Monday, May 28, 2007

Linking Facilitation and Experiential Learning

A colleague of mine recently attended a facilitation course I suggested to her, held by Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) Associates. She was talking about it, raving about it actually, and mentioned something she learned.

In the workshop, which is built on a foundation ICA calls the Focused Conversation Method, facilitators are coached through learning about and applying 4 important types of questions:

Objective - Begin with data, facts, external reality
Reflective - immediate personal reactions, internal responses, sometimes emotions or feelings, hidden images, and associations with the facts
Interpretive - meaning, values, significance, implications
Decisional - Bring the conversation to a close, eliciting resolution and enabling the group to make a decision about the future

I was coincidentally working on a document where I was linking experiential learning, (a feedback loop) to the using knowledge circle of learning before, while and after doing, as outlined in the Collison / Parcell book Learning to Fly.

So when I look at all three together, it strikes me that what Chris and Geoff were outlining was a practical approach to experiential learning in organizations. And when you look at both in the context of facilitation, blend in a bit of Ed Schein's Process Facilitation and Agyris' Double Loop Learning, it would appear that effective facilitation is the core competency / foundation for organizational learning and the creation of environments that support effective knowledge exchange. (Since they talk about the 4 stages of learning in the book - from unconscious incompetent to unconscious competent, maybe that's what Chris and Geoff were getting at in the book and I missed it - my bad.)

So what does this mean?

Make facilitation a core competency throughout the organization by:

  • explicitly including the skill in corporate competency profiles and dictionaries
  • providing the opportunities, and ensuring everyone has the basic skill set to participate effectively in facilitated sessions or participative / collaborative work
  • training managers across the organization on facilitative leadership and equip them to coach others, and ensure performance agreements reinforce appropriate effort and behaviours
  • have a core group of skilled facilitators who can conceive, design, and run workshops of all types, and who have good relations with external facilitators to broker services on those few occasions when a true outside perspective is required
  • ensure the core group of facilitators have access to resources, external networks and experts to ensure their skills and knowledge are always evolving

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Employee Recognition is About Encouraging Volunteerism

I attended a very well delivered workshop yesterday on Employee Recognition, facilitated by Suzanne Shell. Good insights, practical tips, free of what a colleague of mine calls "consultant gobledigook," and a genuine, enthusiastic approach.

This morning, as I reflected on the session, I began to sense, perhaps inaccurately, an implicit underlying assumption that "if you do this, you will get that." In essence, predictable cause and effect. At least, nothing explicit was said by anyone in the room to put forth an alternate view point. But as we all know, people are highly unpredictable, and often do surprising things, or take no action at all, in the face of overwhelming reasons to the contrary. (I have way too many examples of my own.)

Suzanne definitely made the point about ensuring that recognition is timely, specific, and most of all sincere. And I think she's absolutely correct. Recognition is another form of feedback, requiring all three to be effective. (More so if you recognize behaviour that will have future value as well.)

But I think an equally important mind set for effective recognition is to think about employees, in particular those who perform knowledge work, as volunteers. They have freedom of choice - from whether to work for a particular organization, to how much attention to devote to a situation or conversation, what is a priority for them, who to lend credence to, and what information is valid and useful.

A number of people I've spoken to lately have referenced a Gallup survey conducted in the US that uncovered that on average 27% of employees are engaged, 59% disengaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. I don't think that employee engagement can be conscripted, nor can it be gently manipulated into existence - perhaps over the short term, but it's not a sustainable.

I believe that the recognition of alignment of specific behaviours with corporate mission, vision and values communicates and reinforces an explicit framework that provides information for individual, informed decision making. Armed with clear direction, and clear expectations as communicated by a small number of explicit examples of aligned behaviours - Suzanne correctly emphasizes the importance of transparency, communications, and "sharing the news" - employees can more effectively decide if they want to be part of the organization. If they do, then they can make better decisions about how to be effective in the organization.

Encouraging volunteerism is an important part of a manager's job, and employee recognition is no doubt an important element.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Organizational / Facilitation Nirvana

Perhaps that’s a bit strong, but let me relate a recent experience and you can tag it however you’d like.

In the corporate world, whether public or private sector, there is always much talk about the need for good corporate values, their relationship to achieving mission and vision, and the need for all staff to "live the values". Many organizations spend a lot of time developing the values (sometimes staff is even involved in their development, but not always), and communicating them throughout the organization through presentations, "fireside chats", printed material, posters in hallways and elevators, and other similar mechanisms.

From what I’ve experienced and read, the outcome more often than not falls short of expectation. "Stovepipes" remain, true collaboration is an exception and not the norm, highly competent people compete and pull the organization in different directions, and the majority of staff are disengaged from their work experience.

I recently had an opportunity to spend a bit of time with an organization I think may just have it right. I’m a member (and on the Advisory Council) of the Conference Board of Canada’s Knowledge Strategy Exchange Network (KSEN), a great group of people who are involved in knowledge management initiatives at a fairly senor level in their respective organizations. Our most recent face-to-face event was in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, hosted by our KSEN members from Farm Credit Canada (FCC). Farm Credit’s hospitality was without a doubt "second to none" and already has KSEN members scheduled to host upcoming event worried about responding in kind.

The key topic of the event was building and sustaining communities of practice, and FCC is clearly a leading practitioner. But what was even more compelling was the organization’s story of transformation into a high performance organization (which I’m sure positively affects their success with CoPs).

Louise Yates (V.P Strategy and Customer Experience) Rob Moss, and Katharine Patterson, supported by a wonderful group of Farm Credit employees, exposed KSEN members to the transformation that began around 2000 – and what a story it is!

I won’t go into details here, but imagine leading or working in an organization where over the last 5 years:

  • portfolio size has grown from $7.7 billion to $13 billion, and generally, business outcomes exceed expectations consistently year over year, with record profitability in 2006
  • employee engagement has increased from 68% to 82%
  • percentage of staff who think senior management is open, honest and accessible increased from less than 60% to over 80%
  • market share, customer loyalty and reputation indices have all increased

As well, recent surveys indicate that 82% of staff believe that senior management treat employees as the most valued asset, and 86% believe decisions made are consistent with organizational values.

Sounds a bit like nirvana, doesn’t it? (And for you facilitators out there, imagine helping an organization achieve this tremendous accomplishment. Sounds a bit like nirvana from that perspective as well, doesn’t it? According to FCC staff, Malandro Communications has been a very valued partner in the transformation process.)

Well, Farm Credit appears to have done it. How, you might ask?

  • corporate values that are anchored in fundamental beliefs about the critical importance of people, and the need for creating an enabling work environment
  • development and communication of simple, powerful cultural practices (otherwise known as a code of conduct) to guide behaviours and alignment with corporate values
  • cultural practices that clearly dissuade "business results at all costs", and focus on joint accountability for overall business results through open, honest, transparent communication, productive feedback, partnership and mutual support - business reults AND positive impact on people are valued equally as linked outcomes
  • sustained leadership by example by the CEO and senior management team, and strong socialization of the practices as behavioural norms
  • building capability throughout the organization to act in line with defined cultural practices (extensive communications and marketing, 8-segment workshops for all 1200 FCC employees)
  • facilitation and coaching developed as a core competency (110 FCC staff trained as facilitators, including Senior Management)
  • cultural practices reinforced through formal recognition program, a new employee performance management program, and ongoing delivery of employee workshops

FCC is a top Canadian employer, ranking 12th on the most recent 50 Best Employers in Canada list, released in The Globe and Mail's Report on Business magazine.

Bravo Farm Credit Canada!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Organizational Float" in a Knowledge Work Environment

"Organizational float" came to mind somewhat unbidden in a recent meeting. The term itself comes from an article or paper I read a while back, but unfortunately I don't recall the exact source. I think it may have been in the context of some writing by Leif Edvinsson, an article about Skandia, or a piece on intellectual capital.

Though I'm sure the of the original definition and context, in my mind I've no doubt altered it a bit as follows. (I also forgot that I'd referenced it in a KnowledBoard discussion on KM Governance. )

There has been much press about the retiring baby boom generation, the war for top talent and so on. In a very real sense, many organizations challenged in finding, identifying and recruiting qualified candidates, are faced with bureaucratic staffing and security screening processes, and often burden already overworked staff with responsibilities for "onboarding" / training new employees or contractors at the least convenient of times - during a crisis need. And in this overall context, organizations are trying to innovate, improve processes and effectiveness, and become more agile. Not too stressful, is it?

Perhaps one strategy is to introduce some "organizational float". This can take the form of extra staff, with a variety of broadly relavent skills and experiences, that can step in and fill gaps left by temporary absences or unforseen workload spikes. It can take the form increasing staff compliments to distribute work such that every employee has a certain percentage of time, say 20% to step back and reflect, think strategically and innovatively, participate in change or performance improvement initiatives, develop professionally, and perhaps pick up on some of the work left undone by temporarily absent or departing employees.

There is no doubt many challenges to building organizational float. Gaining support and approval from the management hierarchy can be a challenge, unless a strategic, capability building mentality is prevalent. How about, in highly knowledge-intensive, non-transactional organizations or groups, the difficulty of putting a box around "work" so that it can be packaged and shipped to another worker. Or perhaps the hurdle created by the replacement mindset, that assumes that the unique thought processes, approaches to work, capability sets and experience bases that people carry can be transactionally replaced 1 for 1.

So I think the real strategy here is buying time and increasing available attention - organizational float.