The Revolution Will Not Be Televised?

I’ve been privy to a few conversations lately around organizational “social” behaviors and tools. Most of this has come through people in leadership roles reflecting on their organizations and the work they do.

One, a Dean at Syracuse University, expressed that the students “were already doing these things” (PKM, network building, etc) and a corporate leader who stated “we are doing a few of these things now” (social tech for organizational collaboration). In both cases it was sadly apparent there was no data just subjective observation, gut feeling and certainly no larger strategy to support these behaviors as being critical.

What’s Going On?

One thing is the fact that social tech is becoming increasingly commonplace, resulting in people slowly opening up and using the tools. Its become normalized and the long held leadership fear of social tech or that it’s mere folly has subsided. This is both good and bad news.

Good – because as we know, social always finds a way. People are playing around and getting more comfortable inside organizations using these tools in small teams and in productive ways.

Bad – because 1. the pace of adoption is slow and disconnected. Slow adoption means we are a long way from the real vision; work adaptation or working socially as the default. And 2. Executives, particularly old school executives (more common than not), are now “flippant”. The pace is comfortable, it feels safe in small pockets. But safe is not transformative. Safe, small and slow is not a revolution, never has been.

The Social Evolution?

This all reminds me of Karl Marx and what he wrote about the inevitability of a Communist revolution by the working class. Critics said that if it was inevitable, then one didn’t need to rush things, it would happen when the time was right. So rather than some massive, upheaving, social revolution are we just to see organizations incrementally reach plateaus? Is the “Future of Work” and “Humanization of Organizations” really to be more a slow slough forward vs. the a rapid change we desired and hoped for?

But then again, maybe it’s not about how we light the fire it’s where we light the fire.

Hope Lies with Youth

I think this slow level of advancement is the reality for most large organizations, the ones getting all the media attention about digital transformation. However, it’s the small, budding companies who inherently get social because that’s how they MUST work; people over process, flexible systems, cross pollination of skills, late night pizza in the meeting rooms.

If we want to incite a revolution, it starts with here, with the small and mostly invisible. It’s a revolution where a connected culture is maintained to prevent social atrophy, not try to reverse it. Helping small, growing organizations to NOT follow in the footsteps of the big ones is the real transformation we should be working on.

Simple ≠ Easy

There is a lot of talk today about making work more human. This is a simple statement and it has universal appeal. I mean, who is arguing to make work more robotic? It speaks to meaning in ones work, passion, connection, and collaboration. For organizations it’s about openness and transparency – a whole bunch of warm and fuzzy, right?

It’s a simple idea, “communicating”, but unfortunately in most organizations it’s not easy to put into action.

Maybe the suits in this cartoon already feel they communicate with the employees… through newsletters, broadcasts in internal blog posts or emails, annual meetings, or through the mid-level managers and expecting and assuming trickle down. But we all know this guy meant conversing when he said communicating.

Asking “what if?” like “why?” or “why not?” are simple questions and yet each has the ability to change the direction of an organization or shake its very foundation. Ask and act and you may soon find you’ll be fighting tradition, the status quo, hierarchy, and/or fear of change. If you decide to move simple forward, standing your ground and digging deeper to support these ideas and utterances will be hard work, it’s not going to be easy.

Simple and easy regularly and wrongly get paired together.

 

Social Business is Business as UNusual

Some of the weakest value propositions still offered by enterprise social tech vendors today are 1. having less email and 2. fewer meetings. Seriously? Is this the best we can do? So what? And sorry, please don’t assume that less of one thing means more of something else (collaboration).

The promise of social technology is (or was) about doing the work of working differently maybe even changing business structure altogether. We know that when diverse people connect and can talk openly, interesting things can happen –  new ideas are fostered, innovations take place, and problems get solved. But it still takes the right people, in the right systems, in the right culture and the right kind of talk; real, honest talk. Technology alone is not going to magically make this happen. Getting it “right” is hard work and takes time.

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L&D Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Yes, yes I know that many have said L&D shouldn’t be threatened by social and social technology. The argument being that a focus on social can actually improve L&D efforts by extending formal learning impact which is true and many in L&D leadership have made progress… but many more have not and only play lip service to the notion (I know, I’ve lived it). L&D has traditionally argued against social technology on the grounds that people will share the wrong information. But there is another reality and maybe the real truth behind the dismissing. At the end of the day, L&D does just what the executives want, a course. And when numerous employees have taken the course and then do not really perform any better, the blame is more often than not placed on the employees and not the solution.

The reason for this? A fine blend of two ingredients at the management level; the leadership echo chamber and a heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. Systems->Behaviors->Culture.

First, the echo. Executives build inner circles; a cushion of trust that, over time, membership in grants one the benefit of every doubt. The next is cognitive dissonance; the reconciliation of two competing beliefs where placing blame upon the employees is chosen over the idea that monetary investments in technology and “expertise’ was wasted. Both result simply in – It’s got to be them, not us.

“Look at all the work we did.”
“Look at the features and functions we built. You (boss) liked them.”
“You (boss) agreed with them.”
“The employees didn’t invest the time.”
“They chose to ignore the content.”
“They didn’t revisit the material.”
“It’s their fault.”

But the jig is up.

Like we have always known, social technology opens things up. Social technology leads to transparency. Social technology can challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take too many voices openly sharing comments about ineffectiveness to upend the whole game. More often than not though the channel directly to the employees is either too long and narrow, blocked by protective layers of hierarchy, and/or hindered by a culture of complacency. That’s a lot but still L&D, or rather traditional training-centric L&D, should be afraid of social technology, it’s permeating the organization. Once executives understand that social for social’s sake has value (which many vendors have abandoned) it will open the doors to the boardroom to all and change will be swift.

A Good Problem

Recently I did a webinar for Saba, a leading LMS vendor. They have a collaborative platform and invited me to speak with them on the principles and practices of organizational networks and collaboration. What I love most about giving a presentation comes usually at the end, it’s the time reserved for Q&A (although I like to field questions throughout, not always my choice however). Most questions asked about social efforts typically focus on how to get started, what the role of management should be or how to help leadership to be involved, etc. One question came however that I rarely hear:

“How do we shift a very healthy social network that is not focused on work to one that is?”

Interesting. People, using a corporate supported ESN, are sharing, collaborating and building their community but not around work or work related problems. For many this would appear as a good problem to have as there is no fear, the tech must be intuitive, there is trust, and there are personal relationships that transcend the organization. You’d assume with this established, the hard part is complete and collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing will begin to flourish.

Or will it?

My initial response was for managers to invite employees to help solve sticky problems, like what I did here. Creating opportunities for employees to co-own issues of the company shows them other ways to use the tool beyond community and get into addressing work problem-solving together.

Of course we can only assume there was some type of communication about the intent of the technology when it was being employed, that being communication related to workforce collaboration and sharing. And if so, then why aren’t they?

It could be that they don’t want to collaborate out of fear that sharing and collaborating about work could draw criticism especially if information is wrong, contradicts organizational approaches or has been regularly ignored when coming from certain levels of the organization. Another thought could be that the nature of the work has not required collaboration to get done and done successfully. Similarly, and true in many settings, people have close proximity and collaborative tools then appear on the surface as an unnecessary layer of work. Finally, many now regularly use social media in their personal lives. It’s ubiquitous but few use it for work because the social web “out there” is different than the one “in here”. Employees either haven’t picked up on the notion of a different use and purposes as they have habitually started using an enterprise tool as they would Facebook.

As I’ve noticed and noted before (and this example supports it), 1. social carves its own path, social behavior cannot be channeled without risk of it drying up. Organizations would be wise to focus on modeling, encouraging and supporting over dictating use and 2. Your organization already has an enterprise social network. Social networks exist in your organization, with or without technology. You’re people connect and are connected. Social tech can make it easier but more so it reveals better how healthy that network really is – now what do you do with this information?

The organization behind the attendee’s question has many approaches to consider going forward and also has a rare opportunity to look under the hood and learn much about itself – a good problem to have in it’s own right.