icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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The balcony of envy

About engineering and measuring digital transactions

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). The balcony of envy. About engineering and measuring digital transactions. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.8 (August).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). The balcony of envy. About engineering and measuring digital transactions. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.8 (August).

A true measure of your worth includes all the benefits others have gained from your success
Cullen Hightower, american quip writer and salesman

London, 24 October 2018 - If data engineering - as I was saying in Leap before you look- requires our consciousness about the representations of the world through digital technologies, there is little doubt that its theory and practice are influenced by our values, beliefs and emotions.

But… how can we profitably and fairly manage, consistently over time and space, such vague states of the mind along the process? And which sentiments and ethical commitments we should prioritise at any given time or in a particular context? I have talked or mentioned in several other occasions about new ongoing international efforts to standardise big data design processes, that are still at an early stage. Here I am looking into the matter from a quite inner people-driven perspective.

Ethics is everywhere and nowhere

Many tend to consider ethics as something belonging to religion or philosophy and in some ways opposite to technical matters.

Conversely, far away from simplistic views that pervaded formal technical education of people of my generation, data engineering turned out to have complex ethical roots embedded in any aspect of the systems we design and use. It is not at all just implementing change in an ethical manner , by way of mixing and matching the latest techies’ ideas and products according to a protocol.

Delighted with such philosophical stance, market researchers, public relators and policy makers have been increasingly exploring competing interests, legal and moral rights and public opinion that create frictions and, by doing so, a public space for ethical debates. Who could have thought the design of new ICT systems and applications could be so sexy and lucrative for public relations or sales promotions twenty or thirty years ago!

However, ethical controversies that are instrumentally used for public engagement with science and technology are construed within frameworks of commercial and political discourses: ethical dilemmas are just new jacks of the trades, rhetorical devices chosen by experts in the art of combinatorial thinking, because they can easily attract large audiences around apparently simple and universal issues. They are often totally unfruitful in terms of knowledge and change management and of little or no help at all for learning and developing new wealth.

At a closer distance, most of the intractable ethical dilemmas that complicate design and development of new products or services are just negative gut feelings, prejudices, fears or unrealistic aspirations that get in the way of lean project management and teamwork.

Perhaps the example that follows clarifies what I am talking about.

Online sales performance indicators: do they exist?

Few months ago I was asked to help review the design and documentation of an app that should demonstrate and measure the effectiveness of digital interactions between members of a sales team and their clients. Such analytics application had produced lot of excitement at first, while it was still a simple project management concept, but soon after the commission to develop the software, some tensions among members of staff started building up as the app had inevitably been associated with requirements from the human resources department. Those tensions reached a conflictual point after the first release because it became clear that the app would be used as evidence to evaluate new candidates, or to manage redundancies.

The HR application was in fact similar to those agile dashboards many project management platforms are now commonly equipped with - and nobody turns actually responsible for when things go wrong. In a nutshell, it seemed designed to make easy to pick and choose, visualise and highlight the skills and potential of single individuals in respect of their commercial and marketing skills: just using few numerical indicators and descriptors, together with people photos and other personal data, it was immediately seen as a tool for selection and evaluation.

It was not easy to put in writings what the app was about, because an actual specification did not exist. It seemed I had to either trust a twitter-like description made of buzzwords or dig deeply into over one hundred pages of technical and yet quite irrelevant documentation about the platform itself, learn more about the software libraries that have been used without any pertinent purpose, and how the app was up-to-date with all sorts of trends from virtualisation to artificial intelligence - an opportunity for me to catch up with the latest trends! But after such initial speleological struggle, I came to the point: the initial brief of the HR dashboard considered that people (account managers) who had more engagements with customers for long time were likely to be more appreciated because of their power or ability to generate sales. Therefore it would be obvious to see they had more chances to retain their jobs. Then the software developers were directed towards the visualisation of the transactions by single members of the sales teams.

After the first release of the application, it transpired that the best performance in terms of generated revenue seemed belonging to younger and less experienced salesmen. Even when some corrections were applied following the first bunch of complaints - for instance to filter out cases of trainees and apprentices that were actually supporting and carrying out work managed by senior account managers - the dystopian representation remained. Above all, it seemed that the application ranked lower and lower and underestimated the efficiency of those members of staff who were poor at interacting online with clients (as they did not have many transactions such as tweets, emails and web or phone chats with their clients to show off) but had always been able to generate amazing revenues from very valuable clients. It was, in sum, ridiculous, to say the least, that the outperforming members of staff were considered at risk of being left behind, made redundant or lose their benefits.

Are these indicators and data standard for you? Are they comparable with some benchmark available on the market? I asked. It seemed the quite obvious question to ask. The business world, the business world I know, is governed through and by standards.

There are quite a few established metrics used to evaluate and compare customer satisfaction, customer lifetime value and profitability. As far as certain sectors are concerned, for instance finance, there are all sorts of indicators useful to measure also the performance of investors' assets that can indirectly being useful to measure the success of their financial advisors. I have myself made thorough investigations on the better metrics and devised some further solutions in media, marketing and education.

But in the world of digital sales, the traditional performance measures (indicators like sales per representative, sales by contact method, sales closing ratio, sales target and so on) have become out of range: the whole package seems needing a deep review.

And the challenging critical factor in terms of data design is completely distant from traditional approaches in that: are we talking about measuring the performance of websites or the behaviour of human beings, or are we aspiring to measure an integration of the two systems?

And how we can distinguish the individual’s value from the effective organisation of a sales support and customer service team?

I met the sales team and the HR team: they looked as walls of warriors ready to blow my ashes away. They were one of the most unbelievable concentration of passive aggressive attitudes I have ever encountered in my life. They reminded me the image of the monstrous fat iceberg recently discovered in the sewage, a slice of which - eventually broken down by water engineers - recently went on display at the Museum of London. It is quite unbelievable that innocuous wipes, muffins and crisps’ oil can produce such apocalyptical blockage!

I did not like the sensations the two teams transferred to me: they seemed hyper-cohesive, hyper confident, very prepared - or armed - to welcome any intrusive consultant with a tick fog of useless arguments and personal hostility. By the time I entered the room, I was expected to know without asking any question how revolutionary was their analytics creature on one side, and how totally detached from the business reality was on the other. It was tough to just make clear I was there to do my job and could not care less of any of their beliefs and passions around something that in a couple of years time will be superseded.

I resisted the temptation to shout ‘you are fat-bergs of ignorance’ and leave the room. Instead, I managed to escape the image of the fat-berg, and quite eclectically and unexpectedly even to myself I left to my feelings the task of articulating the speech.

L’invidia!

I recalled and suggested the two teams to read a couple of Alberoni’s articles about envy (that they could promptly get in English using Google Translate, for Agile’s sake! one team poked to the other).

For years, Francesco Alberoni, an italian journalist and writer, sociologist and academic wrote a number of popular articles, published in the italian national newspaper Corriere della Sera, about the importance of emotional intelligence and understanding of human feelings in the workplace. Envy was one of his favourite topics and often at the centre of his reflections.

Envy, he theorised, springs from feelings of admiration for somebody that is not so far away, and with whom we share or would like to share activities and interests, that we perceive more successful or smarter than we think we are.

The footballer, Alberoni pointed listing popular examples, envies another footballer. The actor envies another actor. It is very unlikely that we envy somebody who does something completely different from what we usually do or who is on another scale: we envy something we would like to have, to do or to be for ourselves. For such a very simple reason, personal frictions and conflicts are very common in the workplace. And, I would add from my own experience, they populate the space of our relationships even when we do not see and talk with each other and we barely know who are with talking with, as it usually happens within virtual, teleworking teams.

When we know or perceive that a colleague is being successful in something quite similar to our own task, we have two options, Alberoni said: we either tend to be cheerful, ask for help, copy the successful behaviour, starting a productive emulation routine, or we pretend we do not care, becoming jealous and suspicious, showing anger, indignation or resentment with very preposterous motivations. The last, in turn, require the fabrication of a rationale making huge space for loss of scope and waste of time.

In a certain sense, paraphrasing Alberoni, we can say there is a positive and a negative envy: both impact the ways in which we talk, work together, define and measure behaviours and performance.

Open and fair competition, recognition of merits and successes can trigger emulation of colleagues and peers, from copycats to authentic learning and reinvention of the most successful conducts. Dismissal or debasement of others’ achievements and successful behaviours incentivise more negative and disruptive envy feelings and, in the best of circumstances, does not produce any change or improvement at all.

Within the virtual environment, teams tend to naturally, forcefully simplify and stereotype or ignore the complexity of human interactions. They end considering their own feelings are not so relevant as they would be in a traditional physical space: also joking and kidding around rivalries and competition becomes part of a stereotyped and sterile way to shield people from difficult, uncomfortable and potentially disruptive feelings of envy.

In a digital, remotely accessible office environment we do not usually physically see each other and even if we do it is for specific purposes. Missing all the richness of the non verbal communication given by physical proximity, we project on others our own ambitions and fears, feelings and aspirations. It is in the digital world of externalities that human envy can generate… cognitive fat-bergs.

Breaking down cognitive fat-bergs

A team member came out as she had discovered the moon and asked me the question I would have been myself frightened to ask: what does it happen when we decide unconditionally that we are all equally smart? yes, another person immediately reinforced, we believe all the members of the [omissis] team are equally smart.

All right. In a team in which everybody is required to be equal to everybody else, innovators do not have a place, change is very difficult and can only be allowed in a controlled way - using formal processes such as configuration management for instance. Out-performers are often seen and treated suspiciously, as the enemy of the group.

It is quite difficult to talk about equality and inequality of talents in the workplace without falling into legitimate and interesting but non really pertinent arguments such as LGBT and women diversity and inclusion of disabled people or trade unions point of views. All these sell quite well across the media and the industrial relations debates but do not make the point of recognising there is or there can be always a strategic posture, a vested interest behind any bias. Those in charge of a job will invent all sorts of new apparent tactics, tools and techniques to recruit and value talented colleagues while applying always the same biased criteria to exclude them.

Alberoni was used to write that it is pure illusion to think that equality produces more objective judgements within a group of people that share the same interests or professional status. And, I would add from my own experience, in which way we can measure teams equality without quality assurance? Looking at the wages? Counting the likes on Facebook or the number of connections on other social networks?

The evidence of data from many digital transactions is that if something seems exceptionally significant, it is possibly because is completely useless as something we already know or something untrue and irrelevant. It has just easily caught our attention without any cognitive effort.

Talking about digital transactions managed within a sales customer service team, whatever project team - including Agile project teams - imposes upon single individuals the same pressure to know your place of a bossy traditional hierarchical organisational unit. The digital, virtual setting does not change and does not make simpler interactions and exchanges among people belonging to different teams. The nature of the team work does not change just because it is digital. On the contrary, teleworking adds more layers of things that can possibly go wrong and need to be troubleshooted by and with others - the communications, the networks, the formats, the protocols, the forms, the timelines, the project management tools and dashboards, the broadband connection and so on and so forth.

Within the online interactive spaces, there is indeed the possibility to develop and use better sensitiveness and awareness of each other emotional status and internal discourses or feelings as in the physical environment but we do lack, very often, the non verbal communication ensured by physical proximity. We can obtain better concentration and precision through written exchanges but at first we need to recognise the easy solution of lying dropping emails on difficult tasks or lurking and copying others conversations. We can even develop more sensitiveness through computer mediated environments than in the real world, particularly using videos but there is a barrier of self-performance and theatrical achievements to understand and remove at first. In some ways, the virtual environment can stimulate more attention to the inner experiences and emotional reactions we are all subject to, that do impact individuals and teams performances. There is often no rational behind such emotional layers neither they are explicitly mentioned in the project brief.

We are unlikely to have the confidence and intimacy to talk openly about such matters with colleagues. Within a family, research or therapeutical settings people can often find natural or totally acceptable to poke each others’ feelings and behaviours in relation to a certain task or expected outcome. Not so easily done in the workplace because any subjective insight must pass the test that it would really improve reciprocal understanding within a given workflow, process or for a business purpose.

In the virtual environment it is even more complicated: the intimacy of understanding each other that could ideally develop is most of the times not welcomed. It is just embarrassing, as it always implies an element of judgement, surveillance, competition, intrusion in other people thoughts and feelings. Even in circumstances where methodologies such coaching or counselling are used by the team , scrum masters or consultants, it is not easy to work out how to manage people feelings beyond a general call for empathy.

Many would find intrusive and unacceptably invasive to talk openly about their emotions in the workplace.

It is in such underwood of the team inner relationships that envy usually pop ups.

When envy takes over and transpires in a team of alleged equals, it becomes intolerable to admit that such gut feelings exist. It is very unlikely that somebody takes ownership of the problem and seeks how to manage it. So we focus on the unwanted outcome, the fat-berg!, asking for checks and balances, for pitfalls and bugs, flaws and misleading requirements, more governance and more funding.

In this case, the revolutionary analytics app turned very dull and counterproductive, but the teams acknowledged that the problem was totally elsewhere: they should deal in fact with the way they represented themselves, their skills, activities and relationships with clients within a certain process before implementing or handing over to external software developers any requirement.

Perhaps, they should have delegated to me the job of doing some old fashioned business analysis at first, and not calling me in when - surprise surprise - things went wrong.

Conclusions

There is an increasing production of literature about wellbeing in the workplace the interested reader can go further exploring the ideas I shared here. Ethical reflections with regard to the digital economy are very fashionable and can please everybody pre-conceived stances. But as far as the definition and implementation of standardised measures to evaluate employees performance in the digital and symbiotic or human-machine integrated office space are concerned, I am afraid we still do not have a clue of what are the best solutions. The old school recipe would be to design a process first, then see how to optimise it through transparent rules and to measure actions and outcomes along the way.

It seems also reasonable to resist the impulse of hyper-simplifying the representation of our working relationships by way of dragging few numbers onto a dashboard: visually appealing info-graphics do not lead by definition to solid and sounded insights and decisions.

That would be like looking down at human relationships and interactions from a height. From a balcony, everything can be seen, represented and distorted arbitrarily. People are not equal to each other just because they are standing in a crowd or because we apply LGBT, women, disabled and ethnical minorities quotes to recruitment.

Only gods, dictators and envious people would look down from a height. Any great, outperforming, talented individual would always look up, in an incessant effort to use knowledge and abilities in ways that really improve their wellbeing and quality of life. Sometimes, just living their ordinary life is enough for persons with exceptional talent in a certain field to influence generations in ways that can be captured or measured only in retrospect.

Exceptional people are also ostracised and in some countries persecuted or jailed with futile justifications, exactly because of their undefinable charisma, or power to influence others. And yet, even in the most inclusive settings, it is not easy to represent, benchmark and assess their potential against the backdrop of common job specifications or role descriptions. I have a friend who was the top performer sales director in various jobs for many years and yet at a certain point in time she did not fit anymore with her company profile for that role as she would not be diligent and accurate in sending written reports and preparing spreadsheets - in that jeopardising the demand for more digital workflows and the whole of her group activities.

I have myself experienced hundreds of cases of exclusion and rejections from buyers, commissioners, recruiters who - hilariously - had actually written their vacancies adverts or business cases and ITT specifications for digital projects copying or echoing my previous case histories, articles, comments on social media or interviews.

What recruiters and employers want is, generally speaking, people with simple curricula that could match normalised ways of solving problems and reflect the current mental model of the organisation and its technological platforms, not people who could be seen by others detached from it, more advanced or old-fashioned in putting forwards questions, arguments, objections, proposals.

For all these complex reasons, relationships in the workplace are not reducible to transactions: the confusion between the two dimensions would be implacably reflected in any software we decided to introduce to measure and benchmarks behaviours.

To be able to design measures that represent human relationships and capture their value in a given context, from family businesses to e-commerce, whatever is the technology we are equipped with, is indeed an enviable, powerful and perhaps dangerous competence to hold. It should be mastered and exercised with caution. In doubt, calling the consultant always helps breaking cognitive fat bergs.