Something Invisible is Killing the Animals – What Microbiology can teach us about the health of enterprises

In the middle 1800’s Louis Pasteur and Agostino Bassi proposed the radical idea that something invisible was killing the animals.  Their insights and later developments are known today as germ theory.  Their hypothesis was highly controversial, but their carefully designed experiments gradually gained converts and lifted a shroud that led to numerous breakthroughs.  This work, coupled with advancements in the technology of the microscope, was the foundation of Microbiology.

I propose we are on the verge of a similar breakthrough in the “biology” of enterprises.  Similar to animal cells, information exchange is the smallest component of an action that results in a new outcome.  The interpersonal exchange is the dialog that takes place between a requester and a performer.  Like cells in our bodies, how well these conversations are functioning (i.e. how well they are crafted, nurtured, tracked, and evaluated) has a direct relationship on how well the whole organism-enterprise performs.

By deconstructing, we can readily see that all initiatives are the result of a network of requester-performer conversations.  But there is no technology today, analogous to the microscope, which really enables us to “see” these in-progress conversations.  We know these conversations are going on, but there is no effective means to evaluate their “health” and impact on the enterprise.  In fact, something invisible may be “killing” the enterprise.

New technology, however, is coming.  We are at the beginning of finally being able to “see” these conversations in progress and to begin intervening to strengthen them.

First of all, let’s be clear about what can currently be seen and what is lacking. Today knowledge workers use emails, wiki’s, task management software tools, and shared documents to initiate, track, and review work initiatives and related workflow.  On reflection, however, these tools reveal only fragments of a complete conversation – the skin and bones, as it were.  Moreover, they omit some of the most important parts of the actual dialog between the person who made a request and the intended performer.

The thread of an email comes closest to revealing a complete conversation, but even this is a small fraction of the whole.  Email threads can show who is talking to whom and can provide a glimpse into the content.  On the other hand, emails are not action-oriented, and there is nothing in an email thread that speaks to the “status” or quality of the conversation.  Moreover, each email is an isolated bit of data; there is no technology that enables observation of patterns across emails.

What needs to be seen-understood-evaluated is the quality (“health”) of the dialog.  Dialog assessment quality addresses questions such as:

  • Was the original request clear and understood by the intended performer?
  • Did the performer actually agree to deliver what was requested on the agreed upon date?
  • Is the delivery going to be made on time?  If not, what intervened along the way to force a change in the delivery?
  • Was a final delivery made, and when, and was it actually responsive to the original request?

The above are the critical factors that really matter in terms of performance; this is execution in-progress.  Multiplied a thousand times, the quality of these conversations obviously determines the success of the enterprise.

So now that we understand what we’re looking for, I submit that software technology can play a role similar to the microscope.  There are two main challenges, and software technology offers value for each.

The first challenge is the need to capture a complete conversation that has enough information with which the enterprise-requestor-implementer can assess the quality of the dialog.  Email threads are insufficient; an additional technology is needed that mandates and captures more data and that includes the full closed-loop with a beginning, middle, and end.  Once the conversation has begun, the two parties need to progress along a guided path that eventually leads to some closure and assessment.  All work requests-initiatives do naturally progress and, one way or another, the parties move forward with each other.  Some outcome is achieved.  But, left to their own devices, individuals will not generally follow the discipline needed to capture all the information needed to assess the conversation.  Here is where carefully designed technology can play a role to enforce some discipline into the conversation that captures the data needed for assessment.

The second challenge is the need to expose these complete conversations for viewing.  Once a conversation can be “seen” it can be determined if it was optimal and beneficial to the enterprise-customer.  We will be seeing, for the first time, execution-in-progress. If the whole conversation pattern can be seen, the requester-implementer can intervene to mend, repair, inoculate, or vaccinate the whole body of the enterprise’s performance.  A complete conversation database can be used to display both individual performance parameters and enterprise-wide trends at a granular level previously unavailable.

As in microbiology, many small interactions, nearly invisible, can determine the essential culture and effectiveness of the enterprise.  New technologies are coming that will enable truly transformative observations about enterprise performance that may be as important as microbiology has been to improving human health.

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