Saturday, May 18, 2013

Harnessing the Power in Your Organisation

I recently attended a conference in Prague and had the pleasure of listening and getting to know Luis Suarez. No, not the footballer, but a Luis who works for IBM and who has some crazy ideas about social media, email and Twitter. You can look him up on YouTube under his name but make sure you add ‘Social Media’ otherwise you’ll be looking at videos showing the other Suarez scoring goals for Liverpool or about his potential transfer to Barcelona.

What the social media Suarez has done is to get rid of email and use an internal social media site inside his organisation for communication within and Twitter for communication without. His main reason for doing this is to enhance learning and communication in IBM, which he believes is inhibited by email. If people want to discuss something in private he suggests they use the telephone although it seems to me they could use email for that. The internal social networking site involves everyone and people can chat, post information, send links to interesting sites, discuss issues and make decisions. It is what we do with email but it is open.

Luis claims the results are astounding in terms of creativity, sharing, participation, decision-making and learning. I can attest to the latter because I have taken to using Twitter and it is amazing the amount of information, connections and, indeed, learning that is available out there. As he told me when I expressed my doubts because of the rubbish stuff you get on Twitter, ‘You have to choose your tribe’. And he is right. I communicate largely with education people and we share and talk about learning stuff. If I want the social chit-chat I use Facebook and I keep the two separate.

I am not surprised about Luis’ claims. For years I ran strategic planning exercises for organisations. The key problem areas that came up were always, yes always, poor communication, lack of information and low participation. Nowadays we are calling this employee engagement- a term I think is most apt. And the literature confirms that employee engagement is, by and large, poor in most of our organisations. Something many CEOs are not aware of or perhaps don’t think it’s important. Well, low engagement is costing them lots of money.

We know that open systems function much more effectively than closed systems, especially in a turbulent or even chaotic environment, which we are definitely in right now (have been for 30 years but people often don’t notice). Open systems are aware of their environment, monitor it and are able to react to changes. To this end, they organise themselves internally by making sure that everyone in the organisation is: engaged with the organisational vision; able to provide feedback about what is going on in their area of expertise; is an ambassador for the organisation; is active in decision-making; has all the information they need to do their job to a high level; recognise expertise and enable it; and tend to be flat in terms of decision-making. The essence is that an organisation is organic and that every part of it (every person) creates an opportunity for adaptation.

Most managers find this a difficult concept. It is much easier to centralise information and decision-making in the hands of a few. It is just too hard to get people together, to manage democratic participation, to harness all the forces in the organisation. Delegating this to a series of line-managers makes it more impossible because of control issues, even though intuitively is seems the right thing to do.

Using the Louis Suarez approach makes it easier. The only thing standing in the way is, wit, will and fear. The fear that management will lose control, that the crazies out there will have a voice, that it is time consuming and messy, that only senior managers have the good ideas. Let me tell you that it is the crazies in your organisation that are most likely to have the ideas that create success. If a manager has neither the wit nor the will then they should not be in a management position.

None of these are good reasons for not adopting an open systems approach. And now we have the technology to make it easy. If that’s too hard then think of all the massive corporate mistakes made over the previous 100 years by organisations that could have been avoided had they been able to think outside of the box and not had concentrated decision-making. And then think of Apple- not without flaws but an open system, at least for now.

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