April 20, 2009

Finishing School

Posted in Business, Technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:37 am by lindaslongview

balancebookseyesonlyMy mother always said that I needed to attend “finishing school,” but early on I did not see the value. As such, I started my career with poor interaction skills.  Luckily, my undeveloped social skills were tolerated because of significant technical contribution.   However, as my career progressed, I found that the technical problems were increasingly complex and without adaptation on my social skills side, it was clear that I would perish. So even though I did not balance books on my head, my latent abilities were nurtured and I learned to collaborate, lead, and be more socially refined.

I don’t have any really great stories, just an accumulated “what were they thinking?” collection in my head that has helped me to learn the following key principles:

  • Understand motivation and human behavior.
  • Get to know your colleagues.
  • Work to the strengths of each individual.

I learned from academic (reading the work of others), experiential collaborative technical projects (doing and learning from mistakes), and more recently through service and leadership in community organizations.

I have observed that there are fundamental differences in the motivation between industry (paid for service technical effort) and civic service (volunteer community effort).  The motivation for collaborative effort in typical technology organizational culture is recognition, reputation, and PAY.  Whereas in community volunteer organizational cultures, motivation is recognition, reputation, and RECIPROCITY.   Although they both share similar features (recognition and reputation), there is quite a difference between pay and reciprocity.

Others (real experts, not just amateurs like me) have studied pay and reciprocity differences.  A particularly engaging study can be found in Predictably Irrational (Ariely, ch.4, social norms v. market norms).  Ariely points out that, although social norms are more powerful motivators than market norms, the social contract required to achieve success with social norms is very tenuous! Expediency must be abandoned and long view commitments forged, because social contracts must be maintained under all circumstances to be effective.

As usual, there are blurred lines that create tension.  Industry desires to capitalize on social leverage requiring social skills of business leaders (understand motivation, get to know people, work to strengths), but is not always willing to take the long view. Conversely, sometimes, civic leaders desire expediency, in the process forgetting the social contracts they have engaged to achieve volunteer participation.

Although, more and more, we hear about self-organizing mass collaborations building value (Wikinomics, by Tapscott & Williams), motivated in unusual ways, it is not likely that it will be the case for most technology projects in the near term.  I recently read about 100,000 gamers unraveling the secret life of proteins (Wired, 17.05, There’s Power in a Puzzle), their motivation being competitive fun!  Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve that everywhere?!

As I continue to grow, I hope to learn more, and I look forward to a future where powerful motivators, like competitive fun, can be harnessed and retained for industrial and civic service more and more routinely.  However, in the meantime, there is still much that requires coordinated collaborative leadership and excellence in social skills.

Do you have suggestions or observations that could add to this thinking?


  1. Mike C said,

    Wow Linda, so much here in your one little posting! Well done! This brought up so many thoughts for me, all of which I cannot possibly post. But I will try, just for fun, to make the case that macro market norms are becoming more reflective of macro social norms.

    I would agree that long view social contract/norms inherently becomes vital to one’s survival in society, but one could also make the case that market norms in business relationships have recently (in the last 20 years) taken a more “long view” or strategic approach to reflect those same needs. For example, companies now make huge investments in business development, partnerships, and strategic sourcing as a means to leverage core competencies of all those involved. This is more vital than ever in a global business environment, particularly where one is marketing a brand on a global scale. A wise man (who’s name I can’t remember) once said, “in the new global competitive environment, it can no longer be firm competing vs. firm, but it is supply chain competing vs. supply chain.” If one believes this, then an aligned supply chain thus becomes the “governing” market norms to do global business, as states rights’ really have no “jurisdiction” of a social contract other than local. One example of a market driven concept that provides a global social benefit might be a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility strategy. That is, seeking business partners (suppliers, service providers, partners, intermediaries) that are in alignment in areas that address ALL stakeholders (Ehtics, governance, the community, environment, workers, consumers, etc.) not just the shareholders who typically drive the short view.

    Competitive fun? Well I haven’t read the article yet but if we go back to basic motivations, in Maslow’s parlance, that desire for competitive fun could potentially be described as “self actualizing” or a desire to be part of something important, like alter the lives of others in a positive way. If using McClelland’s motivational needs theory, that competition might be rooted in a desire for power or achievement?

    While PAY is still important RECIPROCIY in market norms is now an accepted part of profitably doing business. I read a study once where a psychologist (Dennis Regan) set up an experiment where students thought they were being solicited individually to critique some art, a ruse. The “rater” who was part of the study would then go out of the room the subject was in and come back and say. “I asked him (the experimenter) if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was OK, so I brought one for you too.” while giving the subject a Coke. In other cases, he returned to the room empty handed and did not say anything.
    Later on the rater asked the subject to do him a favor (to buy .25 cents raffle tickets that if he sells the most, he will win a $50 prize). The subjects who had received the Coke, bought twice as many raffle tickets as those that didn’t. By the way, Coke only cost a dime when this study was done. In the second part of the study, he then found there was no correlation between whether the rater was likeable or not, forming the conclusion that people felt a sense of obligation had nothing to do with likeability, which was evident from the rater profiteering for his dime investment in a can of Coke. Alas, does not address why RECIPROCITY is prevalent in civic, but my guess is that everyone is motivated by some basic need at the end of the day.

    Hmm, so how to link all this back to finishing school? Well, in a global business environment, we deal with diverse cultures through distance/time, all which adhere to disparate “norms” of expectable social contracts. In other words, what you may have learned in “finishing school” may no longer apply.

    • lindaslongview said,

      Mike, thanks for your observations.

      Your Coke story is similar to stories Ariely tells in Predictably Irrational, I think you will love the book (get the new version due out May19th). Ariely makes a clear distinction between social norms (which deal with our need for community) and market norms (which deal with negotiation and prompt (fair) payments). He demonstrates (similar to the Coke experiment) that “once market norms enter our consideration, the social norms depart” implying that the higher leverage social norms evaporate if business does not take great care to nurture them (long view actions). His studies really caused me to think deeply about the differences that I see in volunteer leadership vs. paid-for-service leadership and all of the shades of gray that I have observed through the “school of hard knocks” (my personal finishing school).

      I think that the implications are profound relative to how collaborative interactions need to be managed for the future of building and creating new “stuff” from technology — long view will be required for success. More on that in another post…


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