Imagine the following scenario. One of your staff has chosen to defend your organisation against criticism from a well known public figure. He does so in a private email exchange with the critic. He then talks about his actions on an internal discussion forum within your organisation and in this thread he is critical of the celebrity. Someone then copies and pastes this internal conversation onto the web in a public space such that the critic gets to see it and he goes ballistic making the whole thing public. This story actually happened, what would you do if it happened to you?
Your staff are leading increasingly online lives and this scenario is playing out all over the business world. A situation just like it, or even worse, will almost certainly happen to you in the near future. Would you know what to do? Would you be able to see it as the opportunity that it actually is?
Knowing what to do in this situation story involves three elements none of which are in fact novel managerial challenges but all of which take place in what may be unfamiliar environments and with new challenges.
The first, and indeed possibly most important, skill for management in the future is going to be listening.Yes I know it is a cliche and mangers have always been meant to listen but in an online world there is a lot more to listen to! Being able to establish systems and habits that allow you to keep across the vast amounts of information increasingly available to you matters more and more. Working out what is signal and what is noise and feeling confident that you have a virtual ear to the ground will be key. If you can master these skills you will in fact be better informed about your business than ever before. With a little up front effort you will know more, earlier, about the things that matter in your organisation. Knowing that our member of staff was engaged in this defence of our organisation early gave us much more opportunity to deal with the fallout.
Dealing with things
Understanding what to do about things that happen online feels very unfamiliar to many managers. They may not have grown up online to the extent their staff have and may not be old enough to have teenagers at home showing them the ropes. However as with listening skills managers already know much of what they need to be able to be effective at managing situations online but the way they apply their knowledge will be different.
Very little can ever get done without help from others and in a 1.0 world you are limited to those over whom you have some sort of authority or your own personal network. Online however you have a much more extended network to call on and access to all sorts of people who can help you sort problems and deal with issues. It can very often feel as a manager as if you are on your own. You have no sense of whether others are facing the same issues as you do and despite the best efforts of organisations to “capture knowledge” you have very limited access to what worked before or how others have solved the problems you are dealing with. Online this is different. If you have been open and sharing online about your work then a whole network of people already understand and can identify with the challenges you are facing. If you have helped them in some way in the past there will be a great willingness to return the favour. There will also be more heads than one thinking about your problem with different perspectives, different solutions and you may even find some of those who you can now access online are directly involved in your problem - and its solution. but you just didn’t realise it!
There is a huge potential for self organisation in online environments. Because things happen in the open and participants can see and contextualise each other’s behaviour they are all better able to make judgements and respond themselves in ways that don’t apply offline. If someone is behaving in a way that is seen as unproductive or destructive then other users of the system are able to step in and do something about it. In other words all of the responsibility for managing situations no longer falls on the manager - it can be shared amongst others. How you get others to accept this responsibility and use it wisely is a new and key skill to being a 2.0 manager. In our story about the member of staff v the critic our internal forum conversations, calling on others with more experience of online situations about what was right, what was wrong, and what should be done about it gave us much more chance of dealing with the situation appropriately.
Learning from what happened.
Much of what we do in our work lives goes unrecorded. Most of us don’t keep diaries and any official reporting we do tends to be just that, the official version of events rather than the really interesting stuff about why we did what we did and the context for our decisions. This is where the humble blog can come in handy. In the first place having somewhere to write gives you the reason to be more reflective about what you are doing and why. Noticing what is interesting in situations and articulating that can be a great way to increase your understanding and capture your thoughts. If you do this, even occasionally, you will over time build up a rich history of your own decisions, actions and thinking. On top of this reflective use of the blog thinking “out in the open” means that others in your organisation, staff or fellow managers, will have a much better sense of where you are coming from. They will understand better what issues you are dealing with and how. They will know you in a way that wasn’t possible when you were just another name on the org chart, Keeping a blog needn’t become a time consuming chore or just another thing to add to your to-do list. You can do it as little or often as feels right or productive but the pay back for this effort can be enormous in terms of establishing credibility and building relationships with useful people.
Even of you don’t feel keeping a blog is worth the effort your contributions to online discussions and wikis will also be there for future reference. Knowing from your forum conversations what triggered a situation, what you did about it, and what the consequences or other people’s reactions were can be very valuable to look back on in the future. If you have been working on a project using a wiki to plan or produce policies etc then the rich, hyperlinked, collaboratively written record will be immensely useful to both yourself and others next time someone faces the same challenges and doesn’t want to re-invent the wheel. All of our online conversations about our staff vs critic situation are still there years later for all to see and learn from. From the forum discussions to the reflective blog posts and the wiki pages incorporating learning into policy.
When will I find the time?
One of the biggest concerns expressed by manager when face with the incoming fire-hose of information that the web represents feels like to them is “how will I find the time”. Certainly in the early days becoming more involved online will invariably be done in addition to the work that fills people’s days currently. But over time the up front investment starts to pay off. In terms of the preceding three priorities - knowing what is happening sooner saves time and energy as you can react more quickly and efficiently. Having people to help you spreads the load and again means less effort in dealing with issues. And lastly knowing what worked before can avoid an awful lot of the costly and wasteful mistakes that soak up so much of our time and energy. There has to be an ROI on the effort required to do this stuff and until you have got the point of getting some returns it can seem like all investment. However once the point of payback is reached and you start to experience working “in the flow” with the networks of smart folks you will undoubtedly attract and begin to work with there is no way back.
Things get really exciting if you look forward a few years to when everyone works in this way and have done so for some time. The highly connected collaborative networks that will pervade your organisation and the rich, contextual information available to everyone whenever needed will inevitably begin to shape how we expect to get things done. Spending time locked in offices having meetings that struggle to move things forward or slaving over documents that get read by a few people then hidden in document repositories will fade into memory. Certainly, in the short term many will continue to do what they have always done in the ways they have always done things - remember the promise of the paperless office? But consider also the radical ways in which our lives outside work are changing. The way we take it for granted that we can look up any information anywhere in the world from our mobile phones. The way we can maintain contact with many more people than before with less effort through social networking tools - and the way we increasingly expect to buy and sell things on the web from old toys to new houses! Certainly for the new recruits and staff who you will increasingly be managing the web is just part of their lives and they will expect it to be part of their work. It is not “technology” it is just how you get things done.
Human nature is human nature and much of what managers have to deal with will stay the same so long as we have large organisations. However the means at our disposal to deal with challenges are about to get immeasurably richer for those willing to have a go and learn the ropes. Ultimately there can be little doubt that these changes will eventually affect all organisations in some way and therefore begin to call for very different approaches to management. The Taylorist idea of a machine with people as the “human resource” will give way to much more fluid, networked ways of looking at things with the need for different approaches to everything from strategy, to employment policies, to customer engagement. “Command and control” will give way to “engage and assist” and our sense of what it takes to be an effective manager will change.
The way to understand what is happening and how it will affect you is to get hands on now and begin to learn the ropes. Getting help from those of us who have been at this for a while will make things easier too!