Your organization is already a wirearchy
… it just doesn’t (officially) operate as one.
In order to do so, the people charged with leading and managing its activities must in all likelihood must undergo some some significant unlearning and then adoption of new mental models. At a minimum.
The organization in which you work has probably involved everyone in using computers for at least 15 years now. People sit behind laptop or desktop screens, and increasingly are on the move or working remotely, using laptops, tablets and smartphones. Web access is growing in ubiquity, and access speeds are increasing. The people in the organization are interconnected and exchange information with each other all day long
The productivity platforms for organization are no longer Microsoft Office and ‘home-grown’ patchwork information management systems but large integrated ERP systems (like SAP) and collaboration-oriented platforms like Sharepoint or IBM Connections or one of a number of other lesser-known platforms (often integrated via APIs with a number of other SaaS-based capabilities). There are many ways for employees to connect with each other, as intranet solutions become more “social”. It’s likely that the executives and managers in your organization will have been hearing and reading about this networked world of work for at least 3 or 4 years now.
We are now fully ensconced in the interconnected Knowledge Age. And there’s near-unanimity amongst informed pundits that the interconnectedness and speed-of-light transmission of information will bring us growing uncertainty and turbulence as well as significant new and interesting opportunities. But more understanding is critical.
But now how do we use a formidable array of connectedness and social computing capability to become responsive and adaptable to these new conditions ?
Given that the organization and its people are « wired », the key elements of wirearchy are already in play.
Wirearchy – 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.
Connected people, connected organizations
To recap, today it’s very likely that in your organization people are interconnected and are using their exchanges with each other and their participation in information flows to get work done and achieve objectives. The organization’s people are already operating using knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on achieving results .. it’s just that the ways these elements are used or put into service are not often well adapted to the new more horizontal playing field. And of course there may be significant lapses or absence of these elements. We’ll explore the issues below.
Start with “why” – why should these new capabilities be used, and what for ? The question to ask here is how well does the organization use these new capacities. And how well has it adapted its leadership, management practices and organizational culture to be flexible and adept enough to take advantage of these real possibilities for improvement and/or innovation?
These questions often uncover ambiguity and lack of clarity. As well, there are often general dissonance and resistance to the necessary adaptation(s) because more often than not people are operating in the psychological infrastructure of the traditional not-interconnected hierarchy.
A decade has gone by
By now (early 2014) almost everybody interested in the networked organization will have heard of holacracy, radical management, work hacking and a range of other initiatives aimed at bringing deep(er) change to organizations seeking to function more effectively in an environment of hyperlinked people and information.
It’s been 8-plus years since the term Enterprise 2.0 was created by Andy McAfee to designate a new form factor for organizations brought about by the introduction of social computing tools and productivity platforms which support activity streams, work flows and collaborative practices. The term and related concepts have offered organizations everywhere the possibility of re-designing or re-conceiving the ways knowledge work is carried out.
Now that we have more than a decade of experience with the Web we know that users gain familiarity with social computing in the consumer arena first, followed by migration to more serious pursuits (in this case collaboration and knowledge work). The term Enterprise 2.0 generated a lot of heat and light, but arguably the adoption, implementation and significant use of social computing was examined only tentatively by most organizations.
By the time the Enterprise 2.0 caravan struck out towards the future’s frontier, thanks to consumer social networks we also had a decent understanding of the latent transparency afforded by hyperlinked information, individuals and groups. Scores of blog posts and articles developed the themes associated with the potential (and eventual) impact of these new conditions on the widely-accepted classic pyramidal hierarchy.
The new environment is different indeed
The classic hierarchical model has been optimised over the past 50 years through a range of initiatives addressing continuous improvement, re-engineering, and a massive and continuing focus on execution and quality. Today at the start of the 21st Century this model dominates the organizational world. It promises control, predictability and progressive incremental quarter-over-quarter growth and constant improvement in financial performance in an era when for many executives that is all that matters.
Hyperlinked information and people seems dangerous to those charged with creating and managing the control, predictability and forward stability. The paths to effectiveness in an interconnected environment seem and feel less knowable, less controllable. People are prone to asking questions and introducing new ideas. Networked exchanges between people runs the risk of introducing disorder or mis-alignment into the ranks of the execution-and-quality-focused knowledge worker.
Yes, I am over-simplifying here. But it is not an exaggeration to state that there has been anticipatory anxiety, trepidation or indifference by the organization’s C-Suite with regard to addressing the deep changes (both possible and imagined) that are generated by social computing.
After a period of initial exploration and shaking out of the concept of Enterprise 2.0, aided by the spectacular growth of online social networks, the domain shifted to the notion of “social business” in 2008-2009. More and more organizations had begun to realize that social computing and networks were not going away. And of course the primary connections seen as necessary were those to the already-wired-and-connected consumer, who by now surfed the internet daily, shopped online pretty regularly and participated in one way or another in exchanges on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs, on Instagram, etc.
Social networks and their dynamics were no longer breaking news, but either an opportunity or a bother to be dealt with somehow.
Enterprise 2.0 → Social Business
Thus, the term “social business” arrived on the scene. It was coined by members of the Dachis Group to denote business activities taking place in connected eco-systems of information. It’s main contribution to the field of interest created by the concept of Enterprise 2.0 was a greater emphasis on people being part of the connected eco-system. However, Enterprise 2.0 still tended to focus on the advent and spread of tools and platforms, whilst of course it’s people who use the tools and platforms).
Social in this context is a tricky term, of course.
Firstly, many people have pointed out that “business has always been social”. Secondly, there’s been much debate over the past three years about the fundamental difference between the Dachis Group’s notion of “social business” and the notion of “social enterprise”, a form of organization that is structured and operated so as to return profit, capital or other benefits to members, clients and communities.
Additionally, it’s useful for my purposes to add here that the concept of “social business” as articulated by the Dachis Group borrowed heavily from the social science domain known as socio-technical systems theory. Interest in and research into the collision or melding of technology and sociology began in the 1960’s principally as a counter-balance to the dominance of engineering and efficiency principles as applied to organizational structure and dynamics. Much of this work can be found today in the principles and practices of the field known as OD (organizational development) although it has tended to focus on people and often enough ignore technology.
Optimization or ongoing development?
The field of OD came into being in the 50’s / early 60’s mainly as a search for ways to counter or work around some of the less desirable aspects of rigid hierarchy, and to increase productivity though worker satisfaction.
Since then OD has coalesced mainly into a domain of activity in the organization associated with learning and development. For many leaders and managers, this makes coming to terms with networks and their dynamics and activities pretty difficult. You may have heard the phrase “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”. In a world where management “science” has grown and flourished for the same 50 years, unlearning and letting go of what made you successful as a manager and gave you social status within the organization is not an easy thing.
Both we and our organizations need an understanding of and fluency with the new technology(ies) and the realization that the dynamics of networks align very clearly with the main principles of (organizational) development and learning
Notwithstanding the practices available from socio-technical systems theory, the adoption of “social business” practices over the last 4 or 5 years has continued to encounter significant amounts of resistance to new ways of working with information and knowledge and managing people. At the same time there has been ongoing evolution of social networks, the technology that enables these networks, and the activities generated by the people in the networks.
Whither « Social Business »?
Quite recently there have been various dust storms of opinion with respect to the proclamation that “social business is dead”. This discussion has been accompanied by the noticeable stagnation by most organizations regarding coming to grips with the wider and deeper effects of social computing and networks.
I’ll admit some schadenfreude here, as I’ve been one of those who has stated for some time that the term “social business” helped gloss over or keep superficial the deep(er) changes … to structure, to managing both activities and talent, and to organizational culture … that organizations must deal with if they are to survive and thrive in this era of networks. And indeed, in response to the notion of “dead”, many opinions sprang up noting the contrary, that the era of networked activities is just getting started and that the major changes to business process, organizational structures, and management of people and activities are on the horizon, yet to come.
Why is this? Well, it seems clear now that the deeper changes are underway all around us. Changes are coming thicker and faster to the sources and structure(s) of knowledge and the ways in which people create both economic and social value through their work .. hence the notions of holacracy, work hacking, radical management and so on.
But .. most organizations are still structured as classic traditional hierarchies, and the well-known “command-and-control” models of management (though now often structurally softened by 2 decades of continuous change) are still in operation almost everywhere. This has not gone unnoticed. Over the past two years there has been a spate of books, articles and studies suggesting that leadership and management for a networked area MUST change, and in important ways.
.. and a large number of other similar works.
The organization’s future is here; it’s very unevenly distributed
What’s the next stepping-off point or springboard for the networked organization?
I’d like to suggest that it is critical to recognize, explicitly, that …
- networks are here to stay,
- future generations of knowledge workers accept these tools and dynamicss as a regular part of their lives
- the conditions are at hand for growing flexible and responsive learning organizations comprised of engaged people, and
- adaptation is fundamentally necessary; there are and will be significant payoffs from investments in social tools, collaborative platforms and engaged people
After all, your organization is no longer, in effect, a traditional hierarchy. Almost everybody in the western world who would be considered a knowledge worker works daily behind a screen (desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone) and functions to some degree or other in a range of now well-known social networks. And no doubt many of the organizations who began experimenting 6 or 5 or 4 or 3 years ago will now have some form(s) or other of functioning social networks in operation.
People are connected to each other, and critical information and knowledge are flowing daily. This fact is not in question and is not going away. More information is being created each day, younger people who’ve by now grown up with things digital and social tools are entering the workforce, new tools and new information technology capabilities (semantic engineering, machine learning, work automation), etc.
Change is inevitable. The people and the information in and of your organization are already networked. Increasingly there’s a mismatch between the way an organization has been structured (wherein access to information and permission and freedom to act were arranged vertically through reporting relationships) and the way(s) it can be structured to operate more effectively and more ‘holistically’ in ubiquitous networked conditions.
Dissonance and structural tension
Henceforth, organizations and the ways they operate as currently designed will likely be awkward in front of engaged networks. Primarily this is because hyperlinks, connectedness and information flows have a significant impact on decision-making and taking action. The dynamics of networked information flows and the exchanges by people that accompany the flows need to be addressed in the design of the jobs/roles, departments and levels, pay practices, etc.). But the changes necessary to access greater effectiveness are large and important.
What we have today is networked organizations dealing increasingly with knowledge and innovation as key differentiators whilst still structured as industrial machines in which jobs are the separate cogs, levers, nuts and bolts of those machines. However, the dynamics of networked organizations have often been compared to the dynamics of living, holistic ecosystems. It’s not much of a stretch to think of things in this fashion, when we begin to consider an organization as a representation of an organism .. networks and connections being the neurons and synapses of its nervous system, its processes being the operations of the body, its relationships with key suppliers or partners its arms and legs, etc.
Decoupling work from stable employment
As we can see, there are important variables at play regarding the increasing complexity of the nature of work and the necessary changes to the structure and dynamics of the organizations in which knowledge work takes place. Many of these variables began feeling the impacts of the new conditions a decade or more ago. These impacts have not escaped the attention of workers everywhere. There seems to be ample evidence that people who work as employees are increasingly disengaged from top-down decision-making management styles and practices that are typically paternal and/or authoritarian.
Additionally, in order to respond as effectively as possible to more turbulent and uncertain conditions in a globalized business environment, it has become commonplace over the past 20 years for organizations to carry out reductions-in-force (or downsizing) when it becomes necessary to reduce costs.
The cumulative effect of this approach to effectiveness has been a accelerating deconstruction of the social contract between employers and employees. Other than fear and anxiety, little prevents dis-engaged workers from leaving an organization or offering mediocre personal performance.
Thus, clued-in people everywhere are recognizing that their future is already here, even if the organization(s) in which they work are not responding to the constellation of new conditions we all face. They’re operating more and more in wirearchies … in connected groups where the key enablers for effectiveness are pertinent knowledge, thresholds of trust, reliable credibility and an ongoing focus on results. We don’t want to talk just to be social .. let’s also make things happen, let’s get things done. Often for people that means leaving an organizational environment in which they feel they cannot flourish or easily explore interesting ideas that may lead to invention and innovation of new ways of getting things done.
Increasingly, we can expect to find smart people, loosely joined in networks are there to get things done they care about or in which they have made investments of psychological and emotional energy. They may well need hierarchy to help in decision-making, but less and less as proxies for stability, control and trust. That horse has left the barn.
And, so what?
The people in your organization are connected, whether to each other or to flows of information and knowledge. As more and more information flows about products, services, conditions, industries, local, national or international events and so on, traditional reporting relationships and decision-making permission defined by levels in the organization becomes less and less effective.
Hierarchies prescribe and dictate; networks enable, sense, and generate. When connected to clients, networks help workers follow issues and ideas coming from the market. The organization as a whole can stay in closer touch with the desires, appetites and needs of its clients, employees and other stakeholders.
But as described earlier in this essay, in so many cases they are still being tasked with operating the levers, cogs and other mechanisms of a machine that has efficiency as the non-emotional key strategic driver.
In reality the interconnected world we now live in is beginning to ask for more. It is asking for more rapid and more intelligent responses, more accessibility and more honesty, but from fewer top-down policies and rules and faster, more flexible and more effective decision-making where it matters (in front of or in exchange with a customer)
Can the transitions each and every organization must go through be made easier, more valuable, more effective?
If So, How?
It’s not at all clear that organizations can change all that much, and there is a decent amount of evidence to the contrary. However, I think there are two or three clear approaches and/or tools that can be extremely useful (assuming that the organization in question has some networks operating within and or without).
The primary useful approach, I believe, is ONA (organizational network analysis) pioneered by Valdis Krebs, Rob Cross, Verna Allee, Jessical Lipnack, Patti Anklam and others. ONA is a derivative or sister concept of SNA (social network analysis) and now has established principles, practices, metrics, known challenges, etc.
In effect, carrying out ONA helps make the wirearchy (an hierarchy co-existing with networks) of a specific organization visible and more accessible. When visible and accessible, it’s easier to find out why things are stuck somewhere, where talent is being mis-managed, under-utilised. It helps to uncover and clarify various types of issues and challenges related to the flows of information (and decisions) between interconnected individuals and groups.
I’ve been surprised that ONA has not become more widely used over the past 5 years (a colleague pointed out to me that there are actually very few social networks operating in organizations today). If that is true, either I am deliberately provoking you, the reader, with the title of this essay or it underscores that position that while there is much interconnectedness, the activities carried out in the interconnected environment have yet to coalesce into something effective),.
That said, I believe ONA is becoming more valuable all the time. Wit the assumption that networks are not going away, that more and more people are comfortable with them and with the tools they use, we can imagine that their presence will only grow in visibility and impact.
You can’t make real changes to culture or leadership or management practices if you don’t really know what’s going by whom and with whom in the networks of a given organization. But make that activity and the people visible on maps that provide analytic tools (such as centrality, betweenness, etc.) and all of a sudden there’s much more tangible information with which to work in order to design, implement and execute cultural change or introduce models of management practice that recognize and address the dynamics of networked activities.
But .. your organization today is indeed a wirearchy, but a young and immature one. It may or may or may not grow up to be an effective networked hierarchy. But in order to survive and thrive it will need to unlearn its steady-but-less-responsive ways of operating and use ONA and other means to make its networks and the value it contains and generates visible, accessible, intelligent, empowered and in a constant state of evolution.