Connect The Dots

The Christmas Day terrorist attempt on a flight to Detroit highlighted an all too common problem in organizations.  Information may exist but knowledge is not always developed. Business organizations are not immune to the design and management problems we often see in government.  You’ve probably heard, if not your self said, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing! Information is here and there throughout the various functional areas of an organization, but it is not always translated into knowledge—no one connects the dots. Why does an inability to connect the dots exist in organizations?

By way of explanation, consider the issue of quality. Many organizations promise quality of product and service yet fall short on the promise.  A basic principle of quality goes something like this: you will not have quality until you have a system for improvement.  Merely adding a quality inspection department (which is essentially outcome management) or adding a vice president for quality (which assumes quality is an administrative issue) will not ensure or produce quality. If either or both of these represent the primary effort then the organization will predictably fall short on the promise. While these give the appearance of a concern for quality, they do not reflect a deep understanding of and systemic design for quality—they don’t constitute a system for improvement. Given that improvement rests upon learning, an ability to develop knowledge and understanding throughout the organization is essential to fulfilling the promise.

In regards to developing knowledge, the phrase connecting the dots offers both a literal and a metaphorical imperative.  In organizations we have different functional components charged with different tasks.  Moreover those working within each functional area are likely doing their best. To ensure this is the case, management in authority—often called the leadership—provides each functional component with goals against which performance is monitored.  The common practice involves variance reports wherein those in management compare actual results against expectation; accordingly passing judgment and taking action based on the direction and size of the variance. Because only two points of information are considered patterns of variation are not studied—two points don’t make a pattern. Literally, there is no connecting of dots!  [As presented in a previous posting (i.e. By the Numbers) there is no understanding of how to translate patterns of variation into knowledge.]

Unfortunately, even if each functional component and the individuals therein attain their goals, it will not ensure the promise. Developing knowledge and understanding will only happen—except by chance alone—when the work is integrated across all functional areas.  Knowledge will emerge when there is a system for improvement, or more specifically when the system is designed for learning.  A collection of different and separate functional components each doing good work is not a system—a system is not the summation of parts.

In this context what we have is divided responsibility; each being responsible for their separate part, but not for the interactions and interdependencies that complete the whole.  There is no design of the space in between functional components, where knowledge is developed. Thus, having different functional areas is acceptable, but having separate functional areas is not—divided responsibility means no one is responsible!  This does not imply that all must report to the same individual: Placing a person in-charge—a grand overseer—will not afford the capability to connect the dots.

A system has an aim with constituent parts in mutual relation. Having separate functional departments reporting to the same administrator/leader does not make a system; it only assures one boss and one boss does not a system make. Metaphorically, connecting the dots—which is code for developing knowledge—follows from integrating the work and interconnecting the people of the organization across the functional areas. In support of the system’s aim, it is essential that co-laboring be designed in.  Incorporating the parts into a whole through the very design and management of the organization will afford the capability of connecting the dots.

If not for literally and figuratively connecting the dots, what are most organizations managed and designed for?

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