Can organizations be designed like the rain forest? What can we learn from Rain forests?

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These days, GREEN is the ‘in-thing’. Just like innovation; GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly, etc are words that one would find in most organizational mission statements.  The irony is that just like innovation, organizations seems to be clueless on what this whole ‘GO-GREEN, Eco-Friendly’ thing really means — beyond the rhetoric.

I would say that the first step towards that could be to learn from the natural environment around us. These natural surroundings are like living universities and can teach lessons that one can’t study in all the IVY league business schools combined. We just have to observe these natural surroundings and be ready to absorb, learn and apply those principles in business.

Seemingly remote natural systems like the rainforests can be a great place for organizations to learn from.

So, what can organizations learn from rainforests?

Some 15 years ago,  Tachi Kiuchi (Member of the Board of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation), gave a keynote address to the World Future Society on July 19, 1997 around this topic that I regard as the best pieces of literature around learning from Rain Forests and what organizations can learn from rain forests.

Read it here:

Key Points that  Tachi Kiuchi makes are:

  • See & understand how a rainforest operates. How can organizations operate like the rainforests?

A rainforest is an example of a place that excels by learning to adapt to what it doesn’t have. A rainforest has almost no resources. The soil is thin. There are few nutrients. It has no productive assets. Yet rainforests are incredibly productive. They are home to millions of types of plants and animals, and more than two-thirds of all biodiversity in the world. Those plants and animals are so perfectly mixed that the system is more efficient, and more creative, than any business in the world.

  • It consumes almost nothing. Wastes are food. Design is capital.

Today’s fast-changing business environment requires that we be alert, and responsive. Agile, and creative. To do so, we must structure our company so we are a learning organization. Not top-down, but bottom-up. Not centralized, but decentralized. Not limited by rules, but motivated by objectives. Not structured like a machine– which cannot learn– but like a living system, which can.

  • Rainforests are a model of the perfect learning organization. 

 How can we begin? By operating less like a machine, and more like a living system. An Industrial Ecosystem.

  • The most important Natural capital is its design. Its relationships.

 In Japan, we have two terms to describe this: omote and uraOmote is the surface or front of an object, ura is its back or invisible side. Omote and ura . External reality and underlying reality.

When I visited the rainforest, I thought: As business people, we have been looking at the rainforest all wrong. What is valuable about the rainforest is not omote — the trees, which we can remove. What is valuable is ura — the design, the relationships, from which comes the real value of the forest. When we take trees from the forest, we ruin its design. But when we take lessons from the forest, we further its purpose. We can develop the human ecosystem into as intricate and creative a system as we find in the rainforest. We can do more with less. Grow without shrinking.

  • Differentiate. 

Be yourself, be unique. In the rainforest, conformity leads to extinction. If two organisms have the same niche, only one survives. The other either adapts, or dies. In today’s economy, the same happens. If two businesses have the same niche — make exactly the same product — only one survives. The other adapts, or dies.

So what are most companies today doing? They are trying to be the one that survives. Cutting costs. Downsizing radically. Desperately seeking the lowest cost. We think it is much smarter to differentiate. Create unique products, different from any others. Fill unique niches. Don’t kill our competitors, or be killed by them. Sidestep them instead.

Be yourself, Be. Only then — after we differentiate — is it time to reduce costs, and grow more efficient. We have learned this the hard way. We sell millions of televisions, stereos, and appliances. We cannot compete by being the lowest-cost operator. Instead, we must offer products that are different, distinctive. We must choose and fill our unique niche.

  • Be a Good Fit. 

We used to say, “Only the fittest survives”. There is only one winner. But in the rainforest, there are many winners. The same can be true in our economy. In the old, uniform, monoculture economy, only one form wins, only the most fit survives. At least until a new invader wipes him out.

In this new, diverse, rainforest economy, it is not a question of who is most fit. It is a question of where we best fit. If we fit — if we solve a social problem, fulfill a social need — we will survive and excel. If we only create problems, we will not.

That it is an eco-system and not silos. In organizations we see one department not taking t another.


Crowd-sourcing the Brand Identity itself

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Crowd sourcing has been a viable option with a philosophy of ‘a million heads are better than few’, ‘the expertise lies outside of the organization also’, ‘ time taken to design & create products can be reduced ‘

Mostly, organizations have created platforms and avenues where their customers or general public can engage with the organization and give product ideas, help in co-product creation and become part of customer-networks. Some examples of such crowd-sourcing platforms & initiatives are:

Recently, one organization pushed the envelope of crowd sourcing by soliciting ideas & concepts for it’s band identity (logo) from the public. Happiest Minds, a young IT Services start-up, opened up the contest by asking people to submit logo for it’s business. The brief was that the logo should depict the Happiest Minds philosophy, vision, & essence of Happiest People leading to Happiest Customers.

As part of the crowd sourcing contest,  nearly 1400 entries were received and out of these 150 were shortlisted and again, crowd sourcing was done to short list these 150 entries to 25 entries. The public was asked to vote for the design they felt most accurately captured the vision of Happiest Minds. These 25 entries were then evaluated by a jury and 5 were shortlisted for final round.

The logo,  created by Jemin Shingala, was selected as the winner and best reflected Happiest Mind’s business philosophy. The logo was was modified by Shristi School of Design and was unveiled on the day of the launch of the Happiest Mind’s.

No wonder, this experiment proves that in today’s socially connected world, crowd sourcing can be a viable option to get tangible & concrete output — in any possible area. The only challenge  is in being bold and open to make innovative uses of crowd sourcing.

Read the article here for more details:

Search Google for this crowd sourcing experiment:

Yes, slowly but surely, the machines are making the decisions for us…

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Just like we can’t imagine a life without cellphones or internet; we can’t imagine an Internet without Google. Saying that Google is our personal window, a personal assistant to the information out there on the Internet would be an understatement. And we feel extremely ecstatic when we get the results we want to see on the first page of the Google search results. We love Google for doing all the hard work for us and showing us what we want to see…

Did you ever imagine that somewhere in this journey, Google has become more & more personalized for you and your Google & the Google of your best friend may be a lot different? Do you realize that slowly but surely, Google is taking over the gatekeeper role of what you see on the internet? Yes, even without you having a goggle/gmail account, even if you’re logged out, there are potentially 57 signals that Google might consider – location, browser, language, history, etc — which it uses to personally tailor your query results. Great, isn’t it? What more could users ask for.. You search for shopping your favorite DVD and the stores listed are near to your area, in your language…

There is an issue here and maybe we don’t realize it. All this ‘personalization’ is hard to observe, is kind of invisible to us and that’s why we don’t notice it. When was the last time you tried to check if your search results are different from anyone else’s? Google is not exactly forthcoming in how it does the personalization for us & what it means. So, this leads us to a scenario where we will see things on the internet that Google thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see. Google is acting like a newspaper editor without our permission. Google is controlling what we see and read, and not the way it should be: the other way around. Google is the new gatekeeper of what we see & what information gets to us. We may no longer decide what gets in. And more importantly, we don’t actually see what gets edited out.

Maybe, those sci-fi movies where machines control the world are not far from reality after all..!!!

Read/Listen more on this subject here at a TED Video

What do you want? User adoption or compliance?

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I believe that successful KM initiatives & professionals pay a great deal of importance to the change management aspects. If, there is one place where “build it and they will come” doesn’t work, it is KM. After all, users are tuned to a way or working and majority of them would resist any kind of change. It’s a natural reaction and for various reasons a very tricky area to deal with.

Now to counter this tricky area of change management, KM initiatives/professionals rely on approaches which could be counter-productive to what their intentions are. Once such approach, that is commonly adopted is the “top down” mandated approach. On the surface of it, this looks simple, obvious, fast, scalable, logical and the most powerful approach that one can envision. What could be better than the top most management sending out a ‘memo’ asking people to do things a certain way.

I have seen this approach and have observed that this works best when you need ‘compliance’. Areas such as ‘time sheet entry’, ‘filing expenses’ etc are best suited for this approach. Anything transactional can be rolled out on a mass scale using this approach.

The issue arises when you try & roll out KM initiatives with this compliance driven/top-down method. Chances are that more often than not this will not yield the desired results and one can get in a vicious cycle of asking for more ‘top down compliance support’. This can frustrate the hell out of people who are leading these change management initiatives as they can’t fathom why on earth the seemingly obvious method of top down/compliance driven approach is not working.

We all know the results of a top down approach that mandates submission of 2 documents to the knowledge repository every quarter by each employee. On the last week of the quarter you will have a deluge of submissions and most of them would be not worth the bytes contained in them.

On the other hand, KM initiatives/professionals that rely on the adoption approach have greater chances of success. On the surface of it, the adoption approach looks to be an insurmountable obstacle but with patience & a long view of time this can be achieved. Adoption happens when people ‘buy into’ things and not because they are being ‘told to do so’.  Adoption happens because people see that things actually help them, appeal to them on an emotive/cognitive wavelength. Adoption happens when people, who we trust, tell us that it is good, they are using it & it makes sense. Adoption happens ‘through’ people… (We adopted facebook, twitter etc using these principles of adoption.)

The key to adoption approach also lies in finding the right set of people, who you will work with initially. They are going to be your evangelist and believe me they will be like customers who “tell 1 more person, at best, if they satisfied and will tell 100 people if they are not satisfied”.  Starting the process of adoption is slow and takes time. However the growth over time can be exponential and usually has a more stable foundation which is not only dependent on ‘top down’ directives. Adoption approach is akin to trying to move a heavy flywheel… lots of effort & commitment is required initially to even move the flywheel but as the revolutions go by the speed increases and over time the flywheel literally moves on an auto-pilot mode.

I have also observed that a combination of adoption (at a macro level) & top-down (at a micro level) also works in several circumstances. The key is in knowing which one to use when and for what. And that’s comes from experience & losing your hair over the years 🙂

Compliance is best achieved through systems & adoption is best achieved through people. So, if you need compliance of initiatives then build systems that monitor themselves for the compliance automatically. However; if you need adoption then be prepared for the long haul & work with people

Indian IT services organizations try out the VC Model for Innovation

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Recently there was this news article talking about the Indian IT services organizations try out the VC Model for Innovation:

I hope that this time organizations are serious about it and take it to a level beyond ‘lip-service’. While the intent may be there but I really do see challenges as the mindset is still services driven and everything gets measured by ‘# of people’ yardstick. It is very difficult for companies to break away from their successful business models and take risks. The culture which is setup to support the model becomes the nemesis for new ideas and innovation.

It is interesting to note the different paths being talked about by different organizations:

  • Infosys talking about a separate subsidiary/company itself. A model that looks good, if right set of people can be brought in to run this – not the same folks from services side. This model has worked for them couple of times before e.g. OnMobile.
  • Cognizant – internal VC route. Looks good on paper but runs the risk of going no-where in organizational bureaucracy. However, Cognizant has shown good ‘execution’  skills in past, so they may be able to pull it off
  • Wipro is creating a loose community structure of selected folks cutting across verticals to identify areas in which they can innovate. Again, a good model in theory but can requires solid ownership & drive from the very top to make it work.

Let’s see, wait & watch the results of each approach.

Open Source | why & how can I get involved

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Not many people are ‘unaware‘ of open source in todays world but still they seem hesitant, confused, or intimidated to enter the open source community and start contributing to open source. Mentioned below are some excellent blog posts that I have read in the recent past around this interesting subject.

Why it is important for organizations to build an open source culture, the competitive advantages of the same & some ways on how it can be done.

Why should you, as a developer, actively contribute to open source? — including helping land your next job to writing better code, developing REAL reputation.. It also talks about the barriers to open source contribution

If you are a student, open source can surely help you jump start your career

And yes, even after all this, people will have 1001 million reasons on why they don’t get involved with open source

Yes, open source software programmers are ROCKSTARS..!!!

and finally, some steps on how we can get newbies involved in open source
Happy reading…

Social Memory | Conversations are as important as the content itself

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Traditional content systems focus only the ‘creation’ aspect of the content and this is achieved through individual contributions or through collaborative efforts.
With the advent of Social Software – like Blogs, Artifacts, Q&A, Bookmarks and any ‘knowledge object’, apart from building value through collaboration one can build value through leveraging the individual actions around those knowledge objects and build a long term social memory.

Such individual actions are of low engagement and, individually, on a standalone basis they have little vale but the aggregation of these add up to lot more value  — like the ‘long tail’ phenomenon.

Social Software gives people the ‘choice’ to move between low engagement to high engagement depending on their interest levels and time. For example for a particular artifact or a category of artifact person A may choose to be just content with reading, subscribing or adding tags but at a different time & for a different category of artifact the same person may choose to refactor, comment, collaborate and have high levels of engagement.

The power that social software brings about is ‘providing the choice’ to the people to do all this and in the process making the conversation around the content as important as the content itself.