Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations

Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations

Now available in print and Kindle editions!

Topsight—the overall understanding of the big picture—is hard to achieve in organizations. There’s too much going on, too many moving pieces. But without topsight, we have a hard time figuring out how information circulates, where it gets stuck, and how we can get it unstuck.

In Blog

Writing :: Making the Pitch

Posted by: on Aug 15, 2014 | No Comments

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., Burback, S.D., & Momberger, J. (2014, in press). Making the pitch: Examining dialogue and revisions in entrepreneurs’ pitch decks. IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication 57(3).

Here’s another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article had a very fast turnaround: we were told in June that if we could revise according to editor comments, it could be published by December. But when we received the proofs, the date said September, and as you can see, the early access version is already up. 

You’ll also see that the paper has eight coauthors. I rarely write with teams this big. Although it’s rewarding, it’s also difficult to manage. But in this case, it was worth it: different members of the team handled collecting, coding, analyzing, access, and the other functions, and all had input into the final article. Special mention goes to Scott Nelson, a graduate student in the English department who open-coded the documents, then flew to South Korea to videorecord pitches and conduct interviews. (Scott’s currently working on his dissertation about the pitch and related genres.)

So what can I tell you about the writing process? For me, this was a difficult paper because (a) it put text analysis front and center, and that’s not the sort of analysis I usually conduct; (b) it was situated in a complex activity in which I don’t have much prior experience; and (c) I had to figure out how to handle the issue of cultural differences.

When in doubt, segment
Re (a), we decided early on to segment our investigation, starting with the vast archives that IC2 keeps of pitch documents. Given our level of expertise, we decided to approach the project inductively, using open coding to investigate a relatively small subset of documents (applications, initial pitch decks, final pitch decks, comments on initial pitch decks, and technology commercialization reports). This analysis really is just the tip of the iceberg, but it provided us with a way to develop our understanding of the activity and the vocabulary we would have to use. In fact, we split this paper twice: once when we realized that we had to narrow the scope to focus on the archives, and again when we further narrowed it to focus on claims and evidence.

This is where the long view is helpful. Yes, I wanted to fold in the totality of our evidence, including observations of the process, observations of pitches, and interviews of multiple players. But there was no practical way to do that within one article. By segmenting the investigation, we could get traction on this piece—while working on other segments in the background.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when you write up research, you have to be conscious of your research arc. That was certainly true here: this segment of the research should constitute just one part of a research arc that encompasses other articles on the same topic.

When the activity is complicated, read and backchannel
The phenomenon we were studying, pitching, is inherently interdisciplinary. So we faced the challenge of trying to learn a little about a lot of different fields and a lot about business pitching. Along the way, we learned a lot about the workarounds and local innovations that make a complex program work. Much of that background knowledge doesn’t explicitly make it into the paper, but all of it impacted how we interpreted and coded the data.

Fortunately, we built in feedback mechanisms along the way, from formal surveys to informal face-to-face contacts to member checks. These were vital for getting our arms around what turned out to be an enormous amount of tacit knowledge—not just knowledge about this specific multiyear program, but also knowledge about business, marketing, and hard-to-pin-down concepts such as the value proposition. The last three authors were particularly helpful here, since they were well steeped in this world.

At the same time, to better understand this background, I found myself reading a procession of books and articles on marketing, innovation, diffusion, and related concepts. The books should sound familiar if you’ve been reading this blog.

When faced with cultural differences, be cautious
The program we investigated attempts to teach small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Korea how to enter global markets, particularly but not exclusively the United States. In practice, this means that an innovator (someone who, say, invents a new technology) needs to learn how to commercialize that technology (i.e., identify a good application for it and a set of stakeholders who require that application) in a different market. As our informants told us, these SMEs face a lot of barriers: How does an innovator learn to be an entrepreneur? How does someone talk to potential stakeholders in another culture? How does someone in a protected “fast follower” economy learn how to address the requirements of a relatively unprotected economy? How does someone whose economy is dominated by a few family corporations (chaebol) get her or his head around an economy with multiple players?

Faced with these questions, it’s easy to reduce these questions to “cultural differences,” e.g., characterizing the US as a market culture and South Korea as a clan culture (cf. Ouchi). I briefly started down this path before realizing that many of these questions were not related to national culture at all. An innovator in the US, such as a physicist in a university setting, will also have trouble figuring out how to commercialize a technology—and they do, which is why research universities in the US tend to have technology commercialization offices. A “fast follower” economy elsewhere in the world will not share South Korea’s cultural milieu, but may face many of the same barriers. And so on.

So, rather than reducing the differences to a vague and overarching culture clash, we focused on the specific issues that we could identify in this particular case.

Making the pitch
One last thing. In writing this paper, we were surprised at how little research there has been into how people develop their pitches. Most of the research we found focused on delivery. So we found ourselves reaching back into the document cycle literature as well as (naturally) the genre assemblage literature to better discuss distributed writing processes.

In doing this, we became sensitive to the fact that we also had to make a pitch—a pitch that identified a research hole and addressed how to fill it. Once we discovered the research hole (the lack of pitch process literature), we couldn’t believe how big it was. Now we get to fill it, and this article represents the first shovelful.

In Blog

(Vote for my SXSWi2015 reading!)

Posted by: on Aug 11, 2014 | No Comments

Longtime readers know that I go to SXSW every once in a while. It’s a great forum for discussing really interesting developments that affect all of us. For instance, in 2009, I discussed coworking. In 2011, I led a core conversation about distributed work. And in 2014 I talked about how liberal arts matter in a STEM world.

This year, I hope to continue that trend of appearing at SXSW—but this time, I want to read from and discuss my new book. In All Edge, I talk about coworking and distributed work, but also some of the long-term changes in how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate at work.

But to talk about All Edge at SXSWi, I need you to help. Click through to the SXSW Panel Picker and take a look at my entry. If it sounds good, please upvote me!

In Blog

Reading :: Distant Publics

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2014 | No Comments

Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis
By Jenny Rice

I finished this book a while back, but have only now eked out some time to review it. Here, Jenny Rice examines public discourse set around issues of development in my beloved hometown and the place where Jenny earned her PhD: Austin, Texas. She asks: “How do people argue, debate, and deliberate about the spaces where we live, work, shop, and travel?” And why does development proliferate even though it seems to be so broadly disliked? Her answer revolves around a figure, “the exceptional public subject,” who “occupies a precarious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness. It is a subjectivity thoroughly grounded in feeling, which makes this rhetorical position so difficult to change” (p.5). These “exceptional subjects imagine themselves to be part of a wider public simply by feeling” and “feeling too often serves as the primary connective tissue to our public spaces” (p.6). The fallout: “our habits of public discourse can paradoxically contribute to the demise of healthy public discourse” (p.5).

Rice develops this argument via various case studies (not in the Yin sense of an empirical research methodology, but rather in the sense of specific incidents that serve as epicenters for rhetorical analysis). These case studies are well developed, providing interesting and sometimes poignant narratives about development issues: urban (over)development as exemplified by strip malls and the Austin Smart Growth Initiative (Ch.1), eminent domain as illustrated by the Kelo decision (Ch.2), a fight over how a developer would affect Barton Springs and the aquifer (Ch.3), the demise of Austin’s beloved Armadillo World Headquarters (Ch.4), and the issue of East Austin gentrification (Ch.5). Each is compelling, and each illustrates different aspects of Rice’s argument about public spaces and the exceptional public subjects who feel for them—sometimes with too much affect, but too little effect.

What shall we do, then, about public discourse? In the next chapter, Rice argues that “we must pursue inquiry as a mode of publicness” (p.164). That is, we must stretch past the vernacular talk that tends to generate the exceptional public subject: as composition teachers, rather than asking students to write and argue about things that ignite their passions, perhaps we should ask them to inquire about things first, making inquiry the telos rather than the means by which students are expected to engage their passions (Ch.6, esp. p.168). By encouraging students to write about their passions, Rice says, we are training them to become exceptional public subjects who feel rather than acting; by making inquiry the object, we are training them to become engaged in public inquiry in which they learn how to interrogate the multiple asymmetrical networks in which they are enmeshed (pp.168-169).

Should you read this book? Of course! It’s outside my particular research focus, but I’m enmeshed in these multiple public networks and so are you. Take a look, even if you’re not specifically interested in public rhetoric and theory. And if you teach, consider taking Ch.6 in particular to heart.

In Blog

Reading :: Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2014 | No Comments

Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition
By Everett M. Rogers

In Bruno Latour’s discussions of science and technology, he often contrasts two models by which new innovations spread: diffusion and translation. Roughly, diffusion is seen as a process by which people take up an innovation “as is” and apply it unaltered. Translation is a process in which people adapt the innovation for their own contexts. That is, as Latour likes to say, there is no adoption without adaptation.

However, Latour is using a fairly crabbed understanding of what scholars mean by diffusion. In this thick and comprehensive book, Everett Rogers, whose name (according to the back cover) is “virtually synonymous with the study of the diffusion of innovations,” gives us a much broader understanding of diffusion research. He acknowledges that diffusion research has had a pro-innovation bias in which researchers coded adoption as positive and adaptation as bad (p.106), but he also notes that diffusion scholars have critiqued this bias since the 1970s (p.110) and says that now “diffusion scholars no longer assume that an innovation is ‘perfect’ for all potential adopters in solving their problems and meeting their needs” (p.115).

I start out with this example for two reasons. One is that it helps me—and, presumably, long-time readers—to situate this book in relationship to the science and technology studies (STS) scholarship with which my own field is familiar. The other is that it illustrates the key advantage of this book: it offers a broad, wide-ranging, and thorough overview of diffusion research, including its history, contributions, and criticisms (Ch.2-3) as well as how innovations are generated (Ch.4), how people decide whether to adopt/adapt an innovation (Ch.5), what innovation attributes affect adoption rates (Ch.6), categories of adopters (Ch.7), diffusion networks (Ch.8), change agents (Ch.9), innovation in organizations (Ch.10), and consequences of innovations—good and bad (Ch.11).

Throughout this massive discussion (471pp, not counting end matter), Rogers overviews the field of diffusion studies, provides illustrative case studies, discusses failures as well as successes, and even discusses and critiques some of his early conclusions that he believes should be revisited. He discusses how various fields and strands (including social construction of technology) have contributed to diffusion studies (although he doesn’t name-check Latour in particular). And he firmly connects this discussion to sociological studies and touchstones (he was trained as a rural sociologist).

Granted, I don’t know a lot about diffusion studies, but my impression is that this book provides a strong introduction to the field. If you’re studying innovations, diffusion, technology commercialization, or related concerns, please do pick it up.

In Blog

Reading :: Organizational Culture and Leadership

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2014 | No Comments

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition
By Edgar H. Schein

One of the blind reviewers for my latest book (which will be published in March 2015) suggested I read this book. More recently, one of our professors in the HDO program assigned it to her students. With two recommendations so close together, I decided it was time to take the book for a spin.

What did I think of it? I’m still sorting that out.

According to the back cover, this book is “one of the most influential management books of all time.” Its author has been studying and consulting on organizational culture for decades—his earliest cited work in this volume is dated 1961—and he draws on a deep well of his and others’ organizational studies to discuss what organizational culture is and what leadership entails. Since the book is written for management rather than scholars, it is full of categories and heuristics aimed at helping that audience think through the various issues of culture.

Schein has clearly thought through the relevant issues, leading to fairly precise definitions. For instance, he defines “the culture of a group” as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to these problems” (p.18). He distinguishes organizational cultures from macrocultures (e.g., nations), subcultures (e.g., occupational groups), and microcultures (e.g., microsystems) (p.2). Within culture, leadership involves becoming influential in shaping the values and behaviors of others in the group (p.3). Culture, he says, implies structural stability, depth, breadth, and patterning or integration (pp.16-17). Critically, he says (over and over), culture cannot be inferred only from behavior: culture is driven by shared basic assumptions, which may not be accessible to outsiders through observations or even through initial interviews (p.20); they might not even be easily accessible to the participants themselves.

Schein argues that culture has three levels: artifacts (which include visible structures and processes as well as observed behavior); espoused beliefs and values (which includes ideals, ideologies, and rationalizations); and basic underlying assumptions (which are unconscious and taken-for-granted, but which determine bedrock things such as behavior and perception) (p.24). New values can be proposed (on the second level) but do not become part of the underlying assumptions until they have been “empirically tested” (p.26). These basic assumptions then become theories-in-use, which are nonconfrontable and nondebatable (p.28). In fact, when cultural assumptions conflict, new solutions have to keep each cultural assumption intact in order to be accepted (p.31).

In organizations, Schein says, three generic subcultures are in effect: the operator subculture (or “the front line”), the engineering/design subculture; and the executive subculture (Ch.4). These subcultures often work at cross purposes, and the lack of alignment causes many problems that are ascribed to issues such as bureaucracy, environment, or personality (p.65).

The culture’s structure is the same at different levels, Schein says, but its content (rules, norms, values, assumptions) vary (p.69). Schein notes that some have attempted to address the issue of structure through organizational typologies (such as Cameron and Quinn’s CVF), but he argues that such typologies pose several analytical problems—particularly when administered in survey form. To pick out two criticisms that apply to typologies in general rather than to survey methodology: (A) such typologies are typically based on a priori comparative dimensions, and there’s no way to tell which dimensions will be most salient to the case until one actually gets into the case (p.160), and (B) the sample of employees may not be representative of the key culture carriers (p.160). Typologies may also imply, as CVF does, that the poles of each dimension are in conflict “and the cultural solution is how to reconcile them”; based on his deep experience in examining organizations, Schein is unconvinced, although he allows that the CVF may provide “a useful diagnostic” for correlating managerial climate and performance (p.168). In sum, Schein believes that such typologies “simplify thinking and provide useful categories for sorting out the complexities we must deal with when we confront organizational realities.” But they tend to be oversimplified and their categories may be irrelevant or incorrect. The effort to classify the organization into a single category involves making a lot of assumptions, many of which may not hold (p.175).

In the next chapter, Chapter 11, Schein discusses categories of research on organizations. He uses a matrix: level of subject involvement (low, medium, and high) vs. level of researcher involvement (low/medium: quantitative; high: qualitative) (p.181). The rest of the chapter weighs these different approaches—in detail.

Skipping ahead, we get to Chapter 14. Here, Schein seems to say that leaders take an outsized role in setting culture. He discusses the mechanisms in detail; I’ll just comment that I am as skeptical of this argument as Schein is about organizational typologies.

By Chapter 17, we get to “a conceptual model for managed culture change,” and Chapter 18 builds on that discussion by proffering an approach to “culture assessment as part of managerial organized change.” Extraordinarily, given the previous discussion, Schein claims that “culture can be assessed by means of various individual and group interview processes … Such assessments can be usefully made by insiders in as little as a half-day” (p.326, my emphasis).

So, now that I’ve recapitulated the book’s highlights, what do I think?

The book is indeed broad and deep, and the author’s long and detailed experience gives him a broad number of examples as well as a strong set of conceptual tools to interpret them. I would have liked to see the book become more focused and parsimonious, though, especially in reusing several of the examples across chapters.

Some of the authors’ critiques stick: For instance, the critique of typologies is well thought out and helped me to think through some of the issues in the typologies I’ve read and discussed on this blog (and in my upcoming article and book). But the author doesn’t distinguish strongly between the theoretical issues of such typologies and the methodological issues of surveys. As noted above, I am also skeptical of the outsized role that the author assigns to leaders in the organization, as well as his assertion that insiders can assess culture in a half day—this assertion seems to cut against his earlier claims about deep assumptions in the culture.

At the same time, the book also talks through organizational culture using heuristics that could be potentially very useful. For instance, the distinction among levels of culture not only makes sense, it can be put in dialogue with other theoretical and methodological approaches to organizational culture.

So: should you read it? If you’re interested in organizational culture, yes. But if you have already read books on organizational culture or qualitative research, you may find yourself skimming it in several chapters.