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?

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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The Org Culture Tipping Point

The most interesting thing to me as of late about the culture change puzzle many in OD face is that the answers might be found in the questions not being asked. Many today write about making change happen from understanding what is, yet never seem to ask how the culture got to be in the poisoned position it is.

Simply put, shouldn’t we first try to answer the questions around “How did we get here?”

  • Was the culture ever positive?
  • How do we know it changed?
  • When was it first noticed that the culture change?
  • Were new systems, processes, or institutions were implemented before change was noticed?
  • Was the change an inside job or was there external stimuli (new competition)?

Like my simple graph here tries to explain, there is a point where the agile, innovative, open culture typically found in smaller, growing organizations shifts to one that emphasizes uniformity, complacency, and compliance over humanity. A tipping point is reached where the organization loses the elements that many (larger) organizations now aspire to regain.

OnsetofSocialAtrophy

 

Past is prologue as historians might say, and if we can pinpoint the emergence of the change, doesn’t it then hold true that this knowledge could be used to create targeted measures to reverse course?

If you’re interested, several of us look to ponder the idea of culture emergence vs. culture change on Sept. 19th at 9:00pm ET. Take a look at the posts written by Chris Jones on his blog to see where we’ve been with this and where we are going, then join the conversation on Twitter at #orgdna.

Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

A Lesser Known Benefit of Enterprise Social Tools

NationArchives

 

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.