Self-organisation and Social Networking

Today’s missive comes squarely in the “random thoughts” camp, so if the lack of science offends you then now is the time to tune out. For those more tolerant, I want to discuss how the benefits of self-organising teams can be grasped by truly embracing social networking within an organisation. And how truly embracing social networking requires an organisation to evolve towards a structure of self-organisation.

I’m passionate about the concept of self-organising groups: loose affiliations of like-minded people who come together to achieve a specific goal, and who then may go separate ways once that goal is achieved. I firmly believe that these well-motivated groupings can be far more effective than any rigid organisational structure.

I’m also fairly passionate about corporate teams, but not in quite such a positive way. If you’ve read my posts on agile working and the like, then you’ll perhaps have gathered that I feel that the way teams are formed and maintained in the business world is less than efficient. People are thrown together for organisational reasons, and may only cooperate in a limited sphere of activity. Yet great importance is put on building “teamliness” (made-up word of the day) – a buddy-feeling – within these teams.

My nirvana is the creation of groups on an ad hoc basis, for short or long durations depending upon need. For instance, lets say a business needs to create a sales campaign for a new product. The business could use the team who created the product to create that sales campaign, or a dedicated marketing group. Or it could allow a cross-organisational team to form to address it. Why do this? Well, depending upon the organisation there are lots of possible reasons: there may be no permanent team able to take on the extra work; or which possesses the right skills in the product; or which understands the market correctly. A big company might think (if a company can be said to think) it has teams to handle everything life can throw at it, but  it would be wrong.

Flexible working, allowing self-organised teams to form and re-form as required, ensures the organisation gets the maximum from every individual – and helps to keep the workforce motivated, engaged, and empowered.

The challenge is to provide an environment where people can self-organise effectively. At first the idea is ludicrous – how could we expect groups of people to spontaneously collide in such as way as to meet a specific set of needs?

This is the challenge that social networking in a business lays down for us. But it’s a big task, and one which even the most forward-thinking of organisations have real trouble with. Make no mistake: this is not a change from command-and-control to devolved committees. This is not a playset for employees with too much time on their hands. This is a serious undertaking for any business – a shift of power from management to individuals. Giving each individual control of their own working time, and allowing them to fill that time with whichever business goals they see fit.

Without making this shift, the power of social networking can never be embraced within an organisation. Yes, the social networking tools will aid communications: may address issues such as persistent storage of messages; will help employees to find experts when they’re needed; will make publishing content onto the web easier than ever; will enable the use of data-mining techniques to drive information flow where it is needed.

But without addressing the organisation structure and expectations, individuals will never be able to be flexible enough to commit themselves to projects when needed. Managers will always consult budget sheets to decide who can be allowed to do what. There will always be command-and-control, albeit in a devolved form.

I fully understand that my nirvana is a massive ask for organisations built around tiers of management which have to answer to shareholders, or owners, for success and failure. The risk seems huge. But it will be the flexible organisations with the flexible workers which will ultimately reap the full rewards of the revolution in communications.

We have a long way to go yet. We need to understand how to build a compensation system which deals fairly with individuals according to their value to the business. We do need some checks and balances to ensure those who would rather sit and watch, rather than actively contribute, are engaged properly. But perhaps the corporate assumption that managers are hard-working and “employees” are lazy isn’t entirely accurate, perhaps the need for monitoring is over-stated.

Nirvana may be just around the corner for some. Or it may be a very long road. But whichever path is taken, every step is a step forward.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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