Naomi Stanford, PhD

Naomi Stanford, PhD

Organizational Design Consultant, @naomiorgdesign
Dr. Naomi Stanford is a consultant, teacher, and author. Her work as a consultant is in organization design and development in all its manifestations. She is the author of four books: Organizational Health; Organization Design: the Collaborative Approach; The Economist Guide to Organisation Design; and Organisation Culture: Getting it Right. Before leaving the UK to live in the US she was a corporate employee of large multinational companies, including British Airways, Marks & Spencer, and Xerox. Since moving to the US she has been consulting to a range of organizations in the government, non-profit and private sectors.

Remember “Communities of Practice”?

Organizations Must Activate Internal Social Networks to Generate Knowledge

October 30, 2013

Organizational Design Consultant


I recently worked with an organization that hosted a day-long workshop to launch a new thought leadership platform. By bringing some of the firm’s top minds together, they aimed to first “become a networked organization,” and then “to generate more ideas leveraging the total firm network.”

The workshop organizer set the table:

“…to stretch and elevate our thinking, and to grow and promote a community of thought leaders. To explore  the unknown, the uncertain, the open-ended, the space between the question and the answer when everything is possible.”

The goal for the day — and for moving forward afterward — was to generate ripples that would ideally spread beyond the group, ultimately connecting their convictions, point-of-views and ideas, as individuals and as a firm, with the outside world.

Yes, and… the organization can do this by building on the experiences of deliberately trying to generate “communities of practice,” the phrase coined by researchers Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the mid-late 1990s to describe a pre-digital (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) form of social network whose participants “share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better.”

The idea of a community of practice is very attractive: a highly functioning community developing knowledge is a valuable asset to an organization. (Which is why the company I am working with is interested in the notion.) In a readable, Wikipedia-style article published in 2003, author Mark Smith notes that “Lesser and Storck (2001) … argue that the social capital resident in communities of practice leads to behavioral change — ‘change that results in greater knowledge sharing, which in turn positively influences business performance.’ Attention to communities of practice could, thus enhance organizational effectiveness and profitability.”

Having read this I turned to the actual Lesser and Storck article and got the whole flashback to the phrase “social capital” defined as “the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit.” Lesser and Storck explain social capital in terms of three primary dimensions:

  • There must be a series of connections that individuals have to others. In other words, individuals must perceive themselves to be part of a network (the structural dimension).
  • A sense of trust must be developed across these connections (one aspect of the relational dimension).
  • The members of the network must have a common interest or share a common understanding of issues facing the organization (the cognitive dimension).

They then argue that “these conditions apply quite aptly to communities of practice. Thus, our hypothesis is that the vehicle through which communities are able to influence organizational performance is the development and maintenance of social capital among community members. By developing connections among practitioners who may or may not be co-located, fostering relationships that build a sense of trust and mutual obligation, and creating a common language and context that can be shared by community members, communities of practice serve as generators for social capital. This social capital, in turn, creates an environment in which business performance is positively impacted.”

This all sounds good but in practice is incredibly difficult to achieve. I was at British Airways in 2001 when, following the trend, or perhaps fad, we were establishing some CoPs (as “Communities of Practice” were called). We found — along with many other companies on a similar path — that where these communities of practice came unstuck was on managing the tension of being an informal and relatively unstructured community tasked with a formal output-value creation of some sort. Our experience was commonly shared by other organizations and thus there followed more research centered on how to maintain a value-add community. Briefly community is commonly defined as members having:

  • Feelings of membership: feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community.
  • Feelings of influence: feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community.
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them.
  • Shared emotional connection: feelings of relationships, shared history, and a “spirit” of community.

Generating these feelings takes work and we had only one CoP success in establishing ODiN (the Organizational Development Innovation Network) that is still going strong 10+ years later — though now outside the aegis of British Airways. What keeps it going are some obvious characteristics:

  • A strong, interested, and effective convener. He is unpaid for the work — which is not inconsiderable — and is a role model of dedication and commitment. (Thank you, Chris.)
  • Regular (six weekly) face-to-face meetings on a specific topic often presented by one of the members.
  • Access to a closed, well-constructed, organized and regularly updated website for interaction and information.
  • Some specific guidelines and protocols that members must follow.
  • Members’ interest in developing their skills by learning from each other — the value-add to them — and contributing to each other’s learning on organization development.

Moving into the digital age, Rob Cross et al., in their 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review article “The Collaborative Organization: How to Make Employee Networks Really Work,” use social network analysis to argue that to add organizational value informal networks — e.g. “a community of thought leaders” (aka community of practice) — have to be systematically nurtured, and the nurturing is more complex when the community is virtual.

I am with them in pressing home the point that it is convenient but ineffective to believe the strong arguments that communities of practice or value creation networks “must be left alone to emerge.” Without the convener, the structure, the specific purpose(s), the member benefit and the member incentive to contribute (and recognition for contributing), and the development of a sense of community, inevitably communities of practice and value creation networks fail.

For the firm I am working with this means thinking carefully about how best to:

  • Invest in their “community of thought leaders” — if the business leaders are serious about wanting it to create value. Investment would include a time allowance per member, leaders and managers asking questions and showing obvious/public interest in the community, budget to bring people face to face on occasion, and so on.
  • Clarify what they would see as value, e.g. generating white papers, member conference presentations, new service lines attributable to member collaboration, etc.
  • Recognize members for their contributions, e.g. through seeing this as a career development and factoring it into promotion discussions, adding it into performance objectives and including it in salary/performance bonus decisions.
  • Structure and shape the community in a way that is nurturing, perhaps through appointing a single convener whose role it is to develop the community (this would be part of the investment decision), setting expectations and consistently keeping it on agendas.

A community of thought leaders that adds organizational value through social capital generation is not going to arise from one workshop, several initiatives, intention and luck. It is going to be generated by “hard work and good management,” as the goose in Charlotte’s Web says. For an additional eight great tips on this look at the WiserEarth blog 8 tips on how to build a successful online community.

How would you set about developing a community of value-adding thought leaders? Let me know.

This post originally appeared on Naomi’s blog.

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A Definitive End

Designing for Organizational Death

October 16, 2013

Organizational Design Consultant


Recently, I was in a one-day workshop where the theme for the day was “A Good Life” and the purpose of the day was “to collectively immerse ourselves into high-level questions that guide our work and thinking: How can design and architecture help shape a good life? What is our perspective on the future of performance? The future of health and wellbeing? The future of community? The future of learning?”

This was a difficult day and theme for me because over the previous few days I’d been involved in the sadness and distress following the fact that, in the words of her friend:

“Alice committed suicide on the 26th Sept 2013. She had been exhausted by the housing and harassment issues she faced over a period of years and the poor/negative response from the authorities. These circumstances are to be considered at an inquest to be held in the near future.

“She was an amazingly beautiful, wise and strong woman who despite her very difficult personal circumstances over recent years, gave all her energy to caring for others around her and all those who face injustice in the world. Alice was especially a proud feminist and her work in this area will be continued by all those she inspired, laughed with and loved.”

The costs for Alice’s most basic funeral were raised by donation.

Nothing had prepared her community for the shock of Alice’s death. She had plainly and obviously lived her life supporting and enabling others in working towards “a good life” — not an easy task in her environment. Questions remain on whether she herself had “a good life” and why she chose to take it. But the issues of harassment in her workplace which may have been contributory will be explored at the inquest. Workplace difficulties can lead to individual suicide.

So when I joined the workshop I was wondering about organizations and their contribution, or lack thereof, to an individual’s death. Without exposing the detail of how we got there, one of the strands that emerged during the morning was the question “is it possible to prepare for (or design) a good death?” A group of us attempted to get to a grip on this question — looking specifically at organizational death.

One of the debating points was the general impression that organizational death is not commonly talked about, researched or prepared for. All the talk is about “sustainability,” “growth” and “resilience.” Walter Kiechel wrote a provocative blog piece, The Myth of Corporate Persistence, giving some reasons why we should not be drawn into thinking organizations are immortal, and in our workshop we wondered why we could all accept human mortality but there appears scant realism around organizational mortality.

This seems odd given the speed at which organizations are falling and dying (think Nokia and BlackBerry). Fresh in my mind was a bit I’d noted in The Economist that tells us that “Back in 1958, companies in the S & P 500 had typically stayed in the index for 61 years; today the average is just 18 years. Nokia produced a quarter of the world’s handsets in 2000. This week it decided to focus on making telecoms equipment and sold its handset business to Microsoft, which is also a shadow of its former self.”

So after the workshop I did a quick scan for literature on organizational mortality and death. What little there is appears clustered in the 1980s. However, Dr. Emma Bell, Keele University, recently (2012) called for papers on the topic for a special issue of Culture and Organization. She says that “While sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists have long studied death, including its cultural effects, representations, societal functions and meanings, organizational death and loss has not been widely explored and theorizing remains limited.” The issue will be published in January 2014.

With co-author Scott Taylor, Dr. Bell has written a paper, “Beyond letting go and moving on: New perspectives on organizational death, loss and grief,” which explores the difficulties of applying the commonly accepted “stage model” of individual grief associated with death and loss (often described as the Kubler-Ross model) to an organizational situation: for example, plant closure, downsizing or merger. Instead, they offer a “continuing bonds” perspective “which has the potential to strengthen the field through treating organizational death as a cultural phenomenon that is fundamental to the construction of work-related meaning.” For those dealing with the prospect of organizational death in some shape it is an article well worth reading.

For those not immediately thinking about organizational death it is probably time that they did so. It is incredibly common. Lars Hasanen’s (2010) in his doctoral dissertation “Organizational Death and Employee Motivation” gives some figures:

“Organizational deaths currently affect millions of employees each year. In their statistical findings for 2005, Marks and Vansteenkiste (2008) found that 544,800 businesses had closed within just that one year in the US (Corporation for Enterprise Development, 2007). They concluded that this finding is consistent with Harris and Sutton’s (1986) research, which showed a trend of nearly half of all enterprises going under within five years of their inception, and that 90% do so within 20 years. Government organizations in the US are no exception to this, as they have also been found to perish at a similar rate. There are similar trends in Europe as well. Every year 1.5 million people are displaced due to business failures (Creditreform Economic Research Unit, 2009). In a comparison of the enterprise deaths occurring in the US and those in 12 European countries (for which data is available), 9% of all enterprises in these regions were found to have perished in 2004 (Schror, 2008).”

The article Preparing for organizational death: Proactive HR engagement in an organizational transition advises readers to “Be constantly ready for organizational death. Be realistic about the potential for being acquired, divested, or closed, and make preparedness an ongoing agenda item for both the HR function and senior management.” With this advice in mind it makes sense to prepare for a good death, i.e. one that is seen as part of an inevitable natural cycle and allows for “The ritual practices that surround death, including mourning and memorialization [that] provide a symbolic focus through which historical connections, including collective memories and shared histories, are constructed and maintained” (Quote from Dr. Bell’s call for papers).

I know of two organizations that look as if they are preparing for their death. The Gates Foundation is one. Atlantic Philanthropies is another. It will complete active grantmaking by 2016 and distribute its entire endowment and close its doors by 2020.

Do you know of any other organizations preparing for a good death? If so, let me know at

This post originally appeared on Naomi’s blog.

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White Collar WALL-E

Can’t Make It to the Office? Send in the Anybot!

October 3, 2013

Organizational Design Consultant


By now robotics is essential to manufacturing. But I think we will see robots increasingly used in offices as well, where clearly they will have significant workplace implications, not just in terms of logistics — where are they charged and stored, how are they maintained, etc. — but also cultural and social implications: How easy is it to relate to a colleague in her robot form? How effective are robots in helping people stay connected? How much can they save in travel costs?

To better understand the implications of robots in the workplace, we tried out an Anybot for a few weeks in our Seattle office. The device, essentially a videoconference device mounted on a Segway, allowed colleagues working remotely and in other offices to attend meetings and roam the office.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Only a small number of people actually signed up and used it, although many expressed interest in doing so. Reasons for this may include the “price of entry” being too high: it involves registering with Anybots, getting an initial log-in, needing an escort and learning how to “drive” it.
  2. The psychosocial factors could also be a barrier — people aren’t that comfortable interacting with a mechanical device that looks, as one person said, “like a scarecrow, not like a softer-featured, cuddly robot.”
  3. The big advantage for those who did use it to attend meetings was being in the room as a physical presence, as well as the spontaneous interactions they had on their way to the meeting room.  They felt included in a way that doesn’t happen on phone or even video. The Anybot made clear our need to include remote people more effectively in meetings and day-to-day casual  interactions, regardless of whether we involved robots or not.
  4. On-site there was a big “wow” factor and an interest in seeing the Anybot in action, but that didn’t translate into off-site colleagues giving it a go (even though we sent out a lot of entreaties to try it).
  5. Anecdotally it seemed that people found the human/machine communication a little daunting. It was fine for the remote people, but less comfortable for people to talk face-to-face with the robot.
  6. One on-site staff member said, “Anybots implies a scarcity of a resource (particularly, communication resources) because of its ability to bring the resource to an area in a mobile way.”  He asked,  “Do we have a dearth of communication resources (a problem) that the Anybots seek to solve?” He then answered himself: “Not really. We have a plethora of communication equipment that, while imperfect, doesn’t garner too many complaints. The Anybot therefore may be a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist for us.”
  7. The wifi load demand doesn’t make Anybot use an easy experience in our office. Connectivity faded in and out at points possibly because the Anybot did not have a strong enough antenna to keep it connected during normal operation.
  8. The audio quality on both ends was problematic at times.

Test-driving the Anybot made some of the workflow and psychosocial issues of workplace robotics very clear, but it also revealed some unexpected office design considerations. For one, space must be allocated for the storage dock and charging station. Our wide staircases, while great for encouraging human activity, are unnavigable for a motorized robot, and even elevator and conference room doors pose a challenge unless Anybots are accompanied by human escorts.

A month of smallish experimentation with lots learned about the pluses and minuses of using a robotic tele-presence. All in all, useful lessons that can help us think through what technical, social, and communication capability we need to develop to work more effectively with off-site colleagues with or without robotic help.

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