By Steve Kelman
Richard Hackman was known for research on managing teams.
Richard Hackman, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, died last week of lung cancer at the age of only 72. (He was a pipe smoker.) He was most known for his research on managing teams, a field that in many ways he pioneered. He was a major figure for many years in the academic study of organizational behavior, and in fact recently had received the lifetime achievement award of the organizational behavior division of the Academy of Management, the main organization of scholars who study organizations.
I bring up Hackman for readers of this blog because he was one of the few prominent organizational behavior scholars still around who was interested in government management. His last book, Collaborative Intelligence, was about how to make intelligence-analysis teams work better. Other work of his was empirically situated in government organizations, and pretty much all his work on teams was relevant to government. Although never on the Kennedy School faculty, he was always very warm and friendly to what we were trying to do as a school devoted to public service, and in the last years before he got sick he taught about teams to federal officials attending executive education classes with us.
I wrote two columns over the years about Hackman’s work. One, all the way back in 2002, was about his classic book Leading Teams, which in the column I called “the best book on teams I've ever read, with material that many FCW readers would find helpful.” And in 2011 I wrote a column about Collaborative Intelligence.
Hackman was associated with a number of provocative ideas, such as the idea that organizations tend to “over-team.” Working in teams takes time and energy, and some individuals may take a free ride (making the whole less than the sum of the parts). You shouldn’t form a team in the first place without good reason – usually the need to get diverse knowledge and/or skills from different people in order to solve a problem or do a task. Another view of Hackman’s was that people often pay excessive attention to team processes as opposed to how the team is structured even before it starts its work – has it been given a good task, does it have the right members, and so forth.
There was a time early in the history of organizational studies when many of the leading organization scholars (in political science or sociology departments) studied government organizations. One leading academic journal, the Administrative Science Quarterly, covered the government in about a third of its articles in its early years in the 1950s.
With the migration of organizational studies to business schools and the declining prestige of government, this has almost completely disappeared. Many organizational behavior scholars study questions that might interest any organization (government, nonprofit, or business), but few study the special management challenges of government – such as non-financial performance measurement or motivating without monetary incentives – and increasingly the trend is to study topics that are much more like individual psychology than anything having to do with organizations at all. To the extent organization scholars study a sector of society, it is business firms.
These trends are sad, though they do reflect trends in the larger society. And they make the premature loss of Richard Hackman all the sadder. Read obituary tributes to him here.
Posted on Jan 15, 2013 at 2:19 PM0 comments
Expect to see today's youth thumbing buttons on this device at any time, but almost never speaking into it. (Stock image)
Will this new generation of young people, who eschew telephone conversation in favor of texts, social media and the Internet, change as they enter the workforce? Or will they simply change professional communication as we know it?
I somewhat addressed this question last August when I discussed my decision to transition from teaching using only words to a method that includes a significant visual component -- namely, PowerPoint slides.
Everyone over a certain age has noticed how talking over the telephone – as opposed to texting – is becoming rarer and rarer. When I was in the government 15 years ago, I made and received probably 20 calls a day. Now I probably make and receive 20 calls in two weeks (and, because I’m old-fashioned, most of those are ones I make, not ones I get.)
I found some interesting evidence on this issue from an unlikely source – the weekly Chinese English-language magazine Beijing Review. This publication recently ran an article called “The Antisocial Network” on the impact of texting and social media on the behavior of young people. My guess is that work similar to that discussed in this article has also been done in the United States – and, if anything, the consistency of the findings in two very different cultures actually is quite powerful.
The article reported on a poll by a big Chinese web portal on smartphone use by people under 35. The survey found that fully half the respondents preferred communicating on texting or social media sites than talking face to face! The article cited an example, apparently widely discussed online in China (where respect for parents and grandparents has historically been very high), in which “a grandfather arranged a dinner party for two grandchildren, who spent the entire evening staring at their phones. The old man became irritated and left before the meal ended.”
Note that since these were children, they didn’t even have the excuse that they needed to deal with messages or requests from their boss or subordinates.
I think – I guess I should say I fear – that the new technology is really changing, and in partly problematic ways, the way people interact with each other. I myself value the ability social media such as Facebook give to keep in touch in a low-cost way with lots of people; for example, you can spend 20 seconds writing a birthday greeting to a Facebook friend and make that person feel really nice. This is good.
But there is a role for deeper, more personal communication, and there is a role for the emotions, feelings, depth, and nuance that comes through face-to-face verbal communication. I fear that society will be worse-off if these skills and inclinations atrophy.
This also has implications for how politics and organizations work. Traditionally, speaking ability has been an important part of political skill -- think of the “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan. Will those skills start counting for less and, if so, what implications does this have for politics? What happens if employees tune out verbal messages from bosses? Organizations use a lot of low-involvement written communication, such as memos, but will supervisors and managers need to get better at high-involvement visual communication?
Thoughts anybody? Write them down. (Don’t call me. :p )
Posted on Jan 11, 2013 at 2:19 PM3 comments
U.S. CTO Todd Park oversees and champions the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
In a recent conversation with a senior administration official, I was told about an accomplishment of a program started last August called the Presidential Innovation Fellows. This effort, run out of the office U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, brings about 20 smart people from the private sector to work in the government for a 6-month stint to jump-start a specific innovation initiative in cooperation with an agency. (FCW previously covered the program here.)
One of these innovation fellows, whose normal job involves website design, has been working on an initiative called RFP-EZ, which is an application to help companies who have never done business with the government before – especially startups with innovative solutions to government problems – walk step by step through the federal procurement process.
The idea to do this is itself a great one, and I will be following with interest as this is rolled out, to see if this helps improve access for small commercial companies in the federal marketplace. However, I bring this up in this post for a different reason – the Innovation Fellow’s work to develop the application itself. The idea for doing this predated the Innovation Fellows program, and this first-round fellow was brought in to help actually develop the application. As I understand it, the agency working on scoping out the project, based on their own past experience contracting for applications such as these, thought the application would cost north of a million dollars to develop. However, based on his own experience with web design, the Innovation Fellow estimated this would involve around $50,000 of time and could be done in a very short period – and proceeded to do exactly that (he didn’t charge the government, since he was already a fellow).
This is an example of a phenomenon that one doesn’t run into all the time, but that happens often enough to be a source of real worry and of a need to dig more deeply to draw some lessons. It is not unheard of that situations arise where people from the commercial IT industry, outside the normal world of government contracting, either actually develop, or present a case after the fact for why it would have been possible to develop, applications meeting the same specs for a tiny, tiny fraction of what the government pays – not 10 percent less or even 20 percent less, but 95 percent less.
It is of course possible that in some of these cases, there are security or other issues that are not taken into account, and I feel relatively confident that these situations are the exception, not the rule. Nonetheless, I raised this issue with a group of contracting officers with whom I had coffee before Christmas, and one person told me that at his previous organization (in the intelligence community) they actually had a little office that looked at much lower-cost alternatives to approaches the agency was planning to use for developing applications, and that this office did at times find examples of ways to get applications developed for a fraction of what the government had been assuming it would be paying.
I think we need to try to peel the onion a bit on this. We do typically have competition on developing these applications, so there should be an incentive for a vendor to bid a much lower-cost solution. Is the problem that small commercial companies which might provide dramatically cheaper alternatives don’t want to get involved in the federal marketplace? Or what? Perhaps a good first step would be for the Innovation Fellow involved in RFP-EZ to come forth and, in a non-threatening way, explain the differences in assumptions or mindset or whatever between him and the government/contractor folks that produced this big gap in expectations of what it would take to develop this application.
Posted on Jan 08, 2013 at 2:19 PM4 comments