Mark McDonald

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Mark P. McDonald
GVP EXP
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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Every organization is social, but few are social organizations

by Mark P. McDonald  |  October 10, 2011  |  Submit a Comment

Organizations consist of people. How well the organization works depends on how these people interact and work together generally along either hierarchical or process lines.  These lines define how the organization works, how it views opportunities and how it tackles challenges and issues.  They also define how the organization manages itself from budgeting resources to measuring and rewarding performance.

Organizations work top down through social interactions structured around the organization chart or hierarchy.  Doing your job in this view entails reporting information ‘up the chain’ from the bottom and following the directives that come top down.

Organizations work end to end structured around its business processes.  Here doing your job rests in performing your specified task and improving the process from the nature of your inputs to the quality of your outcomes.

These two dimensions shape the way organizations see the world, its challenges and more importantly the portfolio of potential solutions.   Just look at your past change initiatives and strategies; they either call for a change in formal responsibilities (the organization) or they involve changing the way people work (the process).  There are simply no other ways to look at problems or ways to create the solution.

There is nothing wrong with a hierarchy or processes.  They are effective organizational approaches to managing complex operations. These views structure social interactions along lines of responsibility defined either in terms of resource or activity responsibilities.  They define what it means for the individual to be successful in the overall organization.  But they are not the only definition of success.

This two dimensional view is at the root of many of the swings we go through such as:

  • From Centralization to Decentralization
  • From Customer centric to Product Centric
  • From Process orientation to organizational position orientation
  • From Top down to Bottom Up

You get the picture.

Leaders seek to solve the issues created by one extreme by moving toward the other.  Decentralize to get ‘closer to the market’ and recentralize to ‘gain scale efficiencies’.  The move between these extremes persists so long as executives seek to structure the social nature of the organization along predefined lines of hierarchical authority or process responsibility.

However, that is not the way people in your organization really work.

People get things done by navigating both the organizational hierarchy and process responsibilities by working in the so called ‘white space’ in the organization or working across the ‘seams’ of a business process.  Whatever you call it, the reality of the way people work suggests that they do more than just what they are told top-down and they do more than what is defined as their job.

People working within the hierarchy and across process definitions, shown in the figure below, represent another dimension of the organization – a social dimension.

Social – the third dimension

Every organization has a social dimension.

The challenge is that the social dimension is not accurately reflected in either the organization hierarchy or the process flow.  For year’s executives relied on organizational command and control or process prescription as ways to run the company because there was no way to readily and repeatedly access the strength of the organization’s social systems.

Social systems were described not as a system to tap into but as a limit on innovation and change.  Rather than see social interactions as a system, we described social systems as monolithic factors.

We have given social systems names like culture, core beliefs, norms, tradition, shared thinking, tenure, politics, or just the way we do things around here.  Each term describing social factors as factors that are so slow to change as to become ether assumptions that limited strategy and operations.  This was great if you had a positive and successful culture, and a death sentence if you did not.

Without the means to engage social systems, executives face a future where change can only be driven through hierarchy or process.  A future where customers, associates and suppliers are no longer seen as objects in the system but are valued as sources of innovation, ideas and energy.

Social media gives leaders the ability to access the social dimension within their organization.  To take what was considers core rigidity and turn it into a source of agility, change, strength and comparative advantage.

This does no happen by simply providing social media and praying for results.  No a new class of leaders are working out how to apply social media in ways that move them from being an organization that is social to becoming a social organization.

Becoming a social organization taps into this third dimension.  It requires them to move beyond simple social media solutions such as blogs, wiki’s, etc. to change the way organizations work and to give them new answers to their current and future challenges.

A Social Organization mobilizes people, their interest, passion, knowledge and experience from associates to customers, suppliers and others without regard to hierarchy or position.  Tapping into the collective wisdom of everyone creates a new source of competitive advantage, agility and future innovation.

A Social Organization is one that is able to address significant business challenges and opportunities through creating mass collaboration. Mass collaboration extends beyond common social media to enable employees, customers, suppliers, and all other stakeholders to participate directly in the creation of value.

This enables leaders to innovate and resolve the weakness of looking at solutions from either a top-down or end-to-end approach.

For example

One firm gained the scale efficiencies associated with socially enabled centralized decision making while retaining its decentralized organizational structure giving them the ability to be globally efficient but locally effective.

In another case,

A healthcare company has incorporated a social dimension to its offering, enabling people to share their knowledge and ideas raising their value while dramatically reducing the employee support requirements and costs.  Operating as a social organization enables them to create greater customer value by getting out of the customers way.

These are two examples of what is possible when an organization accesses innovation via its social dimension.

Every organization is social, but few are social organizations

It’s true that every organization is social.  You cannot help it, but rather than seeing social as a constraint, being social can become a powerful source that starts with recognizing social as the ‘third dimension’ in your organization.

The idea of becoming and being a social organization is emerging and leaders are getting significant results.  A social organization is one that addresses complex issues through tapping into the strengths of the social dimension.  Adding that dimension requires more than installing social media, which often leads to social system failure.  Rather, a social organization arises from the use of technology in a broader context that encompasses new ways of working, managing and applying information technology.

More on these points in latter posts.

Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald are the co-authors of Fall 2011 book, The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.

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