Should You Have a Web Committee?

An association executive on a list I belong to asked this week if organizations should have a web committee to determine the content, design and functionality of their site.

My answer? No.

The problem I have had with most web committees is that they often pursue solutions via consensus. Each individual comes to the committee with their agenda and the group then works out some compromise where no one gets everything and everyone gets something. This results in web sites where no one can find anything and that produce relatively low value for their organizations.

Every site must have defined, focused, outcomes that it is intended to create if it will generate significant value. Committees just can’t do this because of their structure.

What does work? Teams.

This isn’t just semantics. A team is a group of people who are pursuing a common goal. They will succeed or fail together and therefore have incentive to collaborate and endeavor toward common goals. This requires some extra effort and thought by senior management but, hey, that’s why they have that job!

Web committees, as they are usually constituted and governed, fail to produce value at the level that a focused team can achieve.

News without the Paper

The Christian Science Monitor has announced that they are going web-only for daily news and will print a Sunday magazine: The Monitor Ends Daily Print Edition.

If you read the story, you’ll note they did this in order to cut costs while still retaining their foreign bureaus and reporters. This makes all sorts of sense to me. When I hear about newspapers slashing their reporting staff, I always shake my head. The asset that they leverage for revenue is news reporting. They need to find new ways to leverage that asset effectively rather than cutting it to the bone to preserve an old, declining, business model.

Peter Drucker wrote that the most innovative companies are those who are ruthless about killing off programs, products and services that are no longer producitve. Kudos to the CSM for going boldly to the forefront of their industry.

If you’ve never read it, CSM provides some of the best international coverage out there. I discovered it in college while pulling long graveyard shifts at the periodicals desk as a student employee of the library.

When to Build and When to Hire

I though this article from MIT Sloan Management Review about hiring vs. developing internal talent was quite interesting. The article posits that the characteristics of the job should have as much, if not more, influence in the decision than the people in question. Here is a relevant quote from the summary.

When ‘Stars’ Migrate, Do They Still Perform Like Stars?

Consequently, organizations should not think of talent management as a simple “build versus buy” dichotomy. Rather, there are some positions for which they can buy, and others for which they must build. Within investment banks, for example, the retail brokers (who handle individual clients) work primarily on their own. In contrast, institutional salespeople (who sell to major institutional investors such as Putnam, Vanguard and Fidelity) are more likely to perform their jobs in teams. Thus, retail brokers are more portable and can easily be hired from the outside. Institutional salespeople, however, should be developed from within, and efforts should be made to retain them.

This has lots of interesting implications for career path development, recruitment and retention.

Improving the capacity to act.

I recently conducted a workshop for a clienton the topic of knowledge management. As I prepared for the event, I rediscovered a great definition of knowledge from Karl Erik Sveiby:

Knowledge is a capacity to act.

I find this to be a highly useful definition of knowledge because it helps to focus any knowledge-related endeavor on a specific outcome.

For example, does your intranet improve the ability of staff to act? This one question will lead to a cascading inquiry of the actions employees need to take in support of their goals, how they can best take them, and how your intranet can then facilitate that action taking process.

It boils away all the impurities of knowledge management as a field and highlights that which it is supposed to create in the business context: the improved capacity to take action.

Trading Value for Money Leads to Profits. Amazing!

Poking fun at the airlines is too easy these days but I think Southwest shows how you can actually make profits by giving value to your customers in exchange for money (crazy concept, I know!) in an otherwise troubled market.

According to the New York Times today, Southwest just posted a profit for their 69th straight quarter. A very big part of this has been do to their savvy fuel hedges limiting their exposure to the run up in oil. However, they have also revamped their pricing structure by not only raising fares, but offering a new class that gives advanced boarding, a free drink and an extra frequent flyer credit. The new class, Business Select, could generated about $100 million in new revenue.

Compare this to the other airlines who have not protected their fuel prices and are charging for previously ‘free’ services, such as baggage, without adding any additional value, terminally angering their customers.

Southwest, meanwhile, is advertising that ‘bags fly for free’ on their home page. I imagine that their executives must have to suppress giggles quite often as they dance around the rest of this sclerotic industry.

Are you offering value to your customers, visitors, clients or members? Taking captive markets for granted is risky in the long run: they have a habit of breaking out eventually.

Chief Program Killer

I had a conversation yesterday where one of Peter Drucker’s maxims on innovation was mentioned: sustained innovation can only happen in an organization if you are diligent about killing programs that do not provide sufficient value.

The reason for this is plain. It is impossible to make resources available for sustained innovation if all the resources of the organization are tied up in existing programs, products, services, etc.

Many organizations have put an executive in charge of fostering innovation but I imagine few of them consider putting the same person in charge of killing programs as well.

Developing Your Own Technical Talent

I hear from many clients that it is still quite hard to find experienced technical talent for IT or web development and administration work. What to do when you can’t afford to lure away an experienced technical employee? One alternative is to develop your own.

The key to success is to design your positions and professional development program to enable you to develop an entry level person and then promote them in place. This eventually develops the skill set you need while enhancing your chance of retaining the person after they have been trained.

Design an entry level technical position that you will fill. Also design a more senior position, based on the original job description, that includes higher-level responsibilities and the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities. As your entry level new hire is developed, promote them into the higher level position which you have created by design. It’s good to have two to three of these junior to senior path positions in place, if you can afford it, so that you can have new talent in the pipeline before a trained person does eventually leave.

This does a couple of things. It offers the realistic chance of relatively rapid promotion for the entry level person once they have learned how to do the more advanced job. They don’t have to wait for someone more senior to leave, they can simply be promoted in place. This will help to acknowledge the value of their new skills to the company and contribute to keeping them with you longer than they would have stayed for a dead-end entry level job. It also creates a senior position that you can fill directly if you happen to find that perfect candidate (it does happen now and then!).

Learning the Wheel vs. Reinventing It

In a post I wrote earlier this month about pre-requisites to knowledge sharing, Ellen asked about what do when the same old question keeps popping up even if it has been resolved or hashed over ad nauseam in the past.

This question highlights what the title of this post sums up: there is a difference between rehashing the invention of the wheel vs. learning about how to use it.

Many knowledge sharing/capture/management/what-have-you efforts are developed specifically to avoid reinventing the wheel. What is often overlooked is that you then have to educate new members to the effort about what has been covered in the past. Often, the only way to do this is when the question arises. Rather than getting in a twist about someone asking about wheels, view it as an opportunity to connect them with what has already been discussed/developed about wheels.

The Strobist blog gives a good example of how to deal with this. This blog has coalesced a community of flash photography aficionados who interact via the blog comments and their Flickr group. Many newbies join this group every day. David Hobby, who writes the blog, has written a document called Lighting 101 that covers the basics of off-camera flash lighting. New participants are gently and quickly directed to it so they can then interact with some knowledge in the broader community. Same thing can be done in other environments as well.

Methods for guiding people to these foundational resources are quite varied and include everything from very prominent links, tailored local search engine results and members of the community acting as knowledge sherpas.

Even when your wheel has been invented, there is still a big need for others to learn about how to use it. Make sure that is addressed in your efforts.

Firing by E-mail

I responded to a press inquiry this week about whether firing people by e-mail is a good practice. After picking up my jaw, I responded with the following:

Any executive who fires employees by e-mail should be fired from the closest available window. It is management by cowardice, pure and simple.

There are three reasons why firing by e-mail is a bad idea:

  1. It is inhumane. Anyone losing their job, no matter how deserving, should be shown the respect and basic decency of it being done in person by someone in authority. (This is reason enough not to fire by e-mail.)
  2. It creates risk. E-mails can easily be sent to the wrong people or at the wrong time. Either error can spur employee behavior and actions that will be harmful to the company. It is rare for someone to be terminated too soon or mistakenly when done in person.
  3. It is too easy for the firer. Firing should be a last resort outside of extreme cases. Sending an e-mail allows the executive to terminate someone in the abstract rather than facing them personally. You are more likely to make the right decision if you are willing to deliver the message to their face.

Terminating employees is something every manager has to do as part of their duties. When termination is warranted, have the guts to do it in person. It is the right thing to do as a human being and as a good manager.