by Donald Farmer, TreeHive Strategy
Many companies I meet with, whether in the
technology space or not, talk about being data-driven: they either want to be
or think they already are. It’s a vague sentiment, but they primarily mean that
their processes should be informed by data and that the analysis of that data
is a critical component in their decision making.. What I hear less often is an
organization claiming to be driven by culture.
I suspect in the technology world in
particular, and in commerce in general, data is seen as a clear, objective,
verifiable, ground on which to build processes, while culture still has a sense
of being warm and fuzzy … with an emphasis on the fuzzy.
Whom do you trust?
Yet a few years ago my friend Scott Davis
put it very well when he observed that People
don’t trust data: they trust other people.
What Scott means is that when you read a
report, browse a dashboard or analyze a model, you may think you’re relying on
the underlying data, but ultimately your trust is in the people who collected,
prepared and delivered the report, the dashboard, the analysis or the raw
material for your own observations.
When we talk about data being the lifeblood
of our business, or the new oil, or some other lazy cliché, we overlook this.
Even the most automated business is the business of human relations.
It is in this vein, that Alan Weber, the
founder of Fast Company magazine, said back in the 90s that in the new economy, conversations are the
most important form of work.
He didn’t mean just hanging round the
water-cooler chatting. He was describing an information economy in which all
companies can, or do, have access to detailed data about their market
environment, their supply chains, their partner networks and customer behavior.
What makes the difference? What you do with that data- those conversations you
have about interpretation, meaning and action.
A framework of conversations
As we think of those conversations it can
be useful to have a framework to navigate the many different patterns of
communication that arise within any organization. In their excellent book, The
Leader’s Voice (which I highly recommend for any manager, or for that matter
anyone being managed) Boyd Clarke and Ron Crossland set out a quadrant of communications that forms a
very effective framework. They describe communications as being public or
private and indirect or direct. A team meeting, for example, is public and
direct, but a group email (or chat session ) for the same team is public and
indirect. Similarly a one-on-one meeting with a team member would be private
and direct but an email or direct chat session would be private and indirect.
I like this framework, but I tweak it a
little, thinking of communications as being either synchronous or asynchronous
rather than direct or indirect. For me the critical element is whether
feedback, reactions and interactions are immediate and happening more or less
in real time, or whether the communication is wholly or partly offline and
time-delayed. What matters is the ability to adjust your message as you are communicating, listening to
feedback, responding and shifting tone to the reactions that you provoke,
clarifying as you do so, and to do that in a very human way.
It would be a mistake to think that there’s
one pattern of behavior that is clearly best, or one optimal channel of
communication for any particular situation. On the other hand, it is all too
easy to know when it’s going wrong. As the Scottish artist George Wiley said, You don’t need to know how a thing works, to
know that it’s not working.
Analyzing what works
What’s really important is to understand,
and indeed to analyze, your channels of communications, using each of them with
enough variety and purpose to ensure engagement and a meaningful sense of
organizational culture that is open, articulate, and thoughtful.
So, when we think about our corporate
culture and how we can improve it, or change it, the first thing we need to do
is understand how that culture is mediated and how it emerges from our
interactions. In other words we need to analyze our culture, just as we apply
analytics to other aspects of our business.
Microsoft has introduced a new application,
Workplace Analytics, which helps us to do just that. It uses data from Office
365 to build up a picture of collaboration and communication patterns within
your team. The data is pseudonimyzed and aggregated to preserve the privacy of
individuals, and it is only the fact of a conversation or interaction that is
reported, not the content.
This cultural analysis can be correlated
with other business analytics. In other words, you can see which organizations
are working well – or not – by their business results and cross-reference that
to their collaboration style.
These analyses won’t solve your cultural
problems, but they do give you an essential tool address weaknesses in your
organizational patterns of communication. It’s quite a unique approach and one
which I think will be very valuable for any team.