Social Tech Made Easy Makes for Soft Social

When we want to improve our health, we often have to make small, difficult choices like climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Similarly, if we want to improve our organizations we need to make small, difficult choices like starting a debate, engaging the strangers within other departments, and being critically honest.

Enterprise Social could do better by doing less. In an effort to make social tech more like public social tools, vendors have actually made the tools less social by making them easier and familiar. Yes, ease of use is positive as it is all about adoption but adoption is the vendor’s end game, it can’t be the goal of organization. For example by simply “liking” or adding a GIF or emoji as a comment, we end the potential for conversation before it can really start. This is fine outside the organization as people flit from post to post in Facebook, yet how many times have you seen anyone there ask “I see you liked my comment. Why?” Maybe it was obvious but maybe not. And similarly when we choose to hold critical discussions in private groups, groups typically formed around function or departments, we cripple the opportunity for diverse opinions and ideas – those things that truly advance organizations.

Given the dismal state of employee satisfaction/ engagement today, should the goal of social tech be only to help get work done or do we want to have it help us challenge how and what work gets done?

If you want to make things better the next time you have something to share or something to add, remember that although the elevator is available, you can and should take the stairs.

Going UpStream

So you’ve probably picked up on a recent theme in my posts – organizational design. Now, I’m far from an org design specialist. It’s a field that is deep, has been around as long as there have been organizations, and has numerous authors, consultants and academics behind it. That being said, I am personally curious of how organizational design impacts learning and thus performance. My hypothesis is that if we get the design right, most performance problems naturally go away and with it some unnecessary efforts by L&D.

There is a lot of talk about some interrelated ideas today; culture, engagement, performance, ecosystems, etc. Each article I read or talk I hear explores these mostly in isolation and definitely without going far enough upstream. And speaking of upstream, maybe you’ve heard The Parable of the DownStreamers by Donald Ardell. I encourage you to read it as it’s quite short and sets the table nicely. If you haven’t the time, here’s a simple summary:

It’s the story of a village who’s inhabitants regularly saved people drowning in a river; those apparently thrown in somewhere upstream. Rather than figuring out what was happening upstream, the Downstreamers were perfectly content to just develop the infrastructure and hone their craft of saving people.

Today L&D equates to being the Downstreamers; mostly spending it’s time and energy rescuing the drowning. L&D tools, programs, courses, and resources are easy, quick fixes. This isn’t a bad thing, actually it’s necessary today because we have left unexamined some systemic issues; those things that make up the design of the organization.

What do I mean by organizational design?

All organizations design around a purpose as Jack Martin Leith reminded me recently in a Twitter conversation. And this purpose is achieved through various elements; some formal and informal, some are obvious and others hidden, and still more are conscious and unconscious systems. These elements include monetary rewards, recognition, talent measurement, knowledge management systems, reporting relationships, values, information flows, performance indicators, teams and unit structures, and behavior expectations just to name some. All make up an organization’s design.

We’re not going to train our way forward.

Jane Bozarth shared a resource in her book “From Analysis to Evaluation” that I have pointed to many times. It indicates that most performance problems are not ones solved through training. Most issues have to do with motivation, access to information, and hiring correctly for the job in the first place. Therefore at least 75% of the problem lay beyond the waiting arms of the learning professional. These are systems and structure issues; organizational design flaws. And yet either organizational leaders don’t see this or worse, they willingly ignore it.

So, who’s job then is it to identify the flaws?
Leadership? Hardly. A profitable company today may be in a death spiral tomorrow because these system and structural flaws have been left so long they have become inflexible. Status quo lives for today or quarter to quarter. Remember, status quo put leaders in their positions of leadership. It falls on individuals, passionate ones who see the need for change.

Can we alter design without major disruption?
No. The list of design elements are all intertwined. Alter one, you disturb several others. The real question is, what if we do nothing?

When does an organization take on conscious design?
I suspect it’s at the point communication becomes difficult. Management systems are then devised with all the trappings we find today. Conversations around Digital Transformation look to the large organizations but we need to place attention on the small too so as to not repeat mistakes.

These are just a few questions I’m pondering lately. I’m poking the box and joining OD conversations and reading some great organizational design books, blogs and resources. L&D will remain downstream with as Ardell notes, “all the manpower involved, and the large numbers of highly trained and dedicated swimmers already to risk their lives to save victims from the raging currents.” I however need to stretch, so if you’re looking for me I’ll be walking upstream for a bit to see what’s going on.

But It Won’t Scale

Chat platforms like Slack are still the darling social tool of startups. A former colleague of mine working in a small, geographically dispersed startup noted “I can’t imagine work with out it.” The criticism of chat platforms however is that they won’t scale if a company of 20 becomes one of 200. Functionally speaking, this is probably correct. It’s a team tool and typically as an organization grows teams divide and functional groups and departments form. If Slack remains, it’s a get work done tool, not a cross company communication, learning, large-scale collaborating, innovation tool; a tool to help the company remain agile.

However to start by identifying its shortcomings and labeling Chat platforms as the wrong solution long term is missing a huge point. What can scale, because of its use, is attitudes about social tech and it’s value to an organization. A small group is the nucleus of a growing organization and chat platforms help make social activity a part of the company’s day-to-day, not apart from it. This is something that’s very difficult to grasp in large enterprises that try desperately to plug in an ESN after living on email for decades – here, social is perceived as a separate activity from work and it’s typically a long slog to get the tech adopted let alone help adapt or even alter their work.

In today’s chat tool leveraging startups and small enterprises I suspect cultural DNA is being rewired for greater social, so even if chat platform like Slack don’t scale, the attitudes, the belief and the value of social will.

Technology will fade, ideas rarely do.

Social Atrophy: Know the Signs

When small, an organization is typically vibrant and innovative. Employees are engaged, connected and feel a part of something special – I know, I was part of that once. However, as the organization grows, these attitudes and behaviors can change; the environment becomes more closed, leadership moves out of the day-to-day, work is less visible, connections grow but each becomes a weaker relationship. This is social atrophy.

What’s the risk? Well, if you define social as community, collaboration and sharing then as these diminish, so too does the seeds of innovation which is a necessity in a rapidly changing marketplace.

I attempt to reveal the process in the image above (a revisit of my previous look at Social Atrophy). Notice when the organization is small that being human (sharing, collaboration, camaraderie, error tolerance) is a big part of the day-to-day and hierarchy is really in name only. As the organization grows however so too can the rigidity of hierarchy leading to a decline in humanity. The space between people grows as passion’s void is filled by many unnecessary policies and procedures.

Is this the case and course for every organization? I don’t think so, as each organization is very unique. However we can be more conscious of the decline of social at any level in an organization and head it off so as to not to reach the need of large scale, painful organizational culture change efforts.

Here are a few warning signs to consider:

  • Increasing rate of turn-over
  • Impersonal announcements of employee departures
  • Departments becoming insular
  • New layers of management appearing
  • Communication moves increasingly top down
  • Titles and roles become more important and desirable
  • “That’s not my job” over takes “I’ll do it”
  • Process becomes inflexible
  • Learning is seen as something to complete
  • Knowledge hoarding becomes the norm

Are all of these unavoidable? Are all equal in weight? I think not. For example process can be very important but when it is unquestioned over time it becomes a sacred cow and possibly a drag on business. The same can be said for new level’s of management. If the management philosophy and practice is open and transparent, then simply having more is not inherently a negative. So this list is not exhaustive or without it’s caveats of course but I am curious of what other signs of social atrophy have you seen? Has your organization addressed them or tried headed them off?

3 Points of Entry for Organizational Change

An organization’s culture is created from beliefs. These beliefs are formed through daily behaviors and the responses to these behaviors. And the behaviors are typically driven by the systems embedded in the organization. So when change is desired, there are 3 points of entry to begin the transformation, each with pros and cons.

Systems -> Behaviors -> Beliefs -> Culture

Leadership typically and unfortunately starts from what they perceive is the easiest but is actually the most complex – Employee Beliefs. The most common ways you’ve probably seen are by handing down edicts where employees are told to to do or not do something. Posters and new mission statements often appear in an effort to motivate or inspire along with catchphrases and the like. These commands, words and billboards are routinely dismissed and or mocked as toothless reminders of corporate paternalism. However, this approach isn’t typically done in isolation, it is coupled with another point of entry, behaviors.

Directly addressing employee Behaviors is the next level up effort but again will typically fall short of lasting change. Behavior change is often driven by informational training and/or incentive programs to bring about new attitudes and behaviors or remove unwanted ones. These efforts can work temporary because the training is often unsupported by management and incentives are rarely made permanent. When both evaporate, it’s back to status quo. These approaches are commonly used by leadership because they will see fast but sadly only temporary change. It’s akin to a quick hit which is highly addictive with no lasting impact.

The final entry point is the only one that doesn’t directly target employees and is the path rarely taken because it can shake the landscape. Systems Change is indirect behavior change and it is the element in an organization that has the greatest influence on the previous two. Systems change efforts can be Catalytic Mechanisms because of the far reaching and sometimes unexpected transformation they bring. It is a scary proposition for the status quo but ultimately it is the systems that drive behaviors and behaviors are what create beliefs, and the beliefs form the culture.

Take for example an organization’s intertwined systems of communication and trust. Trust takes on different forms based on communication beliefs. When communication is closed and top-down, Managers direct and employees act. Managers subsequently trust only those that comply and employees trust that if they comply, they will be rewarded. A culture of compliance is born. It’s easy, clean but hardly advances the organization. If however we have open communication where Managers trust employees to be autonomous, do what is necessary and get what they need, then environments where networks thrive and information moves uninhibited are created. This is fertile soil for retention, creativity and innovation but it can be painful for the traditional hierarchy.

Systems, Behaviors, Beliefs. Where does your organization begin change efforts?

Digital Transformation is the big buzz word today related to change efforts. And although this speaks ultimately to technical and technological change it begins with employee behaviors and beliefs. I’m really curious about this and will be exploring more in this space; examining the relationships of systems, behaviors, beliefs and culture. I am seeing the oft overlooked small businesses as possibly the best blueprint for large organizations – those looking to step back and get small to move forward.