Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Specialization is considered as professionalization. Sub-specialization makes us node with our heads, stare with admiration. How far is it right to focus and specialize? Where is it right to put the limits?
As in former posts, all that is written is right for knowledge workers, and may not fit other organizations, which have different characteristics.

In the past, there were mega-organizations that did everything by themselves, because they could: They calculated costs and decided it is cheaper to in-house manage all facilities, cheaper than buying the facilities from the providers. A fascinating example can be examined in the Army: They have their own medical services (and not only for those soldiers offshore in the battle); they have their own garages, responsible for treating the cars that the officers hold. As years past, we see a change in attitude as the army and other mega-organizations understand that maybe it is wiser to work with out-services. Partly, this change is triggered by re-calculation of costs; not less, results from management considerations: handling all issues, draws our attention and leaves less time for the core issues. I will add, that I think we cannot be the best on everything. Organizational focus has several advantages:
It enables one to be the best in what it focuses (boutique rather than supermarket);
It enables one to get the co-operation from those who specialize in complementary matters; any other way, may lead to competition also on the unique and specialized subjects;
It enables the organization to pit the best resources in the right places.

Are there any disadvantages? Of course there are. Every organization serves customers. The customer does not want to order his tea bag from one supplier, the sugar from another and the spoon and mug from the third and fourth suppliers. He wants a cup of tea. When we, as an organization, define our limits of focus, we have to think about ourselves, bet nevertheless, also think and define things from our customers' point of view. It has to be well defined, where we do not give a complete solution, and relationships with other suppliers must be defined. I will not state that working with other suppliers is always a harmony, but it sure is possible, and in most case, beneficial.

The same questions reside inside the organization, and even inside the unit. But here, I believe, the answers are different. Of course we will distinguish the engineering unit from the manufacturing unit; of course the salesman does not deal with bookkeeping. I am speaking within the unit. We have reached such specializations, that many times every mission relies on bringing together many people for every decision. Knowledge working, naturally, will include a high level of collaboration between the members of a group. The question is how much. Too broad, may result in a situation where integration turns to be a bottle neck and almost impossible. Involving to many people in each task, results higher costs of each project.

How do we find the right path? We have to enlarge the understanding of knowledge workers, who specified in defined topics, also to complementary topics as well. In enlarging the understanding, I mean- operatively: To know, to implement and to further develop. Of course, consultancy of the experts is recommended, but, to some level, we have to learn from them, and consult them in this manner: in order to learn from them and know better for ourselves. So next time, we will be able to answer part of the questions for ourselves and just validate them with the expert. We speak a lot about the synergy from working in collaboration: Understanding complementary expertise enables us experiencing synergy with ourselves. And, when turning to consult others, we come with a better starting point. I am not trying to say that sales and engineering shall be performed by the same person. We have to decide where we cooperate with others. Yet, we shall not over specialize. If every expert will understand a bit more in what the others do, he or she can see a broader picture. The expert will be able to develop more innovative ideas, and will also benefit on the personal level, enriched by the new knowledge and offering our customers better solutions.

I think, that even though the initial drive for understanding others' jobs, may be cutting off expenses and management efforts, the main benefit is conceptual and turn us into better workers.

I can say for myself, that I work in knowledge management, a profession that involves organizations' cultural understanding, computing understanding, processes understanding and content understanding. Indeed four different disciplines. I grew up in IT units. I learned math and computer sciences. As the years past by, I learned to understand and implement also the other disciplines. The way I worked, is always to hire people with complementing education and experience, to learn from them and to teach them. I turned myself into a knowledge management expert: Today, I know how to manage changes; I know how to effectively organize content; I understand in organizational processes and how to draw the knowledge near the existing processes. I think that by combining these different disciplines I can give a better solution to my customers; nevertheless, the major benefit is mine. The combination enables me to better and deeper understand each discipline; the combination enlargers my horizons. I as a person, am so far from where I was ten years ago, when I specified in computers only, also computing expertise is considered prestigious.

I benefited. I believe we all do.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Company Values

Twenty years ago, I had the first opportunity to manage a group of (knowledge) workers. I served in the army in a computing unit of the Israeli Air Force. One day, a new commander arrived. He had new ideas that seemed very odd to us, back then. A few weeks after he arrived all the building was filled with big signs: "Quality counts". Today, twenty years later, I understand the rational behind this move. At the time, I did not. I was not the only one. No one explained. The signs turned to be a joke, and so did the commander.

Years passed by, and methods became more sophisticated. We started to see, in organizations we worked in, visions and missions, and we took part in teams that have helped defining parts of them. I cannot say that a vision existed, in every organization I worked in. Some organizations dealt with these issues, others did not. I cannot even state that there was any correlation between immediate business success and existence of company vision and values.

A few years ago, I decided that the company, which I established, could be considered as an organization (we reached 10 employees). We were mature enough to have our own vision and company values. We worked thoroughly on definitions. I handed in the first draft, rather excited to one of the company founders, that was not involved in the daily activities. His response was rather chilly: Why deal with values? Better deal with numbers. And do not misunderstand: the company was profitable.

This is a real dilemma. Is there place for vision and company values in 21st century organizations? Is their importance or place different from what it was before?
I spent many hours dealing with this issue. This founder, with whom I spoke, was a special man, a leader that managed several organizations and has strategic thinking. Yet, something important has been said. It could not be ignored. I examine the society in which we live; a society that seems to be materialistic and hedonist; a society in which cynicism is appraised. Is there place in such society for company values?

The truth must be said. As much as I thought about the issue, I had and have no doubt that company values are a necessity. Values are the road signs, guiding us how to appropriate work and behave; both as managers and as workers. Moreover, today in the 21st century, I feel that we need them more and not less. People move from one work to another. No one career, of course no one working place. People, wiser than me, have discovered that what holds an employee in the organization is not salary. Of course, salary has to be fair. Otherwise, the dissatisfaction will be so great, and nothing else will be considered. People, despite the materialistic shell, want to come and work in some place that they feel good in it. Feeling good is a consequence of the nearby environment- the team, and the larger environment- the organization. Feeling good- is a place with which they identify with, and are proud to be part of. This is where the company values come in. The forbidden and "must" are defined by regulations and procedure. The right and justified, the appropriate, is defined by the company values. If we do not have values, we are just a bunch of workers sitting in the same place; little will connect us one to another. Such organizations will experience difficulties in retaining employees in the long run.

The process of designing the company values starts in peoples' hearts in the first years of the organization's life, refines and becomes instituted within the next years, as the organization grows and builds its unique culture. In fact, writing down the company values, is not supposed to invent anything new, rather document the existing, focusing us; assisting us to distinguish between what is important, and what is more important; stating to all employees, that this is our way of life.

A few tips I believe in, all to do with designing and documenting the company values. Some I have learnt the hard way:
  • Do not define too many values. Three years ago, we worked on a set of values for our organization. We defined nine values, all reflecting the company's spirit, and way of work. One day, recently, I tried to memorize the list. I found out, that I, as the manager of the company, could not remember the whole list. If anyone will test me, I for sure distinguish between principles that are part of our values, and those that are not. Yet, I could not remember the whole list! I understood that something is wrong. If I would have nine children, I would remember all their names, for sure. I have twenty employees and I remember all their names. Etc. There was no excuse. If the entire list was that important- I should remember it. Today we are in a process of rewriting the values. The process is more difficult than the initial one, as this time we are focused on choosing the most appropriate values from this list. We limited ourselves to four values.
  • Share; make people part of the process. Otherwise, they may think that it is all declarations and not something we mean to act upon. Just the way I thought twenty years ago when I saw the sign (and I must state that back then, I was even part of the management team). If we want people to feel comfortable with the values and we want the values to connect them to the organization, it is obvious that they have to be part of the process. Even though it takes time; even though it is instead of other working activities.
  • Make sure that the values are planted in peoples' hearts. There is importance to visibility; there is more importance for assuring that the values do not stay on the wall (or in the website), rather affect practical behaviors. As part of defining the values, define desired behaviors.
  • Last, but not least. I spent many hours lately, going through other companies lists of values. We all want to be the same. It is natural that all companies want to be professional, but having the same lists brings us back to square one. If so, how do we convince our employees that we have a special organization, through the value list? Why to stay and not move on? Yet, the shared values are so correct. Shall we give them up, as other organizations have chosen them before we did? Examining happy families, one call tell that the common is greater than the differentiators are. I recommend, adding some values that other have, if they really define us as a company, but leave place also for some unique values, that no one else has. All this (and this is the hard part), without adding more values altogether, than defined in our limits (see above).

At the end of the day, the values are our company's spirit. Do not stay without them.