Flippancy: The Biggest Threat To Enterprise Social Today

For years many have lamented that rigid hierarchies, silos and knowledge is power beliefs were the greatest barrier to social success in organizations. Rightfully so, as many of us in this space of social advocacy answered the tough questions that stemmed from fear and pushed through those that saw it as folly and/or a passing fad. Many today still speak of it and write about these as the biggest hurdles for organizations. But a new specter is creeping in – flippancy. This the “ok, we have social tech now too”  leadership attitude that has, in part, emerged as a result of what many had actually hoped for – A plethora of social tools. Many are light, embedded and free and have permeated the enterprise making social tech commonplace and thus social (i.e. cooperative, collaborative, sharing) behaviors more common. A good problem to have?

Additionally, the social tech ecosystem has expectedly fractured; social intranets, social LMS, enterprise social platforms, chat platforms, text-based services, not to mention public platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, etc all compete and often exist along side each other in the organization. The fracturing is giving social advocates headaches as community and collaboration behaviors retreat into private groups, departments and project teams… new digital silos. When this occurs, the work being done may happen faster, may be even better due to the ease of access to content and co-workers but the work itself isn’t necessarily going to change, and the agility of the organization won’t rapidly improve. The conversations have just become more challenging.

When you talk of the meat and potatoes of enterprise social, about building the company as a community of radical transparency and cross-silo connection, you are likely to be dismissed with a flippant “oh, yeah we have X and let everyone use it.” The tech v. sociology/psychology is being won by the machines. No longer is mindset and behavior change or for that matter culture change warranted in the eyes of these leaders, they have done their job and washed their hands of it. They have email 2.0 now!

Helping organizations to adopt these technologies is no longer the critical need. The need now is in helping them see past adoption and getting deeper into the real value they offer; business transformation and responsiveness that only the connected organization can achieve. This is a big leap because to org leaders:

The tools are available – check!
The tools are being used – check!
Employees are connected and productive – check!

For any leader focused on meeting client/customer needs today and achieving quarterly return numbers, everything looks splendid, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Try convincing them of an unsettling future and you look like a sandwich board wearing sidewalk preacher! But this is the charge now.  Your next steps – moving from adoption to adaptation!

  • Mind the Gaps. Point out the deficits in the offerings, the competition and the internal skills. Collaboration, as Marcia Connor once stated, solves new problems none have solved before.
  • Map the Silos. Data speaks! As organizations increase their digital communication channels, the tools offered by OrgNet and SWOOP to name a few provide analytics that reveal where healthy communication resides and where it has gone dark.
  • Bring the Outside In. The world is changing rapidly. The next disruption is upon us and it’s not cliche to say so. Just look what Uber and AirBnB are doing to transportation and accommodation industries in under 2 years! Your connected organization gives you the greatest opportunity to capture and convert information quickly.
  • The Past is Prologue. Surface historical shift in technological disruptions and flaunt the cause and effect themes that emerge. Fear sells (but the whole Blockbuster and Kodak stories are old news now.)
  • Identify the Cutting Edge Users.  They will be tomorrow’s norm. Let’s get to tomorrow faster! Shift your attention from solely raising up the laggards to supporting the leaders. Find and amplify their progressive ways. Partner with them.
  • Build Customer Partnerships. If the ESN has been internally focused, now is the time to build client/customer collaborations. Not surveys and focus groups but open and honest conversations about needs and wants.
  • Curate, Curate, Curate. The answer is out there and in here. Look before you create. You need a framework for this now.
  • Attack the Learning Paradigm. Training has to be dismantled. Moves to microlearning (umm formerly known as performance support) floating in the workflow are a good start but managers need to be coaches and mentors. Experimentation is a must and failure has to be tolerated. Systems changes around recognition and rewards should be addressed as well. This is a part of a larger organizational change in learning.

The fear about social tech has subsided. The dismissal of it as a passing fad is no more. Social has gone corporate and not necessarily in a good way. To combat flippancy we need new conversations. It’s time to beat your swords into plowshares – there’s work to be done in the fields!

Maintaining Collaboration in an Economic Downturn

In a Harvard Business Review article (one with actual data) a pretty interesting but unsurprising study was done revealing that in poor economic times employees will collaborate less. It may just be the old lizard brain and self preservation kicking in, a case of Fight AND Flight. Basically, fearing job loss – people fight to look important and thus flee from more collaborative activities that dilute their personal influence. Makes evolutionary sense.

The article did well to point out correctly that the individual choice to abandon each other is exactly what will hasten the downward trend in the organization and quite possibly lead to the layoffs they fear. However, the recommendation by the author that managersshould actively manage the psychology and behavior of their workforce to avoid an erosion of cohesion and productive work behaviors in the organization.” is a typical, reactive and doomed approach that lacks any details.

As Henry Mintzberg wrote a while back (2009) in Rebuilding Companies as Communities:

Decades of short-term management, in the United States especially, have inflated the importance of CEOs and reduced others in the corporation to fungible commodities—human resources to be “downsized” at the drop of a share price.

What one does in the current system is relatively pointless. Trust is damaged at a macro level today, well beyond just the organization. Most employees are either jaded through past experiences or if younger, have seen it in friends and family member experiences. They have learned not to trust and to keep a wary eye on the Csuite. According to Mintzberg a sea change is needed if companies are going to weather future economic storms and maintain high levels of cooperation and collaboration throughout. Organizations must start today to create a different and more permanent mindset that prevails in good times and bad.

..The organization has to shed much of its individualist behavior and many of its short-term measures in favor of practices that promote trust, engagement, and spontaneous collaboration aimed at sustainability.

How is this done? For starters a new collective history needs to develop, one where in times of recession layoffs are avoided at the cost of short-term gains and executives forego exuberant salary increases. A reputation of all for one takes time and likely more than one dip in the business cycle to develop. Similarly (but different in approach) to the HBR article author, Mintzberg points not to the top or directly at the bottom but to the middle and those in management as the cornerstone for community building. It’s here he says that remnants of community often still exist. These folks typically rose through the ranks and have plenty of connection and passion for the business. They are also not so close to the work that they miss the big picture and not so far away that they can’t see how work gets done. Middle managers are a key artery in reviving community in organizations but not in a way as the first article suggested (reactionary) but more continually.

So leadership at this level must take a different form of partnership in the company if a new form of organization is to emerge; one that recognizes the importance of community over individuality to weather change.

Seeing Organizational Patterns

In today’s organizations the top down, hierarchy approach is seen as the antithesis of the modern, hyper-connected world. However, efforts to shift to emphasize greater transparency and openness have often floundered (holocracy and flat management). We’re learning that the ideal form won’t always result in ideal function.

Noting my recent efforts of going upstream, Jon Husband suggested I read Seeing Organization Patterns: A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Robert Keidel. In it Keidel frames organizations as having three distinct variables or elements: autonomy, cooperation and control (sound familiar?). He shares that this triad appears in organizational strategy, structures and it’s systems and when not in the right ratio for the work being done, dysfunction results. Keidel doesn’t imply however that perfect balance is desirable or even possible.

Effective three-variable thinking does not mean maximizing all three variables. Rather, it means emphasizing one or two variables, without neglecting any. 

– Seeing Organizational Patterns, 24

With that said, Keidel notes that organizations will struggle in any of three general ways by:

– overdoing the top priority (autonomy, cooperation or control)
– underdoing the bottom priority
– operating without priority (no strategy at all)

This cooperation/control/autonomy triad is a fascinating lens to look at our organization’s design. Keidel provides many 20th century (yes, 20th. The book was written in the mid 1990’s!) examples throughout that reveal the problems of organizations when they’ve over and under emphasized.

Underdoing and Overdoing
A good example today could be the shifting US Military.  Before 2000 the US military was designed to combat a known enemy with known objectives, a known location and known leadership. In many ways the military was built to repel the likes of Nazi Germany and the USSR. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and hierarchy and discipline took rigid forms. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan however the enemy was now an idea with networked leadership and without a nation-state (al Qaeda, ISIS). The military struggled in its current system, structure and strategies. The top down leadership through experience wasn’t cutting it, and the push now is to create a more responsive organization (teams of teams?) to meet the demands of defeating a dynamic, shifting enemy.

An example (which is the opposite of the military) of an organization I’ve been working with is one that has a very inclusive leadership belief. Partially the industry and partially the culture, this inclusiveness has led to a very loyal, long-term, committed workforce that places a huge emphasis on cooperation and maintaining harmony at all costs. This may sound wonderful but in reality ensuring everyone is on board and happy coupled with a lack of new blood has led to:

  • Delays in action and limited thinking as the organization struggles to surface new ideas let alone implement them.
  • New approaches met with resistances as a “that’s not the way we do it here” response is prevalent.
  • An overemphasis on saving face and meeting emotional needs prolongs the inevitable departure of under-performing employees.

What can be done? Changes to leadership, management and communication (approval process) would help decrease the highly unnecessary levels of inclusiveness and would likely result in lessening the tension that exists between cooperation and responsiveness.

Parallels to Org Learning
Throughout the book Keidel takes aim at common organizational systems such as communication, meetings, leadership, management, teaming, R&D, HR, and security. He doesn’t however address organizational learning which in my opinion underpins them all. It pretty apparent that the 70:20:10 principle fits neatly into the three elements.

Many organizations place emphasis on training (control) and not enough on social and informal learning (cooperation & autonomy). Looking at this through the Keidel’s triadic lens you would see limited innovation and likely slow responsiveness to change. Similarly, if you have an over emphasis on social and informal learning, the lens would reveal employees at risk of having too little foundational knowledge that training typically provides. New employees or employees new to critical tasks could struggle, leading to disengagement and poor performance.

 

Like any good org design resource, the timeless ideas in Seeing Organizational Patterns respect the uniqueness of each organization and doesn’t prescribe a single, right solution. Rather it serves to reveal where one is successful in their organization’s design so as to enhance and where one is failing, so it can be addressed.

A Lesser Known Benefit of Enterprise Social Tools

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Naturally much of the talk, and vendor pitch, around organizational social tools is about the tangible value they can bring to the work being done; reducing emails, eliminating meetings, working out loud, collaboration, innovation, etc. What is not often noted however is how these tools can reveal the heart of the organization in the stories that are shared within.

Our enterprise social tool existed at my current employer before my arrival. It’s been growing in use and today most have adopted it for various purposes. Together we are focusing more on adaptation and working within it as well as stretching it’s capabilities beyond employees (more on that another time).

Early on, as I perused the conversations within, I came across one that our CEO began when an employee, who was there from the start, was leaving to embark on a new adventure. He reflected openly on the early days, painting a vivid picture of small office spaces and bleak surrounding that spoke to what every start-up probably physically looks like. It was written with a nostalgic emotion as it conjured images of a business struggling to survive, hope, partnerships and the profound belief in an idea. I found it refreshing to see an organizational leader opening up for all to see, sharing a story and just being real. As a new employee I was instantly able to feel like I was there in this simple exchange between founder and employee. It was the epitome of what these tools provide us; 1. transparency, where I could peer into the past and see how people were connected beyond work and 2. openness, where I and others could contribute to the story and even reawaken the conversation well after it had paused.

As an organization grows it risks social atrophy, where the space between us widens and the humanity is sucked out  – leaving a void which is usually filled with rigid hierarchy and the departmentalization of work. Social tools however can keep the arteries open and be a window into the past. They make visible the small flecks of culture found within each conversation, enabling new employees to learn who the organization really is beyond the titles and org chart. In essence, they can keep an organization small even as it grows bigger by helping all to never forget where they came from.

Vox Populi (part 2)

Since my post Vox Populi was written and shared I have had the fortunate opportunity to have three casual meetings with some local folks wanting to chat about social and social organizations.  I’ll share some generalizations and themes I picked up on.

For starters the people I met with were in traditional leadership roles in organizations providing health care services, education/training and project management. When I broached the topic of social organizations with one, the response was: “I don’t even know the full spectrum of what it all means.”  As I dug deeper into this response with them, the conversation went broader not deeper. Ideas around hierarchy, leadership, social, networks, Wirearchy, trust, conversation, communication, and learning were surfaced and it was clear to me that in a world of fast flowing information, those in the trenches of work have only scraped the surface of these notions and have a cursory understanding. To many then it’s all just disconnected jargon. I tried to synthesize it into a single word and the one I chose was “autonomy.”  I expanded on this by saying how power, aided by technology, has shifted to the individual – yet individuals don’t often take advantage of this shift and neither are organizations. In many cases both are limited by old world thinking about power structures or just comfortable in the current state; change can be scary.

An explanation of what is happening today, not happening and needs to happen can be found in Jon Husband‘s principle of Wirearchy.  This principle provides guidance to all facets of being both a citizen and a worker today. I recommend strongly one reads it.

A theme I picked up on that was present in many of the conversations can best be summarize as “work moves at the speed of trust.” Several spoke of 1. decision-making in a vacuum, 2. the all to familiar business unit “silos” and 3. competition over collaboration. Simply put – 1. Employees were not trusting their leaders, 2. leaders were not trusting their employees and 3. employees were not trusting each other. In each case work, productivity and innovation were hindered as openness and transparency are severely lacking in their environments.

Each in their own way made it clear that change in their settings to a more social organization appeared to be a daunting if not impossible task.  And maybe still stinging from the recent recession or the fact that Syracuse is not an economic juggernaut, these folks didn’t appear empowered to be change agents as the status quo has a firm grip on the mindset of organizations. I look forward to many more conversations like this, different industries and different levels to see the very valuable perspectives of the Vox Populi (the voice of the people).