I once did a study of critical incidents for managers in a large bank, and I always asked, “Where does this story start? When did you first get involved?”
One leader said, “Well, I was having a cigarette break and I overheard someone talking about a project they were on and I realized it was going to collide disastrously with what my group was doing.”
Cigarettes are a bad thing, but here they proved to be a critical management mechanism for creating alignment across silos. The question is, however, might there not be a better way to create alignment in the organization than pray that random cigarette breaks and snatches of overheard conversation will bridge the silos?
Cascading goals to link to a broader purpose
The formal way to create alignment is the managerial hierarchy. Well, that’s essential, but we know it’s not nearly good enough.
The next step, and one built into performance management systems like Halogen Software and SuccessFactors (SAP), is to use cascading goals so that individual employees goals link up to a broader purpose. Cascading goals help with alignment, but won’t necessarily prevent two individuals deep in the organization working on projects that may collide in some way.
To identify that kind of problem, you need visibility of goals laterally so that people can see what co-workers are working on. Many performance management systems provide the option of lateral visibility of goals; the limitation is that people will only use the feature when they know there is a reason to look. In the cigarette example the manager had no reason to suspect that this other department was doing something risky and so is unlikely to have taken a look at their goals and learned what they were working on.
This is why I think one of the real payoffs of social knowledge sharing technology is alignment rather than just knowledge sharing.
The art of sharing
So for example, we normally think of something like Jostle or River as tools for sharing knowledge like “how do I do this?” or “who can help me with that?” However, a big unanticipated benefit is that as part of knowledge exchange you find out what other people are doing. For example, an HR business partner looking for ideas on building an onboarding program may find that three other groups are already working on onboarding.
Euan Semple, author of Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do, has always championed the value of blogs where people simply share what’s on their mind. There are lots of positive things that can come out of blogging and clearly one of them is to create a vast flow of lateral communication of the sort normally restricted to the domain of random eavesdropping.
Social knowledge sharing is superior to cigarettes, and while we can’t guarantee the right knowledge will find the right people, good networks have their own ways of ensuring knowledge lands where it’s needed.
What is interesting?
- Some of the real payoff from HR tech may be unexpected. As we explore and try technologies we may discover benefits (and drawbacks) we couldn’t foresee; but if we try, we learn.
What is really important?
- Alignment is a big management issue and a tough one to solve because it is so mushy. We have a few big structured tools for building alignment (hierarchy, cascading goals, formal planning meetings) however there is always too much going on in an organization for these tools to cover all the bases. Technology can provide lateral communication whose impact on alignment may be invisible but very significant.