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BLOG: The wisdom of zebras and giraffes

Terry Smagh | March 21, 2013
How to create a data-based decision-making culture

We can learn a surprising amount from animals. Consider for example the collaborative relationship between the zebra and giraffe, and the lessons this holds for agile, fact-based decision-making.

The giraffe has great height and expansive vision, but it cannot obtain sensory input from the ground. The zebra on the other hand can smell advancing predators at the ground level and see them under trees, but cannot see danger from afar. Conscious of this, the animals forage together, doubly secure in their collaborative defence effort. At the first sight or smell of danger, one will bolt, causing the other to follow.

The folly of top-down

By comparison, traditional corporate decision-making falls short in a number of respects. Firstly, corporates tend to make and drive decisions only from a "giraffe's perspective", i.e. from the top down. But companies are essentially two kinds of animals foraging together - executives at the top as well as workers at the bottom - and workers should have the ability to influence action based on their unique perspective of happenings "on the ground".

Secondly, since top-down decision-making is a fact of corporate life, companies often make decisions based on opinion rather than on fact. Management and executive committees essentially obtain consensus on what actions are appropriate, resulting in lengthy and sometimes imprecise decision-making cycles. But because the facts are not always visible from the top, the executive relies on people on the ground to relay the summary facts to them, to assemble even more summarised, high-level views.

Successful behaviours

Research shows that most successful companies organise themselves in non-hierarchical ways and demonstrate other ways of ensuring participative decision-making. However, this success is not only dependent on fostering a culture of openness and collaboration, it is also dependent on the tools with which all workers use to analyse information and disseminate insights. Since knowledge is power, there is a strong relationship between a company's treatment of information and the level of empowerment felt among its workers.

In the area of business analytics, this means empowering workers with information. They must be given the tools to assess the state of affairs as relates to their area of the business, make the decisions based on the facts as appropriate to their level in the organisation, rather than on feeling, and communicate the findings to senior management.

This will allow one version of the truth to permeate throughout the organisation, making decision-making less of an argument and more of a fact-based, foregone conclusion.

Leopards that change their spots

Unlike their jungle counterparts, corporate animals can change their ways - although not, usually, without some digging in of heels. So how do we overcome the natural resistance to adopting a culture of distributed, fact-based decision-making?


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