Leading and Managing People Must Evolve in the Networked Era

For the past few years there have been increasingly numerous and strident calls for fundamental make-overs of both management and leadership. One of the most recent that has high visibility (Forbes Magazine) is Steve Denning’s «Why Most Of What We Know About Management Is Just Plain, Flat, Dead Wrong“. People everywhere are clicking into the fact that yesteryear’s models and ways are less and less effective, and yet we all labor on whilst yelling “change .. change, or die .. etc.”

World-renowned organizational effectiveness guru Gary Hamel set out the fundamental challenge(s) in his 2007 book “The Future of Management“. Others, such as John Hagel and John Seeley Brown’ in their 2012 “The Power of Pull“, have weighed in with equally sharp and challenging premises and theories. These works and numerous others signal an urgent need to innovate and adapt to a new set of conditions, conditions which are rapidly on their way to becoming ubiquitous and/or expected by the generations entering or approaching their chapter-of-life in the workplace.

It sometimes feels like this is only the next round or wave of coming to terms with rumblings and dynamics that began back in the 60′s, 70’s and 80′s. After all, we began hearing about the critical need for empowerment, continuous learning, flexibility, agility and resilience at least three decades ago. And most of the pioneering work in these areas came even earlier, stemming from the soft-and-squishy (or seen to be that way) world of Organizational Development (OD), developed and championed by pioneers like Eric Trist, Fred Emery, Bill Passmore, Marv Weisbord, Peter Block, Charles Handy, Meg Wheatley and many others.

As the years have passed since these pioneers first addressed the human issues in organizational structures and processes derived from engineering and efficiency principles, various elements of their thinking and practices have inexorably found their way into managing processes and people. I suggest that this is entirely understandable as the increasing frequency and intensity of complicated and complex organizational activities have grown over time, along with the evolution of peoples’ expectations about work and meaning in a modern era.

My premise is that management innovation is indeed available from that world of organizational development. The principles and dynamics of Organizational development are closely aligned to Hamel’s suggestion that « activities will still need to be coordinated, individual efforts aligned, objectives decided upon, knowledge disseminated, and resources allocated, but increasingly this work will be distributed out to the periphery ».

The New Context Demands New Principles

What was yesterday called Enterprise 2.0 and today is called “Social Business” can be seen as the emergent stage of the intersection of significant advances in information technology, management science applied to business process, the analysis and control of operational activities AND the interaction and participation of people with information, opinions and knowledge to share.

These forces and factors are converging in today’s workplaces, wherein a continuous flow of information is the rule rather than the exception. Thus, it is essential to cast a critical eye on the fundamental assumptions of work design and how people doing the work are managed. The core assumptions embodied in widely-used methodologies today still present work as ”static sets of tasks and knowledge arranged in specific constellations on an organization chart” (see all major job evaluation methodologies for more detail).

It’s getting clearer and clearer today that the capabilities and dynamics of what started in the consumer realm as social software (those funny things called blogs, and wikis, and widgets stitched together by interconnected people using web services) are finding their way into the workplace.

That they have migrated to the workplace makes sense. People have always (at work) been creating and building up ... knowledge through exchanging information, talking and arguing and pointing out other ideas and sources of information and ways to do things. Such services and tools and the reasons for which people use them are the means by which general human activity (purposeful and otherwise) translates to the online environment.

So, as stated at the outset it seems clear that we’re situated in a more interactive, less static environment. Whether we like it or not, we are passing from an era in which things were assumed to be controllable (able to be deconstructed and then assembled into a clear, linear, always replicable and thus static form) to an era characterized by a continuous  flow of information. Because the flows of information feed the conduct and operations of organizations large and small, the flows necessarily demand to be interpreted and shaped into useful inputs and outputs.

The methodologies still in use today have become obstacles to the rapid and timely creation of outputs.  These methodologies generally did not foresee working with networked information flows, and thus the way work is designed and managed does not really address how it could or should be managed.

We need to revisit the fundamental principles of work design AND the basic rules used to configure hierarchical organizations in which the primary assumption is that knowledge is put to use in a vertical chain of decision-making.

Both Horizontal and Vertical

Horizontal flows of information and peoples’ engagement have already been put to work in a range of early Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business experiments.  But let’s be honest .. how these will work, or not, is less than clear to date. There’s an enormous amount of inertia and habit to overcome, all whilst confronting continuously turbulent conditions, seasoned with healthy helpings of ambiguity, about economics, governance and peoples’ collective capabilities to adapt.

The complex challenges organizations face have traditionally been directed, controlled and managed by senior people in hierarchies. And let’s be clear .. hierarchy is not disappearing from the organizational landscape, nor should it. It’s an useful construct for clarifying decision-making and accountability, and I believe it will come to co-exist with the core dynamics of networked people and information …

a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results”

.. which, incidentally, is a fundamental aspect of all the ‘democratization’ (it’s probably too early to yet call it that, but let’s do so for the time being) we are witnessing in the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and in the concerns about surveillance and privacy in the wake of the phenomena of Wikileaks and the NSA – Snowden whistle-blowing.

Would that our western governments and organizations watch and learn as they embark on the renewal of leadership and management in the 21st Century.

The implications are huge, will demand significant effort and responsibility on the part of all individuals, and may lead to very different ways of working and being in and of the world.

But clearly, the embodiment of leadership and management as it is practiced today must evolve and become pertinent to the growing presence and impact of networked people and information.  What we have been doing thus far looks less and less likely to be as effective as necessary in the rapidly-approaching future.

– Jon Husband

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