Improving yield: an agricultural metaphor for organisations

An old way, overgrown As a schoolchild, despite my mother’s agricultural ancestry, my understanding of farming was as basic as the writer of the classic hymn, “We Plough the Fields and Scatter.” The hymn suggests that all one needs for a plentiful harvest are some good seeds, a ploughed field, and a beneficent god to bring the right weather.

Nowadays, I know better. Although plants and animals may be capable of reproducing and growing naturally, the science of agriculture has allowed farmers to improve yields hugely. As an example, drawn from the FAO’s database, the following graph shows the increase in cereals production in Europe over the last 50 years. (Not shown is the fact that the area under cultivation has actually fallen over the same period.)

Cereals

This scientific approach is merely the culmination of millennia of human development, from the Neolithic period onwards. As we learn more about how other species can be manipulated, or the earth itself can be nurtured to support greater yields, it is possible to feed a growing population.

Modern farming therefore depends on the advances in techniques and materials that are available. Cereal crops are now planted by GPS-guided seed drills that allow the farmer to ensure that as little seed as possible is wasted — no longer is it scattered wantonly. Plant and animal species have been bred for improved yield over centuries. A modern farm is as far from natural growth as it is possible to be.

By comparison, many aspects of our human organisations depend heavily on trusting people to work effectively. Worse, where we aim to make improvements, there is often little science behind them to show that they will actually increase productivity. As a result, people often struggle with poorly designed systems that obstruct their efforts to work better.

I keep coming back to agriculture as a metaphor for the way we manage organisations. I think it is especially relevant for knowledge management. In order to improve the yield of the organisation (by whatever measure is appropriate), managers need to enhance people’s natural capabilities (fertilising for growth), while reducing the impact of adverse conditions (sheltering crops from bad weather). That isn’t possible without a deep understanding of the environment within which the organisation works, the natural capabilities of the people within the organisation, and the value of whatever the organisation produces.

A manager armed with that understanding (and an awareness of how the different factors change over time) can test different approaches to improving productivity, based on the factors that are known to make a difference. Managing in this way means that time isn’t wasted on things that won’t make a difference (even if the organisation next door is using them). Testing different techniques allows success to be observed — unsuccessful interventions can be stopped without significant loss.

In fact, many business interventions are more like cargo-cult science. They are often copied wholesale from other organisations (where they may or may not have been successful). They often fail because they don’t fit the way people want to work. (This is especially the case with KM systems.) But when they fail, the blame falls on the people who failed to change to fit. Too often the cry goes up, “how can we make people use the system?”

I have never heard a farmer blame the wheat for not growing properly when they try out a new cultivation technique, or the cows for a reduced milk yield when the feed mix is changed. Farmers often complain, but they know to change the right things when they can. Organisational leaders too often complain about the wrong things and therefore make the wrong changes. Poor organisational productivity is as often a product of a badly managed environment as improved agricultural yields are of painstaking land management.

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