Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Silos, Leadership, and CoPs: How to stay on target and build expertise

October 13, 2010


Over the years I have often heard bitter complaints about “Silos” within organizations, and have seen many attempts to dismantle or at least de-claw institutional “silos” – sometimes with limited and short-term success, and other times with deleterious results.

In this blog I argue that these divisional boundaries are not just a natural manifestation of vertical specialization common in almost all large organizations, but that they are also vital and indeed necessary for the smooth functioning of the organization itself.
The counterparts to silos, and ways to deal with the downside of silos will also be discussed.

Silos – The Causes and the Upside

Once any group reaches around 70-150 people, it naturally fragments and if you want people to focus on key objectives and deliverables, vertical structures are close to mandatory in order to achieve success.

The reason we need to have a Customer Support division in a vertical structure distinct  from Consulting, Sales, HR, etc. is that each needs to focus on deliverables and goals and not get distracted by what other groups are doing.

Paying attention to the job at hand and staying on track with the KPIs and metrics common to the others in that divisional group is vital to delivering the desired results.
So the silos have to stay – unless you can afford to have people just doing whatever they feel like doing.

A counterargument to this is of course the Open Source or Crowd Source example, where the job gets done simply because people who may only contribute a single thing will do so out of intrinsic interest.
However, while this is clearly a model worth looking into, at this point it is unclear whether these discretionary acts are actually a form of parasitism on the traditional work structures – i.e. people tend to only donate excess capacity to Open Source when they have already secured a formal occupation that pays the bills.

Silos represent one of the few strong points of Taylor’s “Scientific Management” – keeping goals clear, simple, and tightly measured usually results in achieving desired results with a minimum of waste of resources or time.

The Downside to Silos

The complaints about siloed behavior are not without cause and many firms have seen internecine warfare erupt amongst divisions over resources, and all of us must have witnessed poor Organizational Citizenship Behaviors that result from an “us vs them”” sentiment within a company.
It is even quite common to find that divisional goals and metrics are mutually destructive – that the success of one division leads to damage to other divisions, sometimes even to the point that one division will pursue goals in a manner that does irreparable damage to the organization as a whole.
You might even have wondered if that division wouldn’t be better off working for the competition!

I have seen cases in which a Networking Sales group of a company refused business on the grounds that it wasn’t in their group’s best interests, but which resulted in disqualification from tendering on far more lucrative tenders for several other divisions in the same firm.
Likewise I have witnessed a Consulting team achieving fantastic results and plaudits all round for implementations that caused long-lasting damage to the Customer Support group and resulted in severe customer dissatisfaction.
A final example is of a sales-team that overachieved quota, but at the expense of both the Consulting group and the Customer Support division, and which virtually crippled the R&D team for years.

In all these cases the achievement of narrow goals and single-minded focus of one silo caused more harm than good when viewed from the perspective of the entire organization.

A second area of damage is degradation of skills and diminished organizational learning.
Divisions are usually largely homogenous in terms of goals and objectives, but are often diverse in terms of functional expertise – several different divisions might each have similar roles, for example salespersons, project-managers, managers, and so on.
By segregating project managers from each other and embedding them in distinct divisions one achieves better focus, but at the cost of loss of knowledge and reduction in organizational learning.
Mistakes tend to be repeated across the organization and discoveries or innovations in one part of the firm may never be utilized or even known in another.

There are two basic approaches to dealing with the negative side of Silos

  1. Managing them
  2. Balancing them

Managing Silos – The Leadership Way

The conflict can be solved by leadership at the executive level, and senior managers need to be aware not only of where their division fits in the overall scheme of things, but also how their actions impact other divisions. Often the term “Leadership Team” is more a desire than actuality, and unless there is real teamwork between the managers of different interdependent groups, Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) amongst staff is unlikely.

It isn’t enough to just be friendly in the boardroom – OCB must be visible in the actions of the leaders, and embodied in their presentations and memos, and other communications within their group must be peppered with references to cooperative activities and policies, and must contain specific examples of cooperation and interaction with other groups.

If this isn’t done consistently, continuously, and deliberately, an “Us vs Them” mindset in staff is the default that will slowly creep back in as the operant behavior pattern.

Celebrating the successes of other departments is a good example of highlighting that “they” are “Us”.

Balancing Silos – The Community of Practice Way

To solve the problem of fragmented disciplines and the degradation to Organizational Learning, it is necessary to re-connect the areas of expertise in a way that enables cross-pollination and information flow without diluting their departmental focus. The command & control hierarchy needs to stay according to the organizational chart, but a new, informal structure such as the Community of Practice (CoP) should be built in order to let SMEs communicate with and learn from their peers.

A CoP of Project Managers, for example, enables “lessons learned” to be spread beyond divisional walls, and also opens up the opportunity for innovation – such as when PMs in one division mature a process that can be imported as a practice by another.

CoP’s cannot however be created by fiat – you cannot simply decree that one exists and then expect it to flourish. Instead it occurs by intrinsic reward and attraction, and with the support of the organization through provision of time, space, tools, and acknowledgement.

What the formal organizational structures can provide is resource support in the form of infrastructure such as meeting time during office hours, occasional travel funding, stationary and supplies, meeting rooms and equipment, and the like.
The bigger support though is intangible – it is the explicit and tacit acknowledgement of expertise by management all the way up to the CEO, visible respect for the fact that the organization has experts in the domain, and some degree of deference to that expertise.

It becomes visible in simple but powerful messages – like when a management meeting is rescheduled or relocated to a different venue when it clashes with CoP meeting or event. This sends a clear signal that expertise is a highly-valued quality, and that demonstrating one’s expertise in an organized fashion earns respect.
That respect engenders awareness, identification, and a desire to contribute and participate.


Silos are a natural part of the corporate ecosystem and need to be retained, but like any organism, may need to be pruned or trimmed occasionally. Silos can be kept healthy by managing them properly in ways that show the interdependency of each and its relationship to the success of the whole, and by balancing the formal structures of the Silos with the informal structures of expertise to be found in Communities of Practice.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

Leadership Replacement: a Nascent Model for the Future

July 29, 2010

For several decades there has been considerable concern over a scarcity of leadership and also a large gap in management skills. Part of this has been filled (sometimes perversely) by management schools and the abundance of MBA programs, but this has neither turned the tide, nor has it satisfied the lack of effective managers.

A secondary approach may be to reduce the need for managers and leadership by what has been termed “Substitutes for Leadership” (Bennis 2009) and I will cover that aspect here.

First a few notes on leadership vs management.

The ability to lead vs just manage in a commercial organization is heavily influenced by two external dynamics:

  1. The amount of “clutter” that you encounter in terms of overhead administrative tasks. If you are too busy just getting the “command/control/report” stuff done, there simply isn’t time to lead because to lead you need “big picture”, and that vanishes when you are nose down and bum up.
  2. The support from senior management. You can only lead as far as your boss lets you. If your boss allows no space in which you can lead, then no leadership can take place.

I have sometimes been in the position where I suspect that “something different” needs to be done, but am too “busy” to devote time or the energy to think about it in any depth.

This leads to two scenarios in the life of anyone wanting or having to lead.

  • Firstly it’s almost a 24hr/day job and innovation requires breathing-space (which may be why “eureka” moments are so often reported to be in the bath, out walking, or dreaming).
  • Secondly, sometimes it seems like one just has to take a short term failure to have a long term success. Sometimes I have allowed my managers to fail in their daily and weekly goals because that’s the only way they will have the resources to put something different into place that will likely lead to a long-term improvement. Likewise, my boss let’s me do it.

Bennis posits that there is a “chasm” between leadership and management, and he paints leadership in a very flattering light – being “holders of trust” and “conquer[ing] the context”.

However, since he also says that leadership can be learned, shouldn’t we see leadership as just a set of tricks that a manager should learn if they want to improve?

Bennis further proposes that the time of Ford, Taylor, and Weber are over and that organizations are (and must?) changing the paradigm to “inspire people, empower them” through leadership.

“Pull rather than push” he says.

So what do we mean in terms of attributes when we give somebody the honorific of “Leader”?

Here are five that I have teased out of the research and my personal experience:

  1. Being exemplars of an attitude or behavior or way of seeing things
  2. Served as role models
  3. Inspired me to act or think in a different way than before
  4. Triggered enthusiasm in me, I felt energized to do something with eagerness
  5. Fostered cooperation

This boils down to “teaching” and “motivating” – but what if the people didn’t need a guru to teach them anything, and had no problem with self-motivation?

The paradigm assumes that the leader knows stuff that the rest don’t, and that they have to be motivated to action – but what if they self-organized to a large degree and were themselves the authorities in their subject domain?

What if the “pull” doesn’t come from one’s managers?

The Information Age has brought us to a situation that contradicts in many instances the assumptions of Taylor’s view of the workforce, and instead of all workers being simple units of production with the intelligence of an engine of production external to them, we now have knowledge-workers who often (usually) know more about their subject domain than their bosses and effectively are the engine of production.

In this scenario we also see that self-motivation is caught up in people who are passionate about what they do – they frequently don’t view life as a split between “work” and “life” but rather as a synergy that gets them money for doing what they are passionate about. Collins (Collins 2001) describes this in terms of organizational superiority in which those firms that excel put three dynamics together:

  1. Being Passionate about what they do
  2. Excelling in their subject domain
  3. Receiving sufficient revenue to satisfy shareholders

The same principle holds for individuals, and anybody who is passionate about what they do and excels at it requires little coaching by a boss, and nor do they need to be coaxed or punished into doing their work.

I view this mixture of dynamics as follows:

Passion Excellence Revenue Result



(I assume that if you have none of the three it implies that you are either dead or a ward of the state)

Motivation shifts from extrinsic rewards and punishments to intrinsic forces within the individual based on a passionate interest in the subject domain.

Leadership replacement can be seen in various structures:

  • Forums and committees where individuals come together out of choice
  • Groups of “highly skilled professionals” that self-organize into SIGs, Guilds, etc.
  • Professional Communities of Practice

Reflecting on the five attributes I listed earlier, we can expect somebody who knows their stuff and is passionate about it, has the support of a Community of Practice to find their own exemplars of an attitude or behavior or way of seeing things in their CoP, serves as their own role model or finds one, is self-inspired, and requires no extrinsic or external motivation.

But would they cooperate and foster cooperation?

The success of the Open Source movement seems to suggest that they do, and that self-management and peer-pressure succeeds in a way that formal management cannot and which corporate leadership seldom does.

The remaining question is how to put this to work in a corporate environment where the power structures are not designed to allow people to be self-regulating, and where there is a vested interest in prioritizing financial results over domain success.

Given the way that commercial encyclopedias have been beaten by Wikipedia, perhaps we need to show some leadership and change the structures a bit!

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Bennis W (2009) Bennis W. “On becoming a leader”. Public Affairs (2009)

Collins (2001)  Collins J. “Good to great”. Harper Collins, 2001.


Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

Knowledge Management: Information Ergonomics and the Coffee Automaton

April 1, 2010


The coffee machine at work apparently wanted to discuss statistics with me.

It was a cool and drizzly day, and coffee was pretty much the beverage to match the mood before diving into the newly-accumulated emails that I hadn’t managed to get to on the bus.
However, instead of “Ready”, or “Processing”, or even the terse flashing sign that said “Take the Drink”, today the machine said simply said, “Statistics”*.

Now I quite understand the feeling, I love statistics too, and I cannot imagine that sitting atop a kitchenette counter dispensing one of six choices of coffee is the kind of occupation that even a machine would find emotionally satisfying, or apparently, intellectually stimulating.
The machine seemed oblivious to my cup under the spout, or the selection I had pressed, and since it has no auditory systems, talking to it seemed like a waste of time, if not likely to make people wonder more than usually about my mental stability.

It got me thinking that the little display was in the wrong spot, and almost all new-comers made the mistake of reaching for their half-filled cup when the noises stopped, and didn’t notice at first the LCD readout at the top of the panel that said “Processing”. They also wouldn’t know that if one waited a few seconds after the initial noises stopped, new noises and fluids would emanate, and when the beverage was complete the sign would change to “Take the Drink”.
The sign and the process are divorced from each other.

People obviously learned how the machine worked pretty quickly – especially if half their drink went into the spill tray, but still, that is very wasteful if not also messy.

Human brains are the most powerful computing devices in this part of the galaxy at least, and maybe even in the whole universe, and wasting processing time and getting them to learn even such a simple thing as to wait for a sign placed in a non-obvious place and a process that was initially unclear, is simply bad economics and very frustrating.

The trick would have been to have any signs near where the cup was put – because that is where the person would naturally be looking, and the signaling could have been part of the process – like Edward Tufte’s rail-track process-flows. These would be familiar to most people (and hence less learning required), and the process itself would be embedded in the signs.

Life is littered with these little time-wasting examples of poor engineering, and the net effect is to drag us down by enough to be worth noting. From the way a remote-control should fit the human hand to how a screen should work in your business application, information ergonomics should be part of the design.
Processes should flow naturally and require no taking of notes or memorization of data, and should prompt with appropriate values rather than expect memorization or external reference materials. The need to learn should be minimal and understanding should build on existing knowledge wherever possible – and additional learning confined solely to innovations unless absolutely unavoidable.

Our devices and inventions are here to serve us and should fit our hand, not the other way around.

As for my coffee, I did what any machine-psychologist would do, I switched it off at the wall, waited 15 seconds, and switched it on again.
“Ready” it said, and ready I was, and got my drink in a tick.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

*Alas, it was not an epiphenomenal sign of machine intelligence, but either an error of some kind – a passing spike or brownout perhaps, or just an unexpected situation uncatered for in the logic. Or perhaps some clever and mischievous person had a trick to put the coffee machine into a stupor just to perplex fellow workers.


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.

I’m too busy for my shirt, too busy for my work, too busy for …

February 1, 2010


There is a meme that circulates and thrives in a lot of organisations and which causes people to busy themselves to the point where they wear their busyness like a hairshirt and display it with pride – It  results in a social pecking-order in which busyness is the hierarchical determinant.

So what, you may wonder, is bad about being very busy?
Surely it means that the job is getting done, and that very busy people are productive and job-oriented?

Well no.

It more likely means that they aren’t taking time to reflect and to maintain the big-picture – and that spells the destruction of learning, of innovation, and of adaptability, and ultimately results in not just doing the work wrong, but even worse, doing the wrong work.

To learn, you have to not just do something repetitively, but actually reflect on what you have done, locate it in a context, and then build a mental map of where it fits into the big-picture and why.
Innovation and learning require time, and busyness puts a crimp in that.

Way back when I was a paid tinkerer maintaining big mainframe computers, my site manager (Erwin, are you still out there?) drummed into us that losing the “big picture” was certain death to solving a bug, and time and again each of us would learn this the hard way – following trace after trace, circuit after circuit, getting nowhere because we had lost the “big picture” and become too absorbed and busy to notice that we had left the terrain in which the fault could feasibly lie, and had ventured off the map entirely.

Chronic busyness precludes keeping a stable link to the big picture.

 A common theme in research into the psychology of problem-solving and of innovation is that the human brain needs time to reflect in order to solve complex problems and to innovate, so chronic busyness is detrimental to innovation and organisational learning.

However, perhaps the worst outcome of chronic busyness is that its sufferers tend to neglect their own self-improvement – or as Covey put it, to take time to “sharpen the saw”.
They ensure their own obsolescence by simply not investing the time and effort in developing their own transferrable skills and experiences – they lock themselves into a self-sealing mode of operation that is sure to ultimately degrade their abilities, performance, and their own employment security.

One way that people can break out of this mode is as a result of a catastrophic life-changing event such as being laid off.

A less traumatic way is through leadership – a leader that shows them the need to orchestrate slack-time in which to do some self-improvement or job-enrichment work, and gives them an example to copy.
Leadership provides a meme that says “it is ok to spend time on self-improvement”, and is a good antidote to the meme that says “just look how busy I am, I can’t even afford to think”

The question we must each ask ourselves is what sort of example we are setting in this regard, and to what degree we are showing leadership that encourages and allows others to improve themselves – indeed, are we providing ourselves with good leadership and setting ourselves a good example?

That’s my question, and I am sticking to it.

What can we learn from a tired doctor?

January 23, 2010

 This post is more aimed at the multitude of Knowledge Management professionals out there, but I hope it also has some value to those who just wish we would help them with their problems.

In the last few weeks the doctor behind the very informative Brain Science Podcast has been using Twitter to say when she is doing her shift in the ER, (an example of how Twitter is finding a role in professional circles) but what stood out most to me was that Ginger is pulling a 24hr shift and that I had some definite Knowledge Management opinions on that fact. 

The evolutionary science and psychology end of KM suggests to me that humans don’t really function well knowledge-wise without sleep and we are deeply pulled by a circadian rhythm that probably goes back millions of years back in our development – so not something we can simply wish away or unlearn.
The point here is that KM must take into account who and what we are, and not build business processes that ignore our limitations and natural biases or preferences.

On the other hand, we could just assume that there are good practical reasons why Dr.Campbell is pulling 24hr shifts and pose a different KM question – how should knowledge be managed if we assume the agent is sleep-deprived, physically tired, and dealing with life-or-death situations?

Once we start down that road, a whole terrain of thoughts and follow-up questions present themselves.

– What kinds of things do we forget or remember wrong when we are tired?
– Should job aids be changed or presented differently?
– How will organisational memory be best served if the agent is unable to take time to make rich notes?

… but most of all
– How will we use situations like this to learn methods that can be deployed to other realms where the problems might not be quite so starkly illuminated.

This is where I see a double benefit of a Community of Practice of KM professionals – to jump in and help people like Dr. Ginger Campbell by using KM methods and principles, learn from situations where the risks and constraints are high, and then draw that learning back into the domains where we practice our craft for our wages.
A good way to drive beneficial innovation across the field?

So hat’s off to Dr. Campbell for yet another 24hr shift in ER – but now let’s put our heads together and see what we can do to help her.

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