The Future of Open Business At Stake

Gran Canaria - Santa Lucia's Surroundings in the SpringAbout a year ago, I put together an article where I was reflecting on the fact of how plenty of the early thinkers of Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business, the social evangelists, were starting to become rather scarce and very rare to be seen out there on the Social Web. So I wondered where were they? Well, a year later, I think I may well know now where some of them are. Doing perhaps the very same thing that most of us would not have expected and find somewhat rather strange: getting their work done protecting their turf.

Almost a year later, my good friend Euan Semple pretty much nailed it when a couple of months back he put together this rather insightful and very thought-provoking piece under the suggestive title “Defend your mess“, where he stated what happens when people begin to notice your efforts, as a social business evangelist, facilitating the adaptation to social networking behaviours in your business. To quote: 

But it was beginning to be noticed by other people; people who were less experienced on the web; people who liked things tidy and organised. We came under pressure to make the forum more structured. They wanted a structure that reflected the organisational structure at the time. They thought that people would find it difficult to navigate if it didn’t follow the familiar patterns

I guess nowadays it’s what most people would be calling Collaboration, but this time around happening through social software tools. In fact, for vast majority of practitioners social / open business is all about, and just about, collaborating with your peers, although perhaps nowadays with a fancier set of collaborative and knowledge sharing tools. So if you look into it, it seems that we are still putting lots of lipstick on the pig, because apparently we don’t seem to have progressed much from that obsession of living social into what I feel is much more interesting and exciting altogether: Transformation.

In another superb, and worth while reading article, Matt Ridings, pretty much detailed what the challenges are in terms of how enticed we may have become with diving into social business, but perhaps not pushing far enough in terms of provoking that social business transformation I just mentioned above. To quote: 

My frustration lies not in their understanding of ‘what’ a social business looks like, but rather their lack of understanding in ‘how’ an organization can make that transition. The prevailing view seems to be that if we simply show companies what all the benefits and traits are that they will simply ‘become’ those things. ”The organizational culture must change!”, “The technologies must be put into place!”, “The hierarchy and silos must fall!”.

While all true to one degree or another, these are still statements of ‘what’ must happen and not ‘how’. The most important factor missing here is a ‘why’. Why have organizations evolved in the way they have? It is only through understanding that evolution that one can design and justify a means of effectively changing it.

I suppose I know now where a good number of those social business evangelists are hanging out nowadays. They are not necessarily hiding out behind the firewall, as it may well have been perceived for a while, nor are they bored with the whole thing and decided to move on, but, on the contrary, they are fighting the good fight, “defending their mess”, as Euan mentioned on that article, by helping those new to this whole brave new world of social / open business to get it right. To think different. To live different. To adapt to a completely new world where business interactions are totally opposite to whatever has happened in the past. And this is where the challenge comes up, because those new to social / open business are those very same laggards who have been waiting long enough to see how they could structure, control and manage the whole experience through rather tight, strict and cumbersome business process that certainly don’t allow those chaotic, unstructured, networked, hyperconnected behaviours, that social networking tools inspire, to flourish and disrupt the entire organisation around the edges into a new way of thinking. That one of Openness and Transparency. Gran Canaria - Santa Lucia's Surroundings in the Spring

And that’s why organisational, or team, silos keep flourishing more often than not, even today, despite plenty of efforts that have been tried for a long while to be done with them once and for all. Yet, that doesn’t seem to have happened as we keep seeing how more and more practitioners keep claiming that for as long as they are collaborating they are doing social business. Well, not really, because, eventually, we are not changing much of our own behaviours in terms of how we have traditionally collaborated and shared our knowledge, even though the tools suite is different, much different. 

This is where I feel we are going to have one of the biggest challenges yet to be seen within the corporate world, because on the one hand the social / open business evangelists are excited all of their efforts, hard work and energy are, finally, at long last, becoming mainstream within their own organisations, so they are all rather excited about it. And, in a way, they have started to let it go, thinking things would be all right as they just start to look after themselves. And then on the other hand, we are starting to see how that mainstream is just absorbing all of that effort structuring it, formalising it, and establishing a rather tight and strict series of business processes around social that, if anything, are starting to strangle all of that emergent flavour that social networking for business has been having all along and bringing it down to its knees and, once again, straight back into the organisational silos, what we have been traditionally calling collaboration.

Now, don’t take me wrong. I am pretty much in favour of collaboration and knowledge sharing. I have always believed it’s what dictates the mere survival of every single organisation in today’s more complex than ever world. However, what I have been seeing for a good couple of years now is how by having social business become more mainstream within the corporate world the kind of collaboration that’s encouraged is that one that we know just far too well: the one happening in small, private, secretive, opaque teams that pretty much don’t care about anything else that’s happening around them. And that’s just wrong, because it’s proving we may not have learned much over the course of the years in terms of what we should be aiming at: Open Collaboration, across silos, organisational units, geographies, countries and what not. Porous organisations swarming around, anyone?

Yes, silos are good, they are there for a reason. They have a purpose. We should treasure and nurture them, but, at the same time, we should also challenge their own existence, thinking that, unless you have a pretty good reason to have that silo, where you would want to protect specific knowledge flows because of the confidentiality or sensitivity of the information, then there isn’t a reason to have one and this is what I feel us, social / open business evangelists, should be fighting for in terms of “defending our mess”, i.e. fighting our turf. Or as Euan himself stated brilliantly: 

Don’t let people try to tidy up your internal use of social too soon. At least let it find its feet before you start worrying about mess. Mess is in the eye of the beholder. 

Part of your job as the instigator of social in your organisation is to defend it. You are there to keep reactive forces at bay until the tool achieves a robust enough culture to look after itself. This will probably take years.

And that is exactly one of the main reasons why you may not have seen much of me, and a whole bunch of other social evangelists, out there on the Social Web in the last little while. I, too, have embarked on keeping up that fight, more than anything else, because I am just not ready yet to let go all of that hard work, energy and strong effort put together over the last decade around Social / Open for then seeing some bean counters, lawyers and social wanna be pundits destroy all of that work of emerging digital tools helping transform the way we do business, just because they want to get their way, ignoring everything / everyone else. Yes, somehow I suppose that ignorance has always been very brave, if you know what I mean. 

No, it doesn’t mean all of a sudden I have become anti-social either, not at all. Perhaps I am now even stronger and more committed to the cause than ever before. My good friend Greg Lowe described it pretty well in a recent tweet he shared across: 

Gran Canaria - Pozo de las Nieves in the SpringYes, indeed, I am not too sure whether I am, myself, succeeding as well in terms of finding that balance now that my interactions behind the firewall seem to have taken a life of its own in terms of me needing to focus on internal work rather than spending time on the Social Web out there. In fact, I am starting to think that, given how things are moving along, I may just need to resort my external exposure to those idle moments in between work and personal life where I can dip in my toes, see what’s going on out there, get a breather or two, raise my social periscope up, see what my extended networks have been up to, and if I don’t see them, by any chance, I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that they are probably just defending their mess, just like I am doing myself, or as Matt himself concluded: 

These leaders need help. They face a difficult task balancing the competing interests at play. While I suppose you could measure their effectiveness based upon whether they are tweeting or not, might I suggest they have plenty of other things on their plate that are more important

That’s it. That’s what it is all about! Don’t worry, we are not gone, we may have gone silent for a bit, at times, it may look as if we have just disappeared, but we will always be there. It’s just that we are ensuring that social / open business transformation doesn’t get bastardised, once again, just like Knowledge Management did 18 years ago, when vendors and consultants decided, on behalf of all of us, that KM was all about team work and siloed collaboration. This time around it’s vendors (Once again), along with marketers, bean counters, lawyers and command and control, process driven zealots, the ones who keep insisting on designing and shaping up the workplace of the future thinking they know better than everyone else, no matter if you have been there for a long while. 

Well, we are not going to let go that easily this time around, are we? Some of us have learned from that KM past and, somehow, I suspect we are not very willing to go and commit the very same mistakes, once again. There is just plenty at stake at this point time. Essentially, the workplace of the future

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