Archive for January, 2021

Agent Environments

January 5th, 2021

Multi-agent systems consist of agents and the environments where they operate. Agent environments can be categorized along various traits, but the most cited is probably the classification presented by Russell and Norvig.

They organize the environments according to the following properties:

Accessible vs. inaccessible – if it is possible to gather full and complete information about the environment in the moment, then the environment is accessible. Typically, only virtual environments can be accessible, because in reality, all sensors provide an input that is biased and incomplete up to some extent. There are so many potential percepts in the real world that it would be impossible to record and process them in real time (even if agent’s sensors were infinitely sensitive). In fully accessible environments, the agents do not need to create models of the world in their memories, because it can get any needed information from the environment at any time.

Deterministic vs. non-deterministic – if an action performed in the environment causes a definite effect, the environment is deterministic. Definite effect means that any action of the agent leads to the intended and expected results and there is no room for uncertainty. Of course, if the environment is inaccessible for the agent, it will be probably non-deterministic, at least from its point of view. Turn-based games are an example of a typical deterministic environment, whereas a room with a thermostat (where the thermostat is the agent) is an example of nondeterministic environment, because the action of the thermostat does not necessarily lead to the change of temperature (if, for instance, a window is open).

Static vs. dynamic – the environment is static when the agent is the only entity that changes the environment in the moment. If it changes during the agent’s action (i.e., the state of the environment is contingent on time), it is dynamic. Again, often real environments are dynamic (e.g., traffic in a city) and just some artificial environments are static (consider turn-based games like chess again).

Discrete vs. continuous – this depends on whether a number of possible actions in the environment are finite or infinite. If the agent just has a certain set of possible actions that it can do in the moment, then the environment is discrete. Otherwise, when the agent has theoretically an infinite number of options, the environment is continuous. Suppose that roulette is a discrete environment. The agent can place a wager on a certain, limited number of betting areas. On the other hand, the legal system is a continuous environment. People have theoretically an unlimited number of options how to, for example, close deals or defend themselves before a court.

Episodic vs. non-episodic – episodic environment is the environment where the agent operates in certain segments (episodes) that are independent of each other. The agent’s state in one episode has no impact on its state in another one. Human life exists in a non-episodic environment, because all of our past experiences influence our conduct in the future. An operating system, on the other hand, is an episodic environment, as we can reinstall it. Then programs-agents can be installed on a “clean system” with no conjunction with the same programs installed on the old system.

We can distinguish the environments also according to their spatial characteristics. It can be particularly useful in the case of agent-based models:

Dimensional vs. dimensionless – if spatial characteristics are important factors of the environment and the agent considers space in its decision making, then the environment is dimensional. If the agents do not take space into account, then the environment is dimensionless. Real environments are typically dimensional, as we naturally feel and count with spatial characteristics of our surroundings. In the virtual environments, such characteristics are not always important. For example, as stock markets are almost fully electronic today, it does not matter where somebody is present physically, since he or she can buy or sell shares on theoretically any market in the world. In such an environment, spatial characteristics have no influence on the agents’ decision making, and therefore it is dimensionless.

Creating the Right Environment For Improvement

January 5th, 2021

Organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they get. Whether good or bad, the results that organisations deliver is the result of the match between what they are capable of delivering and what they must deliver to satisfy their customers or users. For example, an organisation might have to deliver extremely high reliability products but, if their processes are not robust enough to ‘build in’ reliability, it won’t occur and the results will suffer. In another example, an organisation might have to deliver exceptional customer service but its staff’s behaviours may not match the need and so, again, the organisational results will suffer.

This article focuses on elements of the Intangible Asset and Human Resources elements of Grant’s model – looking at why it is that some organisations are able to create an environment with motivated individuals and teams who can collaborate for success, and others can’t.

Why do organisations get what they get?

Why is it that like-for-like organisations with access to people of the same skill levels, with the same equipment and dealing with the same customers, can get such widely differing results? Why is it that one automotive manufacturer will produce cars that sell like ‘hot cakes’ and others go to the wall? Why is it that hospitals dealing with the same types of patients with the same types of staff and equipment can have such a difference in their mortality rates?

The difference in performance can often be put down to the organisational environment and this manifests itself as ‘artifacts’, in terms of the physical performance and operating concepts of a team or organisation.

The organisational artifacts are built on the norms and behaviours within the organisation in terms of the ways of behaving that are tolerated (or authorised) and topics that are ‘taboo’.

In turn, these norms and behaviours are influenced by the beliefs and assumptions of individuals and teams in terms of the explicit beliefs of individuals (such as, ‘this is a bad organisation to work for’) and implicit cultural assumptions (such as ‘managers make decisions; we just carry them out’).

Creating the right environment is not something that can be done overnight because you are dealing with beliefs and assumptions that may have been ingrained within the organisation over many years. Indeed, these beliefs are often reinforced daily through management behaviours and actions that reinforce the status quo and these can often been seen at the point an organisation wants to actually change. Here are two examples:

1. An organisation with a history of treating its staff as ‘numbers’ had created an environment with demotivated staff and poor levels of customer care. To rectify the problems with customer care, it launched a programme to transform the way its staff interacted with clients. An initial team was formed to tackle response times at a call centre. The team achieved impressive results and were feeding back to the chief executive when he interrupted them with the phrase, “That’s great but when can I bank the cheque?”

2. A hospital had introduced a policy of ‘nothing worn below the elbow’ to reduce the risk of infection. A senior doctor came onto a ward wearing a shirt which went below the elbow and a nurse approached the doctor to tell him that he needed to roll his sleeves up. The doctor replied, “Don’t be silly I’m in a hurry.” The nurse reported this to her Matron and was told, “Oh don’t worry, just let it go.”

In both instances the actions of the leaders involved (the chief executive in the first instance and the matron in the second) reinforced the previous beliefs and assumptions and, therefore, prevented any change in the organisational environment.

In reality, within most organisations there is not one single ‘uniform environment’. Rather, the organisational environment will vary from team to team, division to division and so on and the result of the combination of these many micro-environments will define the overall environment for the organisation.

Within this complex organisational environment, leaders at every level can have a major impact on their ‘local’ environment. An ineffective and abrasive divisional leader will negatively affect the performance of every part of her/his division, while an effective team leader of a small front-line team within the division may help create a local environment that makes the incompetence of the divisional leader more bearable for the rest of the team – and vice versa.

The level of complexity within organisational environments affects the duration required for it to change. As has been said: ‘The seeds of effective change must be planted by embedding procedural and behavioural changes in the organisation long before any improvement initiative is launched.’

What organisational environment do you want?

Most organisations want an ‘effective environment’ but what does this mean? Figure 1 showed that competitive advantage is gained by organisations who have the capability to deliver the key success factors in their market and that these capabilities are influenced by the organisational environment. So, an effective environment is simply one that allows you to develop and sustain competitive advantages in your market. Different organisations will operate in different environments and, so, will require different organisational environments to be effective.

Four types of organisational environment are shown in the table below:

The Clan
A friendly place to work with good relationships between staff and managers. Commitment is high and there is significant investment in developing the potential of individuals. Teamwork, participation and consensus is encouraged and success is defined by team satisfaction and participation.

A dynamic environment where leaders operate with autonomy and flexibly. They encourage their teams to be creative and ‘stick their necks’ out. Calculated risk taking is encouraged and teams form and reform as required. Experimentation is the lifeblood of the adhocracy based organisation and individual freedom and initiative is encouraged.

The Hierarchy
The traditional approach where command flows through a chain of command. This is still the basic structure of most organisations. Position brings authority, whilst the role of junior leaders is normally limited to organising activity and keeping an eye on the smooth delivery of the objectives of their superiors. Stability, formal rules and procedures, security and dependable delivery are the keys to success in this environment.

Market Focused
These organisations focuses on delivering the results required of them by the external environment. Market focused organisations are externally focused, driven by results and often very competitive. Leaders within the organisation are hard drivers of performance and expect results, with reputations resting on successful delivery.

Being clear about what you want from your organisation will have a big impact on the things you need to do to create it. This need for clarity of purpose is often hampered by the fact that, ‘Every enterprise is actually four organisations: the one written down, the one most people believe exists, the one that people wish existed and, finally, the one that the organisation really needs.’

Obviously the organisational environment you need to develop will depend on the organisation’s context in terms of such things as what your stakeholders want from you and the level and type of competition you face. Through analysing this context, it is possible to define what the gap is between the actual environment the organisation currently has and the required environment that will ensure long-term success. Creating the ‘right’ environment inside an organisation is really about managing the gap between these two environments.

Mind the gap

While the context will vary from organisation to organisation – and therefore the actual environment that each organisation is looking to create will vary – there are some common steps that organisations will need to take to create the right environment and manage the gap between actual and required performance.

Specifically, the actions that need to be taken are summarised below:

Link actions and improvements to what really matters
Making it clear why certain things need to be done and why the change needs to happen is essential to success. Being ‘future orientated’ and providing leadership and vision for others is also a prerequisite for success.

Remember organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they get
If you want to change the results you will have to change the systems, culture and processes that deliver the results and the quote, “If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always had,” is relevant here.

Make quality and improvement everybody’s responsibility
Organisations exist to effectively (and safely) deliver results. Leaders have a duty to promote the required changes and continue to support it throughout but every individual needs to be involved in delivering them.

Be responsive and flexible
No one action of approach will fix all the issues and leaders need to be flexible and capable. It also helps if they avoid complication (and jargon) and they set an appropriate pace of change that balances a need to continue delivering services and products with the need to make the change swiftly.

Celebrate and communicate
Don’t get hung up on the small issues (Are patients customers? Is it quality or innovation we striving for?) Instead, focus on celebrating every success and encouraging the ‘early adopters’ and getting them to help sell the changes to the rest of the organisation.

Adapt & Evolve
As you make your changes be aware that the world will continue to change. Some things will work and other won’t and the occasional problem should not stop the changes, but regular problems with implementation will require you to evolve and adapt to keep moving forward.

Supporting these generic actions to create an effective environment are some specific dos and don’ts that are summarised below:

Do be clear about what you want, the performance you expect and how you want the organisation to ‘work’

Don’t use improvement activities as a punishment

Do measure performance and keep the team up to date with progress and next steps

Don’t allow ‘tribal thinking’ between departments to prevent communication and improvement

Do maintain close to the needs of your customers and the market

Don’t let conflicts escalate into open warfare

Do engage and educate leaders in how you want them to interact with the workforce

Don’t focus purely on financial performance improvement

Do publicly praise success, particularly focusing on the positive attitudes and behaviours that your teams and managers have displayed.

Don’t give up. Significant improvement is a long term investment and requires on-going commitment.

Being clear about the required performance and the timescales that teams need to achieve is important – and the quote, ‘Some is not a number. Soon is not a time,’ is relevant here.

Enabling the right environment to work

While determining what type of organisational environment will deliver the right result for your organisation is the first step, at some point words and analysis have to be turned into actions. Whether the implementation is easy or complex will depend on two main factors, namely the degree of certainty about what is required and the degree of agreement about what needs to be done.

Being clear about what is required and gaining consensus from the main stakeholders will make the process a lot easier to implement but, to really make this work, words and actions need to be in alignment. Two final examples illustrate this:

1. A manufacturer had a public policy stating that people were the organisation’s most valuable asset and yet the experience of the staff at the front line was that they were just ‘numbers’ and that the organisational leaders did not really care about them.

2. A chief executive claimed that the organisation was ‘family friendly’ and focused on the needs of individuals – and yet continually organised meetings with management teams late in the evening.