Smart Workplace Conversation: The Knowledge Economy’s (New) Organizational Value Chain

All of us – from those in the C-Suite to others at workstations – have heard a lot about how to have more effective meetings. Yet we still find ourselves in meetings that are poorly organized, run too long and resolve little except when to have the next meeting. Breaking down a meeting into its component parts and applying one of management’s most recognized models, this author turns the art of a meeting into a science and offers constructive steps for that will turn any meeting into a true, value-creating exercise.


In the “brute-force” economy” of yesteryear, the boss would enter the room and a hush would immediately descend on the assembled masses. With his usual scowl, the boss would growl, “Stop talking and get to work!” The employees would all shuffle, guiltily, back to their places. The boss had a point, since in those days workers created value by doing things, not by talking. Nothing captured this approach to creating value better than Michael Porter’s classic organizational value chain model.

In today’s “brain-force” economy, the boss’s entering a room will still silence the chatter. But today, the boss must seek to energize the room with an “O.K., let’s start talking and get to work!” There is some sort of issue to discuss and there is a need to arrive at the best decision possible about what to do and who should do it. Today, value creation occurs by workers talking to each other, not by doing things.  In fact, if you stop and think about it, it has been years since many of us have “done” anything at work other than tap a keyboard, a screen or pick up a phone.

Today, most of us spend 50-80 percent of our time at work in some type of conversation. These conversations may be face-to-face, one-on-one, in teams, over the phone or through a rapid exchange of emails or texts. Yet, given this reality, how many of us can say that we have achieved the same level of expertise in the subject of conversation as we have in disciplines such as accounting, marketing, engineering, product development and branding? We regularly upgrade our skills in these areas, yet we don’t get even the most basic training in an activity that consumes 50-80 percent of our time.  As many would say, if we are paid 50-80 percent of our salary to be engaged in a specific activity, then we ought to be pretty good at it.

It’s reasonable to ask why we do spend so much time in conversation.  The answer is a simple: “That’s how value is created today.” Our “value-added” participation in meetings is what we’re paid to “do” at work– yet most of us know little about managing different conversation processes. We also view many meetings as inconveniences. Moreover, others make our attendance compulsory, which keeps us away from our real work, back at our desks.

Imagine if each person saw their job as getting the most out of every conversation at the lowest possible cost. How would they approach their work differently? This is the way to achieve true value creation. By talking together, you and I come up with a solution in the shortest time possible, one that neither of us could have developed alone one and that we are committed to implementing.

This article takes the principles behind Porter’s original value chain model and applies them to the new reality of a world of “knowledge-work” – one in which our challenge remains the same: to create the maximum value (V max) at the minimum cost (C min). It’s the same challenge for all organizations around the globe. We just have to learn to do it better than our competitors.


How is value destroyed?

Before examining how we can achieve Vmax – Cmin in conversation, it is useful to understand how and where value is often destroyed or when and where excess costs are incurred in conversations. In meetings, this occurs when:

  • The meeting is held in the wrong physical or emotional context, e.g., we hold a “brainstorming” meeting in the boardroom or just after the company has announced that there will be no Xmas party
  • The wrong people are in the room, e.g., important stakeholders are not there, which means a decision cannot be taken (value cannot be created) or people have been invited who need not be there (which implies higher costs)
  • Insufficient time has been spent determining what question needs to addressed, e.g., poorly prepared strategic-planning sessions where operational issues clog the agenda
  • The wrong person chairs the meeting and its organization, e.g., when protocol determines which person will chair the meeting, as opposed to breadth and depth of expertise on a specific topic
  • The meeting does not start or finish on time
  • People arrive poorly prepared, without having done the required pre-reading
  • Important issues, politically sensitive issues or culturally “taboo” topics are not allowed to be discussed, e.g., the proverbial “Elephant in the room” remains invisible
  • The wrong conversation process is used for a given question, e.g., the chair of a lunchtime meeting decides to hold a “World-Café” as opposed to using “Open Space Technology.”

Now, if that last sentence is meaningless to you, do not be too hard on yourself. Most readers probably experienced the same feeling. What is a “World-Café” or “Open Space Technology”? Why or when should I use one or the other? These are but two of the different conversation processes we might choose to use – depending upon the question to be addressed, the conversation we need to have and the outcome we are seeking to obtain.


The (new) organizational value chain

The (New) Organizational Value chain works in exactly the same way as the “old” value chain. There still are primary and secondary value creation activities and costs associated with each stage. With Porter’s model, if I am seeking to achieve Vmax – Cmin  in a mining operation, I might choose to use magnetic or gravity separation to separate the iron. In a branding decision, I might use corporate or product branding. In sales activities, I might choose to go direct, either through the Internet, a sales team, a distributor or sales agent. How do I decide which is right? I choose the one that I believe maximizes value creation at the minimum of cost.

It is exactly the same reasoning when we decide which conversation process to use.  I make the decision as to whether I use the Mankins’ 3X3 (Michael C., Bain and Co.) or “Six Hats” (Edward de Bono) conversation processes, depending on my judgment as to which will be most effective given the question and outcome sought, i.e., which will achieve Vmax – Cmin.

Having chosen which conversation process to use, the host – and each participant – then needs to choose when and how to use the different possible elements of all conversation processes. Should I make a declaration, a request, or an offer? Should I ask a question, actively listen or remain silent? Is my body language appropriate? After all, a person can create more value by asking only one really good question in a two-hour meeting than by dominating it.

The reality is that at any given moment in any meeting, I can create or destroy value depending on the conversation choices I make. Just think of the “fool” who makes an inappropriate joke at an inappropriate time. This can spoil the atmosphere for the rest of a meeting, thus destroying a massive amount of value. The “comic genius,” on the other hand, tells the same joke when it is exactly what is required, which relieves a difficult moment in a meeting.  This is value creation at its maximum. Yet, at any given moment in a meeting, how aware are most of us about the effect that our words, silence and body language are having on the progress being made?

Diagrammatically, the (New) Organizational Value Chain appears identical to Porter’s original, except that all activities have been adapted to the new reality of conversation as the core process of value creation. The secondary activities have moved positions to demonstrate the importance of building the primary activity of conversation on a strong foundation of secondary ones.

Chart: Hollingworth Conversation Activities

Support activities

Physical spaces

When organizing strategic-planning retreats, it is not unusual to do an “off-site” in a relaxing, relatively remote location, with cell phones at “off.” This is so because the site and particular location are judged to be the correct physical space and context for such a meeting. The boardroom is designed for board meetings. They tend to be very formal, with the CEO or board chair up-front and centre, where tough issues are debated and decisions are taken and approved. Meeting minutes are often required.  If we contrast a board meeting with a creative “brainstorming” meeting, it is obvious that the best conversation process to maximize value creation in one will not be the same as in the other. Yet, how often do we try and hold “creative” meetings in physical spaces that are “formal,” e.g., “The boardroom is free. Why don’t we go in there?” Considering that a board meeting is likely held once every quarter – even though we want our people to be creative every day — why have so much space and expense been spent on having the right physical space for board meetings while just a few square feet have been allocated to “creative spaces”?

IT support

There is now an incredibly wide range of technology available to facilitate more effective conversation. An organization’s IT needs can range from the simple requirement that participants have the relevant information at hand for a face-to-face meeting or to “almost” life-like virtual meeting spaces with participants sitting at the same “meeting table,” even though they are in different parts of the world. Cost is still a barrier for some organizations, but the quality of such IT is rapidly increasing while its cost is decreasing.

Organizational culture

Many organizational cultures (and their structures) destroy value by creating barriers to holding conversations on difficult, sensitive topics, precisely where the most value would be created if such topics could be discussed. Are there “Elephants in the Room” that simply cannot be discussed? What happens when someone says something out of-turn? Is the boss always right? Can you say, “No, I disagree?” Are there really no repercussions when in brainstorming or feedback mode?


Primary Activities

The question

In preparation for a company retreat, a facilitator may spend several days doing research, interviews and a diagnostic before deciding which issues should be on the agenda.  It is recognized that good preparation will lead to a good, productive session. It should be the same for every meeting we attend. How can we create the most value in the given time with the people that we want to attend? Some advocates even suggest that the agenda for senior-management meetings should be determined by the potential impact of each issue on the company’s share price.

Yet, many of us rush from one meeting to another with almost “zero” preparation time. The preparation of an agenda is often delegated to someone incapable of evaluating the “value-added” of each item. Rather, they decide based on equality (six departments head each get 1/6th of the time), FIFO (whoever calls in first gets on the agenda), Crisis (the latest issue that just rears its head prior to the meeting) or on simple favouritism. As Peter Drucker said, “The most dangerous thing is not having the wrong answer, it is asking the wrong question.”

Context, participants and process

There are numerous, different conversation processes of which the “World café” and “Open Space technology” are but two. When might a team also use such conversation processes as the “Six Hats,” Mankins’ 3X3 or even the “Organization’s voice” technique? The skills, knowledge and attitudes required to manage a conversation process from beginning to end might require the use of several different conversation processes. Mastering these processes is like any other skill: It first takes the knowledge and then takes a lot of practice.

Only when we have determined the question that needs resolving and the process to be used to resolve it can we determine which type of atmosphere — play, creativity, analysis, formal debate or decision-making — should be created. The emotional space is equally important as the physical space. Days can be spent preparing the right context for a given meeting – but if, on its eve, the company’s head office announces major lay-offs, or even the cancellation of the Xmas party, it might be better to re-arrange the “brainstorming” meeting you were planning to hold – or you will need to spend a significant period of time trying to recreate the climate you need to get the results you had targeted. If you proceed without taking the new emotional state of everyone present into account, the rigourous meeting process you have spent days creating is doomed to failure. The right conversation process in the wrong context is the wrong process.

In terms of participants, the right people should be invited, depending on the question to be addressed and process to be used. If the questions being discussed are always changing, does that not mean that regular meetings with the same participants should be a thing of the past? How many two-hour meetings have you attended where the item of interest to you (or where you added value for others) was only a twenty-minute item on the agenda? Some organizations allow this for meetings scheduled to be longer than a certain time (e.g. 30 minutes or an hour), where the individual can slip in and out as his or her agenda item comes up.

The host and speech acts

This leads to choosing the right chairperson. In many organizations, the question still floated at the outset of a meeting is, “O.K., whose turn is it to host the meeting today?” Sometimes, this is decided on a purely rotating basis: “It’s your turn” – or it may be arbitrary, or it might always be “the boss” – the person with the most seniority. However, hosting and making for a productive meeting is a highly skilled job. Some organizations have even set up “host specialist” intrapreneurs, who can be hired by any manager and asked to bring their skills to the hosting process. Just who should be the moderator of any particular conversation process should be determined by who can do the best job for any particular meeting.

In addition, the different speech acts of each of these processes  — asking questions, active listening, reflecting, empathizing, staying silent and making declarations — can all either add enormous value when timed correctly, or can destroy value – just like that poorly-timed joke. Being aware of how we contribute to value creation/destruction at all times is the first and perhaps most challenging step. Even if we say nothing in a meeting, we may have had a crucial positive or negative influence on the outcome.

The commitment for action

There is no value in even the most brilliantly designed and managed conversation process if nothing gets done after the conversation has been concluded. Establishing buy-in, follow-up, accountability and consequences are the keys to a commitment to action. If the conversation process has been well managed, the first – buy in — should have been achieved. To ensure that the outcomes will be implemented, follow-up mechanisms, accountability measures and consequences (reward/recognition – or not) have to be put in place.

How many meetings have you been in when you thought you’d actually taken a decision to do something – only to see the issue pop back up on the table a few meetings or months later, seemingly a result of the organization having wiped its memory banks clean? If a commitment to act is established, organizations will capture the value-added of the conversation process rather than see it evaporate in a lot of “talk with no walk.”

Management of intellectual capital

How often does a topic that was discussed and resolved in one part of an organization spring to life in a different area of the same organization, but without any connection between the two areas? The capture and distribution of meeting outcomes (value creation) is probably the biggest challenge facing “knowledge-based” companies. How do we get the latest information, knowledge and decisions to the right people who need to use it in a timely manner? Some rely on the IT infrastructure, others on matrix organizational structures or the company newsletter, while others appoint “Ambassadors” who roam departments, business units and meetings trying to connect the dots. Whichever you deem correct for your team or organization, you need to check regularly that the method you’ve chosen is working.  In a knowledge economy, the effective and efficient management of knowledge is the source of competitive advantage.


A new way of looking at your work

Tomorrow, at the end of the day, after that usual long series of meetings, take a few minutes and ask yourself how effective they really were. If the agenda and format of each closely resembled one another, ask yourself how those meetings might have been organized differently? Was the context right? Which process might have better served you? How did the host perform? Did the meeting stay on topic? Did things move forward? Was any outcome captured at the end? Is someone accountable for carrying the ball? How will the progress maze in the meeting be communicated? To whom? How well were your time/knowledge/skills really used? What percent of yourself did you use in that meeting?

Then, ask yourself what you might do differently the next time you are charged with hosting a meeting. It might just change the way you view your job – and radically increase the value you are creating for your team or organization. “Now, start talking and get to work!”