonal aspects of the group communication process and separate them from system issues that could confound the interaction, specifically related to flow, sharing and fit. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools make it possible to identify and record the various interactions of members, and the patterns of communication within the group would ultimately emerge with a detailed analysis and recording of each discrete communication over time. As for the hierarchical communication, this would vary dramatically from group to group, and would depend in part on the purpose of the group and its structure. Increasingly, virtual groups are self-governing and self-directed, so while there may be a group leader in place each member is usually expected to proactively communicate with other members directly.

In the previously cited Samsung study, the authors highlighted the activities of “mobile communities” in the social networking context as follows: sharing, contacting, and collaborating. With virtual groups and communities, the basis for measuring the effectiveness of the group’s communication is largely based on the cumulative work that is visible to the members, content-driven to a large extent.

Increasingly, the ostensive component of a group’s interaction process and the purpose for the group itself begins as a vague concept, such as the creation of Wikipedia or the development of the Linux operating system platform. A virtual group’s true value and sustainability are driven more by the performative aspects of their aggregate efforts and the self-governance by which they remain focused on their core goals to the exclusion of other distractions or tangents. And the communication between the group members frequently is the work product itself, a cumulative effort where one group member builds upon the work of another to shape the visible evidence of the group’s purpose, expertise and efficacy.

 

Conclusion

Google researcher Paul Adams pointed out that “social networks are not new (2010),” and he reinforced the point that humans have drawn on their social networks for centuries as a means of survival and as a basis for progress in what we commonly call civilization. “The emergence of the social web is simply our online world catching up with our offline world. As technology changes the tools we use to communicate, we still use the same behavior patterns that we evolved over those thousands of years (Adams, 2010).” Social networks are simply a reflection of how humans interact naturally, enhanced by technology but ultimately supporting a pattern of human group behaviors that dates back 10,000 years.

As people try to grasp both the purpose and the potential of social networking on the Internet, in many cases the aesthetic of one site such as Facebook may appear to have an advantage over a community building site such as Ning. Over time, the online social networks will emphasize function over form, increasingly creating the means for people to connect across physical, cultural and geographical boundaries with others who share common interests and common goals.

Individually, we are likely to identify with many groups in the context of social networking, and with a site like Facebook the entire base of friends is oversimplified as a single group. In reality, we see ourselves as members of six or more groups formed around life stages (Adams, 2010). These groups may include our families; our work colleagues; social friends and acquaintances; childhood and long-time friends; groups we belong to by virtue of proximity; and groups we belong to by choice because of our goals and interests. It is up to us to actively manage these myriad relationships, make sense of our roles and contributions within each of these groups and determine the methods by which we can best engage with each.

Going back to the factors that impact group communications and the effectiveness of a group’s interactions, in place of the physical settings and seating arrangements of a traditional face-to-face group meeting, the most important element of a virtual group’s effectiveness is the aggregate contribution of its members to a unifying set of interests and/or goals. The communications between members not only affect the behaviors of the other members but also constitute the visible proof of the group’s purpose, existence and net contributions toward the goals and interests.

In other words, groups that take advantage of technology to form and interact can thrive even without an elaborate, ostensive and process-oriented system, provided that the members of the group share a common purpose, a common understanding of what they seek to achieve by virtue of their group membership, and an active dialogue through available channels of communication in pursuit of the group’s objectives. In this case, the performative aspects of the group’s work will be the most tangible and relevant.

References

Adams, P. (2010). The real life social network [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2

de Spinoza, B. (2006). The ethics. Middlesex, UK: The Echo Library. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?isbn=1406806838

Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2009). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Poltrock, S. & Handel, M. (2010). Models of collaboration as the foundation for collaboration technologies. Journal of Management Information Systems, 27(1), 97-122.

Rhee, Y. & Lee, J. (2009). A model of mobile community: Designing user interfaces to support group interaction. Samsung Electronics SAIT CS Lab. Retrieved from http://www.dubberly.com/…/a-model-of-mobile-community.html

Rheingold, H. (2005). Way-new collaboration. [Technology Education Design (TED) Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/howard_rheingold_on_ collaboration.html

Shirky, C. (2005). Institutions vs. collaboration. [Technology Education Design (TED) Video], Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/clay_shirky_on_institutions_versus_ collaboration.html

Shirky, C. (2010, November). Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Presentation at Rollins College Founders’ Day, Winter Park, FL.

Watts, D. (2003). Six degrees: The science of a connected age. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

 

Social Networks: How Technology is Transforming Groups and Communication

Stephen Urquhart

Webster University

HRDV 5560 Group Development & Change

Dr. Barbara Seifert

November 15, 2010

Advertisements

Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)

The Premise of ROWE

Introduced within the “big box” electronics retail giant Best Buy, the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) concept was built around a fairly basic premise: “People can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done (Thompson & Ressler, 2008, p. 3).” The initial pilot was developed under the working title “Alternative Work Program” in 2001 as part of a Best Buy corporate effort to become an Employer of Choice. The model followed that of many other companies conducting similar “flex-work” experiments, with the notable exception that the employees themselves were responsible for designing the program based upon their recommendations and preferences for how and when to complete their assigned tasks.

The pilot was ultimately successful and embraced within Best Buy, starting with the pilot of 320 employees, and leading to more than 3,000 Best Buy workers participating in ROWE. Best Buy chief executive officer Brad Anderson has given the program a strong endorsement, stating: “At its heart, ROWE is a chance for everyone to learn a better way to work. It encourages people to contribute rather than just show up and grind out their days. We’ve created a distinctly human culture that … trusts [employees] to do their jobs. ROWE fits in perfectly with those ideals (Thompson & Ressler, 2008).”

The Promise of ROWE

Many companies, particularly in the United States, tend to reward and recognize hours spent at work, referred to as “presenteeism (Thompson & Ressler, 2008).” Working long hours is in some organizations considered a badge of honor, and the authors cite a number of instances where employees who are not making a meaningful contribution to the organization’s bottom line compensate for their incompetence by simply putting in more hours where they are visible to management at their desks. According to the authors, measuring productivity and commitment based on hours spent in the office does foster a workplace that values and rewards this so-called presenteeism, at the expense of real productivity and a genuine focus on individual contribution to the business results.

ROWE seeks to break that pattern by refocusing the way work is done by giving the employees the ability, the support, and most importantly the trust that they need to manage their own schedules and fulfill their commitments on time, in line with all stated expectations, but on their own time.

In the business case created by Thompson and Ressler to introduce ROWE, they emphasize that ROWE is an employee-managed system that is focused on accountability, setting and achieving clear goals, and creating an entrepreneurial environment where employees can take risks, introduce innovative concepts and ultimately stay focused on the needs of the customers, both internal and external.

Real World Examples of ROWE

Best Buy is not the only company that has embarked on this type of work model, and they were not the first or the last to do so. According to a Boston Consulting Group study, 85 percent of business executives are anticipating the increased use of remote working and “unleashed workers (Conlin, 2006).” This already includes companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and in some cases even government offices at the state and federal level. Companies that have embraced ROWE have reported encouraging results.

Thompson and Ressler take pains to differentiate ROWE from many of the other initiatives, stating emphatically that “ROWE is not telecommuting, compressed workweek, reduced hours, flexible schedules or a “time off” program (2008).” They have formed a new company, Culture Rx, to guide organizations through the process of implementing ROWE, and count among their clients such firms as GAP Outlet and the Girl Scouts.

Gap Outlet is a division of apparel retailer Gap, Inc., and the ROWE concept was selected by company president Art Peck as a way to improve work-life balance and retention of employees at the company headquarters. Within one year, the company was able to increase its productivity by 21 percent, while reducing turnover to 5 percent and increasing employee engagement scores from 67 percent in the year prior to adopting ROWE to 86 percent at the end of the pilot phase (Fox, 2009).

What ROWE Means for Organizational Development

There are a number of issues that would need to be considered before a company adopts ROWE, among them labor law and classification; management readiness; corporate culture; and ultimately, the ability of the organization to achieve its goals efficiently and effectively with such a system in place. Transitioning to the ROWE model will require a number of critical organizational development (OD) interventions, including a well thought out change management strategy and an assessment of organizational readiness prior to simply instituting the new approach. At the structural level, the entire performance management system would need to be revamped to enable ROWE, and the areas of organizing tasks, jobs and roles would likely require a complete overhaul to actually correspond to the ROWE notion that employee contributions are evaluated based solely on results. The results themselves would have to be carefully reviewed and redefined.

ROWE initiator and CultureRx co-founder Jody Thompson stated, “The biggest challenge for managers is to let go of that physical presence and time piece, and really get clear about goals and expectations with each person and stepping back and letting that happen.”

In an interesting twist, not only are there many people concerned that ROWE could impair management of the organization or lead to a lack of accountability; there are also some people who see ROWE as the final straw in blurring the lines of where work stops and personal life begins. It has even been described as “Machiavellian” in a BusinessWeek article (Conlin, 2006) that goes into depth about the Best Buy experience.

Done correctly, ROWE has the potential to support an organization’s human capital goals through better retention of talent and optimization of individual contributions. In addition, benefits that were realized at Best Buy and at other CultureRx clients included increases in organizational capacity, improved customer satisfaction ratings, increases in employee engagement and morale, and better leverage of technology tools in support of the business objectives.

ROWE is not without its detractors. Its creators acknowledge that it is not yet effective for use in a retail environment but is better suited for the corporate environment such as a headquarters. Thus far, CultureRx has struggled to find companies willing to embark on such a radical change in their approach to managing people, and the Best Buy example may prove to be more of an anomaly because of Best Buy’s culture and leadership.

Paul Rupert, a consultant to Xerox and Wal-Mart, pointed out the following: “You can ridicule an obsession with face time, but some companies have a strong belief that having people at the same place, in the same time, creates synergy that is valuable to the company (Kiger, 2006).” Rupert also pointed out that the leadership team at Best Buy is much younger than that of more traditional companies, and alluded to the possibility that ROWE is more of a generational phenomenon than a workable management practice.

To their credit, the CultureRx consulting team members have put together a number of compelling metrics and key performance indicators to showcase what they see as the positive effects of ROWE, such as: focus when working, productivity, efficiency, control of time, job satisfaction, health and wellness, and work-life balance.

Whether ROWE ultimately catches on, generational changes in the workforce, coupled with today’s technology and increasingly global business environment, will cause the acceleration of similar work practices that will require OD professionals to completely rethink the organization. There was a time when work was a place that you went, because only the factories and offices could economically house the tools and resources needed to perform the typical jobs of that era. In today’s economy, to paraphrase a quote that is frequently uttered but not well attributed, “Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.” With an increasing emphasis on knowledge work, human and intellectual capital comprise the most valuable assets of today’s corporations, and with mobile computing, smart phones and any number of other technology tools available to the modern workforce, much of the work can literally be done, “wherever, whenever.”

Rather than getting caught by surprise as this trend intensifies and permeates today’s corporations and organizations, OD professionals can and should actively look for ways in which appropriate, manageable and effective balances can be struck between the needs of the business, the capabilities of the workforce, and the technology which brings it all together. The companies that learn how to harness the potential of ROWE and other similar approaches will have access to worldwide talent and capabilities unmatched by the traditional companies of today. And if people are truly the greatest asset any corporation has, the companies that master the talent supply chain will dominate their respective industries.

References

Conlin, M. (2006, December 11). Smashing the Clock. BusinessWeek.

Fox, A. (2009, September 8). Gap Outlet: Second Retailer Adopts Results-Only Work Environment Strategy. HR Magazine.

Kiger, P. (2006, September 25). ROWE’s Adaptability Questioned. Workforce Management.

Thompson, J. & Ressler, C. (2008). Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. New York: Penguin.

 

Results Only Work Environment (ROWE): What It Could Mean for the Workplace of the Future

Stephen Urquhart

Webster University

Metro Orlando (North Campus)

HRDV 5630 Organizational Development & Change

Dr. Edwin Mouriño

October 7, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 5)

Typical sources of conflict within an organization come down to three driving forces or constraints: competing objectives or dissenting views; scarcity of resources; and interference or challenges to primacy. For example, when an organization is decentralized and the top management of the different business units is used to operating with relative autonomy and without interdependence on other business units or divisions within the organization, fiefdoms and siloes emerge that pit one group’s objectives against another in what is frequently perceived as a zero sum game. When resources are in the balance, such as money and talent, if one division gets what they want it often comes at the expense of another division, creating rivalries and setting the stage for future conflicts.

In class, we had the ability to experience a similar resource conflict first-hand with an EMOB negotiation exercise entitled, “The Ugli Orange.” Fortunately, because of an earlier exercise that ended in abject failure, both teams had learned enough to ask the right questions, understand what the competing objectives were and ultimately we found a way where both parties could achieve their respective goals without compromising the goals of the other.

Another form of conflict resolution that we observed in class was in the form of the video: Workplace Violence: First Line of Defense. The key takeaway from this video is the need on the part of management to address issues as they begin to escalate, such as an employee who increasingly appears disenfranchised and disgruntled and begins to hint at exacting revenge through violent means. Managers need to manage these situations by confronting the person and addressing the unacceptable behaviors and statements before that person reaches a breaking point and makes good on threats that many did not take seriously. Unfortunately, many managers take the “path of least resistance” and try to placate or ignore the offending party, allowing the situation to escalate to the point where it is no longer manageable.

A very helpful and illuminating EMOB exercise turned out to be the Managing Role Conflict self-assessment tool, in which I realized that where I was scoring highest, in planning and organizing and trying to fulfill all of the demands, I was actually compensating for glaring weaknesses in other areas where I need to focus more on managing the expectations up front and saying no. That was an eye opener, and I am trying to apply what I have learned here.

Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 4)

On the first evening of class, we dove right into the perilous waters of decision making with the EMOB exercise: “Group Ranking Task: Alaskan Adventure.” With six people in our group, we struggled to get to a consensus on which items would be most valuable to hold on to in a survival situation in the Arctic Circle. It was only at the point where we were running out of time to have our group’s work completed that we pushed through the decision making processes to reach a group position. And ultimately, the group position was not strong in its own right nor in the sense that the group’s results are usually better than those of the individuals in the group. To me, the entire exercise felt like the Road to Abilene and was a wake-up call for what was to come in this course.

We learned first-hand about the disadvantages of group problem solving and decision making, among them the time required to get to a consensus, the diffused sense of ownership and responsibility, some riskier decisions being made than what a prudent individual might have proffered on their own, and premature closure of the debate in a rush to reach the conclusion. We also observed a few of the benefits of group decision making, such as the ability to draw on the diversity and experience of the group’s membership, the ability to gain acceptance through connections that each member could take back to the larger organization, and some level of cohesion among the group members.

We also learned that when a very persuasive person is given the ability to commandeer the discussion they can guide the group into a very poor decision and will often stifle dissent or alternative suggestions from other members. In the EMOB “Roles Nomination Form” discussion, we went through the 19 different roles and isolated those which can put a group’s efficacy at risk. For example, a self-oriented leader puts their own goals and objectives ahead of the group’s and can undermine the group’s ability to perform. A blocker does precisely that, taking the group interaction off track. Avoiders, dominators and recognition seekers also bring their baggage to the group.

Once again drawing on the experience of the in-class EMOB exercise, Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company we observed a series of bad decisions that largely stemmed from incompetent management at the top but also from poor judgment and attempts to cover up and conceal mistakes in the procurement process that materially impacted the company’s manufacturing and quality.

In my research paper, Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment, I discovered that group decision making can also be stalled by the dimensions of time and distance, and that where the virtual team was designed to accelerate workflow and keep things moving around the clock, around the world, decision making takes longer due to the lack of proximity and must be considered by management as such teams are chartered, launched and sustained.

Stevenson’s so-called “FUBAR List” (in the Beyond Excellence video) was an interesting and often overlooked resource for helping organizations make better decisions in the future by learning from their bad decisions in the past. Very few organizations preserve their mistakes for posterity, choosing instead to simply forget about them and hope that they do not happen again.

Instead, companies default to a “minimax” or “maximax” approach to evaluating options and managing their exposure to risk. Frequently, the decision is based on gut instinct rather than hard facts, and ultimately falls back to the organization’s tolerance for risk when weighed against possible gains. In the minimax scenario, companies play it safe and make decisions that will minimize their risk and limit their losses. In the maximax scenario, such as with companies like Enron, the goal is to maximize the potential gain and in many cases to sublimate or ignore the inherent risks of the decision.

Such was the case in the EMOB exercise “The Quandry at Puredrug: Group Decision Making and Ethics.” In my role in this exercise, I was a strong proponent of distributing a drug within the Philippines market that was currently banned in the USA. These types of decisions play out every day with global organizations, seeking to maximize their profit opportunity even if there are obvious risks in their strategy. One need not look much further than the near-complete collapse of the US financial system in 2008 to see how these maximax decisions can play out in the worst-case scenario.

Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 3)

None of the theories of motivation that we discussed in the course fully explain why managers play along in the grueling game of chutes and ladders that is the modern-day hierarchy. To be certain, there are aspects of Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory that come into play, in that managers and employees aspiring to be managers see a possibility that if they put in the effort, they will reap the rewards, and in the sense that the rat race behaviors are continually championed and fostered from on high, the organizational rewards are of enough value to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

And there are aspects of Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory which play a part, in that the individual’s internal level of motivation, or intrinsic motivation, is driven largely by the ability to take on challenging assignments and get the appropriate and favorable recognition that comes with such work. Of course, the hygienic factor that includes salary and perquisites also has its place in the motivational formula.

Even Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs only partially explains how a person can stay motivated and tolerate the shenanigans of the ladder climbing ritual. At a certain point, people are either so hungry for the power that comes with the position that they become numb to the effects of the climb, or they are so numb from their experience in the climb that they lose perspective and continue on their quest in auto pilot. Self-actualization may be the professed reason for the continued ascent, but when so many other aspects of personal life are placed in jeopardy, it simply does not make sense.

One area where we saw clear alignment of the effects of motivation on the work itself was in the EMOB exercise “Redesigning Assembly Line Jobs: Hovey and Beard Company.” In this case, employees had been given the opportunity to shape their own work processes, acting essentially as self-directed work teams. They were highly motivated as a result, and felt that their performance was solid. This was further reinforced by bonuses that they were earning that far exceeded the company’s expectations (and budget) and prompted a re-engineering effort to the line which, consequently, demotivated the workforce.

In one of the videos we watched in class, Warren Greshes exhorts the viewer to “see yourself successful.” This visualization can be an effective motivational tool, and many athletes use it to improve their game. He talked about creating a vision, not only for yourself, but for those around you such as employees, clients and others – a great motivational tool.

Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 2)

Alas, it is only in recent years that MBA-minting institutions like Kellogg and Fuqua have made the human side of the business a core focus for management learning, and consequently a management cadre spanning decades has brought with it attitudes and beliefs that can undermine effective organizations and weaken them to the point where they devolve into fiefdoms and siloes competing against one another for primacy, for resources and for control rather than focusing their combined efforts to take on the external competition.

Interspersed throughout the course, we touched on the various bases of power: coercive, reward, referent, expert and legitimate. Coercive power is fear-based, and to build on the Sunbeam example above and many other examples discussed in class, some managers feel that employees should be grateful to have a job and that they have no further rights or voice in how the business is run or in how they are treated. Reward power is tied to a manager’s ability to provide monetary and other inducements to keep their employees motivated, and in the context of coercive power and reward power, it is the classic “carrot and stick” that managers wield in spurring performance and driving certain behaviors within their organization.

In a class discussion, we talked about the notion that career paths are more like a tennis match than a marathon, in that when you lose in a tennis tournament, you are “out,” contrasted with the marathon where as long as you can keep running you are still “in.” This led to a discussion about falling from the “star system” to the “goat pen,” and in some rare instances when the goat simply rides out the waves of temporary adversity they can resume their career path under new leadership. This is far from typical; my observation is that once your brand is tarnished within a company, it is simply a matter of time before you leave on your own or are shown the door.

We touched on Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, in the context of the class and in one of the later videos (Robert Stevenson, Beyond Excellence) that we watched. In the discussion, the concept of a “Level 5 Leader” was introduced, someone who is capable of leading through the paradox of selflessness and a “fanatical” drive for sustainable results. Their ability to lead at this level was seen as an essential factor in separating “Good to Great” companies from the rest, and the vast majority of the Level 5 Leaders that were identified in Collins’ research had actually risen through the ranks of their respective organizations. This only underscores the importance of organizational culture, because a company that lacks the ability to create leaders runs the risk of making external hires that cannot grow or sustain the organization, and may not have the appropriate motivation and leadership style to take the organization to the next level. In the EMOB exercise, “My Best Boss/Leader,” many of the traits that Collins pointed out in Good to Great were also highlighted as desired leadership traits within the class.

Clearly not an example of Level 5 Leadership, our class EMOB exercise, Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company provided a poignant example of managerial incompetence that ultimately led to a series of bad decisions. For the topic of power and politics, it was an example of what can go wrong when nepotism trumps due diligence and friendships at the top of the organization inhibit the necessary tough questions and oversight that are needed for a corporation to stay on its game, so to speak. In this case, the clueless CEO of the company relied, to his detriment, on the sound judgment and good counsel of one of his executives, and as a result the entire company was pushed to the brink.

In an interesting sidebar that tied to The Ropes chapter on “Cooling out” we discussed the compliance effect that is created when career-oriented managers are trying to move up the corporate ladder and consequently must play the game when it comes to taking orders from top management and making things happen without question and without fail. As certain managers reach their plateau and make the conscious decision not to press on in their ascent of the corporate ladder, they also gain a new level of power in their ability to say no without repercussion. This was discussed in the context of mobility, and the ability of “non-mobile” managers to draw on their extensive networks and bases of established personal power to remain relevant, effective, and in many cases revered for the chutzpah of what they are able to say and do in the organization.

In the prologue of The Ropes some concepts are offered as to why hierarchies continue to not only exist but thrive, among them the creation of order and stability, a certain level of predictability, the career ladder and upward mobility effects, and the trappings of success as one climbs higher in the organization. These trappings of success are not only expressed in title and salary, but also in the office furnishings, perquisites, and relative location in the building. For those in power, it is self-reinforcing to maintain and cultivate the hierarchy and to foster a continual desire to reach the next level. If not for the apparent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, few people would make the senseless sacrifices and give up so much of their lives in pursuit of a corporation’s goals and objectives.

Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 1)

As the main focus of this course was organizational behavior, it is appropriate to begin this series of essays with the topic of Organizational Culture. On the first evening of class, we dove into this subject directly by answering the question, “What is organizational culture?” Essentially, organizational culture is comprised of the value system, interactions, and social structure of a given organization. More eloquently put, as outlined in the prologue of The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know (“The Ropes”) organizational culture provides a framework that explains what is going on within the organization as standard operating procedure, and an “interpretive system” that is complete with myths, rituals and symbols that are implicitly or tacitly understood and followed by those who choose to remain a part of that organization. In its simplest terms, organizational culture creates the blueprint for individuals to succeed (or not) and to fit in (or not) within a defined organizational environment.

The acronym P.I.E. (short for performance, image and exposure) provides a useful lens to determine a person’s current stance within the organizational environment, and it can be instructive in helping that person find their way and improve their lot within the organization. For example, it is simply taken for granted that employees who seek to become something more must be strong performers. They need to burnish an image that is consistent with their organization’s culture and with their own aspirations. And they need to ensure that the work they are doing is getting the right level of visibility (or exposure) and that credit is given where it is due. Without a strong showing in each of these three areas, many people are simply lost in the shuffle and are never afforded the opportunity to really shine and excel within an organization. Impression management is so absolutely vital to a person’s success, and yet it is rarely taught, ineffectively modeled, and often times only learned when the damage has been done.

In an exercise we conducted in class from the Experiences in Management and Organizational Behavior (“EMOB”) textbook, entitled “People’s National Bank, University Branch,” we gained first-hand knowledge of the organizational cultures that exist within a broader organization, and the opportunity to role play how a newly appointed manager, Gary Herline, needed to quickly learn the existing culture of his new branch so that he could effectively manage the organization. This ties directly to the premise of this course, as stated in the syllabus: “the basic principles of human behavior that effective managers use when managing individuals and groups in organizations.”

Our team observed significant differences between the corporate environment of People’s National Bank where Herline was on a management fast track and the culture of the University Branch, where the previous manager simply resigned with very little notice, leaving in his wake an organization with high turnover, customer service and business growth challenges, and a general lack of cohesion among the staff. Herline had to get a plan together very quickly, and his blueprint for the plan was largely based on the culture he was inheriting and his ability to turn things around.

In The Ropes, organizational behavior, a key driver and resultant byproduct of culture, is split into two key viewpoints, one being the technical and rational approach, looking at what went wrong and deciding how to do it right via process; and the other, cultural and interpretive, acknowledging that an organization is comprised of people and cannot be treated or programmed like machines. As culture is further dissected, the example of IBM is brought up several times. As pointed out by Geert Hofstede when he studied IBM’s global organizational culture, it is absolutely essential, as an insider or an outsider, to understand the culture you are working with so that you can anticipate how interactions will be managed, how crises may be caused and resolved, and ultimately how to operate effectively within the surroundings, a la “When in Rome …”

Socialization is the critical element for individual adaptation to and navigation of any given organizational culture, in which newcomers learn “proper behavior as well as proper beliefs, attitudes and motives (The Ropes, 11).” It is for this reason that the initial orientation is so critical to the success of new hires, and why companies such as Disney have been able to create such a believable and immersive entertainment experience for their guests by inculcating within their cast members the sense that they are part of something important, and that they need to play their roles without fail, as they learn in Disney’s “Traditions.”

Ultimately, a company is nothing more than its people, and when an organizational culture is toxic or dysfunctional, such as Al Dunlap’s Sunbeam, the company cannot sustain success, financial or otherwise, over the long term. It is for this reason that instruments such as Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard exist, to ensure that managers are thinking about the balanced equation of good fiscal decisions that place a high value on customers, employees and other stakeholders and are oriented to sustainability and long-term perspectives.