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Alcoa Case Study – Social Business and Observable Work

One of the sessions at the Enterprise 2.0 conference was lead by Brian Tullis and Joe Crumpler of Alcoa Fastening Systems (yes, Alcoa uses social processes and tools which means you can too…) and they spoke about how social tools make work ‘observable’ and its implications. One direct implication for them is that they no longer need to hold daily status meetings which means a 30% increase in the amount of time people have to actually DO work (and I would surmise an increase in work satisfaction since few people I know enjoy status meetings). Instead, managers watch the work streams of their teams and intervene only when they can help or when there is an issue. Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? As a manager I know that generally speaking I like to leave my team members alone and I only tend to jump in if I don’t know if work is being completed or if the work needs more support or resources to be completed. One of the ways I’ve annoyed team members is by repeatedly asking if things have been done because if I can’t see it, I don’t know. Making that work observable makes many of those interactions (and the time spent doing it) go away.

Culturally at Alcoa, this has taken some work to make individuals comfortable with sharing ‘in process’ work rather than completed work. For more traditional cultures this is a big transition and can feel at the individual level like you are opening yourself up to criticism when you haven’t even finished something.  I don’t know when my own perspective on this changed but these days, I will hardly ever even send a draft of something for review out before getting feedback on an outline.  Once I have an agreed upon outline, I will do a draft and then send that out for review and then the final or – if collaborating internally – use shared Google docs or a wiki.  For me, it is all about efficiency and setting the right expectations so I get the right feedback at the right time.  If I send a completed document out for review without any prior reviews and then someone takes issue with the document’s structure, it requires a lot of of tearing apart and rebuilding (i.e. wasted work). I’ve come to greatly appreciate having input throughout the process.  However, I have also had interactions with clients or partners that work in more traditional ways and have had confusion about a pre-deliverable review process so I know I need to work on being more explicit about my own expectations.

Brian and Joe brought up the issues around perfection and trust that this process requires.  Collaborating colleagues must trust each other in order to effectively review and use in-process work without assuming that the information is bad because the presentation is not perfect.  In this new environment a lot of work is never ‘complete’ in the way we used to understand it – it is just one of many versions and as new information/understanding is discovered, it is woven in to the document. I might argue that the term document is also a bit obsolete because of this – with a wiki page it is a knowledge flow or a knowledge repository rather than a static ‘document’.  Because these knowledge stores are never ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ and the trust factor becomes more pronounced, building strong relationships between colleagues that are interested in a particular knowledge area becomes critical – what we often refer to as communities of practice. Documents and knowledge become much harder to separate from their sources which also create more awareness of individual employees and their contributions.  All of these trends are positive:

  • The speed of knowledge exchange increases
  • Some of the administrative annoyances of work go away
  • New knowledge can be incorporated quickly
  • There is less wasted work due to in-process feedback
  • Individuals get more recognition for the contributions they make

However, the shift is profound. The whole way we think of completed work product and management changes and it is an unsettling change because, like all big change, it requires a leap of faith on the part of each individual. Individuals need plenty of assurances that they won’t be exposed or criticized and that requires that they trust their colleagues – many of whom they may have never met in person.  There are some good ways to start given the trust factor:

  • Start with a group small enough to have some collective trust but big enough to see some network effects
  • Start with a wide group but a topic/knowledge area that is neutral – an example might be employee charitable or social activities
  • Start with a new business area vs. an established product/service delivery process because often the risk is seen as inherent for new innovations but often an unwelcome addition to existing revenue streams.

Learning from others is also an important aspect. See more about how Alcoa thinks about this problem:



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