Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Management By Listening Around



Resistance to (fear of) change is one of the leading impediments to introducing social software in businesses. This should come as no surprise. Resistance to change is always one of the greatest barriers to change. But what is different this time is that resistance to change is likely to be quite heavy among managers, even more than on grass-root level.

It is likely that managers, typically in middle management, who have built their own position on the exclusive right to distribute information up- and downwards in a hierarchic organization feel utterly threatened by the introduction of social software. How are they likely to react when their own manager communicates directly with their subordinates? Or, which probably seems even worse to them, when their subordinates communicate directly with their own manager, or even the CEO?

If a CEO wants to know how the business performs, he typically relies on the information given to him by his own subordinates. They, in turn, rely on the information given to them by their subordinates. And so on. On each level in an organizational hierarchy, information is aggregated from subordinates, filtered and twisted by the managers so they can convey a version of the truth that aligns with their own agendas. These things apparently also take time and a lot of information gets filtered out in the process. So how accurate, complete and timely is the information eventually given to the CEO?

Most managers know they receive information which has been filtered and twisted by their subordinates. Some exercise “Management By Walking Around” to get a better picture. But MBWA does not scale very well. It might work for a team manager or managers in a SMB, but it is not likely to work for someone in middle or top management in a large and distributed company. They have to rely on distant management.

This is probably also why many managers find Business Intelligence so appealing. BI allows them to get aggregate data from distant corners of their business, view it from different angles and analyze it to determine how different parts and the business as a whole performs. They get direct access to "the truth".

But, relying too much on traditional BI can also be deceiving. The diagrams and figures on their BI dashboards do not tell them what people are doing, what problems they are dealing with, which decisions are being made, and so on. This is where social software enters the picture. Social software – such as the combination of social networks, feeds and tools such as blogs and micro-blogs – can help to inform managers about these things. In essence, the power of social software comes down to two things:

  • It allows and encourages people to capture, share and consume information in an easy and convenient way.
  • It provides an infrastructure for rapid dissemination of relevant information across time, space and organization.

By the smart use of social software, a business can create a digital work environment where managers (and others) can inform themselves and learn from the activities and decisions made by people instead of just relying on transactional data and the information they get from their subordinates or managers. They can tap in to any source they want, feed it to their dashboards, monitor what’s going on and proactively act on any signals of opportunities or problems. Social software allows managers to practice “Management By Listening Around” on a scale which has never before been possible.

It is a fact that information disseminates much more efficiently in networks than they do in hierarchies. This makes social software such as social networks, feeds and blogs and micro-blogging crucial components in any digital work environment which aims to reduce human latency in business processes, to allow ideas to flow more freely to spur innovation, to make people discover information and people more easily, and to make collaboration happen more naturally across time, space and organization.

Social software also presents a great possibility for managers to listen to and learn about how their business is performing by giving them access to more accurate, complete and timely information. But it also presents a threat to those managers (and information-hoarding “experts”) who have build their positions on the exclusive right to distribute information up- and downwards in a hierarchic organization.