Saturday, April 28, 2007

Automatic shushing, loud sirens, and meeting metrics

Drawing of meeting going awryI was in a discussion about information that would be useful for the participants of a meeting, when I thought of some unconventional ways of improving the quality of meetings in general.

A combination of collaboration tools and VoIP conferencing systems could be used to collect statistics about the people doing the talk during meetings. Why not unleash their power to change the way we participate on meetings at a cultural level?

Just imagine if this readily available or easily collectable information was made public:

Chairing quality

What if you had access to some metrics about a meeting chair before accepting an invitation?

Imagine if these metrics were collected in a confidential manner and disclosed to the entire company.
  • Effectiveness: Ratio of agenda-per-meeting and minutes-per-meeting issued by the chair.
  • Credibility: Grade from 0 to 10 (10 being the highest) given by participants to the meetings called by this chair, based on objective criteria such as "adherence to the agenda", "time management", "minutes accuracy", "minutes timeliness", and others.
People are certainly going to be worried about misuse of the information, but I am more worried about abuses that cause the tragedy of the calendars.

If the chair and participants are working closely and holding ad-hoc conversations, they should have access to some "not applicable" check buttons when scheduling and evaluation meetings.

Speaker being pulled out of classroomParticipation quality

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have access to the following information about meeting participants?
  • Talk-O-Meter: Amount of talk-time for each participant in recent meetings.
  • Bad-Manners-O-Meter: Number of times a participant spoke over for more than 5 seconds while another participant was still talking.
The last two metrics could be used by meeting chairs while deciding who should be called for a meeting. A good collaboration tool could even popup an "Argument-O-Meter" warning about too many people with high "Talk-O-Meter" and "Bad-Manners-O-Meter" indexes invited for the same meeting.

The rise of the machines

As with any monitoring activity, the next logical step is automation :-) One could create a "Meeting Quality Monitor" application and plug it into mainstream VoIP conferencing systems. This monitor would take automatic action based on the metrics above.

Some basic actions would be to mute the phone of the speaker if his "Talk-O-Meter" index exceeded a certain limit. If the meeting was being held in person, a loud siren or shushing sound would do the trick.

The "Bad-Manners-O-Meter" index could be used in a more proactive manner. In a phone conference, the system could be put in "strict" or "educational" mode. In "strict" mode, the same muting or shushing actions would be employed; whereas in "educational" mode, the system would just interrupt the meeting altogether and admonish the offender. It is much more convenient for a chair to let a machine reprimand a demonstrably argumentative person than try and do it himself.

Anyway, the possibilities would be endless, and fun!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"The Best and Worst Corporate Practices"

From BusinessWeek.com, this article written by Liz Ryan contains a summary of the best and worst corporate practices she has come across during her long executive career.

Don't miss the slide shows for the top 10 best and worst practices.

My favorite best practice: Employee-Driven Transfer Policies.

My "favorite" worst practice: Forced Ranking Systems.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Marxist corporations (1/2) : Labor Alienation

Karl Marx's pictureMarx's "Capital" is a fantastic reading by those who want to understand the work relations in any industry. Once you blow past his more activist views and adjust his theories with 160 years of technological evolution, you will have developed a newfound respect for the unwritten laws governing the workplace. Before getting to the point of this entry, it is necessary to clear the field for the discussion.

A vilified philosopher

One of Karl Marx's (1818-1883) central ideas was that communism was a natural evolution of mature capitalism; "natural" being the subtle distinction missed by those who used his work as the springboard for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the violent suppression of its enemies.

Three decades later, with the world's very existence being wired to red buttons in command centers and suitcases, demonization and fear mongering were the words of order; Marx's theories were irreparably damaged in the eyes of entire generations; bystander victims of the McCarthyist movement and its decade-long assault on civil liberties.

Labor alienation

Labor alienation is a central aspect of Marxist theory, a natural response from human beings to the sale of their work in exchange for capital. Marx analysis is certainly more suitable to lower-skilled activities involving mass-production of goods, but even the workers of high-skilled industries are subject to the effects of Marxist labor alienation. These effects are described in the following entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the bold markups are mine):
Marx famously depicts the worker under capitalism as suffering from four types of alienated labour. First, from the product, which as soon as it is created is taken away from its producer. Second, in productive activity (work) which is experienced as a torment. Third, from species-being, for humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their truly human powers. Finally from other human beings, where the relation of exchange replaces mutual need.
Any of these symptoms can keep an executive or team lead awaken in the middle of the night; after all no one wants to be around (1) a colleague emotionally detached from the results of his/her work, (2) an abusive colleague or boss that makes the work environment a living hell, (3) employees disgruntled for not using their best talents in their current job, and (4) employees that work in isolation from the rest of team.

The educated work force of the 21st century is more prone to muffled contempt that open revolt, but either reaction is damaging to productivity and contrary to the ultimate goal of capital accumulation. Some of the solutions underway are a tacit acknowledgment of Marx's thinking as they aim squarely at the effects of labor alienation.

Managing the symptoms

There is an increasingly stronger focus on committing employees to the results of their work, making the best of their talents and emphasizing work relationships as the foundation of success. IBM, Microsoft and HP value statements are a clear reflection of those tendencies. Barring the natural inertia in the realization of any change in a large business, these are the directives being landed on the desks of the people managing the work force.

Organization structure for a Marxist-Capitalist enterpriseInterestingly enough, companies do not need to share more of their capital with employees to counter the effects of labor alienation. Factors #2 (work environment) and #3 (proper use of skills) are not even related to compensation. Factors #1 (attachment to work product) and #4 (individualism) can be effectively targeted through changes in compensation policies rather than increases in the payroll.

There is value in a hybrid communal system where the compensation policies promote performance-based compensation but also collaboration and collective results. The idea is to avoid completely individual evaluations on one extreme and a company-wide pool of comparison on the other extreme.

There will always be room for above and below average contributions, but there should be less opportunity for individual above-average performance within a team that does not achieve its goals. Contrary to popular belief, unequal performance is also part of Marxian thought.

Challenges

Relations between evaluation processes, scope of goals, and team dynamicsA significant challenge in implementing the hybrid system will be the association between end-results and the individual contribution to those results. An employee may leave a department or product area long before the first customer-satisfaction survey is turned in. Devising a workable model seems a good theme for a PhD thesis or a best-selling book. Drawing a parallel to Marx's predictions about communism as a natural evolution of mature capitalism, this new hybrid model will be a natural evolution of mature work environments.

The current yearly assessment model is more manageable because performance is measured on a comparative basis with other employees in the company and in the industry. On the other hand, this model is somewhat detrimental to the companies when the product release cycle exceeds the yearly checkpoint. It is detrimental because it precludes the customer satisfaction from being factored into the compensation policy. The lack of immediate association between compensation and work results is a catalyst to labor alienation.

Conclusion

Embracing Marx's views is not about violent overthrow of governments and arbitrary confiscation of property.

For practical purposes, Utopian communism is a distant reality better treated as a virtual impossibility, but the tensions between labor and capital explained by Marx are inevitable and real.

A better work environment awaits those who are willing to learn the mechanics behind those tensions, either preempting the causes or managing the symptoms.

Friday, April 13, 2007

F1 racing and extreme competition

Nigel Mansell driving Willians F1 86It is difficult to try and add anything to the excellent series of articles titled "Secret of Great Teams" featured on Fortune magazine last year, but here are some F1-based thoughts on competitiveness in the work environment:

I still remember the famous 1986 season where the Williams team built what was considered the best car of all times. They also had two stars at the helm of its two technological marvels: Nelson Piquet (BRA) and Nigel Mansell (GBR) .

Both led the entire season head-to-head in bar-brawl mode with some hints of sabotage between the two. The infighting reached its apogee at the very last race when Alain Prost snatched the title with a slim margin of 2 points over Mansell and 3 points over Piquet. Mansell and Piquet could have easily helped each other win the race by holding Prost for the other to win.

Neither did even try.

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