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.

A Tale of Two Socials

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – Charles Dickens

Social has come a long way, the notion of its importance in business reborn through works like the Agile Manifesto and Cluetrain over 15 years ago and propelled first by Web 2.0 and then through enterprise social technology. But there now appears to be a division of direction.

On one hand social and social technology can extend and expand human interactions like nothing else. It can transform business from the industrial models, and change the very nature of work. Yet today much of the technology (and the vendors building and promoting it) may just be But such awful workers, and such awful work!helping business be a faster, a more effective business as usual. Simply, enterprise social is supporting today’s work, not creating tomorrows’.

Wasn’t there supposed to be more?

Social Has Gone Corporate More Than Corporate Has Gone Social
Early social brought diverse people, groups and ideas together. The tools were simple and allowed people to be creative with their use and that was often the draw; autonomy and creativity. This however was not what business was buying, even though it is just what they needed for the innovation they sought.

The reality is that conversation and idea sharing are messy things, difficult to guide and even more difficult to measure. Vendors either couldn’t articulate this or they didn’t bother since it didn’t fit into the purchaser’s mindsets and models anyway.

Goodbye Connection, Hello Collaboration!
Collaboration became king to the point today that many wrongly see “social”and “collaboration” as identical. Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing, what is though is having collaboration become expected rather than encouraged. The command and control message within the social technology medium is this:

“We bought this platform, now go use it.”

To appease leaders, and to better ensure the tool fit measures of success (i.e. ROI), vendors focused on dashboards, and monitoring and measurement were promoted mostly for tracking the most frivolous of activity.

The Rise of Chat
The growing use of chat and chat platforms today is an indicator of this “social” conformity. Chat doesn’t scale. Chat won’t get you to transform. Transformation takes much wider connection and collaboration. Business loves chat; it’s about team-work not net-work; it’s about supporting how work gets done today… in silos. Again, faster, more efficient business as usual.

The User is the Loser
Another sign of stagnation is the emphasis on the terminal goal of user adoption and not work adaptation (the measures mentioned before support this). Of course using a social tool is a step forward, so too is working out loud (a collaboration invitation) but adapting work in a social environment is what can change the very essence of the work being done, where power and authority reside and therefore alter the organization itself – the true promise of social.

 

Yes, we should be disappointed at the state of enterprise social but not surprised. Change is rarely revolutionary and business is business after all, with the goal of most being to win the game and far fewer out to change it. All is not lost however…

We need new skills not new features. We need more understanding and growth in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and new organizational structures for learning and working like 702010 frameworks to not merely influence but alter the systems that currently bind us. For these, look no further than the work of Harold Jarche (Personal Knowledge Mastery) and Charles Jennings (702010) for details on explaining individual and organizational approaches.

Ultimately the minority that believe and embrace the power of social to upend the 20th century systems are those that will conform to social, and not work to conform it (to their current models). It will take some very special people in leadership roles and not special technology; People that can cast aside the very systems that enabled them to become the decision-makers today, those who really know that what got us here, won’t get us there.

 

Transformation Doesn’t Happen in Silos

James Tyer and I often find ourselves chatting on Twitter about our shared observations and ideas.  One particular stream of though started to gel and we decided to formalize it some in a shared blog post (which was quite enjoyable) as an opportunity to extend the conversation. Let us know your thoughts.

 

There’s much talk of transforming HR, reimagining L&D, shaking up corp comms, disrupting marketing, “hacking” [insert your dept name here]. Transformation! Hacking! SEO buzzwords abound. LinkedIn feeds are full of it. Trade publications are recommending it. Armies of consultants are demanding it. Organizations are spending a fortune on it, yet once again nothing is fundamentally changing.

When “change” happens (and it can) it still happens within the department. This reveals our paradigm – the way our leaders see the structure of organizations – a last century, industrial era mindset. The result is a transformed department…that’s it. With the same problems, the same people – apart from the ones who were fired – the same leaders, the same titles. Really, nothing changes. It’s just the same old re-organization – not transformation.

A real transformation would see the end of these silos, an end to big departmental structures, decentralisation of power, a shift in authority, an end to the “business relationship manager”. For example, a real transformation of HR would likely result in no HR silo. Now that’s revolutionary!

Why do we do this over and over again? This time Amara’s law is particularly pertinent:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

Short Run:

Leaders are sold on technology as a solution to big problems… big problems in their areas. But this isn’t transformation, it’s piecemeal modification. For example, in HR: people analytics, performance systems, another LMS, maybe even an ESN. IT are dumping every shiny tool they see onto employees in a bid to keep up with “being digital”. Comms (the marketing of four years ago) are obsessed with new “channels” to give employees more and more information. And it’s not a question of whether comms or HR or IT are well-intentioned; it’s whether they are willing to keep repeating the same mistakes.

All we’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Long Run:

Technology is changing product development and distribution, it’s changing political discourse, it’s changing the consumer landscape, and has the potential to continue transforming our physical landscape. Take for example this Greg Ferenstein article on Medium where he reveals a simulation that showed how vast amounts of urban land could be reclaimed and 90% of cars would disappear due to automated vehicles. Technology stands to reimage the globe, physically, socially, and politically like never before.

We are naive if we don’t think organizational structures can’t change. Or are we short sighted, comfortable in our paradigm so as to unconsciously impede the progress of digital transformation by holding tight to familiar structures. Our cautious human nature prevents us from embracing real change. If we could just get out of our own way and let go of our archaic reward structures, our traditional ideas about leadership, our inability to be truly open and transparent with our work. Could we harness technology to create the modern firm – one that actually benefits consumers, workers and shareholders alike? The answer is Yes – there are already companies doing just this!

What’s Next?

If you’re fed up with endless re-orgs, talk of “transformation”, talk of disruption with no compelling alternative vision to the current state of affairs, uninspired by leadership, and feel like you’re working Einstein’s world of insanity. What do we suggest for those of you who would like to get started?

Well, the kicker is, there’s nothing easy. And when you’re out there on your own talking about new ideas, it’s tough.

Frankly you can only transform yourself. You can only change your viewpoints, outlooks, beliefs, ideas, and work. The fortunes spent on changing organizations are wasted because those who spend the money don’t change – they just tell others to. Change is social. Change happens one conversation at a time as Euan Semple has said. Be bold and talk about new ideas. Build your networks of like-minded support across departments, not just your own. Here are some frameworks to help guide your first conversations. There are no formulas – no one-size fits all. You and your organization will need to be agile to adapt to circumstance. To create your own version of the networked organizations.

A few sites, books, articles, etc to get you started.

Organizational Inattentional Blindness

By now you’ve probably seen the video where you’re asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed on a crowded court while a (spoiler alert) person in a gorilla suit passes through often unnoticed. This is an example of Inattentional Blindness; the event in which an individual fails to recognize an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight.” – Wikipedia. The general idea is that when we are so focused on the task at hand, we are not seeing what’s happening on the peripheral.

I’m seeing that a kind of inattentional blindness exists in organizations today. In my conversations about digital transformation, most people have revealed their organization’s view of it as the adopting new tools to do more and faster the things they have always done. They are, if you will, keeping their eye on the ball and focused on mastering their craft as it was designed to be done. What many aren’t seeing is that the unexpected stimulus of technology, particularly social technology, is loosening the traditional restraints around information and power and changing the very structures and roles they have grown accustom to.

The scary part is not that this technology change is so disruptive but that the disruption is happening so slowly.  Yes, slowly. We often think disruption is something revolutionary but is it? Didn’t change simmer and bubble up slowly in the famous examples of Kodak, Research in Motion (Blackberry), and Blockbuster? Everyone played their role, played by the rules and weathered each storm as they always had. They kept their eye on the ball until it was too late.

Staying the Course of Course

The Cluetrain Manifesto came out over a decade ago. This short work foretold the coming of the social age and yet most companies are generally still doing what they’ve always done but with new tools. Marketing for example is trying to sway opinions as they have for the last 100 years. Today however they do it by chasing SEO, content marketing, and posting strategically, robotically to social platforms. Cluetrain’s most memorable point was that markets are conversations, and yet it appears new technology is used in the same old ways; a monologue, a virtual billboard that people are ignoring.

Another example of change happening while the vehicle is being rebuilt is Learning & Development. In the face of so much change, L&D is still primarily still building courses and programs but now using mobile devices to deliver them or repackaging them in a new wrapper called a MOOC. Meanwhile workers, who can’t wait for formal solutions, are leveraging powerful personal tools, messaging apps, curating content, and building networks for just-in-time performance support to get their work done. Learning has always been about communication and communication can now happen faster than ever.

In many ways this inattentional blindness is because we are assimilating the new to what we already understand. We should be accommodating for it because if we accommodate, we create space to see new possibilities.

Transformation is about Independence

The bigger change I sense is a growing gig economy, decreasing employee tenure, and increasing autonomy through technology (communication, learning, consumerization of IT, etc) that will not only lead to changes in work (the verb), but lead to changes in work (the noun). Less rigid organizing structures, organizations more akin to being Wirearchies over hierarchies will emerge. L&D, Marketing and other traditional sub-structures of 20th century businesses will ultimately be vestiges as the skills within will appear more as integrated agents in the workflow. For many the “gorilla” is passing right by unnoticed.

With a nod to William Gibson, the future is digital transformation and it is here, it’s just not evenly distributed within organizations. And because of this, the traditional adage of keeping one’s eye on the ball is perhaps not the best advice after all.