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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! 



1. Nadine Tanner, Coemergence Inc. - October 27, 2006

Experience has shown that the challenge in realizing the best return from any system that derives value from human input—whether sales automation, customer relationship management, collaborative workspace, knowledge management or best practice sharing systems—is to maximize usage.

In the past decade, numerous collaborative systems have been implemented at enormous expense within companies and then rarely used. As a result, there is also a general skepticism
about new software solutions. In the highly competitive global business environment, many workers feel pressured by an increasing focus on productivity and little time to engage in
activities with other than immediate benefits. How can these barriers to system usage be overcome?

While the deployment of a new system may clearly serve corporate or specific business function goals, ultimately, individuals will choose the level of their participation, and need a personal reason to contribute. Author and psychiatrist, William Glasser (Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, 1998) presents four reasons which motivate people’s choice to share knowledge—power, belonging,freedom and satisfaction/fun. An article in the December 2003 Journal of Knowledge Management and Innovation (Mary Cororan, Knowledge Management: It’s All About Behavior)
explores Glasser’s four drivers in relation to the implementation of collaborative knowledge systems. Our brief comments below draw on both the observations in the article and our own experience in the field.

“Knowledge is power” is a common attitude, and one consistent with experience in many corporate settings. This approach is generally seen as a barrier to collaboration, but in fact can be turned to advantage. Knowledge can’t really “be” power without someone
requiring or requesting that knowledge. Lowell Bryan of McKinsey & Company suggests creating an internal marketplace for knowledge. In his paper he references a value exchange. Contributors of knowledge receive a boost in their personal and professional
reputation as payout for sharing, while the knowledge shoppers seek out knowledge if its value is high enough to contribute some level of advantage to them. (Lowell Bryan, McKinsey & Company. Making a market in knowledge. 2004.)

This marketplace may be especially compelling for junior employees, for whom it creates a way to make visible to senior staff the value of their knowledge, networks, and insights.

To elicit a sense of belonging, individuals need to feel that they personally can bring value to an initiative. From the start, potential user groups need to be involved in configuring the system so that it conforms to their specific information needs and abilities. In addition, input into the system shouldn’t be allowed to sink into a “black hole.” (Perhaps an outdated analogy, as just recently Stephen Hawking, one of the leading black hole theorists, admitted that information is never completely destroyed in a black hole.) Individual input needs to be highly visible and clearly sourced. People have to feel they belong to and are contributing to the “bigger
picture”.Freedom Increased “freedom” for the individual user can be derived from a system’s ability to create improved efficiencies at both the group and individual levels. This could include (but is not limited to):
• Reducing time spent looking for information;
• Communicating and collaborating more effectively despite geographical dispersion;
• Avoiding duplicate efforts;
• Improving alignment to the strategic plan;
• Avoiding misunderstandings related to individual responsibility and project status;
• Improving decision-making ability and accuracy;
• Better anticipating competitor and industry moves.

A key here is that the individual providing information is also benefiting directly from the information others are putting in. This may result in a more productive operation and decreased reaction times, presenting both savings and competitive advantage.

If a system is time consuming or difficult to use, it likely won’t get used. A simple, clear and intuitive user interface and design that is highly organized around a user’s specific needs and workflow process is a key to user uptake. Scott Berkun (Microsoft) discusses ‘simplicity” as the key to good systems design:
Simplicity does not mean lack of functionality, it means a fast initial learning curve and consideration for the number of concepts the user needs to understand. Using a hammer is fairly simple to learn:
Picking up a hammer and feeling its weight and shape tells even a novice what its basic purpose is.

At the same time, the hammer is designed so that master carpenters and craftsmen can use them with expert-level proficiency. (Berkum, Microsoft Corporation)The Importance of Simplicity: Create Ease of Use Without Losing Power, July/August 1999) Aside from utility and ease of use, we can add here the specific element of letting others see contributions—creating a visible internal knowledge system. The system becomes a way to encourage usage by drawing on basic human curiosity to know the latest gossip.

Whether you are just thinking about implementing a system or already have one in place, success ultimately hinges on people’s usage. Making sure that the solution can draw on core individual motivations, as well as provide benefit at the group level, will help realize the full value it promises.

2. Cyril Brookes - December 2, 2006

Thanks for your comment and for bringing the William Glasser and Lowell Bryan work to my attention. There’s a new post in my blog that expands on my “take” on Knowledge is Power and all that.

Regarding your comment:
Obviously getting maximum usage of any soft (tacit) information reporting system is a key measure of success. But, it begs the question; how to get that high acceptance?

The central thrust of my argument is that many commentators appear to assume that the knowledge to be shared, managed, marketed, exchanged or whatever, actually exists in tangible form. In my experience, the most valuable knowledge is most often created through collaboration between two or more minds at the time it is required to be utilized.

Further, people who want it don’t know it exists, and those who have it don’t know it is useful to someone. Even if the knowledge does exist in some useable form, it often requires some facilitator to bring its relevance to the people who need it.

Lowell Bryan (Making a market in knowledge) appears to come closest to my opinions; in that he obviously accepts that the most valuable knowledge principally exists in the minds of executives, not in documents. It’s the old Henry Minzberg story (actually, I don’t believe that Henry gets the credit he should for being the first with these observations).

The marketing Lowell Bryan discusses needs to focus on this aspect, and I think it’s an easier problem than trying to set up a general corporate knowledge market. We need “just-in-time” knowledge creation, exchange, etc. Collaboration is the key.

3. toscana - April 16, 2007

E grande io ha trovato il vostro luogo! Le info importanti ottenute! ))

4. Kerryn - March 24, 2008

Cool text.., bro

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