With Billy Idol playing on the jukebox, we contemplate the following scenarios:
- A publishing company is approached by a new IT services company. The IT company wishes to present a SAAS- or Cloud-based solution. It seems tailored to the publisher’s needs. The Executive Director of the publishing house asks senior members of her IT staff to meet with the new company. After the presentation, the in-house staff writes a report saying that the proposal should be turned down because the Cloud solution will require that the publisher give up a certain amount of control.
- The Board of a not-for-profit publishing organization becomes concerned about the many changes in the strategic environment and thus prompts the head of the organization to develop a strategic plan. The methodology chosen by the Executive Director is to ask each department to come up with a plan for how it wants to proceed in the future. The consolidated plan is then presented to the Board. Its gist is that the company should continue to do the same things as before, but that it should do them better.
- Having recruited a new CEO, the Board of this publishing company is surprised to hear from the new executive that the composition of the Board does not reflect the operating environment that the company must work in. The Board thus embarks on a review of its governance structure and composition. It concludes that the structure and composition are appropriate, but that management should provide a 15-minute environmental scan at each quarterly Board meeting.
As Billy Idol says,
Well there’s nothing to lose
And there’s nothing to prove
I’ll be dancing with myself
One of the differences between the way many organizations deal with tactical and strategic issues is that tactical issues are routinely exposed to the world outside the organization, but strategic issues rarely are. Thus, a publisher seeking a Web-hosting solution will, as a matter of course, prepare an RFP to be sent to a number of prospective vendors and will carefully evaluate each proposal before making a decision. That’s a good way to deal with a tactical matter of this kind. But as to the question of whether to seek a Web-hosting firm in the first place or to embark on a strategy of developing an internal solution — and what can be made of that solution — well, now the decision is made by a small group of insiders, who either have scant knowledge of the broader environment or who have a personal stake in the outcome of the decision.
It would be wrong to say that everyone is simply self-interested and that organizational life consists of little more than the clash of different interests, with the successful outcome being a function of the relative prowess of the belligerents. Self-interest plays a role, but it is not necessarily a deciding factor. The bigger obstacle to change and development in most organizations is more insidious; it is the fact that everyone believes that they are doing a good job. They are thus the right people to make the big decisions. And we should not be surprised to discover that those decisions support the very organizational structure and team that is already in place. Let’s continue to do the same job, but let’s do it better.
One form this organizational blindness takes is the tracking of the wrong metrics. By “wrong” I mean measurements that tend to support current activity without providing a different and perhaps unflattering perspective. A university press director proudly told me about his system of peer review, the number of outside reviewers, how carefully these reviews were themselves assessed, and how the reviews were used by authors to improve their books. Nice job. But the same director failed to note that sales of the press’s books had declined by more than a third in the past decade, and that financial support from the parent institution was wavering. “Have you considered the possibility that you are publishing the wrong books, that you are working in fields that are not growing and may even be declining,” I asked. He was taken aback by my question. After all, the peer review results said the press was doing a great job.
Examples of tracking the wrong things, or at least of failing to track some important things, can be found everywhere. I encountered one management team that boasted of their profit margins. But the same team had failed to adjust their sales reports for inflation. Thus, over a period of about 15 years, this team had in fact been putting the company through a long-term liquidation.
Or there is the Web site that proudly notes the number of users, but fails to measure the conversion rate, the metric for how many users actually conduct commerce on the site.
A librarian bragged about her commitment to open access and insisted that people would always value what libraries do in the way of indexing, aggregating, and preservation. But will universities continue to support those functions of libraries when content is available elsewhere at no cost? Yes, they would, she said, and she knew this from having polled her counterparts at other institutions. We admire the skill of the concert promoter — the appealing venue, the efficient ticketing systems, the amenities — but will we continue to value these things when the band does not play? The combination of Google plus open access will lead to the accelerating decline of institutional support for libraries. Now, what metric were you proposing?
It is a hard thing to take the calipers and place them on your own noggin. But you shouldn’t have to. That’s the the task of outsiders that are brought into an organization’s orbit — the independent director, for example, or the new hire who comes from an entirely different industry. Living and working in the face of different and shifting perspectives is a good thing. The real challenge is how to institutionalize a process that keeps these new perspectives coming, how to stop dancing with oneself and really begin to listen to the music.