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Managing Cultural Barriers to Effective Collaboration; Enabling Action Oriented BI for CRM and Competitive Intelligence October 26, 2006

Posted by Cyril Brookes in BI Requirements Definition, General, Tacit (soft) information for BI.

In previous blog posts I’ve opined on the cultural barriers impeding knowledge sharing and limiting BI effectiveness in these and other application areas where decision making depends on information about the future probabilities, rather than historical fact.  I proposed a “Top Ten” set of reasons why routine collaboration on these issues is difficult to instill in the professional employee’s mind.   

I also outlined my assessment of the nature of the soft, or tacit, information resources that contain the intelligence, or perhaps the knowledge, that must be marshaled into the BI context if a successful CRM, CI or other subjective decision support system is to be created. 

For completeness, these top ten and categorizations are reproduced here: 

Culture barriers that compromise the collaboration instinct: 

  1. You (not actually you Dear Reader, but those other unwashed professionals!) don’t want to start a debate you cannot control as it evolves 
  2. Tall poppies lose their heads, so keep your head down 
  3. Messengers, especially whistle blowing ones, get shot – or have short careers, so be silent 
  4. There’s no important person around to hear what you have to say; so keep this intelligence to yourself until there is the right audience – the more valuable it is, the longer you’ll wait. 
  5. You don’t want to embarrass your boss, or peer group, so keep it quiet 
  6. You’re not sure that the intelligence is correct, so just in case, keep it to yourself so you don’t lose “face” 
  7. You’re reluctant to communicate with people you do not know 
  8. You don’t know who to tell, and it’s a lot of effort to find out 
  9. There’s no reward mechanism for contributing intelligence, and it’s a lot of work for no personal benefit 
  10. Your boss will only steal the idea, so don’t even think of telling 

I know of three categories of soft (tacit) information in my experience.  These form the basis of my soft information metadata categorizations: 

  1. Independent Items: stand alone intelligence, e.g. rumors, ideas, industry gossip, leaks from competitor or customer sources, etc. 
  2. Comment, or Qualification, Items: e.g. assessments of a competitor’s new promotion, comments on sales forecasts, qualifications of opinions on a prospect list, etc. 
  3. Reference Items: Lists, with quality assessments, of subject experts or other resources that can supply details or opinions on hard or soft data or events. These cultural barriers and intelligence categories summarize the problem.  They also hold the key to effective synthesis of BI design and management strategies that will ameliorate the situation adequately. 

What, then, are the guidelines leading to effective synthesis that mitigates the culture issues?  I divide them into three categories: 

  1. Collaboration rules set by the enterprise 
  2. Subject Expert panels and their operation 
  3. Code of “good collaboration practice”  

Setting the corporate agenda for collaboration

This is a set of suggested “not-negotiable” rules for establishing instant messaging, chat, different time/different place conferencing, etc. in the enterprise. They are based on my experience with several hundred installations.  Of course, they may not be relevant to your business.  If I sound dogmatic it is because I have seen so many failures that could have been avoided. 

  • Categorization, Nazi style:  Information that is not categorized cannot be shared effectively in any group over 20 people.  Automatic categorization is probably essential for any business unit of reasonable size.  Categories used should be drawn from a restricted vocabulary, and synonyms should be banned, or actively discouraged.  See my earlier post on Vocabularies for sharing tacit information of September 14. 
  • Importance Qualifiers:  Subject based categorization is insufficient by itself for effective content based dissemination.  There are simply too many items on most subjects.  A “value to the business” indicator is also required that can be used in search queries and personalization profiles.  Most professionals want to receive important items on a subject, possibly even all high importance items irrespective of subject matter,. 
  • Rewards for Added Value:  It takes time and effort for a professional to submit tacit information, especially when it’s related to CRM or CI.  Plus there is all the downside potential listed in the above “top ten”.  There must be a reward system in place to encourage participation.  This requires regular monitoring of the system, and may include public acknowledgement of valuable contributions.  The options for rewards are many, and I won’t dwell on them here. 
  • Seed Items:  The most laborious task in contributing soft business intelligence is introducing the context.  I have found that often using news feeds and other automatic sources can stimulate the contribution of ideas and assist in recalling intelligence items. 
  • No Anonymous Items:  Intelligence must be owned by the original contributor.  This is essential to limit submission of garbage, provide rebuttal opportunity if needed, and especially to assist with assessment of the value of the contribution.  The author’s identity is often the best guide of value and importance to a reader.   
  • Use Subject Experts:  This is a critical element.  These specialists are essential if the “wheat” is to be separated from the “chaff”.  Their role is discussed in more detail below. 
  • Facilitate Work-shopping of Ideas:  Many professionals are reluctant to expose half-formed ideas to an enterprise-wide audience.   It should be easy to form dynamic, short life, or long life, workgroups that can refine a proposal before it is released to the “world”. 

Subject Expert Panels 

Filtering of soft information is essential to enable appropriate impact and action assessments.  On first receipt of an item, of whatever type, subject analysis is probably the only useful action.  I have little confidence in the automatic importance assessment tools available, but maybe I’m old fashioned.  They may be appropriate in slowly evolving contexts, but not in most businesses. 

I believe that only a subject expert can consistently validate the importance and urgency of a raw piece of intelligence, especially in the CRM and CI environments which are so dynamic.  

Suggested Subject Expert Guidelines: 

  • More is better; experts should only be required to cover a few narrow topics.  More than one expert per subject is usually beneficial if the topic is important enough. 
  • Avoid self-appointed experts; there should be a formal approval process 
  • Experts should be empowered, and encouraged, to add value with text as well as escalating value/importance and adding new keywords if appropriate.  Often the original keyword categorization will not be appropriate, or there will be cross enterprise implications only apparent to the expert. 

Code of Good Practice 

Guidelines for collaboration behavior are obviously desirable.  Suggestions include: 

  • Reward and endorse good behavior, ignore bad behavior.  “Flaming” generates ill-will and ought to be discouraged.  Judicious use of importance escalation is usually effective, and people rarely read routine low importance items on a subject. 
  • There should be no adverse reaction to items submitted at routine low importance on any subject.  The relevant Subject Expert will be able to assess the utility or otherwise of such an item, and escalate its distribution if appropriate, or let it die otherwise.   
  • Obviously repetitive dysfunctional behavior should be dealt with.  But this includes efforts to “shoot messengers”. 
  • Knowledge creation through idea building should be encouraged, rather than creation of new independent items.  Piggy-backing of ideas is important.  Retention of original ownership of ideas is important, to encourage participation.  If someone adds value to an idea, they should get value for the addition, but not the original concept. 

There are several collaboration packages available that facilitate implementation of these guidelines, for example that offered by Sun Microsystems Inc.  The hard part is setting up the environment, not choosing the package!  

That’s about all I can offer on this topic – good luck! 


CRM’s BI Soft-Underbelly; and will Web 2 change the corporate culture of KM collaboration? October 9, 2006

Posted by Cyril Brookes in General, Tacit (soft) information for BI.

I’ve always believed success with CRM and its companion application, Competitive Intelligence, is best measured by the extent that they enable us to manage the future of our relationships with customers and competitors.   AWOL customers or precocious competitors are past tense crises.  Sophisticated analysis as to why we lost a major customer is not much value to us after the event; the horse has bolted.  But a list of our current vulnerable clients or evolving competitors is immensely useful.  We can do something about them, if we have early warning capability.

Something about “known knowns” and “unk unks” could be inserted here, but I’ll stick to the knowledge management script.

Historical accuracy is vital for our accounting and other performance management tools, we can’t keep score without them.  On the other hand, CRM and CI need future oriented and problem alerting reports to show us where the issues potentially exist. 

Wither our prospective CRM and CI BI insight? 

As sure as god made little apples, it doesn’t come from the history.  It comes from an ideal blend of hard and soft information; where key customer and industry contact people are encouraged, empowered and enabled to feed raw intelligence to the right people, and subject experts comment on, and escalate importance of, news, rumors, assessments, etc.

Next post I’ll expand on my views on how to incorporate soft information into CRM and CI business intelligence applications. 

Before that, however, I will present my assessment of the barriers to effective collaboration that exist today.  Unless we know the enemy, we can’t engage and control it – definitely a case of unknown unknowns.

Soft information in CRM and CI can originate, or be inferred, from an infinite variety of news sources, reports, meeting minutes and, especially, from interactions between internal and external people (often the unscheduled ones are the most valuable).

This is, of course, the nub of the problem.  There is no metadata repository of CRM or CI business intelligence; no schema, no directory.   An equivalent is needed.

One could say: 

Soft information creation – thy name is Serendipity

Collaboration and knowledge sharing are endorsed by every corporate Great Kahuna, but this has little impact on those in the front line who are “in the know”. 

Without any prompting from management the network of information gatherers is in operation – in every business enterprise.  It is part of human nature to gossip.

What differentiates the effective organization is obviously the efficiency with which the intelligence that becomes accessible is made explicit; and then is collated, disseminated, assessed and matched with the available hard data by subject experts, in time for action to be taken.

This marshalling of intelligence is not a trivial task.  In my work with the “grapeVINE” system I came to recognize several reasons why people were reluctant to participate in what appears to be a most worthwhile and rewarding exercise.

Here are a “Top Ten” set of reasons why you (actually not you, Dear Reader, but those others who are self-centered and not team players!) don’t play the corporate collaboration game:

  1. You don’t want to start a debate you cannot control as it evolves
  2. Tall poppies lose their heads, so keep your head down and keep quiet
  3. Messengers, especially whistle blowing ones, get shot – or have short careers
  4. There’s no important witness around to hear what you have to say, so keep this intelligence to yourself until there is the right audience – the more valuable it is, the better and the longer you’ll wait to expound
  5. You don’t want to embarrass your boss, or peer group, so keep it quiet
  6. You’re not sure that the intelligence is correct, so just in case, keep it to yourself so you don’t lose “face”
  7. You’re reluctant to communicate gossip with people you do not know
  8. You don’t know who to tell, and it’s a lot of effort to find out
  9. There’s no reward mechanism for contributing intelligence; it’s a lot of work and others get the benefits, not you (it’s all downside, no upside)
  10. Your boss will only steal the idea, so don’t even think of telling

One new culture phenomenon may change all this.  The upcoming generation, raised on MySpace and other Web 2 diets, could exhibit different cultures when it comes to sharing corporate information.  They seem happy to expose every little item of personal information item to peer and public scrutiny.  It will be interesting to see if this carefree attitude extends to their professional lives in the next 5 years.  Of course, they may never become professional; no one will hire them with all that stuff out there!

For the present, valuable BI from CRM and CI applications depends on early warning components; and they are soft-centered.

The solution clearly is to find ways of ameliorating these culture barriers.  It’s tough, but there are ways.  If this is an important issue for you, watch this space.