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A conversation about - conversation

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2001 | BY John Gehl 

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Chitchatting your way to success; Donald J. Cohen, author, with Laurence Prusak, of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work (Harvard Business Press) talks about the benefits of encouraging and preserving real conversation in organizations.

UBIQUITY: Let's meander through some of the topics of your book, starting with contributions of the "office gossip" The office gossip in years past was considered a foolish figure at best and somehow malignant at worst. How do you feel about the office gossip in terms of what you say in your book?

DONALD J. COHEN: First of all, we're not saying that we suddenly discovered that gossip is a wonderful thing. Some of it is malignant and a waste of time. What we talk about is recognizing that gossip -- whether in the office or in a social setting -- binds people together, passes along important news, and helps establish or communicate the values of an organization. We also think that it's inevitable. When a bunch of people who know each other get together there will be some gossip. I think in the book we said something like, "Two cheers for gossip!" to show that we don't endorse it in an absolutely wholehearted way, but still recognize that it has a social function. The view that some managers take that any talk that isn't official business talk is somehow a waste of time is not true.

UBIQUITY: Consider the old paradigm of the person who began a career at age 20, stayed with the same company, retired at age 65, and received a gold watch. That paradigm has been under fairly vicious attack in recent years by management writers who praise the new model of the individual entrepreneur. Presumably there's a middle ground between the individual entrepreneur monitoring his own career and on the other hand the employee who is the company person. How do you find the balance?

COHEN: I think that's very true. The day -- if any such day ever existed -- when you were guaranteed lifetime employment in a company unless you did something dreadfully wrong is gone. But I do think that there are companies today -- UPS and Act Institute, the software company -- where long-term employment is still the norm and the expectation. Those companies promote from within, have shared decision-making at all levels, and try to keep people's jobs interesting because they value the experience, relationships and wisdom that people build up over time. Despite what we read in Fast Company and other places, there are quite a few companies that look for and support long-term employment. In terms of answering your question about where do we find the middle ground, one of the new bargains is when companies agree to help employees continue to develop their skills so that they can increase their potential value if the time comes when they decide to leave the company, or the company for whatever reason decides to reduce the number of employees. I would say part of a sensible new deal is this engagement in meaningful work, which is neither "Relax, you have a lifetime job," nor "You're expendable as soon as we downsize and in the meantime you're our slave."

UBIQUITY: We feel compelled to ask about two domains that you don't focus on in the book. You focus on business, of course. But, you didn't focus on either the military or academia as organizational types.

COHEN: There's a little discussion of the military in the chapter on trust. One of the trust builders in organizations is commitment to a higher ideal than just increasing the numbers for the next quarter. The military is one place where that impulse really does motivate people. In the military, to the extent that I have insight into it from talking to people in the Department of the Navy and also some people in the Army, depends significantly on building relationships and trust. Also, I think there's this structure of shared history in the military that's very important. One point I came across fairly recently is that people in the military tend to wear the patch that represents their original unit, no matter what level they reach. That's sort of like going to college together. It draws people together and makes a kind of community feel in the military.

UBIQUITY: In the military, "morale" is usually defined not as having the troops clothed well and fed well, but in terms of their being highly disciplined and motivated to achieve an objective.

COHEN: Some of that has to do with your identity in sense of membership as say, a Marine. I've read recently that although the Army and some of the other services are having trouble finding quality recruits, the Marines have absolutely no trouble filling their quota. I think that's because they project an image of the type of person they want and what being a Marine means -- a sense of identity that continues to attract the kinds of people who make Marines and that creates cohesion in that branch of the service. It's interesting to think about the Army's new advertising campaign, which is "The Army of One" idea. I guess their market research indicated that people were uneasy about entering the Army because they have this image of being embarrassed with a bunch of other people and being just a number, having no personal freedom. So the new advertising has this "Army of One" thing and one television ad I saw shows one soldier jogging in one direction separate from everybody else. It will be fascinating to see whether that is productive, or if it backfires in some way because I think in a way they're trying to sell something that isn't what the Army is.

UBIQUITY: Or should be.

COHEN: Or should be, and may, in fact, be losing some of the ground they could gain in a "join the team" kind of image or "The Army where everybody knows your name," something like that.

UBIQUITY: Before we move onto academia, what about the quasi-military spirit of some of the dot-coms and the Silicon Valley companies? Of course, the morale's probably a lot different than it was a year ago, but people there were famous for getting up and starting work at six in the morning and working until ten o'clock at night. They had, in military jargon, a gung-ho spirit.

COHEN: First of all, it's an indication of how powerful the culture is because I don't believe it's just because all of those people love working 18 hours a day. If the boss is doing it and your colleagues are doing it, it creates a tremendous pressure to do it. In the short term, on a project basis, that can generate a tremendous amount of energy and camaraderie and get people to perform at a high level. It's kind of an analogy to a theatrical play. For a relatively short term, you work like crazy toward that goal and it's very exciting and bonds people together. Then the play goes on and it ends and everybody's sad, but everybody's also relieved that they don't have to keep functioning at that level. I think the same thing happens within business -- even if you're only 21 or 23 years old, you can't sustain that kind of crisis living indefinitely. If we're thinking in terms of how that works in organizations, I certainly think that on a short-term project basis that can bring people together and create bonds that can persist even after the project. I mean, if you and I worked on something together and sweated out 12 nights in a row on pizza in the office, that going through hell together would bring us together. But that's not to say that we could live that way indefinitely.

UBIQUITY: Moving on to academia . . .

COHEN: Oh, man! It's so interesting. I was part of an English Department for some years.

UBIQUITY: Where?

COHEN: At Brooke University in St. Catherine's, Ontario. I would not say high social capital was characteristic of our department.

UBIQUITY: Explain.

COHEN: It remains astonishing to me how much of an isolated and individualistic life so much of a working university is, where your classroom is yours and nobody's allowed to come in. People who I talk to in academia often say that their social bonds -- the ones that feed their work and inspire them -- tend to be with people in their discipline. Their loyalty is often more to the community of social scientists thinking about X than to the university where they happen to be. I think of universities as places where social capital, knowledge sharing and knowledge management could do amazing things, if you could manage to draw people together and instill a sense of support and cooperation, instead of, at least in the departments I'm familiar with, competition and envy.

UBIQUITY: Is it because all the rewards are individual rewards?

COHEN: I wish I knew. There certainly is a kind of focus. My experience is mainly in the humanities. It's possible in the sciences that there's more of a sense of joint enterprise. But, coming out of an English Department where really all you had was your sensitivity to the literature, your feeling that you could grasp and express it better than other people, and maybe that your taste was more intelligent or more refined, things were tied to individual accomplishment. One of the interesting things it ties into is that schools in this country for students, as well as their professors, tend to be so individually oriented. One of the issues we've talked about in knowledge sharing is the fact that schools were trained to look at individual achievement and were trained to think that cooperation is cheating. I happen to think that the atmosphere of departments that I've been connected with is the way it is because in a sense people have never stopped being undergraduates.

UBIQUITY: Where have you been?

COHEN: I got my degrees at Yale University. I did some student teaching there and then taught at Brooke, and then I left academia. My contacts now are just talking to friends.

UBIQUITY: What about the increasingly intense interest in so-called distance learning or Internet-based learning. Do you think that it is likely to go very far without mechanisms for the social capitalism that you're endorsing?

COHEN: I'm really skeptical. It's not that an Internet course of a certain kind can't have value for people who don't have access to a university or don't have the money or the time to go. I certainly don't think it's worthless. But the conversations about essentially getting your whole college degree online -- and more recently, people talking about kindergarten through 12th grade education online -- seem to be working from an old and I think faulty model of what education is; thinking of it as opening up someone's skull and pouring a lot of stuff into it. I think education is an interaction, a conversation, and also a social experience. When many of us think back to our college years, we probably think first of people who influenced us -- whether they were professors or fellow students or other people we met in the university -- not only with what they knew, but with what they were and how they responded to the world and how they lived. To me that's a very important part of education. A lot of the learning that has meant most to me has been the surprising things that happen at the edges of the curriculum. It's hard for me to believe that people will think that a degree from Online U is equivalent to a degree from a quality university. And second, I just think of that as a really impoverished experience. So, I'm very skeptical about that kind of thing as a substitute. I think as a supplement it makes sense.

UBIQUITY: Right , because Plato was skeptical too -- about writing itself, which was a new-fangled teaching tool then. In the spirit of devil's advocate, can it be suggested that most people wrongly frame the issue when they compare so-called distance learning with a tutorial, when they should instead be comparing it to a book?

COHEN: I think that's a reasonable question because it's not very hard to have an advantage over a textbook. In a good course the textbook provides some foundation and a place for reference. So, if your question is presented with a choice between a traditional 600-page chemistry textbook or an interactive Web site where you can read the material, do simulations of experiments, and send e-mails to a professor asking questions, then I think that the electronic access looks pretty good.

UBIQUITY: Let pause to mention Larry Prusak, your co-author. What do the two of you do nowadays?

COHEN: I am the Publications Director and Larry is the Executive Director of the Institute for Knowledge Management, a consortium of organizations sponsored by IBM and located in Cambridge, Mass. We have about 40 organizations at this point who are involved in research and discussion of issues of organizational intelligence -- how to use what you know better, how to learn the things you need to learn, how to develop new ideas. The organization has existed now for just over two years. I've been doing a journal and newsletters for it, as well as taking part in some of the research work.

UBIQUITY: Is it independent of IBM?

COHEN: It has financial support from IBM, and is certainly identified as part of IBM. But it is independent in the sense of doing its own thing with these clients and being very different from the rest of IBM. I think they established it because they thought it would be valuable to show some thought leadership and to have something for clients who were interested in delving into some of these issues.

UBIQUITY: How did you learn about knowledge management?

COHEN: Larry and I have known each other for 15 to 18 years. Until the end of 1995, I was working for DC Heath, as the technology manager for an educational publishing company. Another publisher bought out that company. I decided not to go with them, and I was looking around to figure out what I was going to do next. At that time Larry was under contract with Harvard Business School Publishing to do a book on knowledge management. I became his ghostwriter and we did a book with Tom Davenport called "Working Knowledge," which was pretty successful. That was my education in the subject. I went from there to do a newsletter for the NY_s Center for Business Innovation, which had the knowledge program at that point, and then, with Larry, came to the Institute for Knowledge Management.

UBIQUITY: What is the intellectual evolution for the two of you?

COHEN: As we thought about this knowledge stuff and looked at efforts to transfer best practices, efforts to get people together to be more innovative, to share their ideas together, and looking especially at how often that seemed to fail, we increasingly felt that knowledge moved through preexisting social pathways. That if you didn't know other people and if you hadn't learned to trust them, if you hadn't established some sort of common vocabulary, then it's very difficult to exchange any kind of valuable knowledge. Thinking about that led us to think more about the importance of, well, let's say the social life of organizations, and Larry, much more than I, has done a lot of reading in the literature of organizations and sociology.

UBIQUITY: What's Larry's background?

COHEN: His training is in information science. He has a degree in history and then he studied information science. He's a voracious reader of all the social sciences. He saw the discussions of social capital, and as we talked briefly in the book, saw that those discussions usually in terms of cities and neighborhoods and countries or regions could be applied to organizations in a useful way.

UBIQUITY: Do you -- together or separately, or as an organization -- consult for organizations?

COHEN: That's a little hard to answer. Larry is a full-time employee of IBM, which I am not. I would say he does a lot of consulting by way of going around talking to people. At this point, it's mainly the member organizations of the Institute for Knowledge Management. I came at this whole subject from the point of view of being the observer and the writer. Really in only in the last six months have I begun to move toward visiting organizations and speaking to people about the issue.

UBIQUITY: The book is a good start.

COHEN: It does seem to be. I'm going to speak at the United Parcel Service annual manager's meeting next month. They're very interested in the issue of preserving their culture and the strength of relationships in the sense of identity and membership in the company in a world that is changing pretty dramatically.

UBIQUITY: You mention UPS in your book. How did that happen?

COHEN: The way that UPS found its way into the book is kind of interesting. Larry and I started working on the book. We were at the stage of having conversations and taking notes and thinking of how we would shape the chapters; thinking what the basic ideas were. And several times, after our conversations, I would drive home past a park here in Lexington and I would see three or four UPS vans parked together and three or four UPS guys sitting on a couple of benches. Sometime there were piles of packages out on the street, sometimes there weren't. As I went by for about the third time I thought, "OK, Larry and I are talking about the fact that people in organizations who seem to be just shooting the breeze, having lunch, or wandering around together are often doing things that are valuable to the work. I wonder if that's what's happening here?" Eventually, I overcame my shyness and went over to these guys, who must have thought I was nuts, and said, "I'm writing this book on people in organizations, and I want to find out what you are doing? Why do you have lunch together everyday?" The story they told of getting together for close to an hour of conversation, shooting the breeze and having some sociability in their job that was otherwise pretty much one guy alone in the truck all day long, also involved exchanging knowledge about how to solve problems if someone wasn't at an address or there was a school that was going to let out when you were driving by. Also, if someone had more packages than they could deliver, the other guys would take some of them and work things out together. It was a very important part of their workday that was very informal. But, at the same time, it was recognized and sanctioned by the organization. UPS is tremendously interested in efficiency and yet they have the wisdom to see that letting these guys have time for conversation, and letting them drive to this place, which was not directly on the routes of all of them, was very important.

UBIQUITY: If you had to give someone a set of instructions for how to form and preserve social capital that would fit on their shirt cuff, like students cheating at school, what would you tell them?

COHEN: If I forced myself into the box of what you can write on your shirt sleeve, which I don't really want to do, I would focus on modes of communication, finding ways to maintain and support organizational conversation. As you may remember in the book, we make some real distinctions between conversation and information exchange. The conversation takes in a broad range of emotional and personal and social signals, as well as telling other people something you think they need to know. In a lot of organizations either because of pressures to keep on working or pressures to be more efficient, it's easy to squeeze out conversation, especially the loose ends of conversation that I think of as very valuable. Conversation is in some sense the beginning and end of the story of a sense of commitment to an organization and a sense of connection with each other. This is getting way beyond the shirt sleeve, sort of up the arm and down the back. I would focus on supporting, encouraging and preserving real conversation in organizations. Conversation is the key.

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