Monday, September 24, 2007

Getting the message across

Employee Benefit Adviser

By Molly Bernhart

September 1, 2007

Wellness programs are continuing to grow in popularity — as a method of curbing rising health care costs and as a feature to compliment newly adopted consumer-driven health plans. Now, advisers, the people known for analyzing hard numbers and assessing ROI, are jumping on the wellness bandwagon en masse.

It's clear that employers are asking for it and advisers are ready to deliver.

Promoting wellness

Many health and productivity experts believe the key to a successful wellness program is promoting a "culture of wellness" in the workplace. In larger companies, HR usually takes on the task of promoting health at work, while working with their wellness company. However, small- to mid-size employers need more day-to-day assistance from the carrier and an adviser often helps the carrier put the wellness communication strategies into action.

"Most of the larger employers tend to be more focused on the medical side of this, controlling the double digit premium increases. But the smaller companies really take a cultural stand. They want to employ strategies that educate and engage employees to change lives," says Atkinson.

Communication and health promotion are important to employers; but the information gathered from a wellness program can also help determine the mode of communication that works best for a workforce. Cooper looks at medical claim data to make a skeleton of the plan before conducting screenings and health risk assessments of the workforce. This information helps determine the health promotion technique they will use.

Ted Dacko, president and CEO of HealthMedia, a wellness company that focuses on web-based interventions, says filling out an HRA isn't enough to form a plan. HRAs don't necessarily help determine the best mode of communication, says Dacko. In addition to the traditional HRA administration, employees are also asked questions to help determine their demographic background, motivations, self confidence and their perceived barriers to becoming healthy. That helps HealthMedia tailor communications to the individual to increase the odds they will improve health behaviors.

Cooperating on communication

After steady and significant health care cost increases, Vought Aircraft Industries sought solutions in a wellness program. "You can't use plan design to eliminate costs. That comes down to making the workforce healthier," says Tom Stubbins, VP of Human Resources at Vought.

"We knew we needed both sides — someone expert in data gathering, data analysis and a Web site. We needed that information tracking piece of it. We also knew we needed people on the ground," says Stubbins.

"I don't think this will work at all if we don't have the employees behind it," says Stubbins.

Developing committees was an invaluable strategy for Vought to get information out to employees at various locations. It also allowed them to discuss how they wanted to tweak the wellness plan at each location and appoint champions to spread enthusiasm for the plan.

Vought set up meetings about the new wellness program — an especially effective technique for manufacturing employees. Atkinson says touching employees with information as early and as often as possible is critical in the success of a plan.

A recipe for wellness communications that work...

By Editorial Staff

Workscape's "7 Steps to a Healthier Wellness Program" white paper (available at provides tips for advisers who are taking a hands-on approach to wellness implementation or for advisers trying to compare communication techniques of various wellness programs.

Workscape says wellness communications should be:

  • Integrated. The communications meet employee expectations and don't come across as "outsider-ish" intrusions into a corporate culture.
  • Branded. Use corporate branding to create a greater sense of trust and loyalty.
  • Blended. A mixture of printed materials, emails and a Web portal or microsite to reach all employees in the most convenient manner.
  • Dynamic. Personalized communications through various communication channels.

Monday, September 17, 2007


How your small business can help save the environment--and reap the rewards

MyBusiness Magazine

August/September 2007 by Shannon McRae

Peru, Ill., isn't exactly a hotbed of environmental activity. Yet, surprisingly to some, Peru is home to one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the state, thanks to the foresight of one family-owned small business.

Last summer, brothers Mark and Mike Dudek moved their marketing services business into a building more than three times larger than their old facility. But when the cold Illinois winter settled in, the Dudeks didn't feel the sting of higher heating costs typical with such a jump in square footage. That's because halfway through the construction of their new building, the brothers made a risky decision to install a geothermal system to heat and cool their 57,000-square-foot plant.

"Hurricane Katrina hit when we were about to install our conventional gas and electric heating and cooling system," says Mark Dudek, who, along with his three siblings, owns LKCS, the business his parents started in 1961. The natural disaster set off a nationwide energy scare and left the brothers worried about the stability of utility prices in the future.

Geothermal heat rose to the surface as a viable--though expensive--option. The brothers were intrigued by predictions of huge long-term savings in utility costs. Plus, a geothermal system would reduce the business' greenhouse gas emissions--something the Dudeks felt good about.

Though the Dudek brothers consider themselves "conservationists" more than "environmentalists", there's no doubt their choices are good for the planet. Yet Mother Earth isn't the only one who benefits; so does their business.

While up-front costs for their geoexchange system were nearly double those of a conventional system, and it took more time to finish construction, the long-term projections forecasted huge savings, especially as energy costs continue to track higher.

"During the first four months in our new building, our utility costs were up just 30 percent, even though we were heating and cooling an area three-and-a-half times bigger than our old facility," Mike says.

"We estimate it will take us eight to 10 years to recoup the extra expenses. But as gas prices continue to go up, it's going to give us a competitive advantage," he says. "Our bills won't have the spikes that our competitors' will have. Over a 20-year period, our costs won't climb that much. And having this system makes us unique."

Other green ideas for their new building began to emerge. Daylighting--installing more windows to cut down on the need for artificial lighting--was incorporated into the design. Rather than using normal steel panel walls, builders installed Styrofoam panels in the walls throughout the plant area to boost insulation.

In addition to its facility, LKCS also set out to reduce the amount of waste it produced. "At every employee's desk, there are two garbage cans--one for recycling and one for regular waste," Mark says. "The garbage trucks pick up about half of what they did when we were in our old building."

Leaving less of a footprint Reducing waste was just one idea on Peter Lineal's 20-point plan for how to make his printing business in the Chicago suburbs more environmentally friendly. Though he had recycled soda cans at his office for 20 years, Lineal vowed to do even more when his college-aged son challenged him last year.

"My son is really involved in environmental stuff at school," says Lineal, who started Plum Grove Printers 27 years ago. "Through conversations with him we made a deliberate decision. We said, ‘You know what? We can do more--we can do better.'"

Lineal started examining every aspect of his business. The exercise was a welcome one for Lineal, who says he's always felt a nagging guilt about how he makes a living. "I was always a reader--I love the written word," he says. "I own a printing company. It's a great concept, but it kills trees!"

One way Lineal kills fewer trees is by purchasing recycled paper whenever possible (though he says he'll use regular paper before sacrificing quality for his customers). Despite what many think, recycled paper isn't a lot more expensive, he says.

"We've seen less than a 2 percent cost increase," says Lineal. "The paper industry is quickly moving to become more green-friendly. Mills have universally responded to the demand, and in most cases, the pricing is almost identical. But you have to push your vendors. Many don't carry the stock because it's inconvenient. But if you don't ask, and you let them get away with not offering the options, then shame on you."

In addition to using recycled paper, Plum Grove Printers also donates a portion of profits to preserve natural forests in Canada. And instead of using traditional ink, which is oil-based, the company opts for soy-based ink.

Lineal helps his direct-mail customers cut the quantity of pieces they print. He created a Web site that allows customers to scrub their mailing lists for free, and he suggests customers use it before each mailing. "It's a total waste of paper if 20 percent of the people on your list have moved," he says.

One recommendation that came from his son's project aimed to reduce waste among the business' 35 employees.

"We threw away all the Styrofoam in our kitchen," he says. "We purchased some coffee cups and silverware, and we all take our turn scrubbing dishes. We're basically a factory, and yet we only produce the equivalent of three garbage cans a week."

But have all his changes brought more business? It's hard to measure, he admits, but increasing your bottom line can't be your sole motivation for going green. "The general reaction to our new plan is great, but it's not why people buy from us," Lineal says. "It does help them feel better about who we are and about doing business with us."

"If we do things the right way, it has very little impact on our environment," he says. "It really doesn't cost that much to do the right thing."

Clean living For Gordon Shaw, doing the right thing has come at a price--initially at least. After 22 years in the dry-cleaning industry, Shaw was bored. Because his business was practically running itself, he spent a lot of time on his sailboat. While it might sound like a dream to some, Shaw yearned for a challenge.

So he sold his business and one year later opened San Diego-based Hangers Cleaners, which uses a more environment-friendly process than traditional cleaners, most of whom use a toxic cleaning solvent called perc.

"Within the industry, ill winds have been blowing for years--perc has been a hot-button issue for real-estate people for a long time," says Shaw, who saw his CO2 facility--one of about 35 in the country--as a way to differentiate himself from competition and start fresh.

Like Peter Lineal, Shaw's profession always tugged at his conscience. "Frankly, I had always been a little concerned--I felt bad about using the chemical," says Shaw, who now has three locations in the San Diego area. "But it's what I did for a living--and I liked my career."

While real-estate developers used to send his calls to voicemail when he inquired about leasing options in new retail centers, high-end developers now seek him out. Even though Hangers is the second-highest priced of San Diego's 300 cleaners, customers drive from around the city to his facilities because they like that the gentle cleaning process doesn't give clothes a chemical smell.

Shaw feels good about the switch, but he hasn't relied on customers to use him just because his process is better for the environment. "Environmentalists don't pay the bills," says Shaw, who doesn't focus on the green process in his marketing materials. "When new customers come in, we go into a song and dance about what our facility can do. We've found that the environmental angle of the story is nice, but what has the biggest effect on customers is the lack of chemical smell and no fading of their clothes."

Though his revenues rose from $1.12 million in 2005 to $1.65 million in 2006, Shaw's new business still isn't earning what he did with his perc facilities. "I haven't made much money," he says. "But I do believe I've put myself on the right path. The rest of the industry just hasn't caught up with me yet."

"This new CO2 process has given me a chance to revolutionize my industry," he says. "I can do this and make a positive difference in my own little segment. Hopefully others will learn from what I do."

Ground Control The Dudeks installed a geoexchange system to heat and cool their Peru, Ill., facility. Here's a quick explanation of how a typical system works:

Geoexchange taps the earth's natural thermal energy (a renewable resource) to heat and cool a building. Though temperatures fluctuate from season to season on the earth's surface, just a few feet below, the temperature remains fairly constant. Fluid circulating through a system of pipes carries the heat from underground into a building where duct fans distribute it from room to room. During the summer, the process is reversed. Warm air is collected and absorbed into the ground, much like the way a refrigerator works. Systems can be installed in commercial or residential buildings. For more information, visit

The Accidental Environmentalist Easy ways for your business to start making a difference today

1. Recycle and reuse. If you want to start small, purchase a few extra garbage cans to place around your office, warehouse or plant. Make it easy for people, says Peter Lineal of Plum Grove Printers. "If you have one place to recycle cans in the entire shop," he says, "it's not going to happen. They're going to end up in the garbage." When shopping for office supplies, look for products with less packaging and consider buying items in bulk when possible.

2. Turn off the lights. Lighting accounts for 22 percent of all electricity consumed in the United States, according to a recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. Make your overhead fluorescent lights more efficient by replacing T12 bulbs with T8 ones. In areas of the office where you use regular bulbs, switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, which use two-thirds less energy than standard bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.

3. Control the temperature. Stop the temperature wars in your office by installing a programmable thermostat, which allows you to set up to four pre-programmed temperature settings. Besides reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these programmable units can save you up to $150 annually in utility costs, according to Energy Star.

4. Go paperless. You and your employees can use less paper. Send e-mails instead of distributing memos whenever possible. Encourage employees to think twice before printing every page of that 42-page document. And instead of throwing away used copier paper, cut it into smaller sections and use the back of the paper for scratch notepads. It'll save trees--and money--at the same time.

Web Extra Serious about going green? Learn more about sustainable business degrees (also known as green MBAs), which teach you how to make money and help the planet at the same time. Go to the "Web Extras" section of

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Productivity Promisers

Plenty of motivational coaches pledge to boost your efficiency. These are the few who really deliver.


Autumn 2007

by Tom Ehrenfeld Photograph by Rick Schwab

Has there ever been an age in which so many people were so concerned with getting more done with their “24/7”? Today there are literally thousands of gurus and guides — and Web sites, television shows, and lecture series — all devoted to helping individuals get more done with the limited time and energy at their disposal.

And yet many guides seem to promise much more than increased output. Some authors treat the practice of productivity improvement as a near-religious calling, one that can improve one’s character, social standing, and moral fiber to boot. Indeed, since the time of Ben Franklin, popular guides have conflated enhanced personal achievement with moral betterment. In American culture in particular, the urge for improvement has given rise to a tradition of con men who prey on the upwardly mobile by selling them false promises of success. Hence the peculiarly American line of charismatic individuals, such as Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins, who build fortunes by inspiring the ambitious and desperate to better themselves by following some new regimen for improving productivity.

That’s why it’s important to focus on the productivity experts who provide an approach that is effective — that, for lack of a better word, works. Such individuals present, more than tips and tools, an entire system that produces tangible results.

Consider David Allen, the most popular guru in this field today. His 2001 book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (his most devoted readers refer to both the book and the system as “GTD”) continues to occupy a top 10 slot on Amazon’s nonfiction bestseller list — a rare feat for a six-year-old title. Allen’s public profile has been further bolstered by adoring media profiles in such publications as the Atlantic Monthly and Britain’s Guardian. In just about every one, the author more or less confesses, “I was a skeptic, but having tried the system, I’m now a convert.”

The wide popularity and passionate user base speak not just to the power of Allen’s system but to its underlying promise to deliver “stress-free productivity” by eliminating the mental clutter of today’s multitasked world. “Teaching you how to be maximally efficient and relaxed, whenever you need or want to be, was my main purpose in writing this book,” he says in the book’s opener.

Every epoch produces its own version of David Allen, a guru of productivity whose success illuminates the behavior and values of the times. Before the Industrial Revolution there was Ben Franklin, whose work on productivity is still in print and is still popular. Then came Frederick Winslow Taylor, the in­ventor of scientific management, whose mechanistic approach, though reviled by many, continues to dominate the way most managers operate. Henry Ford in the 1920s and Taiichi Ohno and others at Toyota in the 1950s and ’60s focused on the flow of production systems as a way of training individuals to accomplish more with less. Peter Drucker built on these models by linking productivity to the practice of effective leadership by individual managers who understood how to leverage the power of knowledge workers; in the 1980s and ’90s, Stephen Covey popularized those ideas by aligning them to a moral compass. And now, just in the last five years, David Allen has combined personal planning, Buddhist precepts, and technological expertise into the national obsession with getting things done, writ large or small.

Three big themes snake through all their work, and someone who thoroughly understands all three themes probably doesn’t need a productivity guru. The first is flow, which entails an understanding of how one processes thoughts and materials when creating value. The second is focused self-awareness, which involves a conscious understanding of why — from both an immediate and a long-term perspective — one is pursuing objectives. And the third is instilling new habits, doing what it takes to personally adopt the new productivity practices.

Founders of Productivity A good starting point for understanding the promise of productiv­ity guides comes from one of our founding fathers. “God gives all things to industry,” counsels Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Because the nature of work in Franklin’s day was less organizationally complex than it is now, the analysis of how one organized resources or processed information played a small role; what mattered was the ability to apply one’s labor with persistence and intelligence. These simple ideas are still relevant today.

The study of productivity emerged as a serious discipline with the rise of mass production in the early 20th century, when Taylor and his equally influential, though lesser-known, colleague Frank Gilbreth gained fame for their “scientific principles” of management. “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first,” Taylor sagely wrote.

Taylor’s key insight — that companies can be assembled from parts, like machines, with indi­viduals slotted into rigid roles — continues to influence many large companies today. Henry Ford built the archetypal company on Taylor’s blueprint.

Ford didn’t start out seeking to create huge cost savings through mass production in which people were mechanical parts. He evolved his entire production system over time through constant tinkering and experimenting, in search of what he called “true efficiency,” which he defined simply as doing work the right way. Ford called his ideal system “flow production” and defined it not by its scale but by its brilliant innovations in eliminating waste. Readers today can learn much about organizational efficiency from Ford’s Today and Tomorrow, which lays out his views.

The Gardeners in the Machine A more humane view of productiv­ity emerged after World War II as the mass-production model gave way to knowledge work, captured powerfully by the central mana­gerial thinker Peter Drucker. In 1967, Drucker, who had already written such critical books as The Concept of the Corporation and The Practice of Management, re­leased one of his most enduring books: The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. This book addressed what Drucker saw as the key economic shift of the time: the transition to a postindustrial society of knowledge workers.

In earlier books, Drucker had defined the new knowledge-intensive nature of work, presented his concept of the corporation, and defined management as a complete discipline. Now he made a point of producing the first all-purpose manual for executives in the postindustrial age. “To make the knowledge worker productive is the specific economic need of an industrially developed society,” he argued. “The cohesion and strength of our society depend increasingly on the integration of the psychological and social needs of the knowledge worker with the goals of organization and industrial society,” he wrote. “Executive effectiveness is our one best hope to make modern society productive economically and viable socially.”

The Effective Executive soon became one of the most influential guides to productivity ever published. It offered both a theory of how people were working in the postindustrial era and a robust set of recommendations about how to act within this environment.

Work was more variable and increasingly subject to the business habits and actions of individuals, Drucker wrote. Drucker argued that the most valuable workers were those who integrated their personal strengths and weaknesses into a broader impersonal system. “The needs of large-scale organizations have to be satisfied by common people achieving uncommon performance,” he wrote.

The Effective Executive was a landmark work. Drucker wrote it after years of observing the practices of successful executives, and it was the first book to present a complete and integrated system of principles by which executives could have demonstrable impact. With characteristic intellectual ambition, he called his work the “definitive guide to getting the right things done.”

Interestingly, although Drucker often spoke of the increasing autonomy of knowledge workers (who would be managed by “orchestra conductors” rather than “military captains”), he clearly wrote his book for upper management, whom he considered the levers for organi­zational productivity. Drucker advised managers to emulate the following key practices of the effective executives he observed:

They know where their time goes.

They act from the outside in. That is to say that they “gear their efforts to results rather than work.”

They make strength productive. Taking full stock of their personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their colleagues and employees, they constantly work to realize the full promise of these assets.

They prioritize ruthlessly. “Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of the organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.” Only by concentrating fully on what’s essential, says Drucker, can an executive become “the master of time and events instead of their whipping boy.”

They make effective decisions.

Each of the practices cited above has evolved into a virtual category of its own today. By identifying the need to play to each person’s individual strengths, Drucker es­sentially integrated personal de­velopment with organizational well-being: “Self-development of the executive toward effectiveness…is the only way in which organization goals and individual needs can come together,” he wrote.

Good(ness) to Great By highlighting the individual nature of productivity improvement, Drucker opened the door for the first modern rock star of productivity, Stephen Covey, whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, debuted in 1989 and has since sold more than 15 million copies — earning the top slot in most polls of executives asked to name the most influential book they’ve read. The key to understanding Covey’s useful program is seeing how, at the core, he links the promise of moral self-improvement with becoming a more effective executive. Being good ultimately leads to doing better.

Covey preaches the importance of developing strong internal guidelines that ultimately work from the “inside out” to emerge as powerful habits that succeed both at home and in the office. He challenges readers to choose between the Personality Ethic, which uses cosmetic and instrumental tactics along with a positive mental attitude to win friends and influence people, and the Character Ethic, a time-tested code that draws from enduring internal values such as integrity, humility, fidelity, and temperance as a means of effecting positive change.

Aligning one’s internal moral compass leads to a more powerful and productive principle-driven life, says Covey: “The Seven Habits are habits of effectiveness. Because they are based on principles, they bring the maximum long-term bene­ficial results possible. They become the basis of a person’s character, creating an empowering center of correct maps from which an individual can effectively solve problems, maximize opportunities, and continu­ally learn and integrate other principles in an upward spiral of growth.”

One can see historical echoes in his writing: Some of these commonsense laws are merely time-honored principles refracted through Covey’s loose moral framework. This is not to call Covey unoriginal, but to point out how the packaging of big ideas can sometimes add as much value as the content itself.

Although Covey’s system is powerful and makes a great deal of sense, it is more than a comprehensive kit of tools and tactics. It’s close to a religion. As large corporations atomized, and long-held beliefs about loyalty and work identity changed profoundly, it’s not surprising that a productivity system with a moral appeal created consolation for millions of organizational managers.

Productivity without Revelation Today David Allen is the most talked about, analyzed, and influential figure in the field of getting things done. It’s useful to see his value-neutral approach as almost a response to Covey’s teachings. Allen emphasizes process, not product; quality, not quantity; and full presence over revelation.

The objectives of Getting Things Done are simple. GTD is about identifying all the things that claim your attention, categorizing them into doable chunks, and then making conscious decisions about exactly how to proceed in accomplishing both the immediate tasks and the larger, longer-term items.

This breaks down to five stages of personal workflow. You start by collecting every action, goal, and project cluttering your mind with a flashing (or glowing) “do” light. Regardless of the items’ relative importance or scope, the point is to write down every last thing so that your mind is clear. Then you process these commitments by deciding how to prioritize and how much time is needed. The next step is to organize these results in a manner that is manageable, leading to a review of the options, all of which leads to the fifth and crucial step of doing. Voila.

There’s a power and elegance to Allen’s system that explains much of its grand allure. Whether it’s the distracted, hassled, and stressed executive; the overloaded project manager; or the solo entrepreneur with six e-mail addresses, two pagers, and countless open loops of to-dos running like Muzak in an elevator, the challenge facing all of us is to slow everything down to the essential actions, accomplish them with confidence and aptitude, and move on.

Virtuous Chaos Although Allen’s GTD system is by far the most popular today, many other resources are feeding the productivity hunger. One useful site,, for example, offers daily tips on getting just a bit more done. And yet when sussing out the key productivity resources, one might ask whether even the most useful resources contain the seeds of their own failure. When does the allure of a system distract users from the desired outcome of acting with more power and clarity, and less waste?

That’s the central idea in a wonderful new book titled A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. It argues that we must weigh the costs of learning and implementing any organizing system against the actual benefits it provides in overall output. This book challenges what has become a commonly accepted value — that all efforts to order one’s things and activities are good.

Allen certainly doesn’t promote obsessiveness. The genius of GTD has to do with the way that David Allen redefines the essence of productivity. Greater productivity is no longer defined by the metrics of pure output, such as doing things faster or with fewer defects. Rather, his measure of productivity deals with wholeness. “Productivity is about completion. My system is based on identifying all the ‘incompletes’ in your life — from mundane tasks to pressing responsibilities — and isolating the simplest next step to complete them,” Allen says.

In this regard, the issue of productivity will always be a personal one. These resources provide an excellent set of ways to consider both the substance and the context of how you think about and organize your work. It’s easy to see GTD as the end of a long and winding road to paramount productivity, but this system, too, will come to its natural limits. Productivity principles will always evolve, while retaining fundamental roots. And so, always be mindful that although the experts can tell you how to do things more effectively, the question of what, exactly, you should be doing must always be yours and yours alone.

Reprint No. 07311

Author Profile:

Tom Ehrenfeld ( is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass. Formerly a writer and editor with Harvard Business Review and Inc. magazine, he is the author of The Startup Garden: How Growing a Business Grows You (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

The Science of Subtle Signals


Autumn 2007

by Mark Buchanan By analyzing overlooked behavioral cues, researchers are creating a new understanding of organizational effectiveness.

In 2006, when Vertex Data Science — a US$724 million private company based near Liverpool, England, and one of the world’s largest providers of call center outsourcing — wanted to improve the performance of its telephone sales operators, the managers went looking for an unusual kind of self-understanding. They enlisted the aid of Alex Pentland and his colleagues from the Human Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the elite research institute for digital technology founded by technology pioneers Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner. The researchers at the Human Dynamics Group were best known for their experiments in human–machine interplay and wearable computing: using portable devices built into eyeglasses and clothing to track movement and other human activity. They traveled to Vertex’s operations offices in Inverness, Scotland, to set up electronic devices that analyzed the speech patterns of the operators on the call center floor. The devices captured neither the specific words that the operators used nor the logic of their conversations, but only the physical voice signal: the measured variations in tone and pitch. Even so, Pentland and his researchers predicted accurately, after only a few seconds of listening, the ultimate success or failure of almost every call.

Professor Alex Pentland (seated) and researchers at the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group (from left to right): Benjamin Waber, Agnes Chang, Taemie Kim, and Koji Ara.

Photographs by Peter Gregoire

Successful operators, it turned out, speak little and listen much. When they do speak, their voices fluctuate strongly in amplitude and pitch, suggesting interest and responsiveness to the customer’s needs. “Like a mother speaking singsong to a baby,” says Pentland, “variation sounds perky and inviting. If operators do it right, they’re almost certain to be successful.” And the same is true of other forms of corporate communication. “In pitching business plans, for instance,” Pentland points out, “consistency of tone and pace is key to getting your plan rated highly.”

Most explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that people — be they employees, consumers, or executives — are influenced most by meaning and reasoning. But the per­formance of these telephone operators and a growing volume of other evidence suggest that this view is seriously flawed.

In a wide variety of facets of everyday business, the keys to sustained success may actually lie in understanding the kinds of signals that are ordinarily overlooked: tone of voice, body language, the ways people congregate (or don’t), the time spent on tasks, the rhythms of workplace activity, and the patterns of social networks. The resulting new science of subtle signals may lead not just to more profitable sales pitches, but also to a richer, deeper understanding of the practice of management and the way organizations work.

Anyone in business knows through painful experience the pervasive problems that exist because our knowledge of organizations is imperfect. Key information fails to flow to those who need it, departments fight with one another, and managers make decisions on fine-sounding theories rather than real information.

At the MIT Media Lab, Pentland leads a team of about a dozen researchers who have developed a range of small, wearable electronic devices that can easily and accurately gather the kinds of social data needed for such analyses. These devices track not just the physical location of the people who wear them, but also the finer details of a person’s movement— in effect, his or her body language — and several distinct features of his or her vocal behavior. And by taking note of people’s proximity to others and the patterns of their movement, the team can foster new insights into collective human behavior: the subtle differences between effective and ineffective teams, and the structures and incentives that either improve or block collaboration.

For example, computer scientist Tanzeem Choudhury — a former student of Pentland’s currently dividing his time between Intel Research and the University of Washington — and several colleagues have begun to experiment with “dense sensors,” wearable stickers equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) transmitters or motion detectors. Choudhury’s team is exploring the idea of designing “smart environments” that would respond intelligently to people’s needs — automatically introducing crucial information into a discussion, for example, even when no single individual might recognize its vital relevance.

And in a still more ambitious study earlier this year, Pentland, teaming with David Lazer and Nancy Katz of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, put sensors on hundreds of volunteers and recorded streams of data as they went about their business, from their morning commute through the lunch hour and into evening, capturing data about each meeting and encounter. The data revealed precisely who interacted with whom, how frequently, and whether the interactions happened in the workplace or elsewhere — over a few beers, for example.

As social network specialists have been saying for years, beneath the formal organizational chart of any company lie hidden webs of social interactions that we rarely talk about, webs whose existence we may not even acknowledge. “Ignoring these influences when you’re running a company is crazy,” argues Pentland, “because the data shows that it is at least as important as our rational behavior.”

In short, these sensors may make it possible to track the unconscious and instinctual side of human behavior, along with the collaborative and social side, in a way that helps some companies outcompete their rivals. Sensors may put management research on a much more empirical path, providing fine-grained data that could lead to a more innate, reliable understanding of how organizations work. And like many scientific ad­vances, they may also raise a host of new ethical concerns. To understand corporate behavior thoroughly, re­searchers like Pentland and his team have to monitor and analyze people’s behavior in unprecedented detail, putting potentially sensitive data on subtle personal cues and social habits into permanent computer storage. It’s not yet clear how researchers can balance the desire for workplace privacy with the equally compelling drive to understand how corporations really work — and provide their host companies with competitive advantage in the bargain.

An MIT Media Lab researcher wearing a sensor that tracks physical movement to gather data for analysis of network dynamics.

Mapping Cognitive Channels In 2005, in experiments conducted jointly with Jared Curhan of the MIT Sloan School of Management, researchers from the Human Dynamics Group asked MBA students to take part in simulated face-to-face negotiations. One student played a middle manager taking a job in a new division, and the other the vice president of that division. As the sensor data revealed, successful middle managers tended to be strong on “mirroring” behavior — unconscious mimicking of the gestures and movements of their conversational partners. In contrast, the most successful vice presidents tended to talk more and control the pace of the conversation, a social behavior that the researchers referred to as “engagement.” For both participants, a consistent emphatic tone, conveying confidence, was also critical.

This type of research confirms in the business setting what some psychologists have suspected for years — that human behavior can often be predicted with re­markable accuracy by paying attention to so-called thin slices of what people do. Malcolm Gladwell popularized this concept in his 2005 book, Blink. By observing a doctor speaking with a patient for 45 seconds and attending only to his or her pitch, rhythm, and intonation — which convey warmth or lack of it — analysts can identify those doctors likely to be sued for malpractice.

In short, people have two distinct “channels” of communication — the obvious verbal and rational channel, through which information flows linguistically, and a nonlinguistic channel that we often ignore, but that carries at least as much information.

Some of the most famous social psychology research of the last century documented the extent of group influence on individuals. For example, in a 1951 experiment directed by Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College, researchers asked experimental subjects to say which of three lines on a paper matched the length of another line, using lengths so different that the correct answer was obvious. If they heard a number of people give the same wrong answer, many people followed along with the crowd, completely ignoring the clear input of their senses. Recent experiments conducted with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines by Gregory Berns of Emory University suggest that peer pressure can alter how people actually see the lines.

In other words, people in group situations don’t consciously weigh the options and then deliberately (or timidly) choose to conform. Instead, the conforming happens automatically and unconsciously.

The idea of using sensors to capture these subtle signals began to emerge in the late 1980s. At PARC, a young researcher named Mark Weiser coined the phrase “ubiquitous computing” in 1988; he distributed electronic badges that transmitted information about where PARC employees were walking, so that people working there could see crowds forming on electronic displays. Weiser, who later became PARC’s director of research, passed away in 1999; by that time, other researchers, including John Seely Brown, Xerox’s chief scientist, and Alex Pentland at the Media Lab, had begun linking ubiquitous computing with the emerging idea of social network research, tracking the patterns of connection in informal communication among people.

Pentland began developing technology to probe network influences after an experience in the early 2000s serving on the board of a Media Lab initiative to create spin-off laboratories overseas. Nothing in that initiative had gone quite as planned.

“We had some of the most brilliant and powerful people in the world,” he recalls, “but our work was a disaster, just an incredible disaster. People were making decisions that were, on the face of it, ridiculous. Two days later you’d think, ‘How in the world did I go along with that?’ It was as if your brain had been turned off.”

Pentland’s board experience led him to recognize the enormous power of nonverbal communication. “This ex­perience really affected me,” says Pentland. He began studying the scientific literature on nonlinguistic human communication, a body of research that is extensive, but mostly qualitative. “You need instruments,” he says, “because as people we can’t really observe others objectively.”

They can program personal digital assistants (PDAs) and specially configured “smart” cell phones to keep track of their owners’ proximity to others, using the unique identifiers built into cell phone and Bluetooth transmitters to identify each individual’s location. Other electronic badges complement these locators with more precise position measurements — based on global positioning system (GPS) data, they are accurate within two meters — as well as capturing audio signals and measuring upper-body movements with an electronic accelerometer.

Gathering this data is just the first step. Pentland and computer scientist Nathan Eagle have developed a method they call “reality mining” for analyzing and drawing meaning from the data. In one study, about 100 students carried reprogrammed Nokia cell phones around with them for nine months. They found they could make accurate predictions on where any person was likely to be seen at a certain time of day, and whom they’d probably be talking with. They could also build up accurate pictures of the networks of friends or co-workers to which the students belonged and identify their most important social links.

The ultimate aim of this kind of work — as another collaborator, Mark Mortensen of the Sloan School, points out — is to go far beyond the capabilities of traditional social network analysis, which mostly relies on human recall, with all its attendant weaknesses. “A lot of workplace communication takes place through spontaneous interactions, the watercooler kind of stuff,” he says. “You can sit people down with paper and ask them who they interacted with, how, when, and so on over the last three months, but the results are always biased.”

Self-Awareness, Stress, and Groupthink It may seem overly reductionist to try to understand people through signals from gadgets hooked to their belts. But a number of major organizations have already lined up to try it out. (Indeed, sensor technology may well have medical applications, as two clinical trials showed that a significant lack of social signaling activity, readily detected by the sensors, correlated strongly with well-known signs of clinical depression.)

In the business setting, a company might use this type of computer-augmented self-awareness to train its negotiators. Or its sales force. By identifying social signals linked to persuasiveness, a manager could help salespeople train themselves to achieve better results without necessarily working harder. In another setting, companies hiring new staff might use sensors to match their employees more effectively to their jobs.

Alternatively, a company might use sensors to monitor the response of a new hire as he or she mingles with the different project teams and comes into direct contact with the teams’ work. By basing staff placements on observations of these real-life (but usually ignored) reactions, an organization could create a more fulfilling and productive environment.

The sensors could be used in other applications as well. For example, many studies have shown that workplace burnout is a serious issue that costs companies millions each year. Pentland suggests that this kind of monitoring might be useful for identifying people who are potentially headed for burnout, and who therefore require more detailed monitoring.

Mortensen foresees wiring up an entire team, division, or company, and gathering real information quickly on who interacts with whom, what kind of knowledge they share, and whether the interactions are successful. With networks of social sensors, organizations may soon be mounting a scientific, data-driven attack on the most baffling and damaging problems they face — those that stem from the myriad and mysterious dysfunctions affecting groups.

For example, the most serious problems confronting modern organizations may not be individual problems but group issues: internal polarization that inhibits discussion, or endemic “groupthink.” These and other dysfunctions are extremely difficult to detect be­fore they cause damage, because they involve nearly invisible patterns in the behavior of many individuals.

Research led by Steve Borgatti, chair of the organization studies department at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, has used surveys and interviews to map interactions between the engineering and manufacturing departments of a large organization. Borgatti and his colleagues discovered a problem that no executive could have been aware of — that almost all communication between the two groups passed through one particu­larly skilled and approachable person, who was consequently overwhelmed and often behind schedule. After identifying this hidden problem, executives introduced other go-betweens to share the load and improve the departments’ coordination.

Sensors and Sensibility Sensors, working all the time or close to it, could gather far more accurate data about information flows happening on a minute-by-minute basis. Another valuable asset of sensors is their ability to track patterns over time. They show not only who interacted with whom, but precisely when, so managers and employees alike can see how activity in one place flows out to influence production far away, at a factory, for example. This is the kind of thing sensors can get at, but questionnaires and surveys cannot.

It is not yet clear, of course, how corporations will handle the understandable concerns of employees and customers about the Big Brother intrusiveness of this type of data gathering. People can never be quite sure what activity will be gathered and inadvertently exposed in the random tracking of an unsupervised set of sensors. Knowing this, people might censor themselves more, thereby cutting back the very type of informal and free-form creativity that most businesses need more of.

Pentland, Mortensen, and the other researchers insist that the ethical challenges the use of sensors raises must be taken seriously if the technology is really to be beneficial. “Companies shouldn’t just look at this as another way to spy on employees,” says Pentland.

Pentland suggests, for example, that the technology ought to be used on a voluntary basis, with individuals adopting it because they learn the benefits that it brings for both themselves and the company. An organization could store information on individuals’ own personal computers, rather than in a central location. They could have the option of deleting anything they’d prefer to keep private. The devices might be fitted with an additional button that would erase, say, the last 10 minutes of data, or data collection might be strictly limited to teams, time frames, and workplace settings where there has been explicit agreement in advance to allow the analysis.

If privacy issues can be resolved, a new world of organizational understanding may be at hand. In the 1980s, grocery stores first introduced barcodes merely as a technology to improve checkout efficiency and keep inventory automatically. But the resulting oceans of data on product flows have now completely transformed the retail business. By probing the otherwise invisible social interactions on which organizations ultimately depend, these sensors will make it possible to explain scientifically why a creative design team suddenly became dull and uninspired, why a group of brilliant advisors made a series of inane decisions, or why two groups on whose open sharing of details the company’s welfare depended had great difficulty in speaking to one another.

Pentland, Mortensen, and their colleagues refer to the future organization that knows itself through sensing technology and manages itself accordingly as the “sensible organization.” It will monitor the flow of information between its departments and between facilities, and make accurate maps of where its key knowledge resides so that employees can easily tap into the resources they need. On the basis of knowledge, the sensible organization will promote the kind of communications that can build trust and move quickly to defuse emerging problems, even before the people in the organization know a problem exists. It will monitor team dynamics through time, catching patterns of stress or stagnation, and intervening to keep people working together creatively. And it will uncover social patterns that today we cannot even recognize or talk about, but which can explain, more definitively than ever before, the shining success of one company and the dismal failure of another.

Reprint No. 07307

Author Profile:

Mark Buchanan ( is the author of The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (Bloomsbury USA, 2007). Formerly an editor with Nature and New Scientist, he was a guest columnist for the New York Times in 2007 and holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Virginia. Visit his Weblog.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How to Be a Demographic Realist


Autumn 2007

by Lord Andrew Turnbull

Across the developed world, the demographic profile is changing. According to United Nations projections, the proportion of the global population over 65 years old will triple between now and 2100, from 7 percent to 21 percent. The population is aging more rapidly in some countries, such as Italy and Japan, and less rapidly in others, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. But in all countries, this demographic shift raises challenging new questions, not just for retirement and how it is to be financed, but also for the world of work — and the transition between the two.

Although most people understand that this change is taking place, they do not realize how large it will be and what its implications are for our working lives, for how we provide in advance for retirement, and for how support and care will be provided and funded in the future.

Regrettably, we are also prisoners of a number of assumptions that, if they were ever correct, will no longer hold in a changed world.

Assumption 1: We’ll work long enough to pay for our retirement. Not necessarily. There has been a dramatic change in the ratio of years spent at work to those spent in retirement. We will have moved by 2050 from five years of work for each year of retirement to 1.7 years of work per year of retirement.

Assumption 2: As our society gets richer, we can afford to retire earlier. The basic flaw in this is that people are not taking into account increasing longevity and its associated higher costs. We may be wealthier, but retirement is more expensive. For example, for people in the last 10 to 15 years of life, not only do health-care costs rise significantly, but new expenses are incurred for services they can no longer perform themselves, such as home repairs or landscaping.

Assumption 3: It is useful to retire people early, because there are not enough jobs for everyone. The belief that older workers must be displaced to free up jobs for younger ones was bad economics in the 1980s, and it is even more misguided now. Increased output generates more income and expenditure, and thus creates more jobs. The consequences of this “lump of labor” fallacy are serious: It fosters an ageist agenda in the workplace. Laying off workers over age 50 or forcing them to retire results in a loss of skills and intellectual capital. It also accelerates the drain on public and private pension funds.

Assumption 4: Income and status at work rise linearly, and people retire at their most senior position. In some countries, employment regulations make it difficult to con­tinue working once you reach the age of retirement or have officially retired from the organization. Perpetuating this approach reduces organizational flexibility and promotes ageism.

Assumption 5: We accumulate assets while working and spend them during retirement. People tend to invest in equities when younger, then shift toward annuities and other fixed-income instruments as they age. Yet we cannot afford to stop growing our income base too soon. Some of the money we are not drawing on in the early years of retirement still needs to be invested in growth-oriented funds or stocks, particularly if the size of our pension pot at retirement is not adequate.

Assumption 6: During retirement we won’t change residences more than once. The home we live in when we retire may be great for fit, car-driving 60-year-olds, but could become unsuitable later. Consequently, many older people continue to live in houses that are too big, are too expensive to maintain, and may pose hazards to them.

Assumption 7: The state will provide social and health-care services for us in our later years, allowing our children to inherit a significant portion of our estate. The shift in demographic ratios will make public social and health-care services extremely expensive. By 2050, the U.S. will have 2.6 people of working age for each person over 65. As a result, governments will be forced to reduce their commitments by insisting on the use of personal assets to pay for care before help from taxpayers is invoked.

As we have seen, many of the individual and collective assumptions about work and retirement are no longer valid. We must recognize that long lives are no longer unusual and plan for such a future.

For the individual, that means saving more and not fully counting on state care, corporate pensions, or inheriting a parent’s estate in its entirety. We also must be prepared to work longer, to keep learning, and to be flexible.

For this to occur, however, organizations must change as well. Leadership models need to be reconfigured so that management responsibilities can be transferred to younger staff. New advisory or client-facing roles could be created for senior managers so firms can continue to benefit from older employees’ experience and judgment after those individuals have handed over the reins.

Addressing the issue of our aging population is a matter for society as a whole. We need to remove restrictions on how pensions are drawn and provide retirement-financing products better suited to the longer lives of the elderly.

Changes are already afoot. Retirement and pension ages in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are starting to increase. Restricting compulsory retirement will foster — or force — changes in work culture and minimize ageism.

But the bigger question re­mains: Are we prepared to live with the new assumptions that this demographic shift will require of us?

Author Profile:

Lord Andrew Turnbull ( is a senior advisor to Booz Allen Hamilton based in London. Between 2002 and 2005, he was secretary of the Cabinet and head of the Home Civil Service in the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Teleworkers more satisfied, study shows

Employee Benefit News

By McLean Robbins

September 4, 2007

New research shows teleworkers are generally more satisfied with their company and job than those who work within traditional environments.

“This represents yet another weapon in the war for talent,” says Jack Wiley, executive director of the Kenexa Research Institute, which published the study.

Kenexa evaluated the impact of an employee’s office location on their pride in the organization, confidence in the organization’s future and willingness to recommend their organization to a friend. In each of the metrics, teleworkers outscored their in-office counterparts.

“Managers who allow and support telecommuting enjoy a boost in employee appreciation and are seen as notably more employee-centric and competent,” Wiley adds.

Seventy-three percent of teleworkers say they are satisfied overall with their company, compared to 63% of office workers.

Those in “professional” industries are most likely to telework (20.6% of respondents), specifically those job functions in business services and financial industries – including insurance and real estate. Not surprisingly, those in the restaurant industry were least likely to work from home, a mere 0.2 % of respondents.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Masters of the Breakthrough Moment


by Sally Helgesen For 50 years, Edith and Charles Seashore have taught people how to make organizations productive by confronting conflict and misunderstanding head-on.

In a conference room in Columbia, Md., 78-year- old Edith Seashore sits among 24 young men and women, about half of them U.S. Navy officers or civilian employees working for the Navy. The group, seated in a circle, has come together for a course called “Working with Differences.” Ostensibly focused on diversity, the session is really set up to teach people how to confront the unspoken conflicts, fears, and resentments that make life in organizations painful and unproductive. And as if on cue, right off the bat, two of the participants have gotten into a dispute.

Photographs by Steven Edson

It seems that Patrick, a naval medical center commander, was deputized to act as timekeeper during the session’s “check-in,” or opening introductions. Now the group is running behind schedule. When another participant, a consultant named Michael, asks him to account for this, Patrick shrugs and says he didn’t let anyone run past the allotted two minutes. Michael persists in questioning him, and after a few minutes of argument, Patrick assumes the authoritative tone that one associates with a naval commander: “I believe we’ve covered this. It’s time to move on.”

People nod, relieved to bring this tedious dispute to a close. But then, as the group begins to analyze its first case study (a difficult conversation that one member needs to have with her boss), a feeling of awkwardness remains in the room. People fidget in their chairs or cross their arms. Finally, a participant breaks in: “I have to speak up!” She turns to Michael. “I know we’ve moved on, but I can’t help feeling irritated by how you handled the business with Patrick.”

Michael, she says, had himself been so abrasive and authoritarian in manner that the rest of the group felt intimidated. Another group member seconds her view. A third asks why Michael himself didn’t make his point earlier, when it might have hurried things along. Someone else remarks that Patrick never gave a satisfactory answer to Michael’s question.

Edith Seashore — small, poised, and confident — sits silently and observes. Although the group is splintering into disarray and contention, she seems immune to the typical group leader’s instinctual urge to jump in and set things right. Indeed, like her husband, Charles Seashore (they are known to students and colleagues around the world as Edie and Charlie), Edie is a connoisseur of disturbance, a master of those awkward moments of conflict and unease that most of us prefer to gloss over, move past, get beyond. But it takes time for such moments to surface in a typical group, so Edie holds back, allowing the tension to build and watching as misunderstandings surface.

When at last she speaks, it’s with a quiet but clear authority that pulls the whole group back from the melee. “I think we’re all noticing a couple of things here,” she says. “One is that Patrick and Michael have both been acting on the assumption that they’re right. This often happens when people are in conflict; each one keeps asserting his position. It upsets people around them, as we see reflected here. And the upset doesn’t go away just because the group tries to ignore it. So everyone ends up in a difficult conversation, even though they are trying to avoid one. It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing too.”

Michael says, “This is what makes groups so difficult.”

Edie laughs. “This is what makes groups so interesting!”

Before long, Patrick is musing with the group about the episode. “Being a military officer,” he says, “I’m trained to move on quickly, because I always have to be prepared for the next action. And some of my staff say I seem unapproachable. I think this may be part of the reason.”

Deborah, an administrator at the hospital that Patrick commands, cuts in. “I’ve been uncomfortable all morning,” she says. “I kept wishing Edie would intervene. But she held back. She had the confidence to let things get really messy.”

Edie asks, “And what does that teach you?”

“It teaches me that being a leader doesn’t mean avoiding the mess of conflict, but helping people learn from the mess.” She beams. “This is why I came here today!”

Patrick nods. “I think I could say that too.”

It’s a typical Seashore moment — a small thing, as Edie might say, but also a big thing. Her patience in waiting for the right moment to intervene, and her skill in helping the group members see themselves as an outsider would see them, have led to a breakthrough. Suddenly, people like Patrick and Deborah recognize how their habitual ways of speaking and acting shape their relationships with co-workers, and thus set the direction of their overall workplace.

This type of experience is the primary building block of group awareness. It feels surprising when it happens: Participants sometimes refer to it as the “big aha.” But in fact it is the intentional result of a refined set of practices used to make interventions in groups. For more than 50 years, Edie and Charlie Seashore have been developing and honing the subtle art of helping people learn from difficult conversations. They are pioneers in, teachers of, and probably the most influential living advocates for the art of the breakthrough moment. Productivity and creativity in the workplace, in their view, occur when members of a group or team wade together into the muck of confusion and unspoken assumptions in order to surface concerns and conflicts that get glossed over in the rush of daily life.

“Organizations can’t change unless people change,” Edie explained not long after the workshop, “and the most efficient and powerful way to help people change is in small groups. You can affect the whole system if you work with the group.”

The design of virtually every prominent effort in recent decades to make organizations more productive — organizational development, the famous GE Work-Out program, high-performance teams, 360-degree evaluations, diversity awareness, the recent management interest in peer coaching — can be traced back to this fundamental insight. There are, of course, hundreds of people who have experimented with small groups and used them to make organizations more productive, and many of them are influential: Edgar Schein of MIT, Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School, Warren Bennis of the University of California at Los Angeles, and Jerry Harvey of George Washington University are a few of the well-known management thinkers who emerged, at least in part, from the same tradition. But the Seashores have been at the center of the field for so long that they are uniquely identified with it. Their patience, persistence, and sheer passion for working with small groups — thousands upon thousands of them, decade after decade — have spread the practices they’ve honed over many years into the mainstream, in organizations as diverse as the Defense Mapping Agency, the National Institutes of Health, IBM, and AT&T. In courses the Seashores have designed and taught at American University, Fielding Graduate University, and the National Training Laboratories (itself the original seedbed of organizational development), they have influenced thousands of people who have made fixing organizations the core of their professional enterprise.

As Professor Bennis puts it, “Their major impact has been far more important and has had a much wider horizon than any single discipline. They helped to create, from the time they started in the 1950s and ’60s, a new social awareness in organizations. And on a personal level, they are two of the most transformative figures I know — change agents, if you will — who have inspired all around them.”

Toolkits for Democracy It’s a few days after the “Working with Differences” workshop, and Edie Seashore is recounting the breakthrough moment to Charlie in their kitchen. They live in a penthouse apartment in Columbia, a planned community conceived in the 1960s as a mixed-use, racially diverse D.C. suburb. Being with the two of them is like spending time with a pair of highly intelligent stand-up comics who couldn’t look more different from each other, but whose routines and timing have been perfected over the years. Edie is smartly dressed and vivacious, with the quick wit and rapid-fire speech of a New Yorker (she grew up in northern New Jersey). Charlie, at 74, is tall and rumpled, with tufts of white hair standing on end, a slow-burn Midwestern pace, and a mischievous desire to constantly provoke a laugh. Earlier today, he stopped at a deli with a female visitor who ordered a meatloaf sandwich. Charlie turned immediately to the teenage waitress. “According to my research,” he said good-naturedly, “only 12 percent of women ever order meatloaf. Would you say that’s what you find here too?” An impromptu mock-academic colloquium ensued, with customers and other staff members getting drawn into a discussion of gender and lunch preferences, until everyone in the restaurant realized the absurdity of the situation and joined in the laugh.

Now, back at the apartment, Charlie recounts a mentoring session he conducted with a student at Fielding Graduate University — a school for mid-career professionals seeking advanced degrees in the behavioral sciences, on whose faculty he has served since 1985. The student had misinterpreted an assignment. “She said, ‘That was a terrible thing I did!’ And I agreed, yes, it was terrible. It was so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up going to jail. But please don’t be too worried, we’ll help you find the best lawyer. In the meantime, is there anything I can do?”

Charlie explodes into laughter. Edie rolls her eyes. “Can you imagine, 45 years of this?” Pragmatic and down-to-earth, she is prone to quick retorts and sharp, incisive comments, whereas Charlie — who spent much of his early adulthood performing as a unicyclist, ladder walker, juggler, and clown — is more apt to draw out the absurdity of a moment in improvisations that operate, as he puts it, “at the edge of goofiness.” In his serious moments, Charlie’s relaxed and deliberately informal manner immediately puts others at ease.

“His gift is for asking those real-time questions,” says Cindy Miller, a Ph.D. candidate at Fielding who is training director at a major California biotech company. “Charlie will say, ‘This is what I think is going on, but I’m wondering if I’m just imagining it?’ It sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing to do because you have to be aware on a moment-by-moment basis. Most people don’t take time to do that in complex organizations where everything is moving fast. But without that quality, most so-called leadership development is merely coaching for behaviors. Being aware of yourself and how you affect everyone around you is what distinguishes a superior leader.”

When visitors join them in their Maryland condo, Edie is quick to ask about their personal lives — marriages, children, the personalities of family members. Charlie is likely to leap into a long and thoughtfully detailed discussion of how attitudes toward groups have changed over the last half century. During this same afternoon at the kitchen table, for example, he begins diagramming the cultural history of group dynamics. There was the upsurge of interest in small groups following World War II, when people were wary of hierarchy because of fascism’s legacy; the fear of small groups as Communist cells during the Cold War; the flowering of group consciousness in the 1960s and early ’70s when grassroots activism took hold and people made a point of questioning authority; and the growing suspicion of small groups in our own era, provoked by public fear of terrorist nodes. Threading through Charlie’s graph is the trend of individual empowerment; the use of small groups, in the Seashores’ view, has made individual decision making more competent and helped organizations become more open to it.

Over the course of their long careers, Charlie and Edie have been instrumental in shaping three managerial disciplines. The first emerged in the business world in the 1950s: group dynamics, or the study of small group interactions as they occur in real time. The second, dating to the 1960s, is organizational development (OD), the practice of making organizations more effective by building up their members’ individual and collective capabilities. The third, diversity awareness, started in the 1970s and ’80s, when people of different races, sexes, ages, sexual orientations, and backgrounds needed help in working together and charting their careers. These three fields have gone in and out of favor with managers and leaders through the years, in part because they have often been practiced unevenly. They have at times been dismissed as ineffective, difficult to implement on a large scale, or simply “soft.”

Yet at their best, these disciplines have introduced a reliable set of methods for achieving authentic relationships in the contemporary workplace. During the “organization man” era of the 1950s and early ’60s, most organizations were secure, stable, and multilayered bureaucracies — almost designed to avoid authentic conversation in the name of standardization and the mass economy. But the rapid technological changes and fierce global competition that characterize today’s intense and evolving environment have forced many organizations to rely on the speed and creativity of high-performing, self-organizing teams, rather than on the command-and-control of traditional hierarchies.

In their work with groups, notes Warren Bennis, “Edie and Charlie breathe and exude transformation as seriously as Buddhist monks practice their teachings.” They are known not just for sparking moments of insight, but also for teaching others to do the same. In 1997, they incorporated many of these techniques into an influential book called What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (coauthored with computer scientist Gerald M. Weinberg; Bingham House, 1997). They see this practice as a way to cultivate not just capability in organizations, but democracy — the spread of skills, power, and decision-making authority throughout an enterprise.

In the 1980s, for example, Edie Seashore served as a consultant to the major general who directed the U.S. government’s Defense Mapping Agency, helping him rethink the role of the central bureaucracy. The mapping officers at headquarters had long seen their role as disseminating battlefield images to the soldiers on the ground. Edie helped them understand that the soldiers on the front lines were the real experts and decision makers. They needed the mapping officers to serve as a service bureau — gathering information from field reconnaissance and translating it into simple, straightforward maps that soldiers could use in rapidly changing conditions. To the Seashores, decentralized authority, although it is messy and difficult to control, continues to thrive because it works. But it is always under pressure from leaders who fall into authoritarian habits, even if they pay lip service to change.

“We keep hearing that OD is dead,” complains Edie Seashore at the kitchen table. “We hear that change management has replaced it. But change management is about driving change from the top, and reasserting hierarchy. It’s a way of talking about change but not changing anything.”

Charlie adds, “What’s really needed is to create enough managerial agility to enable people throughout the organization to keep learning so they can adapt to an unpredictable environment. And the way you do that is in groups.”

Roots of Perspective The idea of the small group as the premier vehicle for fostering organizational change can be traced back to the guilds and monasteries of the Middle Ages, and was influenced both by the cooperative movement of the 19th century and by 20th-century psychological research. But for 50 years, the most influential center for studying the role of groups in organizational change has been an institute called the National Training Laboratories (NTL). Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist who taught at the University of Iowa after fleeing his native Vienna in the Nazi era, designed the institute with several of his students in 1947. Professor Lewin saw small groups as ideal laboratories for observing forces of cohesion, disruption, and challenge in microcosm, since such forces were too complex to discern in larger social systems. He and his students envisioned an experimental setting where researchers could in a systematic way lead groups and study the forces that held them together or drove them apart.

Charlie and Edie Seashore on their property in Bethel, Maine.

Though Professor Lewin died of a heart attack several months before NTL opened, his students started it on schedule and ran it every summer from 1947 through the late 1960s. Purposely remote in a far western corner of Maine in order to provide a “cultural island” uncontaminated by daily concerns, NTL offered intense three-week sessions called “T groups” (T for training), led at first only by the most eminent social scientists in the field. Participants included up-and-coming academics, along with senior executives from major companies (TRW, Digital Equipment, Esso, various oil refineries, and the wonderfully archaic-sounding Doughnut Corporation of America) who could afford NTL’s hefty fees. Many well-established practices of group process were pioneered at NTL: giving feedback, conducting “check-ins” to begin meetings, sitting in circles, using flip charts, scribbling on big pieces of paper taped around the room, collaborating on visions for the future, and forming “fishbowls,” or groups set up in the center of a larger circle to interact while those around them observed what they were doing. The institute’s leaders, called “fellows,” established organizational consulting practices and thus carried what they learned to corporations, educators, military units, health-care providers, religious leaders, associations, and communities around the globe.

The personal history of the Seashores is inseparable from NTL. They both came as students. The then Edie Whitfield had been student body president of Antioch College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Ohio. She was also a protégé of Antioch’s President Douglas McGregor, who was author of The Human Side of Enterprise, a pathbreaking 1960 book about humanistic management. Introduced to NTL in 1954 by her mentor, Edie was an instant hit — a self-possessed college girl thriving among the accomplished and idealistic, but somewhat stiff, professors who congregated there. Charlie Seashore arrived a few years later with a more conventional resume. He was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, from a family of well-known psychologists; his grandfather had been instrumental in bringing Kurt Lewin to the University of Iowa. Charlie was a group dynamics natural; he disliked the detachment of conventional social science research, wherein experimenters were so intent on remaining “objective” that they would barely talk to their subjects or help them with their problems. What good was a social science research project if it didn’t improve people’s lives?

Neither Edie nor Charlie was typical of NTL. Charlie’s love of clowning and laughter could lead others to miss his underlying seriousness of purpose. And Edie, while popular, was “basically a mascot,” she recalls. “I was cute and funny and the guys liked having me around even if they didn’t know what to do with me.” For nine years, less-skilled and less-experienced trainers were named fellows while she was turned down, partly because she had no Ph.D. (the prospect of getting one bored her) and partly because she was a woman, a condition to which fellows could then still openly object. “T groups were basically devised by men,” she later recalled, “to teach other men the kind of collaborative skills that often come more easily to women. I think the men feared that once they let women in, women would run away with the program.”

The fear was not unfounded. In the mid-1950s, rather than subject the male participants’ wives to one more shopping trip through Maine’s woolen mills, the faculty decided to start a spouse group. It was the only women’s group at NTL during its first two decades, and it struggled until Edie volunteered to take over. “The participants said, ‘So this is group work? We can do this!’ They ended up entering the field, teaching NTL sessions, getting Ph.D.s, divorcing their husbands, completely changing their lives,” she says. Women consultants, tiptoeing quietly out of the NTL closet, suddenly found a distinct managerial role in organizational development work — a role that is taken for granted now, but was revolutionary then.

Edie set up shop as a consultant in New York in the 1960s, her serene confidence in her own instincts her most formidable asset. At first she worked primarily with religious and community groups — then considered suitable work for a woman — but she soon began to make her name with business and then military clients. She often had dinner in New York with Douglas McGregor, who was then consulting for Standard Oil. One evening, Edie asked him the secret of his success, and he gave her the advice on which she would build the rest of her career. “I listen, and I listen, and I listen,” he said, “and then I come up with one good idea that impacts the organization and makes me worth every penny they pay me.”

Edie adopted “one good idea” as her personal motto. Fred Miller, CEO of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, who has worked with Edie Seashore for many years, sees her success as rooted in this approach. “Edie dispenses wisdom in short doses, little insights that people can assimilate as they go along,” he notes. With her self-invented career and indifference to academic qualifications, Edie, says Mr. Miller, “is credentialed by her practicality, and by her engagement.”

Edie was Charlie’s first trainer at NTL. They worked together occasionally in the late 1950s, while she was building her business in New York, and he was finishing his Ph.D. in Michigan. In 1961, Charlie proposed to a woman named Sandra, using this line: “If you married me, your name would be Sandy Seashore.” She turned him down. Later that summer, working with Edie, he mused absentmindedly: “If you married me, you could work and travel as much as you liked.” It was a novel suggestion in an era when women were expected to quit work after marriage, and though they weren’t dating, Edie agreed on the spot. Charlie then tried to back off, claiming he had been speaking hypothetically, but with characteristic directness Edie told him it was too late, she had already accepted. Unlike Sandy, Edie found the prospect of being known as Seashore irresistible. “Who could turn down a name like that?”

They settled in Washington, D.C., where NTL had begun a variety of programs, mostly for federal clients, and Charlie accepted a position as program director with the institute. He also began a long association with the National Institutes of Health, building collaborative networks that sought to break down barriers between physicians and staff. Edie, whose one good idea decisiveness made her a natural for hierarchies, worked with the Naval Academy, which was suddenly required to admit women in 1972. “The captain didn’t want to hire me because I wasn’t Navy and I was a woman. He stood up when I entered his office and barked, ‘Okay, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Put women officers into the plebe summer program.’ He picked up the phone, barked at someone else, and said, ‘Done! Now what else?’ I said, ‘That was my one good idea. I’ll get back to you with another. Meanwhile, let’s sit down and talk about it, so we can get it right.’” This was the start of what would be an eight-year contract.

Over the next two decades, Charlie and Edie designed and taught courses at Johns Hopkins, American University, and Concordia in Montreal, bringing group process and techniques into traditional academe. They bought a house in Washington’s Rock Creek neighborhood and filled it with friends, dogs, piano music, and children. Their daughters Becky and Kim were born in the 1960s (Edie threw a dinner party the night before she delivered one of the girls). Edie often took her children along on business trips, pioneering the role of professional mother. “Our work and our lives were the same thing,” she recalls, “and the girls were part of it. They always talked about how their friends’ parents seemed to hate to go to their jobs because they weren’t much fun. We were having fun.”

Among the Horsepersons Then, in the mid-1970s, NTL once again catalyzed a new kind of management thinking: diversity awareness. But this time, it happened almost by accident. NTL was facing acute financial difficulties. The “T group” business was declining — in part because of new competition from the less rigorous “encounter group” movement, in part because some of its own most popular leaders were defecting to start their own consulting practices, and in part because as the business environment became more competitive, managers could no longer justify spending three weeks in Maine on “group dynamics,” especially if the results could not be easily quantified. At the same time, the institute had acquired a sprawling Victorian mansion, known as the Founders House — a picturesque setting for workshops but a money pit.

In 1975, Edie joined with three NTL veterans to form “The Four Horsepersons,” a task force charged by the board with trying to save the institute from financial collapse. The other three horsepersons were all longstanding OD consultants: Hal Kellner, who died in the mid-1980s; Peter Vaill, now based in Minnesota; and Barbara Bunker, who works in New York. Together they persuaded 67 associates to donate two weeks each year for the following two years to keep NTL programs running. Edie was then selected as president. “Without the dedicated work of the Seashores at this time,” recalls NTL Fellow and MIT Professor Edgar Schein, “the institute would probably not have survived.”

With Edie at the helm, the NTL members took on the mission of making both the board and the membership far more diverse while also developing techniques for doing group work in diverse settings. To accomplish the former, they expelled all the NTL trainers — about 200 people at the time, many with long-standing pedigrees in the organization — and then admitted trainers one by one, insisting that there be equal numbers of white men, white women, men of color, and women of color. This created a dramatic upheaval, especially for the many white men who had been NTL fellows for three decades but now had to apply for membership all over again, with no guarantee of being chosen.

At that point in the late 1970s, a group of highly educated baby boomers — white women, and women and men of color — were entering the workplace in the United States. There were few models to help these newcomers advance, and resentments and uncertainties made it difficult for highly diverse teams to achieve cohesion. With Hal Kellner, Edie began an in-depth initiative to help AT&T, then the largest corporation in the world, deal with the consequences of a court-ordered mandate to achieve greater gender and racial balance. She saw that NTL had a great opportunity to establish itself as a standard-bearer in modeling the kinds of conversations, more difficult and daunting than ever, that were needed to surface and resolve conflicts in a diverse work force. NTL came to be a defining center for the new field of diversity training; for example, Edie was among the first to form the internal associations that would now be called “affinity groups” for women and for people of color within organizations, a highly effective way to develop collective strength and understanding.

NTL regained its economic health during the next few years, under the leadership of Edie Seashore and Elsie Cross, who became the first African-American to chair the organization. The new leaders maintained NTL’s rigorous emphasis on research, which kept it from becoming a cultlike encounter group or a sales-oriented program like Erhard Seminar Training (est). Edie and Charlie continued to reside in Bethel every summer, buying a big comfortable house next door to the Founders House, and bringing new generations of students with them to learn. Meanwhile, Edie started teaching at Johns Hopkins and at American University, where she established a degree-granting program under NTL auspices, and Charlie joined the faculty of Fielding Graduate University.

Blankets and Sandpaper On an icy weekend in February 2006, the Seashores drive up to Bethel to conduct what will turn out to be a pivotal session at the 50-year-old NTL site, which the board has decided to sell so that it can “get out of managing real estate,” as Edie puts it. Twenty-two Fielding Ph.D. candidates have flown in from around the country to present case studies on challenges they face. Most are senior executives eager to develop their group skills so they can have a greater impact on their organizations. Charlie is leading the weekend’s session with two other Fielding faculty members.

Before the participants break into small groups, Charlie tells them: “Some of you will be blankets, providing comfort and support to others, and some of you will be sandpaper, irritants that lead the group to breakthroughs. Group process is basically a means for applying both blankets and sandpaper to a given situation.”

Calvin, a real estate developer from Boston, presents the first case study. He starts by noting that his greatest challenge is getting people to listen when he talks. Then he goes to a flip chart and starts to diagram his company. As he delves into its intricacies, he turns away from the group. After a few minutes of this, two participants begin to whisper restlessly between themselves. A third joins in. Calvin soldiers on.

At last Connie, a university teacher from Wisconsin, breaks in abruptly. “Excuse me, but would Calvin mind facing his audience? I was interested in what he was saying, but now I’m lost in the details.”

There’s a moment of silence. Someone asks why Connie feels entitled to encroach on Calvin’s time. Other participants agree that she is being disruptive. Connie tries to justify herself.

Charlie watches intently. It’s as if he can see the social forces that Professor Lewin described — cohesion, disruption, and challenge — playing themselves out with predictable regularity. Finally, he asks, “What happened here with Connie?”

“She broke in,” someone volunteers.

“And how did that change the dynamic?” Charlie asks.

“It pulled the attention away from Calvin.”

“Does anyone remember what preceded Connie speaking up?”

There’s a pause. Someone recalls that people had begun chatting. One of the chatters then admits that he had stopped listening to Calvin. “But,” he adds, “I didn’t make a big deal of it like Connie.”

Charlie asks the group to consider the role that Calvin played in provoking inattention. Calvin says, “I don’t think I played any role. I was just presenting my case.”

“You say you have trouble getting people to listen. That’s what happened here. People stopped listening, especially when you turned your back on them.”

“That’s like at work. I get absorbed in the details and I lose people. Then I feel bad because no one listens.”

“So you do have an impact when you’re talking to a group. It’s just not the impact you want to have.”

Such breakthrough moments occur with regularity as the sessions continue throughout the weekend, with Charlie performing a variety of interventions. He plays the role of one participant’s boss, and coaches another to deliver the eulogy at his mother’s funeral. By the end of the weekend, the 22 participants have become increasingly sophisticated at spotting their own evasions, more likely to jump in and say, “I see what’s happening here!” and more intentional in assuming a role within a group.

It’s not possible to tell, of course, whether these insights and epiphanies will lead to permanent changes after the participants go home. Observers such as Charlie and Edie’s old colleague Chris Argyris, an NTL veteran who later joined the faculty of Harvard Business School, have criticized the disciplines of OD, group dynamics, and diversity on the grounds that the breakthroughs and epiphanies fade away; they do not change behavior in any lasting way. Will Calvin, returning to the pressures of his job, be able to squarely face those he is seeking to influence? Will Patrick, the naval hospital commander from Johns Hopkins University, draw upon what he learned to become more patient with his direct reports? And will Deborah, his colleague, confront conflict rather than trying to avoid it? Or will they all simply retreat into habitual patterns when they are once again immersed in their office routines?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pandemic Planning Not At Fever Pitch

Some IT execs are preparing for flu outbreak, but broad interest appears to be waning.


By Patrick Thibodeau

July 16, 2007 -- James Seligman, CIO at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may be among the first people to know if the U.S. is struck by a pandemic, such as an avian flu outbreak. Seligman’s IT staff is building a system that will enable the CDC to collect emergency room data in real time from hospitals around the country.

But Seligman is also focused on ensuring that the federal agency’s IT operations can continue delivering essential services to its employees during a pandemic or other public health emergency.

For instance, the agency has dramatically increased the capacity of IT systems to support employees working remotely. Remote access support has risen from several hundred simultaneous user sessions to several thousand as a result of an expansion in server capacity and the purchase of more Citrix software licenses, Seligman said.

James Seligman James Seligman

In addition, the CDC has crossed-trained IT workers in an effort to make sure that key systems can continue to run in an emergency. And it has installed showers and stockpiled cots, face masks and other supplies to make it possible for the IT staff to work long hours if necessary. Seligman thinks there’s no choice but to prepare for a pandemic. At the CDC, he works with scientists who are deeply involved in the issue and believe that a pandemic is inevitable. “It’s not a question of if, but when,” he said. “So the sooner that companies and families and communities and states are prepared, the better.”

But many other IT organizations don’t appear to be ready, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Ken McGee. At a Gartner data center conference in Las Vegas last November, McGee gave a presentation on the risk of an avian flu pandemic. He recommended that the IT professionals in the audience prepare a pandemic response plan by the end of this year’s second quarter.

Despite his admonition, McGee is worried that fears of a possible pandemic are waning in the U.S. Most of Gartner’s clients “would not be prepared if this descended upon the world tomorrow — they just simply would not be ready,” he said. “I think it’s just part of the human condition: You don’t put the stop sign up until after the traffic accident.”

Scott McPherson Scott McPherson

Scott McPherson, CIO of the Florida House of Representatives and head of the Florida CIO Council’s pandemic preparedness committee, tracks news about the avian flu daily. Despite the reduced rates of cases and deaths thus far this year, McPherson said he’s mystified by the lack of attention that the threat is getting in the U.S.

For instance, he said that if a pandemic occurs, expanding telecommuting programs won’t be a viable option because of network overload and a lack of broadband access for many employees. IT managers “need to prepare for what happens after the work-at-home plans implode,” McPherson said.

But Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at managed security services vendor BT Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said the scope of the disaster caused by a pandemic would be so large that businesses’ contingency plans would be rendered useless.

“If everyone loses 40% of their workforce, the world is different,” Schneier said. “You cannot prepare for [that], and you’re wasting your time if you try.” That sort of planning can only be done by governments, not companies, he added.

Even in Australia, which is closer to avian flu hot spots than the U.S. is, media attention to the pandemic threat has diminished from last year, said Richard Constantine, CIO at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

But pandemic planning is a top-of-mind issue for Constantine, who sees it as a necessary part of a broader approach to business contingency planning.

Constantine said Swinburne is working to ensure that IT and other departments are aligned so that each is aware of what services will be delivered in an emergency and everyone understands exactly what needs to be done.

Choosing products is also part of the school’s planning process. “We’re always looking for technology that can be managed remotely,” Constantine said. Robert L. Mitchell contributed to this story.