A field trip this week to a pilot distillation facility on the University of Texas campus gave me new perspective on the challenges of delivering wireless in outdoor, industrial settings.
Peter Zornio, chief technology officer with Emerson Automation Solutions, gave me several examples of how wireless could go wrong in these locales. The most obvious challenge is the preponderance of metal in these environments. Wireless signals can’t go through metal, so mesh networks become critical.
Another challenge is the movement of vehicles such as trucks or trains that can get between wireless sensors and gateways. Zornio shared a story about a plant that had an otherwise perfect network that would randomly go down. After some research, the workers realized that a train pulled up twice a day between the facility and the gateway. Mesh networks fixed that as well.
Chemicals are the other big challenge. In a distillation plant (and in other chemical processes) huge vats are filled with liquids that periodically replenish and deplete. Wireless signals aren’t great when it comes to water, so the changing volumes of liquids around the facilities can change the RF environment.
Any good RF engineer can tell you this, but as more and more companies try to build wireless networks in their own warehouses, or even in their stores, it’s worth a reminder that mesh networks are generally good and the RF environment matters tremendously.
Experts, academics, and experienced innovators frequently espouse the virtues of eliminating hierarchies to make sure every idea is heard and to unlock innovation.1 As intuitively appealing as this view is, it does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, a growing body of research, including studies by one of this article’s authors, shows that the right hierarchy can help teams become better innovators and learners.2 We have also seen what happens when teams insist upon being flat. They often become unfocused, tumultuous, and inefficient because their pursuit of perfect equality prevents the more expert team members from resolving conflicts and playing leadership roles in group learning and innovation.
Debunking the Myths
Research on social species ranging from ants to zebras shows that hierarchies are important for group functioning.3 When a group has a chain of command, disagreements can be more easily resolved so that the group can take coordinated action. Coordinated action improves the odds of survival. Human beings also have a tendency to think and act hierarchically.4 In fact, hierarchies — distinct differences in group members’ power and status — can be found in virtually every human group, from children on the playground to executives in the boardroom. Depending on the circumstances, hierarchies can be formally designated or emerge naturally. And while the idea of hierarchies may go against democratic instincts and beliefs, they can and do play useful roles.
IDEO, the product design and consulting firm, offers a useful example. In 1999, ABC News’ “Nightline” chronicled the efforts of an interdisciplinary IDEO team to redesign the supermarket shopping cart. Since airing, the video has become a classic example of how innovation works. Initially, IDEO founder David Kelley expresses strongly negative views about hierarchy, saying, “In a very innovative culture, you can’t have a kind of hierarchy.”5 But as the story unfolds, a small group of senior IDEO people step in to direct how the product development team allocates its time. When asked why the intervention was necessary, one senior person explains that the process of finding creative solutions sometimes needs to be “very autocratic for a very short period.”
In reviewing the empirical research on the role of hierarchies in learning and the innovation that results from learning, and through our own studies, we have found that a properly deployed hierarchy is an essential ingredient for helping a team engage in and get the most out of its efforts to learn and innovate.6 (See “About the Research.”)
The Role of Hierarchy
Hierarchies help teams of people innovate much the same way they help animals survive in the wild — they keep teams moving in the same direction even when strong disagreements threaten to keep the teams from progressing or even tear them apart. Specifically, we found that hierarchies help teams generate, identify, and select new ideas by performing three critical functions (and then getting out of the way): bounding solutions, converging ideas, and structuring processes.
During idea generation, hierarchies set the parameters and goals of innovation. A paradox of creativity is that people are more innovative when they have clear constraints (such as time, budget, customer requirements, etc.) within which their solutions must fit.7 But teams aren’t very good at establishing constraints on their own. Team members with influence can accelerate the learning process by clearly setting the bounds for innovation and then giving the team wide latitude to explore within those bounds.
In the early stages of innovation, teams come up with a large assortment of ideas and possibilities. Ultimately, however, some ideas are more promising than others, in part because they better line up with the company’s capabilities and resources.8 Hierarchies can assist here by helping teams decide which ideas have promise and should be pursued, which ideas should be put on the back burner, and which ideas go on the waste pile. As IDEO’s Kelley noted, innovation in its early phases is “a messy process.”9 To transition from generating to refining and implementing ideas, teams need to develop mechanisms for deciding which ideas to hone in on. This can be easier said than done — different team members may be emotionally attached to different ideas. By helping teams converge on a direction, hierarchies keep teams from getting lost in aimless exploration.
Finally, effectively going through the learning process requires members to use their specialized knowledge to propose potentially wild ideas and challenge potentially sacred beliefs. These behaviors are interpersonally risky in that they open up members to ridicule and social sanctions. As a result, teams must have norms and processes in place that lower those risks so that team members are able to engage in the learning process.10
Hierarchies can actually help here, too, by creating ground rules that enable and encourage members to speak up. Research has shown that brainstorming groups struggle without a hierarchy to provide structure to what can be a haphazard process.11 To that point, one of us surveyed and interviewed teams at a Fortune 100 high-tech company and demonstrated that teams with clear hierarchies did a better job of creating an environment and establishing norms that encouraged each member to speak up and share what they know.12 In short, clarity about who is in charge and how each member contributes can help everyone on a team feel like they could — and should — engage in the learning process, and it can give them a structured way to do so.
When those with more power in a group aren’t needed to help with bounding, converging, or structuring, they need to get out of the way so that the team can do what teams do best — share, discuss, and integrate diverse perspectives and knowledge to come up with new ways of solving problems. In other words, the best hierarchies are invisible most of the time, operating in the background and only coming out of the shadows when power differences are needed to keep things moving along. Even well-meaning hierarchies become problematic when people at the top are too heavy-handed and interfere when their interference isn’t needed.
Making Hierarchies Work
People are suspicious of hierarchies for a reason — they sometimes stifle good ideas and the learning process that leads to good ideas. For example, dysfunctional hierarchies have been blamed for long periods of stagnation that companies such as General Motors Co. experienced.13
So, how can organizations foster learning and innovation? Here are three things leaders can do to leverage the power of hierarchy on teams yet avoid its pitfalls.
Have a clear chain of command. With other researchers, one of us recently surveyed teams at more than 50 organizations in order to understand how the shape of a team’s hierarchy affects conflicts and performance.14 The study found that hierarchies work best when there is no confusion about who defers to whom. Teams with a clear chain of command (clarity and agreement about who defers to whom) were less likely to get bogged down in conflicts and stalemates than teams where influence was more cyclical. Indeed, a study of 62 pharmaceutical research and development teams found that teams with a clear hierarchy were more involved in the learning process that is central to innovating.15
Create a performance-based culture. A clear chain of command means that some team members will defer to others who are “higher up” in terms of status or respect. Many of us know what it is like to be in a situation where incompetent people are running the show. So, how can teams improve the chance that members with the most relevant knowledge are higher up in the hierarchy?
The key is getting teams to identify the members who possess real knowledge. This is often easier said than done, in part because we tend to have implicit biases about the characteristics or backgrounds that signal expertise. For example, a study at a high-technology Fortune 100 company found that, not surprisingly, teams perform better when their more expert members rank higher in the team’s hierarchy. That study also found, however, that teams often pay attention to the wrong things as they sort out who will have more or less influence — things like gender or ethnicity rather than training, expertise, and experience.16 Because these biases operate below our conscious awareness, they are difficult to correct unless more accurate expertise signals are emphasized.
One way to counter the biases is to create a performance-based culture, where performance is measured, publicized, and celebrated. Studies suggest that when people have opportunities to demonstrate what they can do, experts tend to rise to the top.17 Moreover, when credible evidence shows that less vocal members are better qualified to make informed decisions, groups will limit the influence of bombastic pseudo-experts.18 In other words, groups listen to experts when they can identify who the experts are. Group hierarchies in performance-based cultures are more likely to be based on expertise and less likely to be based on physical characteristics.
Use team feedback. Another way to improve the way hierarchies function is to encourage those at the top to act in ways that support the group rather than acting in their own best interest. How do you make sure this happens? One of the authors worked with a group of researchers from the Netherlands to examine this question in 46 teams from a wide range of industries including banking, medicine, software development, and management consulting.19 The study found that, contrary to what previous research had shown,20 power differences within teams did not necessarily hurt team learning. In fact, hierarchies promoted learning and performance when goals and feedback were group-oriented, but they stifled learning and performance when goals and feedback were individually oriented.
Group goals and feedback encourage higher-ups to use their advantaged position to encourage members to collaborate through information sharing, experimentation, and reflection. Individual goals and feedback keep people focused on their own tasks and outcomes.
While some people stress blockchain’s disruptive potential, others remain somewhat more skeptical. But what is blockchain all about? We have compiled a list of the ten things you should know about this relatively new technology.
1. What blockchain is
Blockchain is a database that is managed on a peer-to-peer network of computers, which are referred to as nodes. It can also be described as a distributed ledger: a decentralized way to chronologically document transactions. Each participant in the network has access to the entire blockchain and its history. When a transaction is recorded, the accounts of all the participants are updated with the information. Transactions are grouped together in blocks, each of which is then linked to the one that came before it. The result is a chronological record that is basically impossible to tamper with, alter, or falsify.
2. How blockchain works
If two parties agree to a transaction, this information is broadcast to the computers (nodes) of the peer-to-peer network, where it is then validated. Once the transaction has been verified, it is added to a block together with other transactions. This block is then hashed. Every block contains a reference to the hash of the block that came before it. This guarantees the position of the block in the chain and ensures that it cannot be tampered with. The new block is then permanently added to the blockchain and distributed to all its participants. The transaction is now complete.
With blockchain there is no longer a need for intermediaries.
3. There is not just one blockchain
Blockchain can be implemented in many different ways ; there is not just one single blockchain everybody uses. It is also not a product or a single software program. It can be compared to middleware in that blockchain itself has no real value – value is created only when it is used in conjunction with suitable applications.
4. Blockchain gets rid of intermediaries
Blockchain creates the very trust it requires to function. It allows participants to transfer assets directly among themselves, thus bypassing third-party intermediaries like banks or brokers . It also makes it possible to quickly prove who has the ownership of a specific asset. Because each block is secured by cryptography, it is almost impossible to manipulate transactions recorded in a blockchain. This ensures the authenticity of every transaction and makes them virtually immune to forgery.
Bitcoin may be the best known blockchain use case but it is by far not the only one.
For example, blockchain allows musicians to get paid directly when consumers buy or listen to a song. The purchasing platforms can be cut out of the process, which also means they don’t take a cut of the revenue. Musicians benefit both financially and from a more direct relationship with their fans.
Another example is online voting. When a vote is cast and recorded in the blockchain, it is very hard to alter. That makes it difficult to commit voter fraud by manipulating votes. Furthermore, every voter would have a complete record at hand and could track the outcome as the vote takes place.
6. Blockchain is decentralized and reliable
Since blockchain is distributed across a peer-to-peer network, there is no central point where data is stored. A copy of the blockchain is saved on all of the computers of its participants. This decentralized approach ensures security and reliability , as there is no single point of failure for hackers to attack. Taking this idea a step further, the blockchain is generally managed by its participants: no one entity has authority over the blockchain as a whole (at least in the case of public blockchains).
7. Blockchain offers transparency
Whenever a transaction is conducted as part of a blockchain, it is recorded and visible to all participants. Blockchain participants can be, but do not necessarily have to be, anonymous. When talking about Bitcoin, the term “pseudonymity” often crops up, referring to a kind of anonymized pseudonym. Even though each user has a unique Bitcoin address, this pseudonym can be linked to their personal information in different ways. A simple example would be a user providing their home address to receive a delivery paid for with a Bitcoin transaction.
Public and private blockchains generally work in the same way; the main difference is who is allowed to participate. A public blockchain is open to anyone who wants to be part of it. The downside is that, due to the large number of participants, verifying transactions takes more time. Bitcoin is a well-known implementation of a public blockchain.
Private blockchains, on the other hand, are controlled by one entity that decides who is allowed to participate. This entity may also set up rules and regulations to govern transactions. Transactions are generally conducted faster within a private blockchain because of the limited number of participants.
In a business context, there is a third option: the consortium blockchain. Here, no single entity has full control; instead, a predetermined set of nodes are allowed to participate. A hypothetical case would be a consortium of ten different companies, with each one authorized to operate a node. This type of blockchain ensures that the transaction information stays among its participants without consolidating power in one place.
A possible IoT use case: The Bosch IoT Lab explores whether blockchain can help prevent odometer fraud.
A smart contract is a computer protocol that facilitates transactions and makes sure that the terms of a contract are met. It does this by automatically triggering actions following the finalization of a contract. One basic example is purchasing a computer program: as soon as the payment has been made, the download of said program starts automatically.
In combination with smart contracts, blockchain can also be used for IoT use cases. One possible scenario, as presented by the German startup Slock.it, involves house rentals: the owner of the house installs a smart lock on the front door and sets a rental price. After the tenant has paid the required sum, the door opens automatically to let the tenant enter.
There are other scenarios besides smart contracts. Imagine you want to buy a used car that has had some parts replaced. With the help of blockchain, you can trace the origin of the spare parts to make sure they are not counterfeit. Another example is odometer fraud: by recording the car’s mileage in a blockchain, you can be sure that nobody has tampered with it.
Today’s briefing looks at how major consumer data breaches – fraudulentcredit card charges, compromised data, hijacked e-mail or social media accounts, and loans or lines of credit opened via identity theft – impact consumersAND the breached companies.
Amazon Echo or Dot: Enable the “Digitalist” flash briefing skill, and ask Alexa to “play my flash briefings” on every business day.
Alexa on a mobile device:
Download the Amazon Alexa app: Select Skills, and search “Digitalist”. Then, select Digitalist, and click on the Enable button.
Download the Amazon app: Click on the microphone icon and say “Play my flash briefing.”