Monday, July 6, 2015

Social Technology, Community Management and Organizational Development


I have been reading a spate of articles and posts related to the need for a change in the way organizations function. The diagram below by Dion Hinchcliffe is a succinct illustration of how digital technology has been and will continue to play a key role in bringing about this change.


The diagram traces the evolution of different social technology and their potential to enforce and enable a deep change in how organizations function and their structure. With digital technology growing exponentially, the speed of change is going to be faster than any we have encountered before. And there will be no escaping this digital onslaught. A bid to ignore or sidestep it will only result in a quicker path to redundancy as is evident from cases like Kodak. The safest path is to embrace the change and assess its impact on the specific industry. It's also worthwhile noting that digital evolution is not only for the IT department to worry about. This evolution is heralding far-reaching and yet-unimagined impact in all spheres of life. Organizations and the corporate world will require deep and fundamental transformations in business practices including leadership, governance, processes, customer orientation, etc. Read the post, How Social Technology has Emerged as an Enterprise Management Model, for an in-depth understanding. I am not going to tread into management theory or organizational structures in this post. I wanted to set the premise for what is to come in the months and years ahead...and where do we come in as learning and organizational development specialists. 

Given that the shifts and turmoil will continue to exponentially increase as digital technology evolves at an hitherto unimagined pace, organizations will be left with no choice but to transform themselves. Superficial tweaks and process re-engineering will no longer serve the purpose. It is time for deep and fundamental transformation of all organizational and management principles practised with such astounding success over the past many decades. Standardization, efficiency, processes, supervisory management, planning, etc., were the tools and levers of the Industrial Age that brought us comfort, wealth and urbanization. The advent of digital technology has suddenly and with remarkable speed turned the world upside down in more ways than one. The diagram below taken from The Second Machine Age (a must read book) by Andrew McAfee, et al., shows the inflection point when the gradual pace of change shows a sudden shift, and the graph becomes almost perpendicular. And this happened around 2000.

Against this backdrop, we have organizations struggling with outdated platforms, old management practices, fossilized bureaucracy, dissatisfied customers and ever shifting market needs while the evolution is wreaking havoc in the old order of things. The solution is literally to begin from scratch. Transform and reinvent the organizational practices. Create organizations that are nimble, constantly learning, conversing and listening. 

For OD and L&D practitioners, this is a time of intense challenge as well as exhilarating possibilities. The digital world requires a set of digital skills and mindsets that most organizations are struggling with. The leaders at the helm of most organizations (start-ups are exceptions) come from B-schools that taught the skills predominantly required by the Industrial Era. The entire landscape of communication is changing with social technology, instantaneous chats, and forms like videos and podcasts entering the scene. Today's mobile phone has more computing and processing power than a laptop had 5 years ago. And one cannot ignore the power of SoLoMo, i.e., social, local and mobile coming together. However, these are not just technology changes but require uprooting of fundamental beliefs and behaviours that spelled success and power in the past. 

Hence, a plug-on social platform used to conduct business the old way will only yield frustration and cynicism. Individuals looking to follow processes and predefined rules to conduct their work will find themselves replaced by machines and robots. Organizations will find that only complex and creative work requiring skills like problem solving, pattern sensing, analysing, and such are left for the human workforce - the same workforce that through years of command and control has been reduced to order-following machines. And those individuals will suddenly find themselves facing the threat of redundancy. Scary? Yes! The same individuals now have to get back to using those faculties that humans are best at - analysing, empathising, collaborating. The "human" will perhaps finally come back to the corporate world! Today's landscape will require organizations to think beyond automation when designing workflow and business processes.And it's time for L&D and OD practitioners to play a key role in envisioning the strategy and laying the roadmap in collaboration with business heads. IMHO, its finally time for L&D to become integrated with business and take a seat at the table. 

While I cannot profess that L&D/OD specialists can change the nature of management, I can say that well-informed and skilled professionals from this field can enable an organization to empower its employees and management to acquire those skills that will get them to use the social technologies with greater efficacy. Sometimes, small actions repeated over a period of time can bring about behavioural change. Fogg's Behavioural Change method of instilling Tiny Habits could be a way, which I'll explore in a later post. Manifested behaviour-no matter how small-thoughtfully supported and encouraged over a period of time can bring about long term change. This primarily happens because individuals begin to see the impact of their repeated actions and the organization begins to reap the benefits. However, it takes time, commitment, skilled facilitators and a clear direction at a strategic level. 

And this is where L&D and OD professionals can intervene with support from the organizational leaders. This support is of paramount importance if the organization wishes to transform itself and become a truly "digital enterprise". Certain management practices which have become conflated with how the corporate world functions have to be dismantled and possibly discarded. Steve Denning quoting Hamel in this brilliant article "Why Bureaucracy Must Die" calls out the ills of bureaucracy, one of the detractors of social business: 
Bureaucracy is gripped by “the ideology of controlism” and “worships at the altar of conformance.” It’s hostile to “the irregular people with irregular ideas who create the irregular business models that generate the irregular returns,” and so “cripples organizational vitality.”  It “shrinks our incentive to dream, imagine and contribute.” It causes our organizations to “remain incompetent at their core.” 
I brought this up primarily to highlight that a truly digital organization enabled by social technologies and empowered employees and management are at the golden cusp of listening to those "irregular ideas". It is in these ideas that leap over processes and old ways of doing things that the salvation of organizations and the future of the corporate world lie. I have written before about the perils of having social as a bolt on strategy and of automation taking over complicated, process-based work. What will be left will be the complex challenges in need of creative solutions from "irregular people" unafraid to try their irregular ideas. 

To facilitate this exchange of "irregular conversations," organizations have to think like communities, to think of Workplace Learning in a World "Beyond Automation". Community Directors/Managers/Facilitators will become a key role in developing a successful social business. In an earlier post, I had emphasized the importance of L&D to don the mantle of community management. It's still not widely understood skill and traditional L&D departments used to conducting training needs analysis, skill-competency mapping, intervention design and delivery, and such are hard pressed to wrap their head around this critical skill. 

What role will communities play in transforming the way an organization functions? 

It is important to attempt an answer to this question if we are to fully comprehend the importance of community management. An organization does not become a social business or a digital enterprise just by installing a few social collaboration platforms and subscribing to an app marketplace. It requires a fundamental behavioural change at all levels and shifts in mindset. I have discussed this in earlier posts here and here. A community manager's role is to help the organization to cut across the hierarchies and foster open conversations. It's a strategic role requiring a rigorous understanding of various fields including organizational analysis and development, change management, management theories and practices, and human psychology and social behaviour. S/he may have other community facilitators to actively manage the online and offline activities that are so crucial to the success of social business. But the key role lies at a strategic and business level. IMHO, an organizational community manager--Chief Collaboration Officer??--will be as important as a CFO or CMO and of equal strategic importance in a digital enterprise. It's a role that is yet to be delineated and recognized but it's time has come. I have jotted down some thoughts around what this role could do to help an organization become a digital enterprise. 

The role will have to:
  1. Study the current organizational culture (this requires an OD background)
  2. Analyse the existing gaps/silos as well as the formal and informal channels of communication 
  3. Understand the broad business goals, processes and nature of the business
  4. Evaluate the current digital skills of employees, managers and leaders
  5. Create a framework and roadmap for the organization to help them:
    • Understand the social business journey and it's maturity model (Ref: Community Round-table report)
    • Acquire the necessary digital skills to participate in a collaborative environment with ease 
    • Build trust-based relationships to facilitate sharing of tacit knowledge, co-creation of new knowledge and innovate
    • Enable diverse kinds of communication from informing and sharing content to connecting, soliciting input, collaborating, and solving problems  
The individual will not only require a solid understanding of business processes but also of human behaviour. They will have to be the kind of individual who can demonstrate digital leadership in both words and deeds. They'll not only work with business heads across different verticals and product lines but will liaise with the executive team to define the strategy that will bring about the change. Their most important task may be to change the way an organization communicates - internally as well as externally. Today's L&D team may need to evolve into a Enterprise Collaboration and Workplace Learning team and report into the Chief Collaboration Officer.  

I will explore this role in greater detail in subsequent posts. I feel the time has come for organizations to move beyond implementing collaboration platforms to integrating a collaborative and cooperative mindset at the strategic level. It's a move that calls for a shift from the tactical to the strategic and must be supported at the highest level for any organization to reap the benefits of the digital evolution. Else, the same evolution will continue to wreak havoc. 

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