During the Christmas break I have been reading “The Social Organization”, an excellent book written by two distinguished colleagues of mine, Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald, which looks at how organizations in different industry sectors can take advantage from social media more strategically than many do today. The book leverages a lot of Gartner research collected over the years and brings many of its points to life through multiple examples of how companies have been succeeding as well as failing in using social media.
The book makes a great point about the different nature of social media endeavors, recognizing that some of them are top-down while others are bottom-up. It does provide useful advice about how to better plan for top-down initiatives to make them more successful, and how to create an environment that better aligns bottom-up initiatives to corporate objectives.
I would recommend reading this book to anybody who is struggling with articulating the full value of social media and wants to have a comprehensive view of what it takes to make it an effective corporate tool today.
However there is an important question that the book, in my humble opinion, leaves unanswered: what is the right balance between top-down, corporate-driven activities, and bottom-up, personal activities?
The center of the book is the enterprise and how social media can create value for the enterprise: Anthony and Mark did a great job at describing how the principles that support community building and mass collaboration relate to management principles, and how managers need to be more guides than managers.
But little is said about the critical link between the personal purpose and the corporate purpose, despite their invitation to ask the question “what’s in it for participants?”, as a key point to assess whether a community purpose is sufficiently magnetic to keep individuals together.
I believe that the future of social organizations will be one where the organization recognizes the power of the individual and accepts that individuals – be they customers or employees – will always see themselves, rather than their organization, at the center of a community or a collaboration endeavor. Communities will not be sustainable because they are cool or well designed or well managed: of course all these elements will play an important role, but the key ingredient will be to make community building and participation a tool for individuals to succeed in their personal endeavors.
For all those who are not convinced with this position, just think about the fact that social media still is a relatively new phenomenon. People using it will be moving from one job to another, from one organization to another, over the years, and the links they establish, their social networks, the communities they participate in, will be part of their personal assets. Next time they move into a new job, they will assume (and not just expect) that those assets will be available to them and that they will be both exploiting and further developing them during their jobs.
Nobody really knows how future, community-empowered workers who are used to play across organizational boundaries will fit into any current or foreseeable organizational structure where management principles can be successfully applied.
I am sure that some of us do realize the inherent conflict (I do think we need a stronger word than “dynamics”) between individuals and organizations, be they commercial corporations or government agencies, that social media can fuel. However we prefer not to stretch our imagination and discover even greater social media risks for organizations than those they already face today. We do so because adding more risks to the plate would paralyze the initiatives that many organizations are piloting to better understand and get value from social media.
Books like “The Social Organization” help articulate a mid-term roadmap, plan and execute successful project, but do not try to capture the longer-term future. A future where the very concept of organization as we know it might be subsumed by different ways in which individuals decide to self-organize around particular purposes. A future where what we call “enterprise” today may just live the short space of a fortnight and then be dismantled, A future where entire middle management layers may be replaced by technology and behaviors that allow communities to self-discipline.
Personally, I have no crystal ball. But I bet that the best way to figure out how that future might look like is to think more about the “social individual” than about the “social organization”.