Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Building a business for resilience 23 – open systems, closed systems and selectively porous ones 15

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on August 30, 2017

This is my 23rd installment to a series on building flexibility and resiliency into a business in its routine day-to-day decisions and follow-through, so it can more adaptively anticipate and respond to an ongoing low-level but with time, significant flow of change and its cumulative consequences, that every business faces in its normal course of operation (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and its Page 4 continuation, postings 542 and loosely following for Parts 1-22.)

I have been working my way through a to-address list of topic points in this series, starting with its Part 20, and begin this posting by repeating that list, for purposes of continuity of discussion:

1. Thinking through a business’ own proprietary information and all else that it has to keep secure that it holds.
2. While reducing avoidable friction where there can be trade-offs between work performance efficiency, and due diligence and risk remediation requirements from how information access is managed. This, in anticipation of discussion to come, means consideration of both short-term and long-term value created and received, as well as short-term and long-term costs.
3. And this means thinking through the issues of who gathers and organizes what of this information flow, who accesses it and who uses it – and in ways that might explicitly go beyond their specific work tasks at hand.
4. What processes are this information legitimately used in, and who does that work? With the immediately preceding point in mind, what other, larger picture considerations have to be taken into account here too?
5. And who legitimately sees and uses the results of this information as it is processed and used and with what safeguards for the sensitive raw data and the sensitive processed knowledge that are involved, where different groups of people might have legitimate need to see different sets of this overall information pool?
6. Think in terms of business process cycles here, and of who does and does not enter into them.

I begin here with Point 3 of that list, and by repeating two terms and their basic working definitions that I introduced in Part 22, in the context of discussing how information is shared throughout an organization:

Hard communications channels are formal business process and official communications pattern-driven, and become rules defined for what information can be shared with whom and under what circumstances, and essentially whenever an information access due diligence or risk remediation system is put in place.
Soft communications channels arise as employees network with and share information with colleagues outside of the scope of any formally considered hard communications channels in place, in order to more effectively carry out their jobs. These communications channels can be thought of as representing work-arounds of convenience and even of necessity. And they can become highly standardized too, and certainly where they are consistently found to work.

Who gathers and organizes what of this information flow, who accesses it and who uses it? As noted in Point 3 as it is worded, above, that can take place “in ways that might explicitly go beyond their specific work tasks at hand” and certainly as they are conceived and understood higher up on the table of organization. And that is essentially certain to happen in systems that have soft communications channels in active use within them – and certainly if “unofficial” information sharing and the work that is performed as a consequence of it, are not accounted for in formal business planning and even as that work proves necessary to the business and its success.

Hard communications channel systems are generally designed and built around planned out strategy and its expected, planned out operational systems of strategic execution. Soft communications channels arise and thrive where hard channels have gaps in them and even actively seem to create those gaps, and ones that have to be “filled in” if essential work is to be done and goals achieved.

I ended Part 22 with a comment about these communications work-arounds, that I suspect prompted at least some readers to react with caveats and objections and certainly if their professional focus involves risk management to any significant degree:

• “Soft here, can be seen as a synonym for ‘useful and even in-practice essential work-around,’ or for startups and related: ‘business as usual’.”

Setting aside the matter of startup versus established business here, at least for the moment, yes it is true that soft communications channels can offer essential benefit and certainly absent a longer-term and more systematic alternative. But even when soft channel communications alternatives work well in the short term and in the specific contexts that they are developed around, they can still create problems through ripple effects. As a Catch-22, when these alternatives do work, their example weakens the argument for more organized hard channel communications as a basic requirement, with all of its restrictions. And when communications and information sharing-based work-arounds work, their very success both reduces the pressure and incentive to correct the underlying problems that led to them, and can even blur the actual underlying causes of those problems that would have to be addressed.

So far, I have pursued this discussion essentially entirely in terms of full time, in-house hands-on employees and managers. I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, where I will include part-time and temporary help in general and outside-sourced consultants in particular, and how they do and do not enter into essential conversations. In anticipation of that, I add here that this set of issues can and often does become more complex in practice than it would be expected to, and certainly on the basis of the often standardized contracts and confidentiality agreements signed by involved parties on the consultant (or other essentially outsider) and business sides of these collaborations.

After addressing those issues, I am going to step back and challenge a basic assumption that I have been making here, when business communications systems are challenged by the disruptively unexpected, and by the emergence of needs that the more hardwired communications systems in place cannot accommodate as is, and with any speed or agility. Ultimately, I have been writing here in terms of stable business contexts, and have been offering a baseline model that cannot always hold. And that is where both startups and established businesses reenter this conversation for their more specific categorical needs and details as I reconsider the relative roles and value of hard and soft communications channels.

Then after completing that part of this narrative I will move on to address Points 4 through 6 of the above to-address list.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 4, and also at Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3 of that directory.

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