Social Flow and the Paradox of Exception Handling in ACM


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Compliments of Dave Gray’s photostream

There is nothing like an exception to the way things are done to highlight the need to increase knowledge sharing, especially if the exception is one instance of a pattern that results in bad experiences for customers. As Jay Cross recently noted, people learning at work rely on social, or informal learning, around 80% of the time. Interestingly, I noted in a former post, Social Learning and Exception Handling, that John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contend that “as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” It is not coincidence that the two numbers are aligned.

Social Learning and Exception Handling, discussed the organizational challenges involved in dealing with exceptions to business process and their relationship to the shared experience of people working together saying,

The most basic point to remember is that exceptions to formal business processes require efforts to design a scalable learning architecture that supports content co-creation needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through an enterprise’s ecosystem. Whether judging an adaptation successful requires it to result in new formal learning content, i.e. content co-creation, or a new business process, i.e. organizational innovation, or both, remains an open question.

Informal, social learning is key to exception handling since both make up most of what people do in organizing work in enterprises. We know people face difficulty when drawing from shared experience, especially in distributed teams because fewer points of common reference exist. Leadership and management consultants often contend a common organizational culture pulls teams together, even though distributed teams frequently span national, regional, and global locations. However, the mere challenge of everyone on a team knowing who else is a member can prove daunting as enterprises grow.

One of the promises of social business is the capability to embed social networks into human relationships to organize business enterprise in a way that people can act together without centralized command and control. The discussions linking the capability involved with its organizational implications for group performance are far fewer. Dave Gray’s discussion of pods in The Connected Company is one notable effort in that direction. In my conception of it, the key challenge is one of organizing businesses for social flow.

Producing Social Flow through Shared Experience

Building on Keith Sawyer’s insights into group flow and improvisation, Walker recently asked whether social flow is merely the sum of the flow experiences of members of a group, or indicative of an emergent collective phenomenon that exceeds the sum. Regardless of how social psychological research summarizes the amount of flow experienced by individuals, whether alone or in groups, I think Sawyer’s main point holds: even those insights that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations.”

The improvisational nature of social flow is what allows us to bring insights seeded through group collaboration into situations where exceptions to business processes occur. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to find and get to know one another through reputational systems, like who tags whom or rates them as possessing expertise. They need to trust that when they ask questions about challenges faced that others, perhaps even people they don’t know and who are not on their team, will share what they know about a solution.

As I’ve noted on more than one occasion, most exceptions are resolved through barely repeatable processes (BRPs). No doubt, proponents of Adaptive Case Management are correct to note, as does Max Pucher, that:

Change is not just driven by allowing users to write rules for unexpected exceptions in processes. The point is rather that processes should not even experience exceptions, but be so flexible that goals and outcomes drive the process change and allow the knowledge owning business experts to perform them as they see fit.

Max is responding to the inclination of advocates of business process management (BPM) to handle exceptions through reporting incidents rather than engaging them as complex events. Exceptions increase in relevance to business process when patterns of them occur. Taking note of those patterns though most often occurs in the practice of tacit, implicit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge.

In other words, exceptions to business process often include local knowledge by participants. The local knowledge can occur in physical locations, such as an office building, or in shared network spaces enabled by social business. Global implications for the enterprise emerge when we recognize that local knowledge for exception handling is a ubiquitous phenomena. A focus on adaptive case management does not eliminate the relevance of local knowledge to organizational performance. As John Hagel so aptly notes, “one of the most powerful ways to access tacit knowledge is in the context of trust-based relationships.”

Consider, for example, the research reported by Dennis Campbell, Marc Epstein and F. Asis Martinez-Jerez . The researchers studied the MGM-Mirage Group’s properties to analyze whether management’s style of monitoring employees affects their learning and performance. The researchers noted that properties in which casino hosts are tightly monitored for guest “comps” (complimentary amenities) use less local knowledge about guests to assess the value to the casino. Whereas casino hosts in properties that are loosely monitored more often use local knowledge of guests to assess their value to the casino. They conclude the following:

We find strong learning effects in our setting which are concentrated among employees in business units that are “loosely monitored” and almost entirely absent in those that are “tightly monitored”…Employees in “tightly monitored” business units face implicit incentives to experiment less in their decisions leaving them fewer opportunities to learn.

In other words, the degree to which employees are inclined to experiment in their decision-making is affected by the way management monitors their actions as they learn how to increase effectiveness in their job. Tight monitoring of exception handling, by implication, impedes shared experience and lowers social flow. Social flow is at the heart of the shared experience required for effective collaboration.

I’ve noted the importance of shared experience to collaboration in several posts. Michael Sampson summarized the points I’ve tried to make as aptly as anyone in his post Get to Know Your Virtual Colleagues as People – and Good Things Happen (to Important Things Like Productivity) and his perspective is much appreciated by me. He noted:

Trust between collaborators is an important factor related to collaboration effectiveness. Spending time talking to and learning about the people you work with provides the mechanism for trust to flourish – if they are trustworthy – or diminish – if they are not worthy of your trust…It makes sense that when people experience the same thing together – creating shared history and shared memories – it binds the group together in a much deeper way than merely having the same information.

Michael’s point recognizes the importance of shared experience to collaboration in building trust. Larry Prusak reiterated the point in The One Thing That Makes Collaboration Work, and recent research on virtual copresence, or being there together, supports the point. Recognizing the importance of shared experience simply means that the context of any actions taken by people, work related or not, is equally important to achieving and sustaining collaborative relationships as is the content of the information conveyed. Context and content interact through shared experiences in common situations. These interactions are the organizing basis of social flow.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.


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