Advancing The Social Organization Through Systems Change

The current approaches used to move organizations to be more social are struggling. The first phase was in using social technology. We quickly found out that the idea of “if you build it, they will come” didn’t work. Phase two focused rightly on “culture change” through social leadership initiatives. This is a top down approach which emphasizes that if organizational leaders change, then the behaviors will trickle down the hierarchy. Of course leaders REALLY have to change and this is not an easy task as most leaders are on top because of the current system, in short what’s the motivation to change? Phase two also includes more grassroots approaches, like I have taken, where we work more subversively (or as Jane Bozarth says, as a Positive Deviant). This is when you engage in small experiments, identify where collaboration is healthy, and take a performance consultation approach to leverage social approaches to solve problems.

Each of these however are slow change processes because they readily accept the current system as is and work within it. The system however is very resilient and has an incredible elasticity; it can stretch but can very easily bounce back to status quo.

I don’t disagree that each has merit (with the exception being tool first) but the slow pace leaves room for doubt and in an age of rapid change, these approaches may not always be fast enough to enable an organization to thrive.


So, if social can slowly change the systems, can the system be changed to rapidly encourage social?

I was recently revisiting an ancient text (OK, ancient as in 1999) and it dawned on me that we may need to focus less on people and more on the systems they work within. By breaking pieces of the system we can change behaviors and ultimately transform the culture. Jim Collin’s wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that year that set the stage for his book, From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. This article was our introduction to Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and the idea of Catalytic Mechanisms:

” [Catalytic Mechanisms are] the crucial link between objectives and performance – they are a galvanizing, non bureaucratic way to turn one into the other. They are the devices that translate lofty aspirations into concrete reality.” (from 12manage)

The article revealed to me that the real reason we fight and claw to gain a social foothold with our current efforts is not because of resistant people (alone) but because we are trying to work Social into the current organizational human systems (systems that drive attitudes and behaviors). These long-established, often unconscious systems of Communication, Recognition, Rewards, Career progression, and Organizational Learning (to name a few) do not support wide-scale social. In fact, I’d argue that most reinforce the exact opposite of the transformation being sought in large organizations. It’s no surprise then that the resulting inhibited culture is so resistant to changes.

Jim Collins’ idea was to meet a clearly defined, tangible, yet highly audacious goal. However, my idea is to use Catalytic Mechanisms to change behaviors and meet the goal of increasing the less tangible – creativity, transparency, openness, collaboration, cooperation, and innovation… all attributes of a social organization.

What exactly makes up a Catalytic Mechanism? According to Jim Collins there are 5 elements of these actions that:

  1. produce desired results in unpredictable ways.
  2. distribute power for the benefit of the overall system and uncomfortable to traditional power holders.
  3. have teeth
  4. eject viruses
  5. produce an ongoing effect

Whereas most initiatives are direct hits to the problem being addressed, a Catalytic Mechanism is more of an indirect one that ripples across an organization like a pebble striking a pond. Or to continue the water analogy;

If you want to move a river, you don’t grab the water. Rather, you alter the landscape around it and the river reroutes to a new, more desirable course.

Catalytic Mechanisms Reroute

Take for example the traditional systems of rewards as a place to start. Sales contests are common, and typically these appear as “sell X quality of something by X date and receive X“. There is no question this is effective as people are motivated by both the challenge and opportunity for monetary reward. A sales person or team meets the goal and wins the prize. They are rewarded but the organization is not. Leaders only reward the outcome and ignore the process but it’s in the process that we have the greatest opportunity to advance to a more social organization.

The social sparking mechanism that is missing here is a required transparency. And transparency has teeth! 

By requiring a transparent process (the how) the traditional reward system is altered and serves as a catalytic mechanism to shift the organization more social:

  1. unexpected benefits: could reveal unethical practices and accelerated adoption of new best practices.
  2. Knowledge hoarding practice loses power, all sales teams improve as a result.
  3. Has teeth: No reveal, No reward.
  4. Unethical practitioners revealed and reprimanded and those not wishing to help peers/org grow are exposed and likely move on.
  5. On going culture shift as each subsequent contest would require new approaches to better the last, and openness becomes normalized.

Could we not do the same for recognition? Internal communications? Management and leadership? Imagine requiring that individuals on a career path to management must demonstrate effective coaching or mentoring before they advance. Connecting with and growing people becomes the new core skill of a manager.

A series of small but powerful placed system changes (Catalytic Mechanisms) targeting the social transformation we seek, may just be the answer to the problem of slow change due to a resilient, inhibited culture.

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.

The Beat Goes On

I recently attended a local, day long social media marketing conference. Unsurprisingly I left feeling a bit disheartened. Most of what I saw and heard was nothing more than doing the traditional marketing with new tools; same thoughts on strategy for getting clicks, people as targets, and conducting multi-channel campaigns. There was nothing about conversation and there was an odd lack of empathy. There was also no sense of the irony in that everyone there was a “target” by another marketer, maybe even the one they sat next to.

babybirdsThe view of the consumer at this event was less an equal or a partner and more something to feed, one that is not astute in social or savvy in the mediums. What these marketing folks didn’t appear to consider is these consumers, their customers, are continually seeking ways to cut to the chase and slice through the nonsense, they we want to trust, they we want relationships. They We are doing it openly in the same tools the marketers are pumping out content in.. For many, it’s still the “I know-you don’t know-I have the upper hand approach

The world has changed and if social technology does one thing really well, it casts a light on everything it touches. So if you’re promoting a product you don’t understand or believe in, or you approach customers as targets for conversion rather than opportunities for conversation then your practice will eventually be exposed as a fraud.

Social tools really provide the best opportunity to transform the marketplace because at their core, social technology can expand and extend our humanbeingness. The trust, relationships, and transparency they can perpetuate are quite simple, yet simplicity isn’t easy – especially if you’re buried under the burden of chasing the newest technology and following last century approaches.

The Future Organization is a Porous Organization

I read recently that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), the median number of years an employee stays with their employer in the U.S. is 4.6. On the surface this seems like a long time. However I suspect that it will be significantly shorter soon as the “Gig Economy”, where tenure and titles will matter little as mobility is the norm, takes off. If trends continue, I suspect two things will need to change in organizations:

1. Faster Trust Building. Trust is the bedrock of collaborative and cooperative work which quite frankly is the future of work (well, work that won’t be automated anyway). Today we know trust is developed over a long period of time and even then it’s with a select and small subset of people in an organization. Trust is often limited to those we work closest with on projects or in departments. So if the average tenure is 4.6 years, it’s safe to say as soon as real trust is being formed, people move on.

I think one practice organizations can take to build organization-wide trust is to support and encourage Working Out Loud (WOL). If work is done in the open (not just status updates and summary posts) in collaborative spaces and with opportunities for critique and contribution from all levels, it creates an environment for honestly, altruism and transparency. Additionally, when new employees enter an organization that engages in wide-spread WOL they can quickly see the sincere interactions and reactions that have happened within the connected workforce. Many from people who may no longer even be there. These artifacts can be inspiring, bringing about the same behaviors in these newest members, as it’s seen to be a activity that is safe and encouraged. It’s self-reinforcing.

2. Focus on Residue over Retention. Related to my last point about WOL is one that, with people coming and going as often as they do (and increasingly so), successful organizations will need to harness the energy of continual movement. The new economy is fueled by the Internet and Web 2.0 acts as a amplifier, a spotlight for talent. Talent can now be found anywhere, investing heavily in inane engagement activities to retain talent makes little sense. For organizations the smarter move is to put greater emphasis again on capturing the inertia of the pass-through employee, in other words their residue. Organizations now need to focus more on creating an ecosystem suited for capturing and tagging contributions in a form that they can easily be discovered, used and built upon. This is the grease that lubricates the perpetual motion needs of today’s organizations.

If the Internet has taught us anything it’s that everything moves now and moves quickly; money, knowledge, opportunity and even people transition faster and easier than ever before. It’s ludicrous to think otherwise and try to slow things. The success of an organization will be based on it’s ability to embrace rapid change and understanding the necessity of being porous inside and out.

The Long Tailers of Social Business

Social business talk hasn’t progressed much beyond what it is or how it’s done. Jon Husband noted this in a brilliant and succinct post back in 2013 where he said that “most of the conversation circulating and re-cycling regarding [social business] … what ‘social business’ is and/or is not, how to do it right, or in 7 easy steps, or with pizzazz and ROI and why it’s changing everything (or nothing at all)

What has changed however in the past 2 years is that the idea of Social Business, like Social Media, has been further positioned by large firm Marketing and Advertising departments as their charge. Markets are conversations so says the ClueTrain Manifesto and so shortsighted marketing and sales have moved to “Social Business” strategies which mostly just employing social technology with the same push information tactics.

Social LongtailHowever where social sincerely exists are those businesses on the long tail . Organizations here, the smaller more niche players, are more often inherently, unconsciously and positively social inside and out. Their business survival is predicated on a meritocracy over hierarchy, openness, trust, feedback and transparency – it’s here where the soil is most fertile.

Social Business, (what we do) can’t survive long without firm roots in a Social Organization (who we are).

For the larger, market dominating organizations, they turn to social technology (like any other technology) to fix problems vs. prevent them. Inside these organizations social tools are applied in a futile effort to open communication for knowledge sharing, a cure for their social atrophy. However the best opportunity for social technology inside has passed, the arteries are now clogged by competition, policy, procedures and rigid hierarchy.

Social technology may be best as preventative medicine vs. the miracle cure.

It’s the Long Tailers that need to understand this and move quickly to stay who they are. But to stay small as they grow larger, technology alone won’t be enough – social requires people and a holistic approach. They should also employ a Change Prevention strategy (vs. Change Management), maybe a new internal role of an Unchanging Officer to help leaders see their culture today and the big picture potential of social tools beyond communication and knowledge sharing. A well crafted change prevention strategy can anchor their progressive culture and help maintain the healthy status quo.

It’s far too easy for long tail business leaders to fall into established, yet floundering, 20th century practices as they grow. There are still many visible, seductive monuments of this past success and misguided social business approaches.

Long Tailers must act now for there is much to lose if they don’t change.