Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Collecting a new core competency

It was interesting, in reading the discussion of assessing organizational capabilities in Ulrich and Smallwood's "Capitalizing on Capabilities" and the discussion of organizational agility in Sull's "Competing Through Organizational Agility" to reflect on the perspective they offer to experiences I had at a former employer. The first reminded me especially of a particular time when one of the company executives sent out a general message to the company to the effect of "I think we should develop a core competency in [a particular technical area]." It was interesting because the message was half-musing, possible to be effective because the author knew the intensity with which a large portion of the company would be audience to that musing.
The particular technical area in question was a set of approaches to problems with wide applicability, and there were many people in many different parts of the company who had some experience and capacity in that area. They were all separately doing the work which was logical for their business unit's need, but they were not connected. Thus the technical area was one in which there already was a significant amount of work happening in the company, but there was not an effort in that technical area, and so at that point it could not be said that it was an organizational competence.
Very quickly following the aforementioned message, everyone who knew someone working on this type of problem volunteered those names into a pool. Working together across projects, each of those individual efforts could be supplanted with something that would progress much more rapidly and contribute more value back to every project using it. At the same time, the crowd surfaced all of the business units which had a need for this type of technology, but which did not happen to have someone working on it yet. While the executive had originally been thinking along the lines of, "who might be some strategic hires in this area?" the question unexpectedly triggered an informal but very deep inventory of the organization's existing resources. The list of potential strategic hires did also emerge quite nicely, but now in a context of a much better understanding of existing capabilities and better understanding of the gap. An opportunity was created.
At that point, whether the organization would be able to capitalize on the opportunity would be a matter of portfolio agility: how quickly and effectively would the organization be able to take the names on the assembled lists (of current employees, current projects, needy projects, and potential strategic hires) and get the right people working together across projects to turn their disparate efforts into a shared technological base, moving them around as necessary, reapportioning their time as necessary, so that they could all together produce something better for the entire organization?
I was not a part of this, and I do not know how the efforts progressed. But a couple years later I saw some evidence that a couple people I knew, who had implemented technology of this sort on a small scale on the particular project on which I worked, were now part of a cross-organization research group, publishing articles suggesting that they had generalized their frameworks, working with others to build and deploy tools providing the technology as a strong platform service across the organization's product portfolio.

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