Fall 2000


High Performance Collaboration: The 10 Natural Laws. M. Connolly, R. Rianoshek

Visit Conversant

Take a look at some of Connolly’s favorite reading:

Net Ready. Amir Hartman, John Sifonis with John Kador (2000)

Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of Business Webs. Don Tapscott, David Ticoll, Alex Lowy (2000)

The Cluetrain Manifesto. Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger (2000)

Beyond the Hype. Robert Eccles with Nitin Nohria and James D. Berkley (1992)

The Ethics of Authenticity. Charles Taylor. (1996)

Discovering Common Ground. Marvin Weisbord (1993)

Language Shock. Michael Agar (1996)

Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. Peter Block (1996)




In July, I had the opportunity to talk with Mickey Connolly, CEO of Conversant, a consulting practice devoted to high-stakes communication and collaboration, in his glass office in Boulder, Colorado, after attending a meeting together where we both rolled our eyes at the mere suggestion that eLearning would solve all our problems. We conversed about our own experiences in business, our love of learning, and where the magic bullet might actually come from. He’s a genuine man, who has won the respect of people in organizations including Hewlett-Packard, Ernst & Young, Intel and Sun for his understanding of business and also for his humanity and humor. Here are some of his insights I thought you’d enjoy.

On the Internet’s Passion Promise

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen people betting on the Internet as though it is itself a solution. Then they come back and find they didn’t get anything like what they intended. I’ve heard this from people we know at Andersen Consulting, Ernst & Young, at Deloitte, from our direct clients, and global companies who all see the same thing.

There appears to me to be an emerging and sizeable body of disappointment because the Internet does not magically transform the efficiency and wonder of learning. It’s simply an element in the field of play, so the question is, “How does it serve?” Then you have to ask, “Serve what?”

When we talk about a business environment, the eternal game remains, “What’s the direction of the business?” and “How do you serve that direction?” Bright people play and even bet on the Internet as if itself were a solution. In some cases, they are new to the game. Others are looking for some new approach.

I get concerned when means becomes passion’s promise. When a method or a means becomes more famous than its purpose, it’s doomed to fall short of that promise. The Internet sounds like another one of those. I don’t want to trivialize the whole world of the Internet because IT IS transforming the field of play, but I don’t think that a field of play ever wins a game.

Education is no different. Over and over business educators have become enamored with different methods. I think that’s separated education from operations in a deep and often foolish way. Today people talk a lot about the need to get better at measuring the impact of our learning solutions. The reason that’s so hard is that learning solutions are derived from someplace other than the nature of the business they’re trying to serve. For instance, somebody has a hot, generic leadership course, or something derived from a best seller. They put it into a business environment and get all gripped with how they’re going to measure whether or not it was successful. The problem starts when you don’t design from the nature of the business you’re trying to serve. When you do, however, the measures of that business are inherent in your design.

On What to Watch in Business

When we look at the way business systems evolved, we recognize there are three things to look at all the time, not just when you look at learning. In fact, it’s hard for me to keep talking about learning separate from business itself.

This simple framework helps me organize my thoughts. First, every business system has a business direction. The business direction may or may not fit with the intended direction, but the business is headed someplaceit has momentum. Now it may be fragmented on a lot of different fronts but it’s not sitting there static. The system is up to something worth investigating. What is the business direction? Is the actual direction anywhere harmonic with or related to the intended direction? You could have many interesting conversations on that alone.

The second element is the experience people gain from operating within that direction. Say you have a huge company with 100,000 employees. That’s an enormous emerging resource consistent with communities of practice. You get an enormous and natural eruption of knowledge from people just doing their work.

Then there’s the third thing, which you could call a shared body of knowledge. What do people learn together or have they learned from one another?

These three elements need to dynamically and ongoingly contribute to each other. I think anyone would want to take care of these three things: Is our business direction sound? Are we all learning from the real work, not from the theoretical on-the-side-in-the-classroom work? And how is that captured and made available to everybody so what we’ve learned keeps moving?

We’d better be taking care of these three things all the time. We’d better be looking at whatever we learn now, and whatever it tells us about the next phase of the evolution of the business direction: What is there to preserve from what we’re already been doing? What is there to eliminate from what we’ve already been doing? And what do we have to create that we’ve never done before? Everybody we know seems to be great at creating what hasn’t been created beforebut learning from, preserving, or eliminating? Not so good.

There are two quotes from Einstein I love. “A perfection of means and confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.” Another one that seems quite relevant is, “All means prove to be blunt instruments if they lack a living spirit.”

On Time to Value

I always want to examine the prevailing business imperative. If we’re not serving that, let’s shut up. And what I see as a prevailing business imperative is time to value. Inside this notion of time to value, I think there are some interesting things you could do. One is to ask if information is being shared more quickly than ever before.

The first business I was in was the restaurant business. In the early 1970s when I started, one thing you did was travel to another part of the country to look at what concepts were hot. You lifted ideas from that, went back to your part of the country and created something pretty close to what they were doing over there and no one would notice for years. That’s changed now. For example, General Mills saw this cute little three restaurant operation doing a good job of keeping food costs low in a seafood deal, “Wow, we really like this; I think we’re going to buy it. It’s called Red Lobster; let’s build 88 next year.” Now, if there’s a hot little deal someplace, people hear about it on the other side of the worldfast.

Information moving that fast drives a faster rate of innovation which then keeps changing the conditions in which people labor. The rate of adjustment now has become a bigger differentiator than economies of scale. That’s a massive change.

When I look back, it seems to me that Dell, for instance, was a rate-of-adjustment move against IBM’s economies-of-scale. Komatsu did a rate-of-adjustment play against Caterpillar’s economies-of-scale. Canon did that to Xerox back when Canon came out of no place to be a real player in the imaging world. Ever since these things happened, time to value has become the real game.

In a for-profit business environment, you always want to look at shareholders, customers, and employees. You had better show up for those people. You better show time to value.

In the game of time to value, how often do we stop and look at the last meeting we were in and whether it was socially valuable or wasteful. If we looked at the time from when somebody is exposed to a concept, for instance, to when it shows up in their performance, that would be an interesting way to look at investing money in learning.

If we actually took this whole world of learning on the Internet and looked at how our ideas in that venue produce acceleration in time to value, we’d do a better job of finding the natural place of those electronic means within solutions that really make a valuable difference. I’m amazed how many people now want to make sure they get something on the Internet but don’t understand the business value of getting it there. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about learning as a thing.

On Learning and Education

I think learning is soulful. I think learning is making love with the universe. And it’s as natural an act as what we normally mean by that term making love and it’s as necessary an act of procreation as making love. So making learning a separate subject is like separating procreation from the nature of being human. I don’t know how you do that. Not only how, but why?

If we look at the natural enthusiasm people bring to appreciating the nature of things and the implications of that nature, then we can share that with other people. Getting people to be a learning organism is like exhorting people to breathe.

I just think we’re gone the entire wrong direction when we look at learning as though it is not already happening naturally. The questions are: How do we appreciate the natural way learning works, that this is as much like breathing and procreation as anything? And, How do we then serve that natural fascination by appreciating the nature of “fill in the blank” and sharing what we discover?

This idea can be very disturbing to people because it asks why education departments are separate from everything else in big companies. It’s like quality initiatives we’ve seen fail because quality was in the quality department rather than in the fabric of an enterprise. Well I think we’ve done that same thing with learning. That’s not to say we can’t re-deploy the people who’ve learned a lot about learning. We can and we should. It’s time for them to be in the front line, finding new ways to produce value both faster and right where it matters. Internet speed isn’t enough, we need Internet velocity (direction + speed) and that requires being intimate with the business.

Mickey Connolly is founder and CEO of Conversant where he has researched communication brilliance in many fields from arms negotiations to alliance management. Conversant has worked with over 250,000 people around the world on the toughest communication challenges and brings practical understanding to the execution of business strategy. Send him email at mconnolly@conversant.net. Marcia Conner is Editor-in-Chief of LiNE Zine. She looks forward to hearing how you create eValue at marcia@linezine.com.




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