Much has been made of the idea of a Social Enterprise. The idea of increased transparency both within and without the organization. Internally, tacit knowledge is given a new degree of latitude. Externally, the line between inside and outside the organization begins to blur. I think we’ve done a lot of thinking about how social media will change our relationships with our customers and colleagues. What I’m now wondering is what effect, if any, will it have on the structure of the org chart.
Rawn Shah started me thinking about this with his post about Social Enterprise on Forbes.com. In it, he declares his skepticism that “Enterprise 2.0” has been a driver of any fundamental change in the basic structure of an organization. While he admits that change has taken place, he asserts that the change is qualitative rather than structural – like changing the key of a song. He does go on to make a case for greater mobilization within the organization, but leaves us with a question: Do you think there is a substantial transformation of the nature of an organization through Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business?
It seems to me that companies have made greater strides in using social technologies to transform the way the organization relates to others than they have transforming their internal interactions. Externally, Marketing and Support have leveraged social media to great benefit. The days of brochures are over. There is no back channel on a brochure. Companies were quick to realize the benefit of marketing as a conversation – rather than street hawking – and success stories in this realm are numerous. Likewise, support has been enhanced by realtime monitoring of social channels to seek out customers having a bad experience and proactively engage that customer to improve that experience. So, I think it’s fair to say that social media has been a catalyst in changing the way companies interact with the outside world, but what of their internal workings?
Most companies have dabbled in social strategies to help enable their employees – from wikis, to innovation management solutions, to internal blogging (standard or micro) – but most of these solutions are walled gardens where employees can dabble in social collaboration before falling back into their role-based day-to-day tasks. In short, we’ve become comfortable with social ideation, but execution remains hierarchical and process-driven. The real revolution will occur when we learn how to execute socially. So, what will it take for this to happen?
One of the classic problems for knowledge management is cataloging the knowledge assets for later retrieval. Historically, this was handled by creating sprawling taxonomies that broke the topics that concern the organization down into finer and finer points. To classify a particular artifact, you start at the top of the tree diagram and decide which of the next-layer options best fits, then work your way down until you reach the end of a branch. Once there are no more decisions to be made, you have found that asset a home. Companies tend to treat their employees the same way (do you serve the customer, or do you support those who do?; of that group, what function do you serve?; what sub-function?; what level are you?; etc.). Hierarchy still dominates organizational thinking.
What modern knowledge wranglers have realized is that the relationship of the asset to the pre-defined hierarchy is less important to the relationship of the individual topics that make up the hierarchy to the asset. The term for this methodology is faceted taxonomy. The more common way to state this is tagging. It’s more efficient to have an individual asset tagged with all of the relevant topics than it is to place it in an unwieldy tree structure. I think the great organizational change will come from doing the same with your employees.
Imagine an organization that doesn’t have departments and roles, per se. What if that organization just had a community of employees. Each employee could be tagged with their relevant skills. Each function of the organization would be mapped to tags instead of individual employees. I’m not arguing against continuity; there’s certainly benefit to core functions being owned and repeatedly executed by the same person. But, for non-core functions, the community of employees with relevant tags could all be a part of the effort. Better yet, the community could set direction and the individuals could focus on execution.
Shah mentions in his post Dion Hinchcliffe‘s notion that we’ve replaced our traditional notion of the worker & management with “the worker,” “management,” and “the community.” What I’m proposing is a company where the community supersedes management. Management becomes a function of the community where tools like prediction markets and quality metrics replace a person in a role as manager.
To be honest, I don’t believe you can run an entire enterprise this way. You still need tiebreaker votes and human eyes to know “in their gut” when an initiative is going off the rails, and I don’t think a public company would want to crowd-source it’s accounting. However, I think companies would benefit from trying some alternative staffing on strategic initiatives where hierarchy feels artificial.