I prefer conversation, but you need process

I think I’ve just caught myself out in a “one rule for me, another for you” attitude over something… A conversation across several blogs made me realise that I was facing both ways on an issue and hadn’t acknowledged it – oh the power of the internet!

Earl Mardle posted about Information Architecture as Scaffold based on a conversation with Ton (More on Ton’s position here). The gist of the view expressed by Earl and Ton is that all this “knowledge” that companies are seeking to “manage” is really only accessible through relationships, and once the relationship is established then the information that was part of the initial exchange is no longer relevant:

And that, my friends is what information does; it provides the scaffold that bridges the gap between people. A bridge that we call a conversation. And once you have built the bridge, you can take away the scaffold and it doesn’t make any difference, the conversation can continue because it no longer has any need for the information on which it was built, it has its own information; a history of itself, on which to draw and whenever the relationship is invoked, it uses any old bits of information lying around to propagate itself.

Earl then expands his view that in the real world of work, when you need to create some kind of output, you do it based on your own knowledge and the knowledge of your team, rather than through re-purposing some previous piece of corporate “knowledge”.

Several of us joined in the conversation in support of the view – in particular I made the point that the key thing that stands in the way of re-using the typical corporate knowledge artifacts (i.e. documents) is the lack of contextual information about why they were created in the way they were. A good provider of context would be a record of the conversations that happened around the document creation (e.g. through blogs and wikis) but that is still too difficult to add on if it requires people to learn new tools.

As a good counter to all this virulent agreement, Taka disagrees strongly with the concept of information as scaffolding around conversations – in his view the information is the conversation, the scaffolding is the network of relationships that enable the conversation. That’s probably a difference of opinion over the meaning of words, where it gets interesting is what Taka goes on to say:

This is what I call the McDonalds question: how do you get low-skilled, inexperienced trainees to consistently produce hamburgers and fries to an acceptable level of quality? Process. And it’s the same thing in a corporate environment: how do you get people, who generally don’t really give a toss about what they’re doing, to write proposals and reports and all the other guff to an acceptable level? Document templates and guidelines.

Coporate KM and other such initiatives are our typically short-sighted attempt to find technical solutions to what is actually a people problem. There are plenty of people selling solutions and processes and methodologies to “fix” the information management issues that exist within companies because it’s an easier problem to tackle than the real underlying issue: how do you get people to actually give a damn about what they’re doing?

Which Earl extends and restates;

Underlying what I was talking about in the other post is to make explicit that very fact; organisations that think of their people as fungible will be lead inexorably down the path of document management and “knowledge capture” solutions that will not help them survive, and they don’t deserve to.

The kicker for all this came from Euan Semple the other night who told me about a company rep who asked him, “how do you stop corporate knowledge leaving with the person?”

So, to reiterate a point that might have been a bit buried in the verbiage, organisations with a future do not need KM systems because they have active, engaged people who know what the hell they are doing.

And that is where I did the metaphorical forehead-slap.

Because I’m all for work practices based on conversation and shared context where they involve me or my colleagues – of course we are wonderful knowledge-workers who thrive in such an environment! But, as I realised, when it comes to speaking with suppliers of IT services, or designing how our organisation should inter-operate with their organisations, it’s always about process.

In part that’s about how they work, and when I am in that purchasing role it’s not directly my concern about how they can deliver good consistent service to the company I am representing, rather a matter of being sure what they deliver, but I’m sure we throw out quite a lot of baby with that bath water. We struggle to find ways of getting the sort of human, responsive service we want at a price we are prepared to pay.

So why is this a problem? The clue is in the words I used – “good, consistent service”. The whole world of out-sourced services companies is about consistency. The way services are usually measured –  “x% of faults fixed within y hours” – is about aggregation, statistics, removing variability. The companies who supply these services, in their turn, are looking for ways to meet those contractual arrangements that allow them to make a profit. The major costs in any service are the people who deliver it, so inevitably there is downward pressure on salaries and a drive to make everything a process that can be automated as far as possible.

In that sense, modern out-sourcers truly are the last bastions of Taylorism. Almost as a foregone conclusion, there is low job satisfaction in these bastions of “service”, leading to high turnover of front-line staff, leading in turn to increased management pressure for process and consistency.

I think there are several conflicts at work here:

  • Be consistent v. Delight the customer
  • Maximise productivity by using low-skilled staff v. Maximise productivity by supporting people to use all of their skills and knowledge
  • Protect the service against staff turn-over v. Protect the service by creating an environment where people want to stay and grow
  • Get the lowest cost service from suppliers v. get service that truly helps your business
  • and probably some more…

The simple answer to all of this seems to be “work in small teams” and only use small suppliers, but it’s not clear to me how that scales. When I think about small teams, I can see how a wirearchical approach works when there are several companies involved (in the limit, several individuals), but again, I feel various mental blocks when I think about scaling that. I’m still struggling with these, and other dichotomies, which is probably a good sign that it’s time to draw the CRT! Food for a later post I suspect.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 I prefer conversation, but you need process by Julian Elve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

7 Replies to “I prefer conversation, but you need process”

  1. Bingo ! .. almost, imo.

    Generally, most of hwat you have described re: process and the putting of process into enterprise / CRM software ends up “pouring electrionic concrete” over business process in search of consistency and efficiency .. and “de-humanizes” to some extent the value people and conversations (often seeking to provide better service to people-based customers 😉 bring to the process of continuously meeting and improving response to the endless variability that are customers (especially in the increasingly online environment, where demographics, psychographics and other methods for “targetting” become hindrances as much as enablers).

    I think it’s right that there are structural dissonances .. perhaps interoperable and more flexible web services will eventually resolve or harmonize some of that dissonance ? Hey .. what do I know 😉 ? I’m a born iconoclast.

  2. “pouring electronic concrete” – I like that phrase!

    As the front-line service jobs become more and more de-valued, I suspect we will get to a point where they disappear completely – people with a problem will either have to self-diagnose via some kind of website (lots of that already) or literally talk to a computer. The messy difficult stuff would still get routed to an expert (think Google Answers maybe?)?

    Earl’s set another thread running over here which seems to relate to this…

  3. Hi Julian,

    To me process is ever present, and a pattern of relationships, or from the view point of information or objects a flowpath through relationships. Processes coalesce quickly and naturally around tasks and pieces of information, often allowing for or creating new relationships along the way. (This is where Jyri Engestroms objects of sociality are a great way of seeing things)

    So information and relationships are both needed and both can’t stand by themselves. Relationships are more persistent than singular pieces of info, which is why I could loose my blog archives and still be ok. But relationships whither when information stops flowing through them, disappearing like unused muscles. So if I loose my blog archives it is ok, as long as I keep pumping new info into and striking up new conversations with my relationships. Nobody cares about the pictures I put up in Flickr last year, it’s the ones I post today that get the conversation going (if any).

    Organisational procedures, i.e. processes made explicit, can work two ways: descriptive and prescriptive.

    When it’s descriptive it is a representation of collective experience on how to perform tasks in an easy way, a quick reference for co-workers, and a basis to grow new practices on (descriptive processes often contain references as to why things are organised a certain way, so that conversation is triggered when those why’s are no longer valid.) This is how procedures were originally meant I think in quality assurance systems: living structures that evolve. People follow descriptive procedures not because they must, but because that is what makes the most sense to do, and the procedures are a reflection of how they work. People are the goal here, and the procedures serve to facilitate them.

    Prescriptive procedures, like Taylor’s scientific management, work the other way around. Now the work must reflect the procedure. Such procedures turn into unquestioned (but relentlessly bemoaned)laws quickly, because the rationale behind it is not getting the job done easily for workers, but controlling employee behaviour and make it predictable. People are a means here and serve the output parameters of the procedures. It is not about helping the workers, but a power tool in the hands of management. Often these procedures become their own point of reference and thus cut out context resulting in dehumanization of the people in an organisation.

    Procedures that started out descriptive turn into prescriptive ones quite often, the way I see it, when organisations try to spread new insights on how to do the work better. Instead of showing people what works better, and winning them over for that new way of working, procedures are simply altered and people are told to follow them without questions. The rationale behind that is that it takes more time in the here and now to win people over and make sure they ‘get it’, than it takes to alter a document with prescriptions. But in the long run doing the latter costs you more, first in terms of human creative and relational capital, due to which your quality of service will diminish, which will hurt your bottom line.

    Descriptive procedures reflecting existing processes are like skeletons on which you can grow. It provides structure but doesn’t lock you in.
    Prescriptive procedures are reflecting processes ‘wished for’ by management, that turn into harnesses hemming you in and ultimately becoming an obstacle to your organisation.

    Lots of reorganisations of companies are caused by this in my eyes, as they try to move from one set of prescriptive instructions to another, from one status quo to another. Which brings you up to date at the most but never prepares for unknowns in your future. There change is an incident, although a repetitive incident.
    Using descriptive procedures on the other hand allows for more fluent adaption, viewing change as the only constant.

    I think I better put this up as a blogpost as well 🙂

  4. I think your analysis is correct, and I’d extend it:

    As you say companies adopt a rationale “that it takes more time in the here and now to win people over and make sure they ‘get it’, than it takes to alter a document with prescriptions. But in the long run doing the latter costs you more, first in terms of human creative and relational capital, due to which your quality of service will diminish, which will hurt your bottom line.”

    What you have to add to that equation is that for many service companies the people in a lot of front-line jobs are considered as essentially expendable. For those companies rigid process is the way to get those jobs done at the lowest possible employment costs and be able to still offer the overall “service” regardless of the turnover that causes.

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