I was interviewed by IT journalist Beverley Head in the summer of 2007 about the early emergence of social networks and the networked knowledge workplace.
This was shortly after the term Enterprise 2.0 was coined, and well before the term “Social Business”.
I believe that the conditions and issues described and discussed in the interview have only intensified, spread and deepened since then.
I do not see how we will avoid the growing impacts on our work lives and the structure and dynamics of organizations. The core elements of wirearchy .. knowledge, trust, credibility and a need for results .. are more critical to understand and manifest than ever before.
Go With The Flow
The wired world is challenging the principles that have underpinned management for more than a century.
Welcome to the web that is wirearchy.
If knowledge is power, then in today’s wired world it’s on the march, filtering down from the top and out across networks. Welcome to the world of wirearchy, where the power is the network. Jon Husband, a techno-anthropologist and strategy and organisational change consultant based in Vancouver, coined the term wirearchy in 1999. It’s hitting its straps now thanks to the internet’s speed and pervasiveness, the rise of the digital native who is already wiki, blog and social network savvy, and a growing corporate enthusiasm for seeking out the wisdom of crowds and leveraging collaboration.
Husband believes that the internet and web services are fundamentally changing the nature of work, and that the transition to a full-blown knowledge age is well under way. What will drive it further is the emergence of wirearchies through which information is circulated, refined and exploited more widely than traditional hierarchies permit.
Husband defines wirearchy as “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results enabled by interconnected people and technology”.
A wirearchy isn’t a technology or a product. You can’t buy it off the shelf. In corporations, wirearchies evolve as company executives, employees, consultants, suppliers and clients, connected by the internet, freely share information and opinions using a variety of tools from simple email to blogs or wikis.
Husband says wirearchy as an organising principle implies, but does not dictate, flatter and wider organisations, consisting of webs of connected employees, suppliers, vendors, contractors and consultants. The resulting torrent of information is itself regulated by the wirearchy, with people ranking information (similar to the way wikipedia content is generated and ranked by its wirearchy) so that it can be used to inform decision making.
In a recent dialogue with AFR BOSS, Husband said that while wirearchies won’t replace hierarchies in businesses, educational institutions and government, they can complement top-down command-and-control networks with collaborative links, helping information to flow more freely in and around organisations.
He says that the general population has more power because of the ubiquitous and rapid access to information, at least in the developed world. He believes that this broader, more rapid and decentralised access to, and use of, information will change the world to at least the same degree that the printing press did – only faster. For business, the changes will be particularly acute. Husband argues that business does just two things: creates products and services to sell, and responds to the market. Wirearchies he says, are able to tap into what consumers want and need and what the market is doing, as well as conduct intelligence and ideas more efficiently and hence provide better support for those two business pillars.
Q. How can wirearchies and hierarchies co-exist?
A. They do already. Karen Stephenson, the anthropologist, has been writing for more than 20 years about the “official organisation” versus the real network inside a company that gets things done. Valdis Krebs of OrgNet maps the social networks of companies and identifies hubs, gatekeepers and enablers, which then gives executives and managers useful new perspectives on knowledge flows and the people who participate in and use those flows.
Take a look at Facebook and see how many companies have an employee group up there already, even companies we all know are resistant to the notion of wirearchies in any form. People will spontaneously organise for their mutual benefit or a specific purpose, and they’ll route around the system if the system doesn’t let them do it inside the structure it provides. Operating in a wirearchy clearly implies that executives and managers make informed choices about what structure and dynamics will best address goals and objectives – choices that incorporate an understanding of networks and the ways they work.
Q. Opening the enterprise to the wirearchy means making the walls of the enterprise porous. How can that risk be managed?
A. There are more risks presented by closing off the flows of information. When you’re open, you may let something out into the world you didn’t want to but when you’re closed, not only are you a target for people who want to prise the lid off your firm, you’re not being stimulated soon enough to see changes forming on the horizon. Missing the early chance to identify, understand and manage a change in your industry or the economy at large is a large and constant risk.
Growing transparency exposes instances of covering up, trying to distract or evade, or lying. The least risky way to deal with transparency is to be “in shape”, or “buff”, as Don Tapscott, author of The Naked Corporation, puts it. Many organisations spend much time and money developing more flexible, responsive and innovative cultures and business processes. One of the pillars of organisational effectiveness is the creation and nurturing of more open and trustful environments.
Q.What about the risks of disclosure? Can wirearchies cope with market regulations and legislation or do they point to information anarchy?
A: People do the right thing, almost all of the time, when trusted to do so. For instance, Microsoft in the 1990s made their current financial and sales position something any employee could look at. The only warning before the data came up was “remember your responsibilities about disclosure”. Today, that carries over into Microsoft’s blogging policy: “don’t be stupid”.
Organisations can protect sensitive information. A wirearchy does not imply that all information is open and accessible to the public. It implies that the information most people expect access to is available and trustworthy. Trade secrets, key governance decisions and other culture-specific or sensitive information are certainly fair game for protection or well-designed “need to know” access.
Q. How is opening the floodgates to more, and often disorganised, data going to make the challenge of finding business intelligence any easier?
A. Here’s the thing about business intelligence: you have to add intelligence to the data. More than 90 per cent of what’s needed to make a good decision is in the ongoing flow of information. The best way to make business intelligence effective is to let people see the information, comment on it, use the Web 2.0 tools to organise inputs and how it is used, and then search and share – communicate what they’re talking about. This ends up making far better use of the decision-maker’s time and enables faster, more focused analysis.
Q. How does an enterprise know that it is responding to genuine information and not being manipulated by erroneous or mischievous information?
A. If you are a manager and one of your employees says “hey, we’re in deep trouble here”, wouldn’t you ask “in what way?” and “how do you know?” Working in an environment where information is constantly flowing does not make checking sources and verifying facts obsolete – the new conditions make it an essential, but not necessarily onerous, task
Q. Are there any companies or sectors that understand the value of the wirearchy and are making it work for them?
A. Some that come to mind are Sun Microsystems, Google, Amazon, Procter & Gamble, GE, SAP, IBM Global Services. Look at the CIO of BT – he communicates back into BT using a public blog, because he’s trying to create a wirearchical space. The BBC has been using blogs, wikis and other collaborative information-handling and communications tools and services for at least the past five years. More and more organisations are experimenting, or getting on with it, every month now
[Sun Microsystems’ CEO and president, Jonathan Schwartz, is one of 3500-plus Sun employees who regularly and freely air their views on the internet. Sun hosts online user and developer communities, encouraging multi-directional communications among developers, users, analysts, shareholders and employees.]
Q. Traditionally, managers have acquired rank and status according to their position in a hierarchy. How should wirearchy rank and status be identified and rewarded?
A. Alongside the hierarchy’s titles, pay grades and other overt signals of “who’s on top”, the wirearchy creates new signals related to the flows and use of information and knowledge. That influence can, for example, be who knows what, who knows whom, and who can make an idea happen.
Rank and status in a wirearchy will be derived from the redefinition of knowledge work. In the new conditions, there is no one model that lends itself to a formulaic arrangement of knowledge and accountability. However, there are many examples of negotiated and contract-bound descriptions
of work and defined results to which remuneration and recognition are attached. We can see early signals of this creeping into employment arrangements, but it’s early days.
Q. How can managers learn to be effective in wirearchies?
A: Managers who do want to benefit from wirearchies can inform themselves about the scope, reach and dynamics of the use of wikis, blogs, web services and increasingly Web 2.0-ish enterprise resources planning systems; read and comment on blogs in areas outside of work to understand how people are using them; or experiment with a wiki as a component of a current or pending project.
Q. You’ve said that a wirearchy makes leadership and management both harder, in that it becomes a sharper game, and easier thanks to more responsibility being devolved. How should executives respond?
A. A lot of executives aren’t very comfortable taking up their tools and managing differently. New territory – space with opportunity to define the rules, not just follow other peoples’ best practices – frightens them and they worry about “losing control”, which they never really had anyhow. But you will see a real division emerging between the companies that are becoming leaders in a world where wirearchies appear and shift shapes and energy, and those companies that will slowly but surely become the also-rans.