Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) has been around since 2007. We’ve talked a lot about success and have even reached mainstream adoption in many large companies. What made me curious was: exactly what has changed? As I started to look at this, it struck me that ESN’s are communication platforms. So how have communications changed because of this?
The reigning champ
Email has been around for over 20 years (for history of email, see Enterprise 2.0 – You can’t win or lose in the first inning), but only recently have we started to realize the strengths and, more importantly, the weaknesses of having everything in one’s Inbox. Far too many of us get too much email to remain effective, and comments like “email overload” and “email bankruptcy” are testament to this fact. We rely on the sender to read our minds and only share things that are important to us, but we still find that there are many things we need to know about but we don’t. Additionally, Marketing folks realized that many of us spend a lot of time in our inboxes and have started to use email to send unsolicited marketing newsletters (and sometimes SPAM!), placing more demands on our time and causing further frustation.
While email has given us one place to find information, thanks to mobile apps, the downside of email is that it’s a “closed system.” This means that only the people that are explicitly included in the email thread know about it. There is a lot of information captured in our inboxes that isn’t necessarily private or confidential that may in fact be better utilized if shared. In fact, most of us classify the information that we process on a daily basis as being uninteresting or unimportant to others. The reality is that we are really bad judges of how important information is to others, yet email requires us to assume this role despite us performing it poorly.
Ever since Tim O’Reilly popularized the term Web 2.0 and Andrew McAfee applied that to enterprises with Enterprise 2.0, there’s been a lot of buzz and discussion on how “it changes the way companies do business.” By opening up conversations and sharing information previously trapped in inboxes, people who need to know information have access to it. This fundamentally shifts curation of content from the publisher to the consumer of the information.
This concept of shifting from “push” to “pull” isn’t really new, and has been the topic of many Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 discussions, presentations and blogs. But, as we apply this shift inside of our companies, let’s examine the dynamics in play that cause friction if not managed properly.
For most of us reading this, the hierarchy isn’t anything new. At the top of the heap is the CEO who generally has Vice Presidents reporting to him/her, who in turn have Directors reporting to them and so on. In this model, you can easily tell who is “in control,” with promotion as the reward for being in control. At the top level, the CEO has the broadest scope, but possibly the least depth on any given topic. As you get deeper into the organization, the scope decreases and the depth of understanding increases.
Communications are typically managed through interactions with direct reports. At each level of the hierarchy, the leader interprets & filters based on what they believe to be their organizational priorities. By doing this, each leader can ensure that his / her organizational needs and priorities are being met. This doesn’t just work on information cascading down from the top; it works similarly with information coming from the bottom.
Filtering information coming from knowledge workers has enabled leaders to keep a broad view on all of the things within their scope without having to know all the details. One side effect of this filtering is the tendency to spin: spin bad news to avoid blame, and spin good news to attribute success to themselves. While this is an oversimplification, it does represent a fairly common practice inside companies.
Middle Management Squeeze
Enterprise Social Networks have tipped the corporate apple cart. We’ve now made it so that knowledge workers get the message directly from the CEO and other executives, and have visibility into what’s going on with other groups without relying on their management team. On the other hand, these executives now have much greater visibility into the details of what’s really happening inside their company; this has made it much more difficult for people to hide the missteps and challenges inside of their organizations.
What’s really changed is the role of middle management inside of organizations, but nobody bothered to tell them this or prepare them for the change. If we don’t address the changes with them, this very powerful group of people will seek to undermine the change and regain control. While many executives may downplay the importance of middle management, these folks can impact the success of transformational technologies through tactics such as: subtle intimidation, outright defiance & blatant“That’s not how we do things around here”.
On the other hand, by proactively helping middle management understand the shift in their roles and how they can leverage emergent technologies to be successful, you can gain powerful allies, due to their breadth of experience.
The evolving role of middle management
What exactly is this new role? While it varies, it usually has the following components:
- Interpret – Help your team understand how what the CEO says impacts their organization.
- Plan – Clearly define the priorities for the team and ensure that these priorities are being met.
- Focus – Help your team keep focused on the business priorities of the organization, despite all of these new inputs.
- Teach – Help your team learn from mistakes and avoid making the same one twice.
- Lead – Demonstrate to your team the value of transparency and recognize when your team is practicing desired behaviors.
The right tool for the right job
It’s important to remember that despite this openness, not everything belongs in an ESN. Individual criticism, earnings and other sensitive areas should be kept in channels that are more private. A simple exercise would be to ask yourself: “Does this need to be private?” If not, consider posting it to your ESN and mentioning the people who you believe will be interested. You may be surprised as to what it leads to.
By understanding the fundamental changes that ESN’s enable inside the organization, you will be able to implement a holistic approach that ensures that each level in the hierarchy is prepared for, and can best leverage change for personal and organizational success.