Archive | July 2013

Targeted Learning, Meandering Learning: Exploitation vs. Exploring Learning In Organizational Contex

Refined skill gone awry...especially when this is the fourth or fifth one after entering the premise.

Refined skill gone awry…especially when this is the fourth or fifth sign after entering the premise.

Exploration learning is associated with experiment, discovery, play, risk…and long-term perspective.  Exploitation learning is associated with refinement, efficiency, production, execution…and short-term perspective.  An organization that fails to properly balance the allocation of resources between these two will eventually face some crises.  For instance, emphasis on exploration learning is likely to yield anemic profits, and focusing only on exploitation learning will choke off creativity and narrow organizational competence.  Another way of looking at these two types of organizational learning is:  Exploration concerns the know-why’s, and exploitation concerns the know-how’s and know-what’s.

James March’s article, “Exploration And Exploitation In Organizational Learning,” (Organization Science, vol.2, No. 1, February 1991, pp. 71-87) is considered seminal in management and organization issues.  He is also the author of “The Technology of Foolishness,” in which he argues that play is the foundation of discovery, creativity, and invention.  His notion that “reason inhibits foolishness; learning and imitation inhibit experimentation” should be made into posters and sent to all organizations.  Seriously, though, the opposite of wandering and thinking widely is the ever-narrowing path to hone that skill(s) of “competence.”  On such a focused path, the more positive feedback one gets, the more one wants to safeguard that particular competence/skill, whether it’s actually value-added or not.  This sets up the foundation of ignorance, the topic of my last post.  In contrast, the cost of exploration learning is exemplified in the usual concerns over “basic research” where outcomes are uncertain, time-consuming, and can become the quicksand of escalating resource needs.

In a more stable environment, an organization may be able to coast on exploitation learning and increase efficiency.  In a turbulent environment, though, an organization needs to have the flexibility to maneuver.  Since an organization cannot become flexible overnight, it needs to build up its knowledge and diversity of ideas while cashing in on the refinement of its competences (exploitation).  Within an organization, one way of gaining new ideas is through new recruits.  Or, sometimes, people rotate through different assignments and positions to learn and to contribute.

The distinction between exploration learning and exploitation learning has implications for organizations’ obsession with “safety and security” measures.  When most of these measures are based on known practices – exploitation of existing skills – they ultimately hurt exploration learning which is by definition outside the known territory.  March quoted the physicist Michael Polanyi on his discoveries, “I would never have conceived my theory, let alone have made a great effort to verify it, if I had been more familiar with major developments in physics that were taking place.  Moreover, my initial ignorance of the powerful, false objections that were raised against my ideas protected those ideas from being nipped in the bud.” 

I draw our attention to an intriguing distinction between different “flavors” of ignorance:  Polanyi’s “ignorance” comprises naiveté and innocence mixed with a desire to gain more knowledge and improve understanding, whereas “ignorance” in George Elliot’s expose (in my last post) is based on fear and the rejection of knowledge especially as it addresses something new.

Wishing you a productive week of exploitation learning, and a thoughtful week of exploring learning.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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(Sometimes) Ignorance Is Bliss…unless it’s by design

First, an update on the previous post, a fantasy regarding goats and bureaucracy.  It could be real!  Washington Post had a story about a magician, his rabbit and bureaucracy.  The magician had to file a “Rabbit Disaster” plan to satisfy an antiquated rule of the US Department of Agriculture.  Evidently, the magician’s license was contingent on his rabbit rather than on his skills.  My post was a pure fantasy, but maybe it was not so far-fetched?!


Today, I want to tie “compartmentalization” and “ignorance.”

“It is a common sentence that Knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of Ignorance?  Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down.  Knowledge, through frugal and patient centuries, enlarges discovery and makes a record of it; Ignorance, wanting its day’s dinner, lights a fire with the record, and gives flavor to its one roast with the burnt souls of many generations.  Knowledge, instructing the sense, refining and multiplying needs, transforms itself into skills and makes life various with a new six days’ work; comes Ignorance drunk on the seventh, with a firkin of oil and a match and an easy ‘Let there not be’ – and the many-colored creation is shriveled up in blackness.  Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all the places of joy dark as a buried Babylon”

from “Daniel Deronda,” by George Elliot

Elliot’s beautiful prose – I can’t possibly shorten it — makes anything I want to say about ignorance superfluous.  However, I may be able to make a case for how compartmentalization begins the slippery slope into the abyss of ignorance.

A tree in a Grand Canyon.

A tree in a hole…in Grand Canyon.

Compartmentalization certainly has given rise to the utterance, “this is not my job.”  (This expression is only funny on NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”)  The opposite is the advocacy of system perspective in which elements in a system are all interconnected.  My favorite example is building the best car.  Someone had the brilliant idea of assembling a group of engineers and asking each to pick the best part of the best car (everyone had a different choice of “the best car”…interesting) in the world and put these parts together.  And the car didn’t even run.

While there are certain values to compartmentalization, such as dividing a task for efficiency sake, we seem to have escalated this practice to absurdity in many cases.  For instance, a regulation or code for one area may impede effective work in other areas.  GOCO, the “government owned contractor operated” model, is another perfect example.  Allowing a contractor to do the government agencies’ work, the agencies essentially shirk their responsibilities to actually accomplish work and in exchange resort to exercising oversight, a.k.a. back seat driving.  Each contractor in turn has only one area of concern, and is not contractually required to understand or care about – in other words, is incentivized to ignore — the work in other branches of the same agency.  Each contractor carves out its special niche and rakes in fees.

The same niche-enhancing mentality also applies to individual professionals.  As we attempt to make ourselves into the “experts” in our little holes, I mean our professional arenas, we neglect areas immediately abutting our professional territory.  We develop tunnel vision.  We become ignorant of competing aspects.  Some may argue that we are all stressed out at work and suffer information overload already.  I say, that’s exactly when we need, ever more urgently, to stop doing the same thing on the same track, stop using the same approach, and begin exploring alternatives.

Same tree from a different angle...still, you can't tell the famous background.

Yet another tree in Grand Canyon…still, you can’t really tell the famous background.

Ignore other dimensions of our work, wholly or somewhat related, and we will contribute to the “power of ignorance” that George Elliot so eloquently portrays.  How about we start a movement to bring back generalists?  Invite a colleague with whom you rarely work for lunch.  Sit beside someone you don’t know very well at the next meeting and create a conversation.  Start a meeting by inviting everyone to share a short story that no one knows, and open up our worldview.  For introverts, read up on subjects in your peripheral area, or write on a topic not usually of interest to you.  Expanding our horizon doesn’t have to be a grandiose program; just a little bit every day can be very refreshing.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Another Summer Fantasy: This one involves goats and bureaucracy

A nearby community college recently purchased two goats, mother and kid, to handle the landscape maintenance on their 60+ acre campus.  The groundskeeper could not keep up with the invasive trees, shrubs, and weeds.  He didn’t want to use herbicides for fear of contaminating the running water.  While the president of the college was unaccustomed to farm animals – he’s from a major city – he decided to approve the plan.  Since the arrival of mother and kid, the grounds have been cleaned out a lot and the goats are happy.  They live in an enclosed area during the night and munch away during the day.  This sounds like a win-win solution.

A mother goat and kid in the city farm.

A mother goat and kid in the city farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend jokingly suggested that our local big scientific organization should consider such an intelligent plan.  This organization (let’s call it TB for The Blackhole) has been tying itself into multiple interconnected pretzels for the past few years with rules and regulations and then some.  You can barely sneeze without needing an approval first.  So, here is the scenario that popped into my head.

To employ two goats, TB first has to conduct a study on these alien beings.  To properly conduct such a study, a call for proposals has to be written up.  A committed is assembled to write this unique call.  Then, another committee has to be assembled to examine all proposals.  When all’s done, it’d take about nine months before the study can finally commence.  During the study, yet another oversight committee has to be formed to ensure that money is properly allocated and no harm will ever be inflicted upon the animals.  (The Animal Subject Committee declined to review this plan.)  During the waiting period — turning proposal to actual study — the animals’ diet has to be scrutinized for proper quantities and nutrients, and whether adequate exercise can be achieved without excessive infringement upon the organization’s property.  Let’s not get into the question of who has to look after the goats for now; that involves other sets of procedures.

Assuming the study concludes with the recommendations that the animals be allowed to roam in designated areas for a trial period, the unfortunate groundskeepers (you cannot conduct such innovative work with only one person) will have to produce an IWD (Integrated Work Document) for every procedure involved:  When do goats clock in in the morning?  What area on which day will be covered?  Is this area likely to have contaminants in the ground?  And here is the biggie:  Define milestones.  Will the goats have enough, too much, or too little in a day? A week? A month?  Where is the overnight enclosure?  Is it safe (intruders, bears, mountain lions)?  Do the fences meet the safety standards? If not, who’s in charge of inspection and maintenance? (There needs to be coordination.)  What if the goats get spooked by coyotes’ howls during the night?  Is there an emergency contact for such unforeseeable event?  (Who decides if this is an emergency and takes up all the following steps?  Don’t go there.)  My imagination is limited, but I am sure the bureaucratic apparatus can conjure up many more questions to be covered.

A goat squeezing through a fence

A goat squeezing through a fence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do all works at TB need an IWD?  Only if the work is low hazard does this requirement not apply.  How do you define low hazard?  I have no doubt there is a fancy algorithm to guide that decision.  Since the presence of goats would be too novel, let’s be safe and require an IWD.  Between keeping an eye on the goats, filling the IWD forms, and filing for occasional purchases orders (collars with bells, vet visits, etc) that take weeks to clear, the groundskeepers might look away for too many minutes, and one of the goats step into a crevice and breaks a leg.  Obviously, someone did not check the ground thoroughly.  Now, we need to call for a “Critique” to assess what has gone wrong, what lessons we can learn from the incident, and what punishment (the injured goat? The uninjured goat? Or the groundskeepers?) is appropriate.

One of the groundskeepers has had enough and manages to transfer to a different job (if he’s resourceful, he quits TB).  So now, the “unit” has to hire a replacement.  They need to post the job, and this posting has to be approved by the Committee of Grand Poobahs (CGP).  Then, there needs to be a search committee followed by a few rounds of interviews.  If all goes well (no need for town hall meeting for a low level job), the hiring decision goes back to CGP for approval…assuming the HR person doesn’t screw up the paperwork for CGP (and if HR misses this round, the approval has to wait till the next time when the CGP meets again).  This all may take another six months, and in the meantime, the short-staffed groundskeepers struggle to keep up with the goats and pray that no further mishaps take place.

You think I am kidding?

At least half of the TB people deal with such scenarios regularly.  And the management reviews IWDs, purchase requests, hiring requests…, and the CGP approves/disapproves everything.

This is only funny when it applies to goats.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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If We Must Have Scandals And Dramas…

At least, let’s glean some lessons.

(This is the second time when I thought I had posted an entry sometime ago…I didn’t.  And I didn’t realize it till much later.  Even though today’s entry was written in response to news items, stale by now, the lessons still apply.)

I am struck, yet again, by the cosmic distance between the top management and the rest of the working world.  And as usual, a good portion of this distance is caused by the monstrous ego of the manager/leader.  But ego cannot flourish without the implicit or explicit consent of its audience.

The particular political news item involves the personae in General Petraeus’ story and the particular business news item involves the  exit of Microsoft “general” Sinofsky, chief for developing Windows products.  Mr. Sinofsky resigned only two weeks after the release of the much better reviewed new Windows software, Windows 8.

I really don’t give a toss about the private lives of any leaders, managers, generals, or others for that matter.  The argument that a person’s dubious judgment in aspects of private life reflects upon that person’s conduct of official duties is unproven at best.  However, there do seem to be particular aspects where the lack of judgment is manifested.  What I have taken away from the Petraeus soap opera are:  (1) Leaders, managers, generals, presidents, star athletes…they are just human beings with all the accompanying foibles.  (2)  Corruption is the twin of power.  (3)  Propped up “heroes” fall particularly badly.

The top managers/generals are usually surrounded by support staff that caters to their whims.  People in such an insulated environment, and without meaningfully interacting with lower-ranked people who carry out the actual work, are bound to provide or experience some aberrant outcomes.  As the insulation thickens, the ones who possess power are compelled to want more power…to bolster the insulation.  I delineated, in the earlier entry the functions of these “prison walls” in group dynamics and how they come about.  The walls themselves eventually become the object which one defends, and those outside the walls are to be defended against.

A prickly beauty!

A prickly beauty!

As soon as walls are erected – drawing the boundary — there are “who’s in” and “who’s out” tussles.  Inevitably, there are outsiders who would use any means, usually money, to “get in.”  So, we have the Kellys in the Tampa area who found ways to befriend General Petraeus, General Allen, and their entourages. Why a socialite would be given so much access to military documents is beyond most people’s comprehension.  Why would 4-star generals get involved in Ms. Kelly’s sister’s custody fight?  (Please Google this matter; it’s too sordid and convoluted for me to try to recap here.)  Such petty use of one’s powerful personal connections for personal gain isn’t news.  We’ve all encountered pretentious upstarts, albeit on a much smaller and less consequential scale, in everyday organizations.  There are those mediocre students, employees, and even volunteers who manage to gain access to top level decision-makers, and these minions become drunk with special privileges.

This is part of the reason why a “small” matter of infidelity in the downfall of General Petraeus can so quickly reveal some ugly inner workings of the top levels of military power.  And throughout the unfolding scenario, no one is paying sufficient attention to the impact on the fighting troops on the ground.  Talk about cosmic distance!

The moral for managers and leaders is:  Make sure there are multiple and varied channels by which one interacts with and learns from people in the lower ranks.  I cannot stress this principle enough, and so I will repeat this mantra whenever possible.

By the way, one of the proposals for “correcting” some of the problems uncovered within the top military echelon is…Ethics Training! Really?!  If these adults still need to learn the meaning of a marriage vow, to not waste time on frivolity, to not think themselves infallible (how do you train that?!)…etc., then, how in the world did they reach this high level?  And for heaven’s sake, how does the chief spook fail to understand he can’t use unsecured internet connections for sensitive messages?!  Seriously, people.  Ethics?  Enron’s ethics statement was well written; how did that work out for them?  A year’s worth of coaching on humility is far more pertinent!  This holds true for civilian managers as well.

We use many military metaphors to describe everyday organizations, such as, “strategy,” “subordinate,” “commands from executives,” etc.  Not surprisingly, we also see many organizations’ executives act as if they are generals.  They are impatient with processes needed to achieve results; they don’t really desire challenges from “subordinates;” they surround themselves with an “inner circle” of operatives as gatekeepers.  Here is a paradoxical aspect of ego:  If I regard my ideas to be superior to others, why would I need layers of protection?

The story associated with the  departure of Microsoft’s Sinofsky, shortly after Windows 8 was released, affirms the case of a maverick growing unchecked into that “asshole of a boss.”  Mr. Sinofsky is often compared with Steven Jobs; both could be caustic and prone to treat colleagues in a disdainful manner.  I’ve written about the balance between welcoming innovative thinkers and tempering egotistic showoffs. I will just pose a question for leaders or mangers who are compared to these oversize figures:  Would you be one ounce less effective if you were to observe basic civility?

Lastly, leaders need followers; heroes need worshipers.  Ours is a society obsessed with hero figures and the myth of rugged individualism.  Such attitudes are partly responsible for our collective tolerance for mavericks however uncivil and rude; we put them on pedestals.  Remember Lance Armstrong, the now-fallen 7-time champion of Tour de France?  We find out, oh horror, that these beings on the pedestal are humans after all!

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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