Archive | February 2012

The Great Seducer: Thy name is “power!”

First, a few more words about Facebook.  While I still don’t get it as a “product,” it has served as a catalyst in many arenas.  It can serve noble purposes, but it can also spread disinformation; obviously, it depends on the users.  My friend just posted a heart-breaking story about a young woman’s race against time, a couple of months to find a matching bone marrow donor, so my friend is spreading the word through her vast network.  Or, in Wael Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, he recounts how he used Facebook to help ignite the Arab Spring in Egypt.  Even though this Google marketing executive tried to disguise his identity, he eventually was caught and suffered for two weeks in captivity (starved, blindfolded, sleep deprived, solitary confinement, and on and on…) in the final chaotic days of Mubarak’s regime.

My point is that whatever uses Facebook offers, based on 800+ million users the financial wealth it can accrue is likely to be concentrated in only a few people, which is a bit disturbing, given how vast its influence is across the globe relative to other generic global products.

Now to today’s topic.

Power, in many ways synonymous with control, be it at personal level or at group level, offers a vast domain for management research and figures prominently in the literature.  Some of the most valuable experience I’ve gained, during graduate school and post-graduate work, is learning about power dynamics at group level, through reading, participation, observing, and teaching.  Purely fascinating.  And I largely learned it from Kenwyn Smith, through his teaching and through opportunities to work with him.  For the next few entries, I will be discussing the issues of power at group levels, in particular, groups occupying top, middle, and bottom levels of the power structure.  These intricate dynamics reside not just in organizations but everywhere, in units as basic as the family and as large as society and beyond.  Much of the material comes from Smith’s book, “Groups In Conflict:  Prisons in disguise;” which has served me well, and I still go back to it again and again.

The issues and the dynamics are complicated and convoluted; I feel that I can only do them justice by peeling back a layer at a time.  I hope my writing will convey the complexity and keep you intrigued for the next few weeks.

Before I get into groups, let me use a couple of exchanges to highlight how our judgment (and yes, we do it all the time, and often unconsciously) impacts our behavior.

A senior-rank male tells a lower-rank female employee in a conference setting, “Andrea, bring me some coffee.”  Everyone in the room will have a reaction, however private, and that reaction – which is likely to be a judgment – will dictate how this person will interact with the senior-rank male the next time they meet.  Certainly, it predisposes each observer to look for signs in which to validate that initial judgment.  Multiply this by ten-fold — assuming there are more than a dozen participants in the conference room — and we’ll have a sticky interaction pattern down the road.

One of Kenwyn Smith’s examples really struck me and stayed with me vividly till this day.  In his observer-researcher role – studying a small school district —  he found a high school principal’s handling of a teacher’s request to be exactly the same as how the principal was treated by his superintendent.  When Smith presented the comparison to Principal Lewis (not his real name), Lewis refused the comparison.  Even after Smith provided a confirming detailed side-by-side analysis, Lewis’ response was, “but it’s different!”  How so?  Lewis’ words were “I have my reason.”  And you guessed it, Smith pointed out that that was exactly the same reason the superintendent gave him for treating Lewis in the same manner.  To which Lewis still insisted “but it’s different!”  Pressed further, and upon more reflection, Lewis said, “but mine were reasons; the superintendent’s were merely rationalizations!”

The first example illustrates how we construct our framework to see the world around us.  The second points out how we use one framework for our own behavior and use a different one on others.  And we often do not realize it, and in inter-group exchanges we can’t help ourselves.  You say, “no way, I am an intelligent human being, I know better.” But this isn’t about intelligence, it’s about group dynamics, in which we get constricted or even trapped without our knowing the impact.

Why inter-group? When it’s only two individuals?  Because in the workplace, we usually observe and speak from our own position – our office, our role, which carries expectations, responsibilities, and power (or the lack of it), based on groupings of similarly-ranked people.  For more detailed stories of how these groups’ interactions, via representing individuals, get played out and intertwined, I highly urge you to find access to Smith’s book.  In his book two examples were given, one in a simulated society and the other (where the above scene took place) played out in real time in a small New England school district.

When I was in graduate school, I shied away from taking the simulated experiential learning lab because I was afraid to mess up my fragile confidence in the pursuit of my degree.  Well, Kenwyn probably had deeper insight than the excuses I had.  Whatever; by the time I thought I was ready, he had concluded the last lab. But I certainly had heard enough stories, had the privilege to observe some simulated groups, and even conducted mini simulations in some of my classes to take these lessons to heart.  The participants ranged from undergraduate students to upper managers who came for executive programs.  Believe me:  These people all got into the simulation with such force, conviction, commitment and power, that no facilitator without experience and education of such matters can do the work without emotionally harming someone (including the facilitator himself!).

I will tell a little story here, to conclude this entry and to anticipate the greater journey into this power entanglement.

The theme of the simulation lab for the graduate students of my year was “the homeless.”  On the eve before they were to go off campus to the location for the 4-day experiential learning, and after they received their instructions (one of which was to surrender all their cash except for $1 when they register at the site the next morning), they went on an eating binge, as if they could store the food in a bank.  It was a manifestation “psychological hunger.”  Next morning, walking from campus to the train station to depart for the learning site, a walk of about eight blocks, these people were famished!!  They started rummaging through some garbage cans for edibles!!!  All this before the simulation even began.  (Could this be why didn’t I want to participate?!)

Finally, here is a lengthy quote from Smith about some interaction between the top and middle groups:

“ [The top] told the middles not to come back and complain about the incompetence of the top’s decisions but rather to acknowledge their inability as middles to do their job as implementers.  The upper group used their power to reject any feedback about their own competence or incompetence as a group and chose to only listen to the responses of the audience groups that confirmed their own desires to be seen as powerful and in control.”   Do you too find this resonating?

I leave this point for contemplation:  There are forces in the system over which we have little control, but which have a strong grip on us.

In the next entry, I will delineate some conceptual foundations.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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What Do We Value? What Moves Society Forward?

I seem to be in the mood lately to reflect on sociological matters.  Yes, today’s entry has two foci on sociological aspects of our economy:  one on Facebook, and the other, prompted by an NPR interview with the CEO of GE’s Global Growth and Operation, on a perennial well-chewed topic, “competition.”

“Facebook” puzzles me.  I have an account that was totally inactive for a couple of years, and I only recently breathed some life into it for reasons not worthy of the space here.  Suffice it to say that I am now present on it but still not profoundly active.  I have a few friends who have similar relationships with this social (inter)network.  I also know a couple of friends with very busy daily (several times a day) Facebook activities; one exercises them with reservations and the other with enthusiasm.  The rest of my friends, not of the current young generation, are cautious or even weary of Facebook.  My son can take it or leave it, as can most of his (male) pals.  So, even in my limited social circle, attitudes toward Facebook range widely.

fused mass with two heads

But the bottom line is, what kind of product does Facebook sell?  What true innovation(s) has Facebook provided to our economy, society, and humanity? Yes, it offers a convenient and expansive way for people to stay in touch, but does convenience make it worthy of the estimated market capitalization value of $100 billion when its stock becomes available?  I understand that the information age offers very different “products;” but Google I can grasp, eBay’s value I can almost see, and so on.  Why use “PayPal” other than for convenience?  Yes, I am old-fashioned; I would be extremely reluctant to park my credit card information with every online outfit.  But back to Facebook, its only viable sources of income are advertising and harvesting the personal data of its users.  With all the information technologies out there vying for the exhaustible pool of advertisers, these newly arrived companies better had start thinking about different business models, lest another bubble bursts and drags down our economy.

Yes, the young generation baffles me too; why are they so willing to let others reap enormous profits by harvesting their personal data?  What do they get in return beside the 2,000+ “friends” with whom to exchange mostly unimportant stories and occasional interesting information?  Talking about have’s and have-not’s; here is one huge gap staring at us.  I don’t get Facebook nor anything associated with it.

On competition.  I don’t necessarily trust any CEO’s words, be (s)he CEO of GE or GM.  But part of what Mr. Rice (of GE) said appealed to me:  “…too many people in the United States and other places think that job creation is a zero-sum game. By creating a job in China, you’re creating one less job in the United States.” His punch line is that foreign operations can help stimulate domestic economy.  Whether GE actually practices in this spirit, I cannot tell, but I do know that the zero-sum mentality can only succeed in the short term, and only for certain types of operations.  It’s not that competition is inherently bad – I’ve discussed this before (Pfeffer and Sutton’s “acting on knowledge” and Pink’s on motivation, links here) – but both individuals and collectives need to understand when and where to engage in competition, and know when not to be competitive.

any chance to burrow

That was one point I left out in my last entry on the critical investigatory news on Apple.  Apple is the current leader in its category (what is it?), and the darling of many consumers; a good portion of Apple users behave like fans.  So, Apple would be in a good position to make inroads in “better manufacturing practices” if it chose to; it also can afford to do so.  Its competitive mode leads to its obsession with secrecy, which in turn partially contributes to its blind spots for abuses in overseas manufacturing practices.

When Steve Jobs was alive, he could have made a really big splash with a different kind of visionary leadership; he could have evoked his conscience to become a “leader for humanity,” as well as an unmatched business leader, and pushed some reforms in the overseas operations.  Instead, he also fell into the “either/or” trap:  If we don’t go with the existing cheap and flexible labor, we’d lose.  Given Jobs’ reputed brilliancy, I did hope that he could have surpassed the mundane and found a third alternative to the usual business practice.  One possibility might be to invest in educating next generation skilled workers? Some internship and exchange programs with the Chinese manufacturers?  I am not brilliant enough to offer the third alternative, but I expect others who are much smarter than I am could do better.  So, in the end, he was an above average business thinker, but not really a great leader.

sold it!

Interesting times with interesting problems.  Let’s work on creating interesting solutions.  Till we find them,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Apple Bites!

Apple has recently been the focus of some unflattering investigative reporting, in the New York Times, on NPR, and on TV news.  The themes are: how globalized high tech industry has contributed to vanishing middle-class jobs in the US; how some of the manufacturing practices of the suppliers, mostly in developing countries such as China, are suspect; and the overall contrast between developed and developing economies.  Though there aren’t attempts to explicitly compare the different cultures in which some of the philosophies operate, the implicit comparison is glaring.  I have a few reactions myself which may seem to be social commentary, but how can organizations not be affected by social issues, and vice versa?

I often advocate observing boundary, like in the last issue about charity and politics, so in this space I am not rooting for corporate social responsibility – though a strong case may be made.  But it behooves all organizations to be keenly aware of the various larger systems in which they function; you need awareness of the larger landscape to define boundary.

As of 2003, Apple still manufactured their products in the States; in fact, the plant was fairly close to their HQ in Palo Alto, California.  But, like many other high-tech companies, Apple eventually discovered that not only is overseas labor cheaper, but equally important if not more so, overseas labor force is more flexible.  Remember how the US once was like that?  People worked long hours and all hours?  Of course, the majority of us feel that we still do, but the conditions under which we are willing to do so are vastly different from what they used to be, and from China’s labor force’s current working conditions.  When Steve Jobs was asked by President Obama if and how Apple might bring manufacturing jobs back to the States, Jobs answered, “those jobs aren’t coming back;” other executives, at other points, further drove home the point that Apple’s allegiance isn’t with the American society at large but with Apple employees.  At least, they do seem to care about their employees.  I wouldn’t know how to argue against this point, given that as a global company, in addition to their home base, their presence is everywhere.

The key reasons for Apple to rely on China for production are what the labor force there can offer:  skills, diligence, flexibility, scale, and government infrastructure.  Before one of the major supplier companies in China even got Apple’s bid for business, the manufacturer, with government backing (imagine doing that here in the US!) built a huge plant so that if they won the bid, production could begin immediately.  In addition, US is lacking in providing mid-level engineering skills which China has in abundance.  The manufacturing plants in China all have dormitories built next to the plant so that the labor force can turn on a dime at a minute’s notice, which was exactly what happened.

Before iPhone began its production earnestly, Jobs recognized the flaw of the plastic cover: it scratched easily.  In Jobs’ usual style, he demanded immediately changing to glass covers for better quality and construction, only weeks before the phones were to go on sale.  No companies in the US could have met such demand; the manufacturers in China convincingly demonstrated their capability and agility.  As a for-profit company, what do you do?!  Granted, one wouldn’t like to emulate the labor practices in China, often borderline or downright abusive depending on one’s perspectives (whether you come from a comfortable living style of developed countries or from a starving developing country), but they certainly do deliver.  In the case of making glass covers for iPhones, the workers were roused in the middle of the night, fed with tea and biscuits, and walked next door and started working, in 12-hour shifts.  They produced 10,000 iPhones in 96 hours!

Would the US manufacture workers ever be comfortable living in dormitories? Let alone being woken in the middle of the night to work?  Of course, there are professions here that work at all odd hours, but not en mass Chinese style.  And many of these manufacturing sites are little satellite cities, with all the basic provisions covered.  These are company towns, with the companies as the paternalistic overlords.  Can it ever happen (again) in the US?

But to some extend, this comparison isn’t fair.  China is still developing; their workers are hungry (for higher wages, better living, more opportunities…all at different economic developmental points than where US is); they are more willing and more tolerant, to the point of accepting abuse.  The follow-up news report in Times provided some gut-wrenching illustrations of unsavory practices that got people killed, for example by explosion from aluminum dust for which an easy fix could have been found in better ventilation.  Why didn’t they? Till tragedies happened?  Ignorance and costs of installation.  No one with right mind would go back to those times in our own history.

Yet we still would like to have these manufacturing jobs “back?!”  Of course, our working conditions, after years of battling against corporations, are indeed much better.  But I wonder if those are the jobs we should focus on getting back.  There is still a range of jobs involved in manufacturing.  I wonder if we, collectively, were to let go of the notion of reclaiming the traditional jobs and instead focus on the innovative end of manufacturing, would we regain some ground in creating jobs and social mobility.  However, it is clear that we can do so only if we learn to accept a certain amount of risks that are inherent in any innovative, exploratory work.  If we insist on a perfect, or even close to perfect, safe and secure working environment, then, we may as well cede what remains of our innovation leadership to others; our obsession with safety and security measure is already choking off a lot of our creative flow.  Six Sigma might have helped our safety record, but it is antithetical to exploratory research and innovative endeavors, and yet, many R&D organizations continue to apply Six Sigma indiscriminately.

But back to Apple.  I’ve heard some compare the criticism of Apple’s letting profit blind their oversight regarding their suppliers’ abusive practices to Nikke’s similar problem years ago.  Not quite.  Nikke’s products were easily replaceable; Apple’s products, though similar to those of competitors, still command huge following.  Equally important is the price structure; when consumers spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on products that aren’t totally interchangeable with others, their priorities shift.  This doesn’t absolve Apple of its negligence regarding its suppliers’ dubious operations, but it does mean that it’d be harder to motivate consumers to mobilize a boycott.

The two major obstacles for Apple to really leverage for better suppliers’ practices are (1) profit margin, and (2) transparency/secrecy.  Apple is well know for driving a hard bargain on prices with suppliers, and thereby leaving the suppliers little room to make their own profit, which in turn “forces” the suppliers to cut corners with their labor force and equipment.  Apple is also well known, or I should say, Steve Jobs was well known, for keeping product information secret.  Secrecy offers advantages in marketing and promotion, but it also enables behaviors that would not withstand public scrutiny or inquiry.  This is why even though Apple does perform annual audits, and quite a few, in China, it does not make a profound dent in suppliers’ unsavory practices.

So, right now Apple is on top of the food chain.  But how long would it last if it continues to let the wider picture stray out of focus?  It’s that system of rabbits and lynxes again.  For you and me, please

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Parallel Process: Between groups and between organizations & systems

Fresh powder snow!  We’ve been so hungry for such a lovely sight that I might have gotten a bit carried away; an unforced error landed me sideways on a mogul and now my lower back is in pain and I have to type standing up.  Well, at least I got in close to 4 hours of lovely skiing for this round!  Now to concentrate on getting well, and soon.

So, I’ll be brief and current in this post.

so irreistable…

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation sure knew how to shoot itself in the hip.  The injury is serious enough to elevate way above the usual “foot” metaphor!  I will refrain from getting into politics, even though it’s precisely that that got the foundation in such a twisted state.  I can stay at the meta level of politics and there are precious organizational lessons to be gleaned from this brouhaha.

From organization and system perspectives, this conflict was inevitable.  The “system” in this case is our current political system; by all accounts, it is poisonous and ugly.  While even charity causes cannot escape politics, the people running the charity organizations need to know how to draw and maintain boundary; when the boundary becomes permeable, problems in one area will travel to the other area.  This is the essence of parallel process, where conflicts in one area, among relationships, set A, may be manifested in totally different relationships, set B.  Though the original research was to provide an understanding of intergroup dynamics within an organization, a parallel application is how organizations relate to systems.  So, when Komen opened its border to political influence, it invited the same ills that are wrecking havoc with our political system.

Within any organization, there are always power plays and power shifts.  But inevitably, when people at the top level who possess the power find themselves at odds with the rest of the people in the organization, particularly those at the lower level, they tend to offer inane objects as some kind of appeasement, which usually only further infuriates the lower ranks.  (I really am not thinking of politics; sometime later, though, I will write about these levels of power play…a fascinating phenomenon.)  In Komen’s case, the “lower” rank is the vast community supporting women’s health.  So, not surprisingly, I’ve read and heard that most women are simply writing off Komen, despite the reversal of the decision.  And since there are plenty of worthy organizations offering direct and better health services for women, it isn’t difficult to find a new allegiance.

Part of Komen’s myopia comes from its increasing size and presence.  Over the years, Komen has gone beyond just raising awareness for breast cancer to become a “pink industrial complex.”  Large and powerful groups and organizations have a tendency to insulate themselves from the outside world, and lose touch with the important elements outside the organization.  This is exactly the ecological problem, using the rabbits and lynxes example, discussed in my entry on change.  In other words, to not pay attention to the surrounding system and the organization’s relationship with this surrounding system will be a costly mistake.

I’ll be back!!

So, how can Komen redeem itself from its mistake?  Definitely not with its phony attempt at apologizing; that’s the inconsequential appeasement gesture I alluded to earlier.  Only through shifting power may Komen begin the process of salvation.  In this current case, the foundation needs to fire its president and the person in charge of the publicity, AND if they can identity him/her, the person(s) who started advocating the withdrawal of funding from Planed Parenthood (PP).

In the light of the fact that PP’s funding from Komen was a grant contract, this mistake was even more inexcusable.  If Komen considered PP to be a liability, all Komen had to do was wait till next grant cycle and not renew PP’s funding, which, while it might still irritate some sections of public, would have caused only a fraction of the impact of its mistakes this week.  So, we are back to politics.  Komen’s “leaders” need to read and grasp the principles of parallel process.

I am hoping to resume skiing next weekend, if more new snow is coming down as predicted.  What will you be playing?  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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