In a video interview with eWeek, Ron Ashkenas from Harvard discusses complexity in information technology and how to cut out IT’s complexity. However, it might be more appropriately said that what he is discussing is eliminating unnecessary complexity in IT. One way that unnecessary complexity develops in IT is when technologists intentionally make things more complicated, often in an effort to ensure job security. While this approach may have worked 20 years ago, today people just want things to work and don’t really care (and shouldn’t have to) how things work so making things more complicated can actually backfire.
In his interview, Ashkenas identified four major areas where CIOs should be attentive to unnecessary complexity:
- structural complexity – complexity occurs at a structural level when IT is distributed throughout the organization; CIOs should be cognizant of this and guard against duplication and redundancy that has no true business purpose,
- product complexity – over time, organizations develop a large portfolio of IT products and services; CIOs need to ensure that there are processes and procedures for periodically evaluating the value and effectiveness of all products and services and phasing out those that are not valued or effective,
- process complexity – in a complex organization, processes may develop organically and in an uncontrolled manner; CIOs should ensure that there are methods in place for managing IT processes and ensuring these processes have useful outcomes that serve business purposes, and
- managerial complexity – unclear or redundant directives result in unnecessary complexity as people aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing; CIOs need to ensure that directions and outcomes are articulated clearly and effectively.
Finally, rather than move into “survival mode,” IT organizations should be proactive in working with the organization to improve processes and services. While budgets may be tight now, greater efficiencies and cost savings are best accomplished through reevaluation and improvement rather than simple cost cutting.
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This short article from NetworkWorld reports on a new study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology which indicates the women are more likely to be discriminated against in the technology sector because of the “hero mindset” to save failing projects. This mindset is the factor in creating the discriminatory environment because it works against employees with family responsibilities. According to the report, these family responsibilities tend to still be overwhelmingly borne by females.
Some interesting facts from the study:
- Men and women tend to value the same success factors which include, among other things, being: analytical, questioning, risk-taking, collaborative, and being sociable.
- Senior-level women in IT are much more likely to have a partner who has primary responsibility for the household when compared to women in entry or mid-level positions – 23.5% compared to 13.4%.
- Senior-level technical women are more likely than men to forego a partner and children to advance their careers.
Unfortunately, the study does not come up with any immediately actionable ways of correcting these problems. The two major suggestions from the study include:
- Interviewing all female applicants for a position because there is evidence women are eliminated from candidate pools during resume reviews in greater proportion than men are, and
- Developing a software tool that would detect bias in documents, such as performance evaluation and letters of recommendation.
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Rita McGrath recently wrote on her blog about squandering intelligent failures. Oftentimes, leaders will pretend that mistakes made within an organization are intentional (which doesn’t really fool anyone anyway) or try to hide the fact that a failure occurred. Both of these approaches are unwise and result in a “squandered failure” because they prevent people from learning from the failure. Leaders who operate from traditional mindsets failures have been ingrained with the mindset that failures must be avoided. As McGrath notes, quality techniques such as Six Sigma are predicated on a belief that all variations (i.e., failures) must be eliminated if there is to be quality in the product or service. While this is a noble goal, it also inherently assumes that the manager/leader must always be right whcih leaves no room for mistakes.
The problem with this is that research has demonstrated that organizations learn more from failures than they do from their successes. However, not all failures are necessarily useful to an organization. McGrath reminds us that intelligent failures are:
- Carefully planned, so that when things go wrong you know why
- Genuinely uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
- Modest in scale, so that a catastrophe does not result
- Managed quickly, so that not too much time elapses between outcome and interpretation
- Familiar enough so that what is learned can inform other parts of the business
Perhaps the most important point in all of this is that organizations should treat uncertain decisions as experiments and accept that failing intelligently can lead to quicker and deeper organizational learning.
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Roberto Verganti recently posted an article on the unsustainability of user-centered innovation. For the past several years, many people have been proponents of fostering innovation by focusing on user needs and trying to better understand what they need to do. A lot of this work has involved intensive analysis of user behavior in their native environment. Verganti’s position is that this approach has led us to a place that is unsustainable because our current environment is unsustainable. Although other authors might not make the argument in this manner, Verganti’s point intersects with much of what we know about true innovation. Verganti uses the example of the Toyota Prius and how it was not created as a result of user-centered innovation. At that point, user-centered analysis would have indicated that gas guzzling SUVs were the wave of the future. The Prius, like many other innovations such as Post-it Notes and microwave ovens were never asked for and would never have been developed as a result of what user’s conceptions of what they needed were. The only way to move forward with sustainable innovation is to distance ourselves from current needs and envision new scenarios. As Verganti says “only leaders and designers who are driven by a vision and who explicitly search a priori for those sustainable behaviors can tune out the unsustainable needs of 99% of users and focus on the few exceptions.” Whether the answer is design-driven innovation or not, it is clear that we need to think about problems in new and creative ways and not continue to use the same paradigms that lead to stagnation.
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Recently, Drake Bennett wrote in the Boston Globe about cognitive fluency which is a measure used in psychology of how easy it is to think about something. Not surprisingly, people don’t like to think about things that are hard. Cognitive fluency is a shortcut that helps us ration our attention and focus on the things that are truly worth thinking about. In light of other things we know from sociology and psychology this isn’t really that surprising but what is interesting in fluency research is how pervasive the effect of thinking about easy things is. For example, psychologists have found that companies with easy-to-pronounce names outperform those with more difficult names. Other studies have shown that changing statements so that they are easier to process mentally can significantly influence a person in a way that makes them more likely to believe the statement is truthful. Similarly, simpler statements can get subjects in a research setting to be more candid than they might be otherwise.
Interestingly, presenting ideas in a more complex manner can get people to think through an idea more deeply. This approach, known as disfluency, can also help people catch mistakes or consider a concept to be more innovative. This appraoch works works because it causes cognitive conflict, which triggers a response to think more deeply about the matter.
Clear, simple messages that are repeated frequently are used by people to convince others of the validity of ideas. This approach is also emphasized in management training as a way to help a group focus on issues. However, we’re learning from fluency research that this approach may not be the correct response in all cases. Increasingly, it appears that making a question or issue slightly more difficult to comprehend may be the real way to get people focused on the question or issue.
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In a recent article from the Deloitte Review, Ted De Zabala explores the issues related to data and intellectual property. While the perspective of the for-profit world is different from that of higher ed, many of the issues related to data retention and intellectual property are not all that different in higher ed.
Many organizations try to safeguard their intellectual property with extensive security and protective measures. These efforts are typically ineffectual and sometimes counterproductive according to research performed by Deloitte Professional Services. As De Zabala says, “the boundaries between company and non-company have blurred…data and information can no longer be readily protected like the gold in Fort Knox, with security measures around the perimeter and the valuables tucked safely inside.”
Part of the issue is that many organizations fail to distinguish between crucial data and information that is essentially useless in the long-term. Accordingly, in order to move forward in manageable way, an organization has to determine what data has value, what data must truly be protected and what data can be discarded at the appropriate time. Particularly in libraries, we have a problem dealing with this last point.
De Zabala suggests some things we must consider to deal with the issues related to data and intellectual property:
- Security and privacy are not technology problems and not the domain of IT alone; the entire organization must be engaged in the day-to-day supervision, administration, and curation of an organization’s data;
- Organizations need to understand the depth and scope of the data and intellectual property they have; what value both of these bring to the organization and how they deliver that value;
- Recognize that many security issues arise from inadvertant and careless behavior rather than intentional intent;
- Rules to address regularatory or legal requirements must taking into consideration the operational needs of the organization;
- Using a risk-based approach to data governanace, rather than a purely compliance-drive approach, will help focus efforts on the areas of greatest need and can prevent policy from becoming divorced from practice;
- Data shouldn’t be retained “just in case” and data should be disposed of regularly in compliance with any legal or regulatory requirements that apply (of course); and finally
- Rethink the value of data that is collected both to minimize liability from hoarding irrelevent data as well as avoiding the mistake of underexploiting data that has significant value.
The final point of this article, however, may be the most important: successful organizations find that they attain greater profitability and market share (in the case of higher education, perhaps notariety and institutional reputation are better measures) by making their intellectual property more available, witness MIT’s OpencourseWare. I think that most of us in higher ed information organizations understand that; it our job to convince the rest of our organizations as well and divorce that conversation from the issues related to “business” data retention.
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One of the keys to innovative practice is finding out information. The main way we obtain infomration is by asking questions. However, there are some types of questions and ways of asking questions that are better for helping foster innovating thinking than others. In this article on the innovation tools web site, Jeffrey Baumgartner gives us some additional background on why some inquiry approaches are better than others. For those who want to “cut to the chase,” keep the following points in mind as you attempt to foster creativity:
- Open questions are best if you want to get real information;
- Focus on posing questions so that responses are positioned in positive or constructive ways, rather than talking about negatives;
- Ask questions that seek further knowledge rather than questions that will allow you to demonstrate what you know;
- Don’t ask questions that intimidate;
- Asking provocative questions can stimulate deeper thinking about issues; and
- Phrase questions so that they pose an innovation challenge, such as “how could we…?”
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After a long break, I’m back with new posts now that I’ve settled into my position here at Purdue University Calumet.
A major assumption in organizations today is that candor and transparency are inherently good things but there may be cases where this isn’t necessarily the best way to approach issues. In this discussion hosted at the Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” site, it becomes evident that candor and transparency may not be appropriate in all situations at all times. In fact, the effectiveness of candor and transparency are dependent on the organizational context in which they are used.
One of the issues to consider is whether the environment is inherently one of trust or distrust. Thankfully, I word in an environment where most people trust in each other. However, in a distrustful environment, candor and transparency are quite likely to be ineffective since the environment itself is not one that would foster either attribute. Consequently, people who try to be candid and transparent simply aren’t believed. Additionally, another important consideration related to candor is that while honesty is important, it can’t be used as a blanket validation for incessantly negative information or feedback. Leaders must strive for a balance between positive and negative.
The entire discussion is quite long with a number (119) comments submitted. It would be well worth the time of any leader to take a quick look at the discussion to learn more about the effectiveness of candor and transparency in their organization.
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