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.

2 Ways Forward

A social organization is a more collaborative, open and transparent organization. That's a given, but how we approach becoming one is debatable. In my opinion there are two ways; one being Push and the other Pull. Pushing social, might be seen as incongruent; something natural being forced unnaturally. And yet, in the social/collaboration space, this is the road most often taken.

Organizations will often start their journey to improved communication, cooperation and collaborations by initiating social efforts such as supporting CoPs, instituting team huddles, using ideas take from Agile project management, etc and then move to collaborative tools. It's here they purchase an ESN or a chat platform and begin to engage in rollout campaigns, gamification and other external motivators to increase use. Many times they forego the non-tech and just buy a platform. These efforts are "pushing social", it's slow, steady and comfortable for the status quo. And some studies (Forrester being a famous one) have indicated that some 80 to 84% of social efforts fail. These type of efforts.

The other way is a sincere commitment to the idea of the social organization but it can cause some stress especially in more established firms. It's pulling social which means changing the organization to make it more conducive, even welcoming of true open collaborative behavior. Pulling social is basically pulling down the barriers; the systems and structures that are really the reason most social efforts fail. If systems of rewards shift to recognize the processes that lead to success over the product, people open up. If CoPs work out loud they invite new participants and healthy criticism, if leadership accepts the powerful undercurrent of communication (the wirearchy) exists and can support hierarchies, social thrives. Tools and platforms come next (not first) to amplify the healthy openness that now exists, the new normal, and serve as the power source going forward.

The challenge today is for social practitioners to stop leading with social and for organizational leaders to accept that their organizational design needs to be severely shaken up.

Simple is the New Black

Each day I encounter an article or vendor selling simplicity. Just today I crossed paths with titles like “elearning simplified” and “Simple Marketing Strategies”, and “simplifying your life” to name a few.  It appears the market is crying for less complexity or people are selling the notion that all has become so very difficult today.

Hey, I’m no stranger to this verbiage. The last company I worked for had the very inviting name of Systems Made Simple and even this blog is Who am I then to criticize buzziness, eh?  Well, to be honest my aim here is to present and discuss the ideas of moving mindsets first; one can’t simplify until they first believe in an easier way, right? Getting there however is much more difficult but you can’t go that way until you first buy-in. I’ve written about this before that Simple ≠ Easy.

Take for example the vary simple principle in the Cluetrain Manifesto; Markets are Conversations.  Wow. Penned in the 1990’s, foreseeing the social web, and we still aren’t there. Breaking free of the old ways is obviously difficult enough but then new ideas, tools, technology and processes continue to pile on making such simplicity difficult to achieve and maybe too, few bought-in in the first place.

Complexity can be loosely defined as something having many parts. So there it is, we get to complexity when we just keep bolting things on our lives and they all become entangled; pull on one and all move a little – you’ve been warned. Same for organizations; human systems, computer systems, hierarchical systems, communication systems all intertwined. By themselves they are not the least bit complex but they tend to get all mashed together and any effort to address one of them, impacts the others.

Reducing complexity is not easy then, heck it’s complex! So, let the buyer beware. Go ahead and purchase that elearning simplified solution but don’t expect that it means your job will get easier.

The Promise of Social (The ESN edition)

Let’s take a moment and look at the idealistic, hopeful “promises” (the promise so many still speak of and fight for at least those who haven’t gone “corporate” so to speak) we saw emerge from around 2007 and compare them against the “common reality” we see in many organizations today.


Promise: Organization-wide transparency & openness
Common Reality: Organization-wide monitoring, measuring, judging and manipulating

Promise: B2B and B2C networks
Common Reality: Another sales channel

Promise: Social platforms to make work easier
Common Reality: Social platforms are another layer of work

Promise: Social Leadership
Common Reality: Executive broadcasting

Promise: Online customer communities
Common Reality: Customer service system

Promise: Platform owned by the workforce
Common Reality: Platform owned by IT

Promise: Increased connection for employee community building
Common Reality: Increased connection for expected employee work collaboration

Promise: Make work more human
Common Reality: Make humans work more (always connected is expected)


Of course this is not the truth for all organizations, some are meeting many of the promises but I don’t think that is the norm by a long shot. And this post isn’t meant to be a cry of surrender but rather a call to action. If you see it this way too, we need to be asking – Can we ever reach the true promise of (enterprise) social technology and if so, how?