July 30, 2009

Guaranteed employement

There was an incident during the management of change module about whether or not it is appropriate to make "promises" to employees like guaranteed employment, benefits and so on. This is a real situation that happened to our company Flexipart during the business simulation.

In real life, the same dilemma is faced by well known companies. Like everything in life, there appear to be two sides to the story. While some argue guaranteed employement is Good for the company because  employee are more likely to be loyal and hence less turnover costs. I remember reading this from Deming's book where he cite the example this in Japanses business practice. 

However, contradicting evidence include the likes of General Motors, well known for the deal it made with the union worker for 'sweet' pension and retirement benefits. According to an article from the Economist, such employee benefits was a major cause for General Motor's collapse (because it can't meet its pension obligations) . So this make the following question relevant and interesting

Should organisations offer guaranteed employment to employees?

Well Argyris provide an interest take on this question, from a different perspective from above, I will just quote him i think

He writes in an interveiw with Acme CEO, the CEO wrote

"If the employees express fear about the new plan because the  'old' company guaranteed employment, say: "The new organization will do its utmost to guarantee employment and better prospects for growth. I promise that."


"If the employees express fear that they are not used to dealing with the market approach, say: I promise you will get the education you need, and I will ensure that appropraite actions are rewarded."


Now if I recall correctly, when this happned during the MOC business simulation, the tutor said to our managing director (I paraphrase) "Making false promises to your employee that they will always have their job is not doing them good, it is an act of cowardice". The rationale behind this is that when under pressure , the MD approached the employee's fear by offering a simple no brainer solution "I give you job no matter what happens", thinking this should eliminate sense of fear and enhance commitment. But the MD in fact have no control over the external environment. By simply asserting that he will guarantee jobs is a momentary attempt to regain legitimacy using his positional power while having no concrete plan to ensure his promises can be fulfilled. (He was treading on thin ice basically)

Now the three argumentsI mentioned above, all have a very anti-management bias (I didnt invent this term, Argyris did). Basically it first assumes the responsibility of job security rest in the top management while it completely ignores and removes employee's own personal responsibility for ensuring job security. Argyris wrote

"But look at the confusion of messages and roles. If the CEO means to give these employees a sense of theri own power over their own professional fate - and that was his stated intent - then why emphasize instead what he will do for themEach time he said, "I promise you," the CEO undermined his own goal of creating internal commitment, intrinsic motivation, and genuine empowerment."   (p105)

 Argris's example again illustrate the point that each and everyone of us has our own hidden unsaid assumptions about they way we behave. In the CEO's case, he assumed the management has the full responsibility for employee's job security. But we often don't realise these assumptions are inconsistent with our espoused  (publicly stated intent and behavior).  When we don't realise these two are inconsistent, we produce actions that are inconsistent with are stated beliefs. To others, we appears inauthetic (Dee Nicholls) in our words and actions.

Now what should one do if he/she was in the CEO's shoe? Well I won't bore you with all the same words about leadership and communication. But I will leave you with an story from Mathew (co-tutor in the module). Instead of using fear to motivate , which is the opposite of guaranteeing job security (saying If you don't work hard , you and I will be both out of a job!).  I think he said "I want us to be the best in what we do". Now I don't know if saying this is actually better than the other approaches mentioned above. I 'd happily welcome your thoughts and comments. :)

To quickly sum up. It is clear hopefully from my description that Guarantee-ing employee job secruity is NOT a good idea. For two main reasons. Firstthe external environment will dictate organisational action beyond management control (i.e. recent mass layoff from financial crisis), you end up shoot yourself in the foot. Second, it removes that sense of urgency from the very people you try and expect to change their behavior.

 Argris, C (2001). Good Communications that Blocks Learning. Harvard business Review Paperback on Organizational Learning

The idea of system

In the past few weeks has been a really good period for me. I am reading stuff but I also find myself thinking about things, and understanding more about organisations, inter-personal behviors and so on. When I have these 'insights' i like to write them on blog immediately fearing they would quickly slip away. Doing so also help me clear thinking, analyse situations and so on... but I am not sure whether these ideas have any real value to others. They do to me though.

Anyway, building on my previous entry about defensive reasoning. I just like to relate it to the idea of "system" which W.Edward Deming use as a concept for explaining why problems in organisation occur. His use of word "system" is abit differnt from another well known author Peter Senge's System thinking. Whereas Senge refers to system as a way of making sense of the causal relationship between different events and therefore argue sometimes, what people think to be the cause  (cause #1) of a problem could have a underlying (unobvious) cause (cause #2) as the result of our action taken on cause #1.  The number of causes can of course be as many as you like depending on the complexity of the problem (situation). The point is our action may inadvertently agrevate the cause of the very problem we try to eliminate because of the circularity in the cause and effect. He use the example of US invasion of Iraq

US perceive Middle Eastern threat -> American take military action -> Middle East perceive US threat -> Muslim take militar action  -> US perceive greater Middle Eastern threat -> so on and so forth

 But Deming's idea of system is slightly different. It's more about the difference between superficial causes and underlying causes. They are not necessarily in circularity like Senge's idea. But rather superficial causes are the result of underlying cause. The underlying cause is a broken system. Let me illustrate with an personal example I experienced yesterday.

I went to see Paul Robert for not receiving feedback on my KBAM assignment. It was not to be found on the network or on Paul's personal computer. Long story short. It was probably never received by the WMG department yet somehow submission was recorded as "received" and Paul marked "something" and gave me a mark. I followed the entire event and I thought about how complex the entire system was from student submission, admins recording receipt, making copies, send to tutors, tutors send to tunitin, mark assignment, making different files for recording marks, send marks and feedback back to admin, admin send feedback to student... and so on. If there was any error in the process (by the student, admin, or the tutor) it would have resulted in delays. Sounds like a broken system that need process improvement?  ... haha... I think so.  But the thing is I think throughout the entire incident, everyone seemed to be quite happy with the way the system works. They try to go to the bottom and find the cause. They check IT, check student's record, tutor's records, somehow the cause is there "somewhere" and "we just haven't found it yet".  But has anyone ever wondered why such error occur? and as far as I know from the admin, not just infrequently.  As a student, I think I can say for myself that the submission system is WAY too complicated to use. There is even a dummy mechanism for you to PRACTICE submission.... now having need to practice SUBMISSION is quite strange to some people.  Does it really need to be this complex?

Now I think there is a rationale behind all this. Need for control, and need for back up. As we learned in books and classes. Excessive control leads to bureacracy. As people find more and more need to have check points , the longer the chain of commands, and the greater the ineffciency is likely to result. The idea of backing up is good, system engineering RDD right? but any additional back up system impose a cost. And in organisations, this cost in time, and money being wasted on the the process of making an copy "just in case".  Okay, I know I sound terrrrrrribly like books and consultant... maybe I have been reading too much that I have been 'converted', but yeah something worth thinking about.

Funnily whenever such errors occur we tend to be very tolerant if it was a fault of customers. We would say "let's make things more user friendly so that customer won't make the same mistake twice!" (although not every organisation positive thinker like this). Whenever such errors occur within organisation, we tend to be very intolerant of our employee. Insisiting such problem arise because employee did not do job properly, overlooked certain things, not trained properly (then the blame goes to managers), or whatever.

defensive reasoning

Argyris work on organizational learning really has been really useful to me. At first , I remember myself dimissing it as 'stating the obvious' . Single loop and double loop learning, yeah right. But the more I read, I find myself realising more and more how prevalent the issue of learning is in our society. In almost everyday, every news I read , stories from people I talked to , I find see in some way it relate to what Argyris refers as defensive reasoning

Whenever problem arise, people look for a solution, but at the same time they also seem to have a tendency to blame others. It usually come across in words like " I told him this and that" or "It's not responsibility to..." or " Who did this? who was responsible when the problem took place?" and so on. Then the debate comes down to who was right and who was wrong. To illustrate, a week ago, a news in the US about  a black Harvard professor being arrested by a white policeman for breaking in his (the black professor) own house. I spent some time listening to these media pundits arguing passionately defending whoever they thought no wrong. The supporter of the black professor would say "It is not breaking the law for breaking into his own house, the white police man obvious overreacted (some also implcitly suggest it is racial profiling by the policeman)" . On the other hand the supporter of the policeman would say "The police was only doing his job, he checked after a call for a suspected burglary, the black professor lost his temper and would not listen to the policeman's request to come out of the house, the balck professor is racist himself".

Well, after listening to both sides of the argument, and some reports of the actual incidents. I think it is obiviously that both parties had misbehaved. The black professor obviously overreacted (sure people would defend again saying "under the historitcal circumstances, and being suspected for no wrong doing, anyone would be overeacting"). Sure that is true but does that mean it was the "right" thing to do at the time? Does that mean, you (as the black professor) could be excused for not following the police request, and yell racial slurs to the policeman? No, I don't think so.  Similarly, did the policeman have to  arrest the black professor after confirming that he (the professor) was not the burgarlary and the situation was just a misunderstanding? No he didn't. But if he had not done so, he probably would have looked bad to the gathered people and to colleague at the police station (this I am really guessing his motive, but probably far -fetched guess) .

The point I try to make is  while each parties are busy defending themselve, and accusing others. Everyone seem to overlook the fact that perhaps both parties were responsible for the outcome of the incidenct. If this was in an organisation, the contructive approach is to engage both parties to a conversation , and talk things through. Not only to resolve the misunderstandings. But to inquire why the event happened the way it did without putting on blames. Did they way the professor reacted was perhaps due to an underlying assumption he held about the white policeman in America?  Was it okay for the white policeman to assumethe only way to deal with "disorderly behavior" was to arrest this guy and clear his name later?  After the incident both parties hopefully was already thinking about theses issues anyway.

But doing so, questioning one's own underlying assumptions, as according to Argyris , is extremely difficult because it would mean crticising self for holding those assumptions, and be in a position of blame, which is not something we like to admit to. 

July 27, 2009

Thomas Peter's confession

Okay , I have been reading Tomas Peters and Robert Waterman's 'In Search of Excellence'  for a good hour or two. It was generally interesting to see what they say about business excellence

Apparently the book was a big hit during the 80s , and even today, you can find 6-7 copies in the library which kinda suggest the book is a worthwile read right?

But hey I came across this article (link) attributed to Tom Peters himself (written by an editor who interviewed Tom) , written in 2001, where he confessed to criticisms that he and Waterman faked the data in the book Search. What I find amusing though is he also talks a lot of well known business figures like Drucker, Xerox , and the dark side of McKinsey where he worked as consultant. Some of the quotes from I like from this article are ...

"I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Search

The 8 basic rules of management in Search originated from

"One morning at about 6, I sat down at my desk overlooking the San Francisco Bay from the 48th floor of the Bank of America Tower, and I closed my eyes. Then I leaned forward, and I wrote down eight things on a pad of paper. Those eight things haven't changed since that moment. They were the eight basic principles of Search. "

Why did he write this book? Because he was pissed! Pissed at what?

"Who was I pissed off at? At Peter Drucker, for one. Today, everybody acts as if Peter Drucker has always been one of those who gets it. Go back and read Concept of the Corporation. Peter Drucker may be an Austrian, but he's more German than the Germans when it comes to hierarchy and command-and-control, top-down business operation." 

You think Xerox is a great company?

"Xerox was considered to be the company of the century, but I knew better. There it was, all in one place: the bureaucracy, the great strategy that never got implemented, the slavish attention to numbers rather than to people, the reverence for MBAs -- you name it....So here it is: If you want to reduce Search to a core message, that message would be this: Xerox sucks."

I am only up to page three and  this gives me a sense of thrill and excitement like I am reading up on some business gossip ... haha...

Despite confessing in public of his that the book doesnt quite stand up in terms of academic rigor, by the time you get to about page 4 (of the article, not the book) , one begin to see that that despite the inadequacies, his main message was essentially right "Soft is Hard". He argues the conventional wisdom at the time was Hard was Hard. People who deeply believed that strategy, structure, procedures, and numbers were the ten commandments to business management. This message mirrors all the stuff we have been learning in our class so far EFQM, Six Sigma, TQM, Kowledge management and so on. The key message is this, without an utter attention to the people, all the best strategies, tools, programs, initiatives are close to complete uselessness. I believe this is also something that deep underpins my current project which is looking at some of the limitations of these management innovations. Looking back , the reason that the message of this book was essentially correct is, I believe, not a mere coincidence. The fact is , even though the data (presumably qualitative data the authors claimed to have interviewed business managers) was fabricated, the fact is both of them were consultants who had years of experience with business industry. Furthermore, Tom himself got a PhD from Stanford on Organisational behaviors . Taken together they probably had a pretty good theoretical background on business management, and a practical view of real world business. Coupled together it was not suprising their conclusion were not too far from the truth. The book itself , allude to plenty of management theorist at the time such as James March, Karl Weick, Chandler and many other well respected organisational and management theorists, making a strong case for their argument from a academic point of view.

In the last couple of pages, Tom concludes that he is no longer interested in excellence, but he is interested in interesting. He argues the way business may suceed in today's world of fast paced environment is daring to try, to learn, and be different. Customer does not buy the same even if it has always remained the same for many years. They buy new, cool things. However, we often attribute consistency to quality as well , for example if every can of Heinken has a slight different taste, would it still be popular as it is today? So, here then is one of greatest paradox of business. "To be excellent, you have to be consistent. When you're consistent, you're vulnerable to attack. Yes, it's a paradox. Now deal with it!"

At this point I am also thinking about whether it is appropriate to try and define excellence (i.e. find the set of associated characterisitcs). The difficulty and the dilemma with this exercise is , like many other kind of vague mysterious words e.g leadership, love, courage, what ever you come up with, you can always find an exception to the rule.  If excellence is what Tom describe it to be - Different, then perhaps the very exercise of trying to define it (and hence standardise it) , very much contradict what it means to be Excellent.

Personal defenses

An important discussion in organisational learning is why organisations does not 'learn'? Argyris argues learning is the continuous double loop learning - challenge and changing those deep held assumptions (theory in use). But double loop learning is inhibited by organisational defenses. Argyris explains organisational defenses arise from deep held individual belief to avoid oneself from threatening situations. Some of these beliefs include

  • Self protection at all cost- avoid confrontational situations that exposing myself to blame
  • Protection of others- avoid testing other's assumptions which evoke negative feelings in them, and making them feel they are to blame  
  • Control the situation and task- taking actions or views , act privately, avoid public inquiry that might refute my own view

If I think about these things , I can easily recall myself having these beliefs and how they controlled my decisions. Take blogging for example, I believe sometimes I don't want to express my views because I don't want it to be refuted by others. Certainly in life, I am the type of person that would try to avoid exposing other's flaws. My unwillingness to confront the deeper level problems, both in myself and in others, often led me to believe I was helping others but when in fact I was merely rescuing others. The latter doesn't actually doesn solve the problem and doesnt prevent the same issue from re-ocurring.

This seem like good practice of social behavior, in order to get along. But in organizations, these assumptions manifest itself in distrust, non-cooperation, political game and so on ... all are merely symptoms of set of our underlying assumptions about interpersonal behaviors.

When people holds these assumptions about the behavioral world of organisation, the organisational whole becomes resistant to accepting new views, trying new things, and change organisational routines (theory of action) that may inadvertently reinforce these personal level defenses.

A few years ago the notion of EQ or Emotional Quotient was very popular. People often relate one's EQ to their success in life. Now I think about it, people with high EQ are probably quite aware of their personal defenses and know how to manage it effective in themselves and others.


July 26, 2009

Theory of action vs Theory in use

For weeks now I wondered about the terms 'theory of action' and 'theory in use'm what they mean and how they are different. They are two concepts introduced by Chris Argyris and are widely cited in organisational learning literature. Unfortunately, except in the earlier work by Argyris, he doesn't seem to define them clearly , rather it was used straight away. The same  goes with the literature. No definition , somehow reader are expected to know them already

Today I finally know the difference

Theory of Action is a theory of deliberate human behaviour which is for the agent a theory of control but which, when attributed to the agenet, also serves to explain or predict his behavior (P.10)

On the other hand, he explains the difference with theory-in-use as

When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action who which he gives allegiance and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is his theory in use, which may or may not be compatible with his espoused theory (p.11).

In more straighforward terms, theory in action is the things you say you do. Theory in use iswhat you actually believe and not just what you say you believe. These two may not be the same e.g. attitude toward smoking, sexual orientation, exercise, healthy eating, and more generally, political correctness.

Chris Argyris- Organizational learning- A theory of action perspective

Defense routines

Few days ago we received the feedback for the Management of change module. It was a long awaited feedback since we submited the assignment about six weeks ago. I am not saying Dee was slow in returning the feedback but like they say "Good things come to those who wait", I think what I got was well worth the wait.

First thing I noticed was the length of the written feedback. One thousand words by my computer editor's estimate. Well I think this is the first I I ever got such as detailed feedback for any of my work. As far as I am aware, Dee does this for all her students. Just imagine the time and effort she'd put in to mark 16 assignments or in some other classes , 30+.

At the first reading it was a bit uneasy because of the critical tone she used to examine my work, just like when we had the module. It often feels as if she could see the unvoiced assumptions deep down in my mind and ruthlessly tear it out into the open. 

In one passage she wrote

Most issues were well discussed but unfortunately, your last line (...there simply was not enough time to build that relationship) overturned a good number of insights that went before. This highlighted what appeared to be a blind spot on your part, what Argyris has often described in his work on organisational defensiveness. You were a leader and you had enough time to form relationships with people ¡V leaders in other simulations in the past have managed to form highly positive and communicative relationships with their staff in the past. 

The reason I picked this one is because well first I don't fully agree with her but if I come up with any excuses, I'd end up being labelled being "defensive". It's like I am not allowed to explain myself. Secondly, organisation defensiveness is something I am researching for my project. So I thought it would be interesting to compare my experience and what I learnt from the literature so far.  According to Argyris (1978;101) Organisational defense is when what people use to protect themselve from threatening situations, implictly suggesting that these actions are counter-productive. Organisational progress may be hindered if certain key players decide it was not in their self interest to adopt new practice, routine, or idea and so on. People do it because it prevent them from engaging in a painful and difficult task of 'critically examining their role within organisation'. So organisation defenses is a mechanism people use to prevent themselve from changing.

Was I being defensive when I made that comment? Did I say that because I didn't want to admit that I wasn't doing a good job? I don't think I was because for that entire paragraph I was reflecting on the mistakes I made as the financial manager during the business simulation

Perhaps as the management we didn't communicate well and more importantly allowing workers to communicate back to us which contributed lack of mutual understanding and a divisive culture.  

The reason I added that comment at the end  (...there simply was not enough time to build that relationship.) was simply from my own observation of the environment at the time (deadline, confusion, yelling, and a lot of stress) there was simply no opportunity to build realtionship with the group member. Given that we were not suppposed to stop producing output throughout, it was difficult to focus on soft people issues when there were more pressing issues (profit) to deal with.

Of course, the couter argument for this is "In real life, this is what business environments are like, you don't get time to work on soft issue, you gota do them both at the same time!". "Besides other groups have managed to build a cooperative culture in the past , why can you?" Well, this is difficult  to argue with that since I havn't had that business experience and seen personally for myself how such people issue could be solved under the same conditions.

To quickly conclude, I don't think I was being defensive when I made that comment in my writing. It seems like the problem I encountered was although I know perhaps what I should have done, I didn't actually believe I could do it. I didn't believe we could have attended to 'building a open culture' under the time and performance pressures.I guess this just leave me with what do I need to do to close the gap?


July 18, 2009

Value of good quality?

Eight months ago, I wrote a blog on the "Cost of Bad Quality" (see here). The choice for this title is, well, my childish way of responding to my previous entry :P

The idea for this blog actually came from doing my project research which is going pretty well (thank you for asking). In my research I became particularly interested in the causal relationship between Doing Quality and Business Performance.  Since few would dispute that quality is highly desirable in product and service that we consume.  We generally take for granted that all things associated with quality is probably good for us, including the popular quality methods used and advocated by consultants and practitioners. In fact, most books on quality seem to suggest either explicitly(i.e. Harry & Schroeder (2000); Pande et al (2002;2000), or implicitly (Deming 2000, Crosby 1984) that quality contribute to direct business performance (i.e. Six Sigma).  However, I feel because people have taken these ideas for granted that anything associated with quality (such as quality methods) are generally being treated in an unscrupulous fashion.  

One of the exciting (but also tedious) thing about this area of research is that there seem to be huge inconsistency in the literature. Many empirical studies suggest positive correlation when just as many suggest the opposite. How to explain such disparity in finding? Various suggestions are posed such as researcher  bias (Powell 995), unscientific research methodology (Powell 1995), lack of objective information on actual practise & different interpretation and application of quality (Easton and Jarrel 1998)and selection bias in firm (Powell 1995)and so on.

But these are , in my opinion, minor error in research methodology that do not fully explain why there are two large body of contradicting conclusions. Is there an actual difference on the firm level (i.e. between adopt & non-adopting)? Or is there another explanation (beyond firm level) for such empirical disagreement?

What I find most exciting is that I seem to have found at least two arguements, both offers macro level explanations for the observed discrepancies. The first one is from an institutional theory perspective (a strand of organisational theory). I won't describe its origins. It is suffice to say that the theory argues firms tends to conform to existing practises (thus becoming more alike) because they want to be seen as legitimate (justified in existence) in the eyes of stakeholders. In another word, Firm A sees many companies doing Six Sigma and it feels it has to do Six Sigma as well in order not to be seen as falling behind. Evidence of this phenomenon has been observed particular in heavily regulated industries such as health care and financial sector (presumably to conform to regulation or compete for state resources) (Westphal 1997, Deephouse 1995). However,  in less-regulated industries, managers will choose to conform to industry practise because doing so give them better reputation and pay (Staw and Epstein 2000). Now, how does this relate to Doing Quality and Business Performance? Institutional theory argues firms adopt quality methods not because it want to improve process efficiency or yield but because of other reasons such as regulation or higher compensation. Therefore, there is likely to be a gap between rhetoric (what firms say they will do) and practise (what firms actually do). Now, when researchers send out questionnaires to company manager asking about their quality effort. The pool is likely to be made up of firms that are totally serious of quality effort and firms that approach quality in an apathetic, half-hearted manner.  The inclusion of firms passive about quality leads to results that show quality effort made no significant (or even negative) effect on business performance.

Now, you may say "But that doesn't explain everything! What about those studies that are careful about choice of sample to make sure only firms serious about quality are selected?". Indeed there are studies that control for such bias by selecting only firms that won quality awards (Baldridge or EFQM), or certified with ISO 9000. Because of the third party assessment process, the selected firms are more likely to have implemented consistent quality practises. But there is another explanation for this situation too. It is from the resource based view of organisation-namely firm success is determined by the resource it posses. Since possession of quality practice (a resource) confers an advantage (in product, process quality, and customer perception) over its competition, firms will choose to practise quality in order to outcompete or in the case of slower adopters compete with earlier adopters. Now, that is all very well and good. Competition is good for the society. However, the problem comes when a quality practise diffuse to the extent that most firms have it and the quality practise itself no longer confers a competitive advantage (Porter 1996). Imagine if everybody in your class got an "A" for final exam, how does this make your own "A" special or unique? This is particularly problematic in the case of pre-packaged, generic quality practises (i.e. Six Sigma) because of the ease of implementation (faster industry adoption), but also the faster the rate of loss in competitive edge. Think about why some firms choose not to be seen as associated with certain quality methodologies - simply because otherwise it would be seen as indifferent with its competition in customer's eyes. You may also relate this to the faddish phenomenon of management initiatives. As one "idea" become saturated in the marketplace, firms look for the next "big" thing to differentiate themselves from competitors. Consultants and business managers are in a mutually dependent relationship. Consultants (and partly academics) simply provide an avenue for such "ideas". Now, like before, I must ask "how does this relate to doing quality and business performance?".  According to the resource based view of the firm, early pioneers of a quality practise would enjoy a first mover advantage (Lieberman & Montgomery 1988) of huge financial benefits from process improvements marketing.  Late adopter of a quality practise would gain virtually no benefit due to the extended diffusion of practise.

To conclude, is good quality valuable? Probably so. But does this mean practising quality will always deliver good business value? The empirical evidence seem to have given us a largely confusing and contradicting answer. In this short entry I have tried to offer a macro-level for such discrepancy in literature from both organisational behavior and strategy perspectives. When quality practise is adopted only superficially, the difference in actual practise between serious and passive adopters may be difficult for researcher to detect. Even with the inequality in actual practise controlled, the ease of quality practise diffusion in the industry means competitive advantage based on quality is becoming more difficult to sustain. This in turn, differentiate early adopters from the later adopters whom may both be doing exactly the same thing!

July 14, 2009

My two cents worth on competing with Management Initiatives

Ah... We are nearing the end the Msc dissertation, I have noticed how my blogging activity have dropped dramatically after modules were completed



At first I thought this is because no more class= no new stimulation to the brain = no reflection

But surely I must be learning lots by now from doing all the research??

Admittedly up until few days ago, I was still struggling with the direction of my project

"What question am I trying to answer?"

"Is there really an answer to this question?"

Huh... I guess I was totally confused, and when I am confused, I find it hard to reflect




I am begining to think that the most difficult part is over, no more confusion!!!

And I can begin to relate what I have been reading, to what I already knew

What do I mean?

For example, one of the things I have been thinking about is "Business"

What is their goal? Why is there one Management Initiatve after another? TQM, BPR, KM, Six Sigma, DFSS. Lean Six Sigma, organisational learning, learning organisation ... ... ...

And I think I am begining to have clarity, it is still hard to explain at the moment, I will try putting this down in pens and paper

One of the thing I have come to realise is the idea of competitive edge

Business exists by out-competing one another

Throughout history, business compete by having something that the competition lacks

This something is of many things. It could be how much money business have, what technology, machinery, government relation... and so on

In the 80s, the competitive challenge was Quality. There was a  Japanese threat on quality. So this gave rise to TQM, Quality circle, worker empowerment, SPC...

In the early 90s, people realise having quality is not enough. Business need to change all the time. So the notion of learning organisation was coined. Sadly, the term learning organisation is a rather miscontrued usage because it bear little relationship to the organisational theories on organisational learning that began in the 1950s. Confusing ? Definately!

In the mid 90s,  people are through with quality, product quality is on par with the Japanese make. Then people realise they need another competitive edge. Hammer and Champy wrote an article in HBR and then a book on Business Process Reegineering BPR. It was thought, we need not only quality, but quality at lower cost! People realise business relate to customer through its actvities. Value adding activites are Good while Non-value adding activities are Bad! BPR then is about re-drawing business so that business consist only with value adding processes.

Nearing the end of 1990s, and the begining of 2000, there was a revival of quality- as Six Sigma. Similar to its earlier ill-fated brother TQM, it too focuses on Quality and Cost. But it claims to be better than TQM. How? Well from what I can gather, the language is different (more jargons), the way it came to dominance is different (look at successful stories from GE, Motorola, Honeywell!). But fundamentally, it is based on the same principles + tools of TQM that started 30 years ago. Where TQM failed, that its meaning have since became lost with the broadening of its concept, Six Sigma claims to have succeeded.  Through a clever packaging of quality principles (PDCA, Variation control, team based problem solving), and a business-like language to navagate your around all the nitty gritty details, it somehow became a paneacea for all your business problems.  If you want a "Complete idiot's guide to quality control", then Six Sigma is your answer!  Of course I am kidding myself here, there is more to Six Sigma than I what I have described but the point I try to make here is that history often repeats itself. After a while , when the Six Sigma hype has subsided, people begin to wonder "Hey ! why hasn't it worked for me?". Usually, people blames it on the culture, the people, and the resistance. A "learning environment" it seemed, was a pre-requisite for success. But the same kind of problem existed long before Six Sigma came along. The Quality gurus, like Deming, Juran, and Ishikawa have discussed these issues which some have categorised as 'Soft TQM". Somehow, the Six Sigma advocates choose to neglect this (You'll be surprised to find how little reference to Quality history in Six Sigma books). The reason TQM lost its meaning is two fold. First there is a large divergence in the writing between quality gurus and little reconcilliation in a single all encompassing framework. Second, when it gets to the "Soft TQM", that is where the difficult part begins. Leadership, knowledge, people, trust, culture, continuous improvement and so on means different thing to different people.  It is like IQ, or handsomeness, or beauty, you either have it or you don't. It's exact meaning is ambiguous. In business and in life, ambiguity is problematic. There isn't exactly a 'complete idiot's guide" to leadership either. Getting the the Soft issues right is hard work and people don't like hard work, especially when they don't know when it is going to pay off. Consultants too find it much harder to sell 'leadership' than something tangible, logical, rational & tool-like solutions.

Now the latest management thinking appears to be 'knowledge management'. This arise from the notion that in today's world, neither quality, cost, or even processes give you the competitive edge you need. What is needed is people and the knowledge that rest in people. This fit well with the idea that only innovation will enable business to outlast its competition.

By now I think all of us can begin to see a pattern here. All these initiatives, while the core ideas are good in itself (quality, process, knowledge are all important), but it is being approached in a solution like way. Somehow, there is this "THIS IS YOUR ANSWER!" mentality. Perhaps this is caused by heavily solution oriented culture of business environment. But the reality is, there isn't always an obvious solution to business problems. Getting the people problems right, requires hard work. Not just in business, in family, relationships, and between nations.

Succession of management initiatives has often been refered to in a jeering way such as "Flavor of the Month", "Management fad" , or "Keep your heads down, it soon will pass".  Despite this, has there been progress? I should think so. Everytime a new idea come along, it is based on a particular symptom common the everyone in the industry. Management fashion gets everyone's attention on the problem. Even though like other new ideas, the initial phase is always filled with confusion, ambiguity, and many lost dollars and cents. With time, as business gain greater clarity, they will learn to cherry pick the parts of 'package' that are useful and build it into their organisational routines. This is what moves organisations forward. This is organisational learning. After the business innovation has been completely exploted beyond recognition, another will rise to replace it.

So is there an end to this ? Will there be the next something after knowledge management?  I should think so. Some ideas gaining popularity seem to be the environmental issues (Sustainability !) which is already gaining currency in the literature (and advertising!) . We will see :)

May 03, 2009

Blocking skype on 3G

Blocking skype on 3G

Recently i bought myself a 3G usb dongle from T-mobile. It is quite a neat little device by allowing me to surf at high speed wherever I am at. And the best thing is the speed and convenience is well worth the 2 quid/day I pay. Now, as I am experimenting beyond "surfing" stage, I begin wonder see if I could use VOIP apps like Skype. The result from my initial experiment was negative. Apparently only my voice was heard but I could not hear anything coming from the other side. The first thing I suspect was that T-mobile was blocking Skype on their GSM network. It makes sense since if everyone makes their mobile phone calls through 3rd party apps like Skype , T mobile would not collect much revenue from their normal "voice" service. 

So I Googled it and found that my suspicion was correct (see 1, 2, 3), then i read with some interest what the public feels about this. As expected, most people feel strongly against this act calling it as "uncompetitive" or "corporate greed". Then there are people who empathise with the telecos arguing the view that skype "free rides" the exisiting 2G/3G network. The official statement from skype is also against attempts to block VOIP claiming that customers shouldnt be "restricted" in however they wish to do their calling business (here). 

Well, what of all this? Should T-mobile have the "right" to block skype? Well I believe it does. Not only because it is their network and they can do whatever the hell they want. But also the case for "free riding" seem fairly strong. Why should telecos like T mobile after spending large sum of money establishing wireless network only to have the benefits reaped by other parties like skype who took no responsibility in the initial investment? Unless we are doing something for charity, we wouldnt bring food to the table only to have our neighbours come eat it? It seems very similar siutations are faced in other industries as well. In broadband, the issue is whether telecom should "unbundle" their services. In music, whether media corps should allow online media sharing (The Pirate Bay) or making ripping music /movies legal (here)? The biggest dilemma faced by mediators (like the government) is how to make sure market remain compeititve and maintain that companies have enough incentive to doing things that have large 'spill over' benefits. The two objectives are in direct conflict. The current solution seem to be to give a temporary monopoly to "inventors" and gradually strip monopoly away as in copyrights and IP patents. 

Nowadays It is almost expected that product and services should become cheaper and better day by day. But it is also important for us consumers (even if we dont want to) to believe the ultimately goal of businesses is to make profit! And businesses will do anything to make that happen. By banning telecos from 'banning' skype is a lose-lose situation. Because the very service skype runs on- namely the 2G/3G network would be brought down, and the end consumer becomes the biggest loser. It is unlikely to get to this stage though.  I don't see "blocking" skype is a long term solution and the telecos probably know it themselves that it is not in their best interest to block skype. If another teleco finds an innovative way to integrate VOIP with its existing network, and make money, self protecting firms like T mobile would certainly become uncompeittive and forced to change their strategy or go out of business. But until then, blocking should only be a temporary strategy until telecos/skype/others can find a better way to resolve this conflict of interests. 

The ultimate solution, whatever it will be, has to ensure it doesnt serve only the interest of any single party(telecos/skype/ or customer). As better technology becomes available and services can be delivered by lower cost alternatives, telecos should instead of fighting to block the trend, find a way in which they can benefit from the changing times. 

I hope I have made the situation and my stance on this clear enough. Obviously I know this can be a contentious topic and my views may not be the same as yours. But I do want to hear your views . However please keep them brief to the point and try not to be agressive even if you feel very strongly about this. If I moderate it , it definately is not me trying to "silence" you , its just I dont like to be intimidated.

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