Monday, August 25, 2008

Releasing the power of networks

Hyperlinks connect content with content.

Social networks connect people with people.

RSS feeds connect people with content.

Together, these technologies can be used to make information flow between people in an organization almost like water flows in a metropolitan water system. They can help people find other people with knowledge, information or ideas that when intersecting with their own spawn new knowledge, value and innovations.

If virtually all information would be allowed to flow freely through these networks in an organization, the organization could actually become the sum of all its parts. It could potentially use and benefit from the collective intelligence of all its people.

How come then that many organizations are still not seizing this opportunity as fast as they possibly can? I believe a that major part of the answer is quite simple; the people who build their power on keeping information for themselves feel threatened. They might have built their current positions on hoarding information instead of sharing it. It is obvious that they won't let go of the information if they do not get something in return that makes them feel safe in their positions.

Threats to existing power structures in organizations must be handled very carefully, but they should not be allowed to hinder the democratization of information. It is the responsibility of top management to understand and act according to this insight.

Not doing anything is a deadly strategy. No organization can put the genie back in the bottle. People have already gotten used to freely expressing themselves and sharing and consuming information and experiences on the web. We must remind ourselves that these are the same people who go to work and feel that the IT department is - passively or actively - hindering them to do the same things at work, the same people that either will give up and loose their motivation or quit to start working for a competitor that actually tries to empower its employees instead of hindering them.

The point here is that any organization needs to create a strategy that addresses how to make use of these new opportunities to improve communication and collaboration and how leverage any ongoing grass-root initiatives instead of hindering them. But this strategy also needs to address how to deal with barriers to change such as existing power structures that might be threatened by the change, counteractive attitudes and behaviours among coworkers, and a complex and inflexible IT legacy.