Friday, July 30, 2010

Helping Decentralized Organizations Negotiate More Effectively

Suppose you represent a geographically disbursed organization with units, centers or key individuals spread out all over the world or across a large region. Think in terms of multinational corporations with offices in five or six countries; or, the US military with outposts in every corner of Afghanistan; or, an international environmental NGO with branches in various parts of the globe. For these organizations to be able to negotiate effectively, their people need to be able to put their hands on information in a timely way, get reactions from other parts of the organization to proposals raised during negotiations, and find out all that they can about how the organization has handled similar negotiations in the past.

Networked communication is important to successful negotiation for at least three reasons. First, the experience of one "node" can be of great help to another "node," especially if the lessons learned by one can be quickly and accurately shared with the others. Second, some negotiations undertaken by one node might hinge on the direct involvement of the other nodes. The sales staff in Europe, for example, might be negotiating a contract that it needs the sales staff in Asia to be part of. Or, the soldiers in a northern outpost, negotiating with a group of locals for the first time, may want to hear from other outposts that have negotiated with the same group elsewhere in the country. Finally, the African branch of a global NGO might be meeting with the subsidiary of a multinational that its European counterparts have dealt with before. Effective organizational negotiation depends on being able to tap past experience, build on lessons learned, and keep relevant organizational deadlines, goals and protocols in mind. Third, possible deals often emerge during a negotiation that were not considered beforehand. This means that permissions, or at least reactions, must be sought from other parts of the organization before a final commitment can be made.

Even with the recent cumulation of on-line tools, particularly those offered by social media sites like Facebook, few if any organizations have networked negotiation support systems in place. There are, to be sure, software packages that individual negotiators can use to remind themselves how they should prepare for a negotiation or how to evaluate proposals that emerge during the give-and-take of an ongoing negotiation; but these are intended as instructional devices to help individuals negotiate more effectively. They are not designed to help decentralized organizations pull together everyone and everything that needs to be integrated more effectively.

The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, in conjunction with the Consensus Building Institute and Adroit Productions, LLC, is in the process of formulating design specifications for an on-line negotiation support system to help decentralized organizations shore up their negotiating capabilities. Such a system will have to be really easy to use -- as easy as Facebook. This means that once the system is place, no one will need to do any programming, although user will undoubtedly want to be able to customize the look and feel of their network. The system must be secure. If the military is using it, they must be certain that no one is eavesdropping. So, we are not talking about a traditional web site (but rather something known as a "walled garden"). Networked participants involved with such systems will probably need incentives (and clear instructions) from the top of their organization to require them to keep track of what's going on in important negotiations. And, they'll need uncomplicated, pre-made templates to to their reporting. (Something as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down would be nice.) The results of past negotiations will have to be stored, tagged and easily accessible to multiple users with very different needs. I'm talking about a learning system (not an expert system) that adapts and generates new insights automatically as additional patterns emerge or as users think of new questions they want answered. The same systems will need to support real-time coaching as well as "hot lines" for anyone who needs emergency negotiation advice. Users will probably want quick access to a library of published descriptions of "best practice."

We think it will be relatively easy to build an organizational learning platform that can do all these things. What we need now are a few decentralized organizations ready to pilot test something like this. (N.B. Pilot tests won't be meaningful if top leaders doesn't get behind the idea; and, they'll have to stay with it for a while.) Whichever organizations jump in will have to open themselves up to evaluation and review. That's the only way we'll be able to evaluate how the system is working and figure out how to improve it.

Are you part of a networked organization that wants to improve its organizational (not your individual) negotiating capabilities? What kinds of negotiation information, advice and assistance does your organization need its on-line system to provide? Do you have stories about the obstacles your organization inadvertently puts in the way of its own negotiators? We are eager to hear about additional design specs we should keep in mind.

Is there an organization out there that has already put such a negotiation support system in place?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mediation As Problem-Solving

The Organizational for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is trying to hold multinational corporations to appropriately high standards of corporate social responsibility. OECD member states include thirty of the major economies of the world. Ten years ago, they adopted guidelines regarding human rights, environmental protection, the rights of workers and child protection. Now they are in the throes of a ten year review. Every member country has appointed an NCP -- a National Contact Point -- to investigate claims that multinational corporations headquartered in their country, or their subsidiaries wherever they might be located, have violated the guidelines. The NCPs have investigated as best they can (often with very limited staff and budget). The assumption is that being called out by a national government will push multinationals to correct whatever guideline infractions they or their subsidiaries may have committed. Unfortunately, it has been hard for the NCPs to complete many of the needed investigations, particularly those filed by unions or NGOs in far off corners of the world. On some occasions, NCPs have not found sufficient evidence that the guidelines have been violated, but there are clearly circumstances that needed attention. At a recent meeting of all the NCPs and some of their constituent organizations (including their Trade Union Advisory Group, their Business and Industry Advisory Group, and OECDWatch) the NCPs were reminded that their goal should be to rectify inappropriate practices, not just determine whether the guidelines have been violated. More generally, the NCPs were urged to step back from their adjudicatory (or investigatory) efforts and build their problem-solving capabilities. In particular, they were urged to take their mediation mandate seriously.

I am very supportive of a "problem-solving" view of mediation. In too many situations, mediation is viewed as the last step in adjudication (i.e. when impasse has been reached), rather than as the first step in a collaborative effort to head off a problem or work out a creative solution. When a complaint is filed, an NCP must determine whether the charges should be taken seriously. It sometimes does this by asking its national embassy to "make inquiries" about the reputation of the company against whom a complaint has been filed. Then, it might follow up with a call to the company and ask for "its version" of the story. In short, the NCP tries to determine whether the company has, in fact, violated the OECD corporate social responsibility guidelines. They proceed this way because their primary goal is to determine the legitimacy of the claims that are brought. If, however, the NCP's goal were to correct inappropriate practices or implement appropriate remedies, it might, instead, select a qualified mediator -- located in the place where the infraction presumably occurred -- to meet informally with the relevant parties and see what might be worked out. The more informal the interaction, the less likely the parties are to overstate their claims or react defensively. If such problem-solving fails, the NCP can always revert to its investigatory role.

If you were a company accused of violating OECD guidelines, wouldn't you prefer to meet privately with a neutral party (who would keep what you said confidential) than to have to defend yourself in a public way as an official investigation gets underway? From the standpoint of preserving your corporate image, mediation is certainly preferable. If you were a trade union or an environmental NGO concerned about the actions of a company in your area, wouldn't you prefer to have a professional mediator bring everyone together to respond to your concerns than to wait a year or longer while an invisible agency (often in another part of the world) determines whether OECD guidelines have been violated and then writes a report?Adjudication in the absence of enforcement (and that is the situation in globally) won't guarantee change. Mediation leading to voluntary agreements will almost always guarantee compliance with whatever has been worked out.

Mediation as problem-solving requires three things: (1) a willingness on the part of all the relevant stakeholders to work together to resolve the problem or deal with the situation; (2) the availability of a trusted "neutral" with sufficient knowledge and skill to manage difficult conversations; and (3) an agreement on procedural ground rules (i.e., confidentiality, timetable, agenda, good faith effort, etc.). OECD and its NCPs are seriously considering emphasizing problem-solving mediation in the years ahead.