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?

Reimage Work


As you likely know, Reimaging is the process of removing all the software from your computer and reinstalling it. This process is necessary if your operating system becomes damaged or corrupt. This is actually an excellent metaphor for what needs to happen to many organization’s operating systems.

There is much criticism of the world of work today. Many see stagnant approaches and dated power structures hindering real potential in this digital age. A reimage is not however about wiping out the disengaged, or cleaning out the c-suite (common approaches). Nor is it moving to an open office floor plan or eradicating email. No, this is about the actual work we do, or more specifically the structures that govern this work in organizations. It is about the policies, procedures, power systems, roles, and unwritten rules that impact the people which ultimately effects the work. This, the organizational software, the operating system – is often damaged and corrupt.

Recognizing this is only the first part, taking action is the other. Unfortunately just like with our sluggish laptop, where we manage to continue working when it’s performance isn’t optimal, most leaders find work-arounds that allow things to get done although not as efficiently or effectively as they could. These work-arounds typical comes in the form of new tools, “reorgs”, downsizing, engagement activities, and revamped strategic plans – business as usual and bandaids. So as expected, a reimage won’t even be considered as it takes a significant mindset shift.

For what it’s worth, here’s 5 actions I think an organizational reimage should include.

1. Changing the Defaults – The world of business is changing frequently and with that it should be expected that something that works today won’t work tomorrow. The world of work, markets, and labor are complex. Through the lens of Cynefin, the knowledge management/sense-making framework, we learn that in complexity we only know what right is after the fact. Organizations then must learn to continually probe their environments, make sense of of the information gathered and respond accordingly… rinse and repeat.

2. Strategic Reflection -Internally organizations need to pause and sharpen the saw. It must be a strategic focus to periodically assess each element that impacts the work, the policies that send the message to employees that “we don’t trust you”, the procedures that maintain efficiency yet serve to prevent innovation, and the power structure that are maintained by fear vs. ones maintained by merit. Morale is a huge part of the effectiveness equation.

3. Role Play – managers, supervisors, directors are titles of the bygone era of manufacturing, of routine work. These titles have connotations of us vs. them, command and control, authority without legitimacy, “the man”. Today we need mentors and coaches, supporters and connectors to serve workers as living forms of performance support. Imagine arriving to work on day one and being greeted by the Chief Barrier Remover? Odd? Sure but equally refreshing.

4. Redo Rewards – when the process is working, the product is right. Reward the process, the product will take care of itself. Those who help, who share, and those who encourage are your heroes. Reward their cooperation and collaboration not competition. A rising tide lifts all boats.

5. ESN over LMS – learning is a part of the work, not apart from it. If the vast majority of our new learning takes place in our doing of the work then we need tools to help us reflect and share easily this new knowledge. An ESN (vs. an LMS) is an open system. Here knowledge can freely flow in the conversations we have (this is where real knowledge exists, not within us but between us). This openness also means all the cooperation and collaboration you need to reward (pt.4) is made obvious.

Each organization is as unique as a finger print and a reimage, if warranted, may take different forms yet each is a true move towards social business. A move that is far more about people than about technology.


We Are A River


In a brilliant example of showing your work, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters shared his process for writing the songs on the album Sonic Highway which included having conversations with random people in various cities, copying and pasting snippets into a song outline, and reflecting on the experiences. I admire this transparency, an example of the real learning that Charles Jennings speaks of; experience, practice, conversation and reflection.

This song in particular, the last track titled “I Am a River”, caught my attention. The lyrics, “the channel’s changing, the heart is racing, from voices on a wire” gave me great pause as I thought of technology today and the very important human component within. Here Dave shares details about writing the song of which he says:

I thought it was a beautiful idea that there’s something natural and prehistoric (Minetta Creek) that runs underneath something as monolithic and futuristic as New York City. And maybe we’re all connected by something like that.

The fact this river is covered, out of sight, and is continually being built upon is an interesting metaphor for us, our human story today. We are natural and prehistoric, a great connected river of humanity being buried under increasingly changing technology; the voices on the wire.

Is that what you want? Is that what you really want?” – Dave Grohl.


We Don’t Do Social Here

Implement, Do, Start, Launch, are all terms that indicate a program or project is underway. It’s the language of the business initiative. But when these words precede the action of “Social”, it’s a bit perplexing.  

We don’t “do” social, we are social. 
Being social is just connecting, communicating, and sharing usually with the key action of conversing. Don’t let anyone tell you different. We should know too that being social is not purely positive. People can connect for the wrong reasons, communicate inappropriately, or share way, way too much. Therefore being social is neither something exclusively good or bad, it is just the essence of being human. To say things like “we are going to start doing social in our organization” is like saying “we are going to start doing breathing.” This comparison is equally similar and different. Similar in that both actions, social and breathing are naturally occurring and required (in an organization or otherwise), and different in that breathing is not something that can ever be consciously done poorly or insincerely.

You can encourage people to increase their social connections, expand their networks, start more meaningful conversations and share ideas. But make no mistake, your organization is already social, it just may not be healthy enough to transform the work that’s being done or make the environment less toxic, or draw people to connect with your service or products.

So if you’re still thinking about “doing” social in your organization, maybe start by “being” a better organization, leader, employee, peer. Somethings you just can’t project manage. 

Of Social Tools And Toys

Twitter is for morons and b-level actors.” 

I remember reading this in a Newsweek article in 2009. Funny thing is five years later I find many still believe this, and why not? Traditional media and late night talk show hosts do a wonderful job of highlighting only the harmful and the humorous. But what they don’t know is how powerful this and other social tools are too many people for learning and growing through networks.

This got me wondering about who, how many and what in regard to social tool use.  Might there be a 90-9-1 use of social media?  If you don’t recall, the 90-9-1 rule is where 90% of networks are made up of the equivalent of virtual voyeur, 9% contribute periodically, and the golden 1% create all the content that the lurkers and contributors consume or add to. 

I wondered then, when it comes to social tool use, do we have a comparable breakdown?

90% actors
9% marketers
1% makers

The 90%
No doubt social tools are a narcissists dream, where everyone can get their 15 minutes of fame. Traditional media does well to point out the sensationally bad behaviors of individuals and blames the medium as much, if not more than, as those making the blunder. These majority users aren’t morons, as they still widely use social tools to connect and learn, yet much use is for telling their personal story with all it’s comedy and tragedy displayed for the world to see. 

The 9%

Most businesses only toy with social technology. These “9%ers” build social brand promotion campaigns, sterilizing their customer “engagement” and then push so hard for ROI they excrete their humanity in the process. The hemorrhoids, of course, are too numerous to count. These companies rarely seem to get “it” right, but when they get it wrong, they get it really wrong; enduring black eyes for the silly games they play. Their half-baked approaches get chewed up and spit back in their faces like when they hijack a hashtag to sell a dress in the midst of a shooting or get into pissing matches with unhappy customers for the whole world to see. Who’s the moron?

The 1%

The minority however are those getting the greatest value. They are using it in strategic ways that bypass old models, as one group’s toy is another group’s tool. All their activity is happening under the radar of the status quo; not much mainstream press for their success. Through networking, sharing and collaborating, they are silently growing skills and knowledge. They are finding unique ideas, challenging content, and brilliant minds through open sharing and humility. Each of their engagements is a stretch assignment, a mentor meeting or a chance for large group reflection. They are making progress through relationships. 

Of course we can’t be pigeon held to one area. Just like 90-9-1 isn’t a hard and fast rule where we are locked into one of three convenient lables of lurker, contributer, or creator. We are all simultaneously actors, weaving our tale. We are marketers, building our brand if we see it or not. And we are all makers, from time to time bringing value to others.  But I do think, through seeking and sincere interactions, the minority today don’t just retain their humanity with these tools, they learn more about it and how powerful and rewarding it is to be real.