Category Archives: HR Systems/Technology

Efficient Collaboration Requires Context and Structured Communication

Efficient collaboration requires context which email does not provide.  As noted by Simon Slade, CEO of AffiloramaSaleHoo and Doubledot Media: “Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they’re ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work.”

The above observation begins to address the need for context, but it misses some other relevant points.  A more complete context would include more information than just the project name.  Due date would obviously be important, but additional contextual cues would include: who is responsible for the next task, who should the task be delivered to, where are we in the process of completing the task (i.e. are we in agreement about what the task entails, is the work in progress, has the task been delivered, has the task been accepted as complete), and who’s got the ball for the next action (i.e., am I getting back to someone else next, or am I waiting for someone else)?  Most project management systems do not include all these contextual parameters.

William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu observes: “Email sucks because it’s too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don’t get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels.”

The above statement recognizes several shortcomings of email as a collaboration tool.  Emails arrive haphazardly making them easy to miss.  Remembering to follow up is difficult.  Emails do not provide any structure to the work conversations.  Direct (i.e. immediate) communication via phone or instant messaging attempts to resolve issues with no hiding.  This instantaneous resolution of issues is obviously desirable, but rarely happens in practice as messages cannot always be responded to immediately.

So, combining the above observations about the need for context and structure, the ideal project management tool would have the following features:

—  Incoming updates would be structured, and they would provide context showing task, due date, where do we stand, and who’s got the ball.

—  Follow up would be immediately obvious in terms of who has responded and when, and who’s got the ball for the next action.

—  Asynchronous inputs could be captured in addition to direct (i.e. immediate) communication.

—  The entire task-related conversation would be captured in a thread tied to the task, not the person.

—  An archive of complete task-based conversations would be available for reference and review.

—  The system would be as quick and easy to use as email (i.e. no need for everyone on the team to learn a complex project management system).

If you would be interested in a project management solution that really supports full context and structured communication, check out CommitKeeper.

Self Management Rests On Making And Keeping Commitments

A new organization model called “self managing organizations” is gaining a following.  The idea is essentially that individuals organize themselves based on their own clear understanding of their personal role and commercial mission.  Each member of the organization is personally responsible for forging relationships, planning their own work, coordinating their actions with other members, acquiring requisite resources to accomplish their mission, and for taking corrective action with respect to other members when needed.  Relationships and organization structure arise spontaneously as each person seeks to contribute their value to the organization.  Decision-making is localized.  Individual responsibility is maximized.  This results in more self-directed work teams, employee empowerment, distributed decision making, “flattening” the organization, and elimination of bureaucratic red tape.

Formal, fixed hierarchy is non-existent.  There are no managers who doll out assignments with due dates and then hold people accountable for delivering.  Instead, each individual is accountable for coordinating around specific agreements they have made with each other.  The approach relies on developing sound practices for making and keeping commitments.  It is about the way in which people take action together by holding a shared commitment and facing changing realities.

The “conversation for action” principles originally developed by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd back in the 1980’s still offer the most robust model for making and keeping commitments.

The smallest element of work is not a task, it’s a conversation about a task.  Someone (a requester) is asking someone else (a performer) to do something.  The conversation progresses through three stages – negotiation, delivery, and assessment.  In the first stage, the performer considers the request in light of their other commitments and priorities and makes a commitment for a delivery schedule they can make.  The requester and performer forge an explicit agreement.  Following negotiation, the conversation moves into a delivery or in-progress stage.  The two parties, along with any other followers to the task conversation, keep in touch about how the work is progressing, shifting priorties, and new issues that emerge along the way.  At any point, if the need arises, the performer may request to amend the agreement, and the two parties renegotiate a new delivery schedule.  Once the delivery is made, the conversation moves to the assessment stage in which the requester determines if the task is fully complete and offers thanks and/or feedback to the performer.

Note that this conversational model sounds obvious, but it is NOT how most of us actually operate.  It’s rare to find clear requests, definitive delivery commitments, and explicit delivery and feedback.

The “self management” model holds great promise.  But shifting to this model will require training around new conversational practices.  Software, like CommitKeeper, can help guide and embed the new practice.

Performance Management Tools: We Need Something Different, Not Just Faster

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was “necessary,” but few managers, and not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes: (1) There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and (2) we have new tools for constructing review documents. Technology advances have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one- or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell checking). Today managers can “write” the review with a few clicks of a mouse. They use performance management software to select the characteristics (e.g., “exhibits teamwork”) from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”) to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written.” In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

I recently viewed an industry-leading performance management system. In touting the system’s sophistication the vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–“automatically personalized”?

Disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging. We have paved the cow path and upped the speed limit, but we have not improved the journey or the destination. The increased speed and automation of this approach actually serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process in several ways:

(1)   Speeding up the writing process may reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing requires applying a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized “coaching tips.” Additionally, the act of writing indirectly helps managers to prepare their script for the meeting with the employees. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the one-to-one communication meeting altogether.]

(2)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee. Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the “real work”–as if employee development were not part of a manager’s job.

(3)  The performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance. To be sure, the one-to-one communications between manager and employee is a key lever for improving performance, but these conversations are too infrequent and poor quality to realize their potential for improving performance.

Periodic goal setting and review are important, but the real driver for improving performance is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments around tasks. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result. Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. The smallest element of work is a conversation not a task.  Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

As an alternative to performance management reviews once or twice a year, 4Spires offers tools with an all-the-time focus on performance improvement that facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. Managers and employees use CommitKeeper software to help boost the quality and frequency of their ongoing dialogue around project and task completion by elevating and illuminating one-to-one conversations between those requesting actions or services and those who carry out those requests.  The software combines task with relationship management.  Rather than facilitate the use of automated, canned responses, this next generation of performance improvement software can qualitatively change the performance management system in use over the last 30 years.

Elevate Engagement, But How?

It goes without saying that more engaged employees produce better results. But the topic of engagement often spawns a lot of generalizations and hand-wringing with only little practical guidance. How DO you execute in order to raise employee engagement?  What specific behaviors can managers employ?

This topic often starts with admonitions about respect, empowerment, and encouragement.  Some more advice follows along like:  set clear expectations, provide more autonomy, and offer frequent praise and recognition.  Ok, but then  taking this advice to an operational, day-to-day level, what specific behaviors can managers employ?

I suggest one key lever is to focus on how managers communicate with their team; I mean specifically what words are used, what are the conversational patterns, what are the means of following-up and reaching closure on work requests, when and how feedback is delivered, etc.  These are “systematic behaviors” that can be observed and strengthened with an eye to increasing respect and empowerment.

I refer here to the ground-breaking work by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd who developed the model of a “conversation for action” that describes a new pattern of communication between work colleagues that goes right to the mechanics of elevating engagement.

First of all, each conversation for action begins with a “request”.  Not an “assignment” that presumes a one-up and one-down relationship between the parties, but a “request” which acknowledges from the start the mutual dependency and the associated respect due to the performer.  Just using the words “can you. . .” changes the mood of the following work delivery conversation.

The second stage of the conversation is equally powerful.  The performer is provided the opportunity, as a respected equal, to “negotiate” their response to the request.  The performer is explicitly invited and empowered to say what they can and cannot commit to.  No more just assigning a task with a person’s name on it and a due date.  Rather, an actual agreement is forged with a performer who is empowered to respond with what they can accomplish by when.  This practice of an explicit negotiation achieves better clarity of what’s expected.  Moreover, it reinforces a sense of the performer’s autonomy and control over their work.  Note, also, that providing this measure of autonomy to the performer is the quid pro quo for achieving real task ownership and accountability for delivery.

The conversation for action closes the loop with a clear delivery of the agreed outcome followed by the requester’s acceptance and praise or critique.  The closing of each task is an opportunity for praise and recognition.  This amounts to real-time, all-the-time performance improvement conversations instead of end-of-year performance reviews.  Each successful cycle inspires the next one.  Trust, a key element of engagement, is built along the way from repeated cycles.

So, the next question is how do you instantiate these behaviors throughout the team or organization?  One way is to use technology that has been specifically designed to guide and facilitate a “managed conversation” between requesters and performers.  4Spires has developed a new generation of social task management software that combines task and relationship management that goes right to the heart of the engagement question.  It’s a specific and tangible intervention that can change the conversation content and dynamics between work colleagues.

The “CommitKeeper” software acts as a third party to the conversations between requesters and performers by prompting the use of specific words and responses and by assuring explicit closure of the conversation.  The tool is an expression of new practices and new behaviors that can help build engagement.

Behavior Change Is Hard, 6 Factors To Improve Your Odds

We all know that changing one’s behavior is so fraught with challenges that it rarely actually works.  We get set in our ways.  Even when there is good reason to change, mighty forces stand in the way.  And even when we do finally make a change, there remains a strong and long-lasting pull to revert back to the old “tried and true” ways.  The resistance to change is more than just personal preferences, it’s biological.  We are wired to preserve the status quo

Changing the behaviors of teams or organizations is many times harder!  Numbers of people need to be pulled, cajoled, or pushed against their natural tendencies.  Ask any OD or change management consultant, and they will tell more stories of failure than success.

To improve your odds of achieving organization change your change management program must have the following 6 components.  Your chances of success plummet if you miss even one.  Note that 3 generally require intervention, consulting, and/or training by an outside consultant who knows the territory and can guide the overall journey.  The other 3 relate to the supporting role of technology.  Consulting or new technology by itself will rarely succeed in the long run. The combination has real power.

  1.  A good enough reason to change. Some problem or opportunity must be so compelling as to merit even attempting the change process.  Don’t take this consideration lightly.  If the goal is only marginal improvement, then don’t bother.  The prize has to be really big, and it has to be understood by people on the team.  Virtually everyone needs to “buy-in” at some level.
  1.  A picture of the new behavior.  This involves two levels.  First, the group needs a shared vision of the new organization that has enough clarity to be enticing.  Second, individuals need to know what the new behavior looks like when we see it.  Stories from other companies can only be of limited help because every organization is different.  Descriptions of the new behavior(s) need to be specific.  General platitudes like “we need to build more trust and better accountability” won’t cut it.  People need detailed scripts.
  1.  Leadership.  Most often this is the team leader, boss, supervisor, CEO, etc.  The leader has to be gung-ho for the change.  But leadership must also come from team members.  In fact, having a couple of “early adopters” on the team who point the way for others can be the real key to success.
  1.  Practice. Software is the instantiation of the new “scripts”.  Even the words used in describing the change should be mirrored in the software interface.  The software guides, nay requires, following the new behavior.  The software forces users into a path toward the new.  Furthermore, new behaviors require repetition.  Software creates standard, repeating actions that reinforce and sustain the new practices.
  1.  A system of record to monitor progress. Monitoring change in progress cannot be accomplished based on mere impressions and personal opinions.  There must be some supporting evidence.  The new behavior(s) need to be codified.  Technology is the “neutral” eye-in-the-sky that records successful new behavior and answers questions like: Are we doing the new behavior or not?   Which individuals are doing them and which are not?  How often?  What are the results of the new behavior?  Do the new behaviors show promise? etc.
  1.  Metrics to show results.  Ultimately, we need to answer the question did the change make a difference?  Producing a definitive before and after analysis is often very difficult, but the software database can provide a host of both personal and organization-wide statistics from which real bottom-line benefits can be inferred.

Changing the behavior of a team is hard.  An honest assessment of these six factors can tell you whether it’s worth a try.  Combining management coaching/training with supporting technology can really improve the odds of succeeding.

A “Workspace” for Knowledge Workers – what does this really mean? Eight characteristics of next-generation workspaces.

As social networking and particularly collaboration technologies have flourished, so have a whole new crop of terms intended to describe what differentiates these new capabilities from the old. One of the new terms is “shared workspace”. It’s now common for vendors to tout their new “workspace” somewhere in their marketing. But beyond the claims, there is little discussion about what is really meant by the term. My intention is to dig a little deeper into describing what most current vendors mean by a “shared workspace” and the characteristics that distinguish a next-generation workspace.

Knowledge workers of today who are more often remote and mobile do certainly benefit from technologies that provide the virtual equivalent of the old whiteboard in a meeting.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide spectrum of capabilities that various vendors use to describe their “workspace”. The single common understanding is that “shared workspaces” support collaborative input, editing, and updates from more than one person at the same time, i.e. it’s a multi-user tool.  While email technically allows any party in the dialog to add a comment at any time, the general idea is more like ping-pong. One person sends a note and another person responds. The first person waits for the response; it’s a back and forth paradigm. Email certainly presented a new “workspace” to users 30 years ago. Current day tools support capture of anyone-anytime-anywhere dialog in the context of a work group or project.

Some consider a shared document to be a workspace. Enabling multiple people to view and edit the same document at the same time is certainly a huge step beyond email, but producing shared documents is only a relatively small part of what knowledge workers do.

Modern workspaces also provide the basic capabilities of storing and retrieving shared documents in a shared repository. A shared workspace typically also includes ready access to your colleagues organized by group or project and the ability to post comments in a shared view.

The software provided by most of today’s vendors utilize a one-to-many paradigm. The workspace is a shared forum in which collaborators update each other in real time. Anyone in the group can post updates at any time, and all group members are updated simultaneously. While keeping colleagues up to date is important, such workspaces engender intermittent participation from team mates and the workspace provides only limited focus on individual accountability for who is delivering what by when.

The most advanced workspaces, however, go much further. The software is not just an open field where participants have the possibility to add a comment or respond to someone else’s post. The workspace technology actually functions like a facilitating third-party to the conversation.

I take it for granted that the workspace must be easy to use. Who doesn’t make this claim? A more interesting differentiating characteristic is whether the workspace is passive or active.

 Passive vs. Active workspaces

Passive workspaces sit there, a virtual blank canvas that collaborators can write on together.   The passive workspace collects and displays the inputs from participants and may even provide some search (e.g. tags) and sorting features, but the technology offers nothing to directly influence the content, style, or mood of the communications that are going on.

Active workspaces act like a third party in the work conversations. An active workspace guides the participants into how to conduct a focused collaborative action that leads to results. It facilitates a certain structure and rigor, the rules of engagement so to speak. The conversation is “managed” so as to increase the likelihood of a successful delivery. The software is also specifically designed to facilitate the quality of the conversation (e.g. who says what to whom) and in so doing to build a positive relationship between the parties going forward.  Task and relationship management are combined.

Eight characteristics of a next-generation workspace 

Following are 8 specific characteristics of active, next-generation workspaces that are not yet generally available in the marketplace:

1– Context. Entries are organized in a thread that is specifically related to some action or result someone has requested, i.e. not just a general posting.

2– Focus.  Dialog is focused on what we are trying to accomplish, i.e. the explicit requested outcome by when. Who is involved, who is the accountable performer, and who else is an interested observer to the conversation? What’s the current status, i.e. is the task on track or not?

3– Structure.  Composing the goal or task request must contain certain information. Structure cannot be so confining, however, as to inhibit the flexibility needed for natural conversations.

4– Ownership.  Views show who’s got the ball at this moment to move the conversation along. Who is waiting for who?

5– Next steps.  What are the appropriate next actions any user could/should take next? The software provides a set of shared ground-rules for “managing” the conversation including expected responses at any particular point in the dialog. An underlying “intelligent” workflow keeps things moving forward.

6– Setting the mood.  The software prompts what “words” are appropriate to set up the optimum “mood” for the conversation that will enhance respect, engagement, and trust.

7– Closing the loop.  Delivery of agreed outcomes is explicit. Performers don’t  claim “done”; instead they assert that a delivery was made and let the original requester confirm whether the delivery was satisfactory.  Team leaders accept and express satisfaction and feedback.

8– A history.  Memory of past conversations is preserved for later review and analysis. Participants build their reputation as a reliable team member. One’s integrity (i.e. say what you’ll do, do what you say) is catalogued and supported by data.  Trust improves.

4Spires solutions are examples of next-generation workspaces that include all of these characteristics.

Evolving Email – Guest Blog by David Creelman

David Creelman (www.creelmanresearch.com) has been a thought leader on human capital management issues for more than 10 years.   He writes extensive, thought-provoking papers and speaks frequently at industry conferences.  I reached out to David back in 2011 to gather his reactions to the work we were beginning at 4Spires.  In response, he wrote the following blog post.  Two years on, David’s observations are even more relevant.  He writes:

“The biggest untapped opportunity for organizational effectiveness is email.

Managerial and professional staffs spend a big hunk of every day on email. It is the single most important means for control, coordination and communication. Yet how much time does HR invest in creating the means so that this tool for control, coordination and communication is used effectively?

One stumbles a bit here, because while HR leaders can imagine providing training on using email, the broader sense that HR should “create the means to make email more effective” (to repeat my own awkward phase) feels outside the scope of the function. Yet if HR doesn’t grab hold of this, who will?

Let me ease the discomfort by pointing to something concrete. I recently spoke to David Arella of 4Spires. He reached out to me because of things I’d written about conversation as a technology. My point was that managers spend 80% of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple; HR should think of conversations as a sophisticated “technology” for getting things done, not just a trivial everyday act. Arella is interested in “managed conversations” and because many, even most, conversations take place in email—and because email has all the opportunities that come with any online technology—Arella is interested in email.

The starting point is the recognition that conversation is not just about sharing information. A big part of conversation is about making commitments. You ask me to do something by some date. I reply that I will do it. That kind of promise is the key to control and coordination.

The theoretical underpinning for this is speech act theory. If you are a keener like me you will have read the background work by philosophers JL Austin and John Searle, but the practical application of speech act theory comes from Fernando Flores. Flores elucidated the small number of elements of a conversation that results in commitments. Basically it starts with a person making a request, and then someone accepting it, rejecting it or making a counter-offer. When the request is fulfilled and acknowledged as suitable, that commitment cycle is complete.

Flores believes that if people are deliberate about these key elements of conversation, organizations would work more effectively. What better way to enable this than to add functionality to email that helps clarify and track the conversations that manage commitments? This is exactly what 4 Spires is attempting to do.

If you are old enough and geeky enough, you will remember that 4Spires is not the first to try this. Flores himself created an communication application called the Coordinator which attempted to enforce his view of how conversations should be conducted. This wasn’t a success, and my understanding is that it was due to overzealousness on Flores’ part. You wanted to send an email saying “Great game last night!” and the Coordinator would make you decide if that was a request, a counter-offer or whatever. Arella has learned from this experience and has a system that is much lighter on its feet; it gives you the option of a disciplined email conversation that manages commitments but imposes nothing.

Let’s imagine you are running a project that involves 5 or 6 people and a few of their own direct reports. Everyone knows this kind of project can be hard to keep track of. Is everyone doing what they are supposed to? Has something fallen off the rails? Project management software is not suited to this sort of thing; it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But if your email program is tracking who has committed to what by when, then there is an automatically generated record of what is going on. It becomes easy to see “What are the things Joe is supposed to be doing?” or “What deliverables ought to be back to me today?” Tracking who is doing what by when, need not be a separate activity, it happens automatically simply by ticking a few boxes. This is the new face of project management.

One thing that also falls out of this simple commitment tracking is who has done what, who is done on time, and who is consistently late on meeting their commitments. As always, any metric is simply the launch pad for more investigation, but if an employee is consistently late it raises the question of whether the employee is overworked, under skilled or simply poor at estimating how long something will take. This is important management insight. It’s the new face of performance management.

Having structured data online about conversations and commitments leads to many possibilities: potentially you can look at all the commitments an employee has made; you can look at all the deliverables you expect this week; you can see if elements of your project are being held up by people who have made, but not fulfilled, commitments to your own direct reports.

Management is mainly about conversations, and important conversations are about commitments. Most commitments are made by email and so if we track this we can manage it. It’s that simple.

Email is the biggest thing to happen in management in the past few decades, but we’ve kind of just let it happen. We’ve never really grabbed hold of it as the powerful tool it is. If a whole department can worry about the control tool of accounting; why not pay similar attention to the much more expansive tool of email?

Managed conversations in the 4Spires way is not the only thing you can do to improve email. The point is to realize that in email we have a monster of a tool; investment in managing that tool better could have an extraordinary impact on organizational effectiveness.”

CommitKeeper selected as finalist in Global Awards for Excellence in Knowledge Worker Innovation

In April 2013, Future Strategies Inc. invited 4Spires to submit a case study in their annual search for excellence in “knowledge worker innovations”.  Our case study described how our Fleet One customer has used CommitKeeper to improve the productivity of their marketing department.  The press release below announces our selection as a finalist in this prestigious competition.

May 22, 2013—Boston, Mass. The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2013 Global Awards for Excellence in Adaptive Case Management.

In 2011, WfMC inaugurated a Global Awards program for Adaptive Case Management (ACM) case studies to recognize and focus upon ACM use cases. Adaptive Case Management represents a new approach to supporting knowledge workers in today’s leading edge organizations. ACM provides secure, social collaboration to create and adapt goal-oriented activities that enable informed decision-making using federated business data and content.


Finalists were selected by a 16-person program committee comprising experts in this field. Committee leader, Max J. Pucher said, “The submitted ACM solutions in 2013 are focused on showing the financial return of being a leading business that uses state-of-the-art technology. While forefront ACM functionality such as evolutionary process improvement by business performers is used by only a few entries,, the ‘Design-by-Doing’ aspect of ACM is widely represented. The spectrum of verticals this year is proof for the wide-ranging applicability of Adaptive Case Management concepts.”

Co-sponsored by WfMC and BPM.com, these prestigious awards recognize user organizations worldwide that have demonstrably excelled in implementing innovative ACM solutions. Award winners will be announced at a special virtual awards ceremony on June 27th at ACM Live.
There are seven categories this year:
  • Back Office
  • Construction and Big Projects
  • Financial
  • Legal and Courts
  • Public Sector
  • Shipping and Logistics
  • Knowledge Worker Innovation
The 2013 finalists (in alphabetical order) across all categories are:
1.    Axle Group Holdings Ltd., nominated by EmergeAdapt
2.    CargoNet AS, nominated by Computas AS
3.    Department of Transport, South Africa, nominated by EMC Corporation
4.    Directorate for the Construction of Facilities for EURO 2012, nominated by PayDox Business Software
5.    Fleet One, nominated by 4Spires
6.    Info Edge Pvt. Ltd, nominated by Newgen Software Technologies Ltd
7.    National Courts Administration of Norway, nominated by Computas AS
8.    Texas Office of the Attorney General Crime Victim Services Division, nominated by IBM
9.    U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nominated by AINS, Inc.
10.  UBS Bank, nominated by Whitestein Technologies

WfMC Chairman and founder of the ACM Awards program, Keith Swenson commented on the strength of the entries, “This year brings a significant maturing of the field of entries,” said Swenson. “We see well-rounded mainstream use cases with lots of knowledge workers as participants who use the system to innovate their processes every day. In domains where thinking matters, they show that there is a real business case, and the return on investment is really incredible.”

“This distinguished group of finalists survived very high standards and tight scrutiny by a discriminating panel of judges, representing the top influencers in our field” noted WfMC Executive Director Nathaniel Palmer. “Now in its third year, the Excellence in Adaptive Case Management program reflects not only a thriving global market for case management, but clearly demonstrates the value this sector offers to businesses and governments worldwide.”

More details on case study requirements and the finalists can be found online at www.adaptivecasemanagement.org.  Finalists receive additional recognition by having their case studies published in the 2013 edition in the ACM Excellence Series by Future Strategies Inc., following the success of  “Taming the Unpredictable” in 2011 and “How Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” in 2012.  The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) and BPM.com jointly sponsor the annual Global Awards for Excellence in ACM.  The Awards program is managed by Future Strategies Inc.

For further information:

www.adaptivecasemanagement.org
Layna Fischer (Awards Director)
Future Strategies Inc.
awards@FutStrat.com

Improving Performance Management Systems Requires More Than Paving the Cow Path

This post includes extracts from an article I wrote in ‘Performance Xpress’ – the monthly news letter for the International Society for Performance Improvement.

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral individual feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR managers had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was also seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was ‘necessary’, but few of those involved, not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review actually led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes:

  • There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and
  • We have new tools for constructing review documents.

Enhancements in the form of new tools have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell-checking). Today, managers can ‘write’ the review with a few clicks of a mouse. Modern performance management systems enable managers to select the characteristics (e.g., ‘exhibits teamwork‘) from a predefined list (sometimes called ‘coaching tips’) and to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been ‘written.’ In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

In touting the system’s sophistication, one industry-leading performance management system vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–‘automatically personalized’?

Disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging.

The cow path has been paved and the speed limit has been increased, but we have not improved the journey or the destination.  As outlined below, this approach may even serve to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.

There are three initial concerns with this development:

  • 1.)  Speeding up the writing process may actually reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee.

Writing is a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized ‘coaching tips,’

The act of the writing also helps managers to prepare their script for the face-to-face meeting with the employee. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the meeting or personal communication altogether.]

  • 2.)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee.

Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the ‘real work’ as if employee development were not part of the job.

  • 3.)  This performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance.

Traditional performance management systems do include a key lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee. This communication, however, is often inadequate for achieving any performance improvement because it is too infrequent and of poor quality.

Performance improvement conversations benefit from annual or semi-annual goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result.  Performance improvement (not “management”) is achieved in these ongoing conversations.

Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

Rather than support once a year, or even once a quarter, performance management reviews, software tools with a year-round/all-the-time focus on performance improvement can facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. A new generation of software tools is coming that can boost the quality and frequency of the dialogue between managers and staff around project and task completion.  Elevating and illuminating these one-on-one conversations between those requesting actions and those who carry out those requests can, I believe, actually move the dial around personal and organisation performance. Rather than add speed and facilitate the use of automated/canned responses, the next generation of systems will advance performance management practices in a way that qualitatively changes the approach we’ve used for the last 30 years.

Work Management Software 2013 – toward a richer understanding of this emerging new category

A new business software category is emerging called “work management”.  We are eager to make 2013 the year where this new category really gains a foothold. We are concerned with closing the execution gap between goals, tasks, and results.  This article is intended to help develop a richer understanding of this new software category.  How we get more done is suddenly sexy and all kinds of functionality and vendors are eager to be included in the new buzz around “work management” software.  Unfortunately, this has tended to cloud the new field with a wide-ranging set of features and capabilities to the point where there is no succinct definition of what constitutes “work management” software.

The following is a primer on some of the distinctions across various work management software offerings.  Vendors will begin to stake out their differentiating features along the following dimensions:

—  Function-specific tools vs. general tools.  Some tools are designed to support managing the work of specific users.  For example, call centers or IT support desk users might use a support ticket system that integrates inquiries created via email, phone and web-based forms in order to manage, organize and archive support requests and responses.  Professional project managers could also be considered functional specialists who use project management software as a “work management” tool.  These function-specific tools are built around a specific set of features tailored to the activity of that function.

By contrast, generalized tools are designed for a broad user population. These “tools for the rest of us” (e.g. calendar apps) can be used to manage work in virtually any function or environment, small groups or large.

—  Individual vs. Group ware.  Some “work management” tools are designed primarily for single users; others for groups.  Most task management systems, for example, are fundamentally single user applications.  I make lists of “to do’s” for myself and then I work down the list.  Similarly, many project management tools are also designed primarily for input by an individual user.  Yes, tasks can be shared with others in the group, but interactivity between members is limited.

The term “group ware” was popularized in the 1990’s.  In contrast to “standalone” applications, “group ware” referred to messaging and workflow solutions designed to improve coordination across many users.  The new breed of “social” tools have many of the same attributes – sharing information with others to get work done.  See further comments on “social media” below.

—  Goal and Task management.  Managing work certainly involves setting goals and accomplishing tasks.  Goals are typically “bigger” and have no specific deadline, but, other than that, there is significant functional and practical overlap between managing goals and tasks.  Perhaps to oversimplify a bit, the distinction can be reduced to the size of the outcome (e.g. what’s the difference between a weekly goal and a task that’s due next week?).  Task management tools, of which there are dozens, can help manage an individual’s work, and they are generalized, but how are they to be included in the new “work management” category?  I can create Goals and Tasks for myself with or without conversation with others.  What is new is sharing (i.e. broadcasting) my Goals and Tasks with others in the group along with progress updates.  Tracking delivery commitments I have made to others and that others have made to me are essential for effective coordination of group work and resource allocation.  So goal and task management have shifted from being individual-ware to being group-ware; this is a significant shift in a familiar tool.

—  Collaboration vs. document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups.  Unfortunately, the term “collaboration” is no longer a very helpful descriptor.  In the beginning, the term was hi-jacked into meaning shared documents (along with content management and searching).  A recent white paper by Info Tech Research Group, for example, gave high marks to one vendor’s “team collaboration portal” which boasted permission controls, voting by group members, and micro-blogging in addition to sharing content. Co-laboring clearly involves much more than managing shared content.

More recently the term collaboration has come to include an expanding range of features.  A recent Forrester study of “Collaboration Software Vendors” included eight companies with very different capabilities that ranged from file sharing and synch (e.g. Box) to video conferencing and instant messaging (e.g.Cisco/Webex, Citrix/GoToMeeting) to online chat groups (e.g. Salesforce Chatter and IBM’s SmartCloud Social Business Toolkit and Yammer).  Given this wide variety of features, the term “collaboration” no longer contributes much precision to the discourse.  I suggest we drop the term collaboration and use the actual features (document sharing, videoconferencing, chat groups, etc.) instead.

For a further discussion of the distinctions between document sharing and collaboration see my blog “Collaboration 2.0 – More Than Sharing Documents”.

—  Social media.  The word “social” has crept in everywhere.  We have: social media, social enterprise, social strategy, social collaboration tools, social work management, social workflow, social performance management, and social goals among others.  Let’s be clear that the term “social” has now been pretty much defined to mean a one-to-many communication pattern.  While it is possible to have one-on-one conversations, the “social” tools are designed primarily to enable an individual user to broadcast a question or a “posting” to the larger forum.  The term “social” has come to mean “shared with the group”.  The “group” can be a predefined group of limited members or a public, undefined group.  Familiar examples include Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Chatter, Yammer. These are generalized tools without a functional focus.  Facebook and Salesforce.com have begun promoting the value of individuals posting entries and updates to help groups get work done.  See blog post about Facebook’s new group features (http://blog.chegg.com/2012/05/29/get-work-done-using-facebook/).

At the Salesforce.com “Dreamforce” convention last fall “social performance management” was the rage.  A number of sessions promoted “new ways to work”, “working together better”, “rebooting work”, “fixing work”, “new management practices”, “openness”, “transparency”.  As represented by Rypple/Work.com, “social performance management” emphasizes broadcasting individual goals, awarding badges in a public forum, and then cobbling together the badges and coaching notes for individuals into a performance review.  Interaction is primarily only one-way – one person awards a badge to another and your manager writes your review.  Social media adds value and can set the background context, for example, by aligning shared goals. Recognition and rewards add positive energy to the workplace.  Feedback, recognition, coaching, and rewards are motivating, but it remains to be seen whether changing how we write performance reviews, and how often we write them, will actually have any real effect on productivity.  Even Salesforce execs at the convention reported that “70% of all sales reps leave because of poor relationships with their boss”.  This problem cannot be fixed with purely social media tools.

—  Messaging/dialog.  In contrast to the new “social” tools, stand the old personal messaging tools, i.e. that support two-way dialog.  Email, IM and SMS are still the dominant ways two people communicate about getting work done (i.e. one-to-one communication pattern).  Emails can be shared with the group with cc’s to others, but the primary function is one-on-one conversation. This is the most personal, the most urgent, and still the most effective means for actually getting work done.  Just because these tools lack a modern marketing spin does not mean they are any less effective than they were 10 years ago.  The buzz around “work management” should not delude us into thinking that the new “social” tools come anywhere close to the power and effectiveness of such interactive media.  One can, of course, communicate one-to-one in Facebook, and emails can be shared more broadly using CC’s and blasts, but the dominant distinctions hold – Facebook is mostly a social media, email is primarily a personal messaging tool.  Read more about the distinctions between the one-to-many vs. one-to-one tools in my blog post “Bringing The Social Model to Human Capital Management“.

—  Metrics.  There is no question that measurement and feedback drive behaviors and, in turn, productivity.  Let’s be clear, however, that there are important distinctions regarding the metrics that can be obtained from social vs. interactive tools.  Tuning in to the social buzz around what has been called the ‘enterprise social water cooler’ can certainly provide a more real-time picture of employee concerns than a survey.  Employees can share comments and suggestions in an open forum that can result in improved operations.  Badges awarded to colleagues can be accumulated (even counted) at review time.  However, while creating a “social enterprise” can render new information and even insights, meaningful metrics require something more.  Social media has very limited data potential for actually informing/improving how work gets done.  Meaningful metrics rely on facts that are documented and comparable.  The system for collecting data must be structured and consistent across the entire enterprise.  These are not typically the qualities of a purely social, one-to-many network. The inherent diffusion of a large social group, coupled with its anonymity and randomness of participation severely limit meaningful metrics.  On the other hand, messaging media has the potential to be a rich source of data for tracking who is speaking to whom, how long it took to get what done, and when was it delivered.  A new era of work management and productivity metrics is emerging which will include such measures as an individual’s (or department’s) on-time delivery record, average amount to time to complete a certain standard task, or total resources expended in completing a goal to name a few.

Summary Discussion

So how does each category of tools mentioned above relate to actually improving how we “get work done”?  Which features and capabilities will actually improve execution?  In my view, the best “work management” tools will be a blend of the capabilities discussed above.  They will be generalized tools that capture and expose individual goals and tasks, that enable sharing of documents, that incorporate both social media and one-to-one dialog in real-time, and that provide a new class of productivity and performance metrics (See my blog “Nine Part System for Effective Business Execution“).

Beyond the features, the new tools will affect behaviors and practices and ultimately the culture of the organization.  New visibility into work activity will drive new approaches to accountability.  New ways of relating person-to-person will emerge that can increase trust.  The new tools will effect who speaks to whom, how they speak to each other, and even the words they use.  Organizational hierarchies will become less relevant as information sharing increases across departmental boundaries.  Personal networks with an ever-expanding number of respondents will need to be tempered with tools that clarify individual delivery commitments.  Network management will eclipse matrix management, and working in an egalitarian workplace will take on new meaning.  In the end, we expect new “work management” tools will dramatically improve productivity in the years ahead.