Monday, 8 September 2014

The information revolution - is this leading or following organisational change?

In this post, I want to return to the topic of collaboration as a skill required by people, especially those working in organisations.  A question that I'm thinking about it whether collaborative practices are leading organisational change or whether they are following the emerging developments in the ways people are beginning to work together in a more networked fashion.

Just recently I had the chance to talk to a group about a trend, in an increasing number of organisations, to introduce enterprise-wide communication systems that are encouraging radically different methods of information dissemination. What's changing is a shift from the top-down formal practices of traditional internal corporate communications towards something that feels much more collaborative.  In this environment, employees are being expected to:

  • participate and share their ideas, concerns and points of view through an emergent network of virtual groups.  These groups cross traditional business unit 'silos' and hierarchies.
  • select and customise the streams of corporate information of most interest and make these visible on a personal home page.
  • use of a powerful search function to locate just-in-time information about, for example, company policies.  
  • make themselves visible through personalised profiles with CVs, skill summaries, personal blogs and news items, wikis and videos.
To add a couple of perspectives drawn from recent publications:


In the article Workers of the world - log in, The Economist charts the growth in importance of the business social networking site in shaking up the way professionals are hired.  Of interest is the ways that it is now being used by organisations for internal searches and some are using the skills data to help them make location decisions about new offices and factories.

From teams to teaming

The article Teamwork on the Fly in HBR April 2012 highlights a growing interest and shift in porous communities of colleagues who come together to solve a business challenge, or launch a new initiative.  One of the keys to making this type of organisation work is to have a skills marketplace where people with an interest in a particular issue can find partners.   

The multinational food company Group Danone believes strongly in this concept and has institutionalised it in the form of Networking Attitude, a programme that encourages ad hoc projects involving employees spread across hundreds of business units that previously operated independently, with little or no cross-pollination. 


Perhaps where we are now, at least in terms of how organisations are evolving in the networked era, is the end of the beginning.  The internet and social media have created the means to enable networks to grow that transcend traditional notions of hierarchy and control.  Whilst many company workers may have signed up to LinkedIn and other social media tools, the effect on everyday organisational life has been limited.  Apart from a few early adopters, the majority have been content to 'wait and see' and the status quo of company-wide centralised communications and local and business unit team meetings remain the norm in terms of dissemination of information. 

But my sense is that we have only just begun to grasp the revolution that is unfolding.  There are now a few organisations that are experimenting with different ways of organising work, e.g. Zappos, the online retailer and its holacracy model or Haier, the Chinese appliance maker that is using a large network of self-managed teams. Whether these specific models stand the test of time is less important.  What is common to both, and the Danone example, are the ways in which they are pointing towards the opportunities that exist for working collaboratively. 

In this context, whether the new collaborative communication practices that I cited earlier are leading or following this change is probably a moot point but what is for certain is that they will place much more emphasis on active participation from the majority.  

One practical benefit that we might all vote for is the potential for fewer emails.  How? A lot of email traffic is generated by requests to multiple addressees for comments.  Threaded discussions in virtual groups would eliminate this type of clutter and, other things being equal, reduce the size of the inbox - we live in hope.      

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