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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Thursday
Feb032011

Assimilation

Several years ago I predicted that one of the biggest threats to the use of disruptive web tools in the workplace would be assimilation. The adoption of the language and platforms of social media by those responsible for maintaining the status quo as a way of taking the power out of it and assimilating it into business as usual.

At the launch of Tibbr (a really useful looking tool and this post is not a reflection on Tibco who have developed it) I had several people in suits tell me that business is business and talk of revolution and disruption is likely to fall on deaf ears amongst the grown ups.

On the same day I get an email from a senior official in a government job saying "I'm beginning to think that the inherently democratic nature of social media tools is the very reason why they are being restricted or marginalised in some organisations. After all, the traditional notion of command and control is still very much alive in the dark heart of many business places - symptomatic of a deeply entrenched need for power....? I wonder what Nietzsche would have said about the new media?"

As I have said before this isn't bottom up. It is not some workers revolution. It can make as much of a difference to middle and senior managers as it will to the folks on the shop floor. But it won't make a difference to anyone if we just replicate the dysfunctional, inefficient mess we have now. If it isn't disruptive why are you doing it?

 

Reader Comments (17)

Hi Euan,
came here via the redoubtable Johnnie Moore. You are spot on here, I think. There is a lot of nervousness in senior management about this. Please allow me to cut and paste one of my favourite quotes about power/profit/hierarchy, from the Carl Rogers reader.
"He told me that while the experimental plants continue to do extremely well, and he feels pride in the work he has done with them, he regards his work with the corporation as a failure. The top management, though appreciative of the increased profits and good morale of the experimental plants, has not moved to follow this model in their other plants, even though it appears evident that overall profits would be increased.

“Why not?” I inquired.

His answer was most thought-provoking: “When managers from other plants look closely at what we are doing, they gradually realize how much of their power they would have to give away, to share with their employees. And they are not willing to give up that power.” When I stated that it appeared that power over people was even more important than profits- which are supposed to be the all-important goal in industry- he agreed."

Carl Rogers and H. Jerome Freiberg
Freedom to Learn 3rd Edition page 372

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdwight towers

There's an interesting dichotomy at play here, isn't there? Is tibbr (for example) potentially any less disruptive because "suits" see some value in it (in tibbr's case, because it can stream notifications from enterprise software systems to people who deal with process exceptions)?
I'm sure you're not at all surprised by the non-acceptance of "disruption" by senior management types … that's WHY it's disruptive! But existence of "normal" business value doesn't automatically reduce the disruptive capability of social media - think Trojan Horse.
In general, of course, your friend is absolutely correct - disruption will be strenuously resisted by potential disruptees …

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRic

Spot on as usual Euan.

As it happens, just yesterday I was having a conversation with someone about wiki's and all that "disorganised" information and how we have to "control" what's written where.

The initial argument was that "information could be lost" (by magic apparently) if it's not put in the right place but as I pressed the issue I finally uncovered the gem: "You don't know what someone could write on there that we might not know about".

Yep, it was much more about control (and paranoia) than protecting the information (as if that weren't a red herring in itself).

Those with power and used to exerting control in the traditional sense ought to be watching, and learning from the Egypt situation. You can only cling to your old world power structures for so long before the people realise that they are far more powerful than you.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Vaughan

Dwight - thanks for the quote

Ric - many senior people want disruption - they just tend to call it "change" and I prefer trojan mice to trojan horses.

Joe - I have been resisting parallels to Egypt but hey ......

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Euan,

excellent one!

Now, as to "command & control" as the stumbling block, yes I agree, but still I think we should look closer as to what that term entails:

1) As the term comes over it's easy to think it's about "control over others" in the very negative but oh so human fashion.
2) But it's also about accountability.

Accountability is a must, if I get a task and that requires subtasks and help from others which is the norm, I would not feel at ease unless the assignee (task assigned or taken freely) are totally and utterly accountable. And this is not a top management issue, this is highly relevant for everybody an all levels, probably more of an issue on lower levels than on higher levels. And it should be hierarchy independent; if I need help from a peer, it would be no fun for me if I get a shrug and an iffy "sure, I'll see what I can do, perhaps, i f I have time" - guess we've all heard that one :)

I think that is the most important issue, definitely the most immediate issue.

Problem with social media, E 2.0, Wikis and so forth is that there is no process - hence little or no "this is the task I give you/this task I have taken full responsibility for" + "ok, lets see, ok I'll do it/sorry cannot just now, please reassign" + let all see who took responsibility/who denied responsibility + run-time transparency of progress.

In other words, I'd suggest accept "command & control", take the positive interpretation of it, then redistribute it so the command includes assignee ability to say "no thank you, I do not have time right now" and control to include only accountability.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSig

Totally agree Sig and in fact never suggest that social tools replace existing processes - more give context and added value around them. The problem I think is that we have tried to apply one set of principles across a very wide range of very different activities and tools.

This isn't to say that the process driven stuff couldn't do with a rocket up the arse too and I keep telling people about Thingamy. I think you really put your finger on how to make things more flexible but more accountable at the same time.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Hehe, agree completely with a "rocket up their arse"! And you spreading the word is much appreciated!

I've learned one thing over time though; that established orgs are hard to crack, often a waste of time. But new ones is a totally different story, new as in start-ups or new business models / services within established.

Kind of obvious of course, but I'm fine with that as value can be delivered much more effectively and quickly that way. OK, some of those often are funds-challenged, which has made us a blooming little funds-less VC taking equity positions instead of license payments. And as we can then "build" the whole service platform beta in a few days risk and costs are low, one was even cash positive out of the gate so suddenly equity looks good compared to implementation fees!

I think we'll see history repeat itself, the entrenched not getting off their arse (rocket is hard to insert when target is sitting down) until somebody else whizzes past them. Funny how effective that is, being beaten is the best kind of rocket I think :)

Evil plans as Hugh suggests...

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSig

You are probably right. Reminds me of Hugh's great cartoon about dinosaurs. http://gapingvoid.com/2005/12/14/dinosaur-meteor/ I sometimes think I am trying to breath life into organisations that it would be kinder to let die .... and no I am not naming names!

February 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterEuan

I feel that we risk falling into the convenient view that the problem is always out there with 'them', with command-and-control managers, or suchlike - rather than with ourselves.

Andrew McAfee rightly IHMO concluded his Enterprise 2.0 book by pointing out about the traps that block transformation in organisations:

"The truly vexing aspect of these traps is that they spring not from the urge to be selfish or deceitful... but instead from the desire to be a good person and colleague, one who is interested in both improving the organisation and taking care of the people within it".

We're all much more implicated in the current mess than we usually realise IMHO.

* * * Here's the longer snippet from a blog post where I wrote about this:

As McAfee explains: "Over a distinguished career, Argyris studied why it is so difficult for most orgnisations to learn, change, and improve themselves, even when the need for change is broadly acknowledged and the desire for improvement is real and widespread.

"In a series of detailed long-term studies he demonstrated that even with the best of intentions, organisations and the people within them fall into traps that keep them locked in unproductive patterns of behaviour and interaction."

"The truly vexing aspect of these traps is that they spring not from the urge to be selfish or deceitful... but instead from the desire to be a good person and colleague, one who is interested in both improving the organisation and taking care of the people within it".

* * *

My full blog post (including some suggestions on getting out of these traps) – ' Open Leadership + Enterprise 2.0: the practices that can make them real' – is here: http://bit.ly/bJraEV

Matthew

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Mezey

I don't disagree at all with your points Matthew - and in fact a lot of the work I do is around getting people to take on more responsibility for their workplaces and their lives. The point here is more about the culture of "businesslike" which I believe is part of what make taking responsiblity harder in the sense that the Carl Rogers quote captures.

"the desire to be a good person and colleague, one who is interested in both improving the organisation and taking care of the people within it" doesn't happen in a vacuum.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

As an independent contractor - the accountability issue is easy - you my employer and I negotiate a deal as equals - if I don't like it I don;t so it and vice versa. Now we have true accountability.

Is not the issue in "normal" organizations the power imbalance in the contract - basically you tell me what to do - I then can and often will fudge the outcomes. Worse, in most organizations the tasks are monitored but NO ONE ever decided on what the outcomes should be. So the bulk of the accountability is about how the process works and not what are to be results.

It is not hard to have a group of contractors loosely knit perform a host of complex things and deliver a big result with no control once the contract has been completed properly.

So is it not all about culture? If you hire sheep and use a big stick and don't know what you want except control then .....

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob Paterson

This time we're in now reminds me of a 'then and now' time I grew up with, when the bowler-hatted City types who commutted on the 7:45 everyday were being challenged, mocked and eventually made obsolete by the new groove of rock and roll.

We'll always have our starchy traditionalists as poked at by a bowler-hatted John Cleese's, and our Jimi Hendrixes in co-existence; that is what I think is the nature of the cultural corporate disturbance social media poses today.

I've posted on facebook that this is the best post of the year so far. I agree with you Euan that the very attributes of social media that give it value are often being by-passed in the way it's actually being used.

I'd go along with Sig's comment that there's a marked difference between new organisations and more established ones in terms of the way they do this. There's also a link between the degree to which organisations are structured around debt and/or protocol.

The rise of social media, as a medium that goes through substance like water through sand, is like the rising waters being held back by King Canute; that, despite a number of efforts in aiming to establish group think that say otherwise (Nudge being one of them), the sheer laws of natural physics dictate it's going to be harder and harder to pull that one off, a factor which itself diminishes the future value of these kinds of organisations.

I think this discussion needs a lot more airtime, not least because there's an unnecessary and substantial cost involved in attempting to assimilate social media.

Also because the 'acting out' and 'as if' stages of incorporating are a well known and documented psychological phase we all go through.

The quicker we can bring a bit of cognitive therapy to this the better...

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne McCrossan

Euan, I think it *is* bottom up, if only because it isn't top down. "Top down" is about apportioning resources from the central command-and-control bunker. "Bottom up" is about aggregating individuals' transactions from wherever they sit in the obsolete corporate hierarchy.

No need for "bottom up" to be about untermenschen at all. We are all bottoms now.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominic Sayers

I prefer Stowe Boyd's "edglings" to bottoms!

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

"But it won't make a difference to anyone if we just replicate the dysfunctional, inefficient mess we have now. If it isn't disruptive why are you doing it?"

Could it be that the disfunctional, inefficient mess we have now is caused by too much disruptive behaviour rather than too little?

Maybe challenging the way things are done is just one tool - working with the grain is another. Disruption is just another tactic - but what's the ultimate aim?

People who are powerful seem perfectly capable of disrupting the organisations they run - one example is changing the structure of the organisation frequently to prove that there is purpose and strategy and that they are "in charge". They show their power by changing the way things are done - activity stands in for clear goals.

One of the ideas that need challenging is that disruption is a good thing in itself.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Reynolds

"People who are powerful seem perfectly capable of disrupting the organisations they run - one example is changing the structure of the organisation frequently to prove that there is purpose and strategy and that they are "in charge". They show their power by changing the way things are done - activity stands in for clear goals."

Can't imagine who you are referring to .....

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Change the last sentence in the blog post to "if it doesn't make a difference why are you doing it?" if you prefer.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

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