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Comunidades, English, Gestión del conocimiento, Gestión e innovación

Mob rule, crowd wisdom, management and communities

Over at Collaboration Loop, Mike Gotta has just been making some interesting comments, sparked by the Digg “user revolt” but quite more wide-ranging. And very relevant, IMHO.

He pictures an organization where workers can make themselves heard in decisions that affect the corporation… and can oppose them. Think of the “Enterprise 2.0” ideal, lots of transparency and everyone’s voice heard.

It is suddenly clearer why there’s limits to it :-D.

Gotta contemplates two possibilities:

  • the crowd may be right (“crowd wisdom”) and thus help decision making by overruling (in practice) executive decisions.
  • the crowd may be wrong (“mob rule”), thus highlighting an internal communications problem.

(…) I believe the real take-away here is that the line between “mob rule” and “collective intelligence” is razor thin and that companies will cross back and forth across that line. The goal is to avoid significant and long-lasting chaos and anarchy. Some degree of ongoing cultural disruption can be a good thing actually.

There is danger however when enterprises look at technology alone to democratize the workplace. Those that go down this path, do so at their own peril. The ability of an enterprise to leverage the capabilities of the people it intentionally or inadvertently empowers is inextricably tied to its ability to handle the organizational dynamics enabled through the technology.

Thus organizations had better adapt:

If you have an effective governance model in place, you build the needed resiliency and agility into the organization’s DNA to become a “social enterprise”. A social enterprise has the competencies and behaviors needed to continually right itself as it ebbs and flows between “mob rule” and “collective intelligence”.

A new type of governance. As he say, what is lacking is “the next generation management frameworks” that enable “collective intelligence” to “lead to collective action that is purposeful in manner that supports the organization’s goals and objectives“.

As he goes on to highlight, when a company aims to become the leader of a community rather than its boss, it’s subject to the Digg type of trouble: a contrarian community. Lest, of course, it learns how to manage that.

Yes, but no. Look at communities.

Gotta’s article is IMHO one of the most serious ones on the subject. But it seems to me that he leaves the issue half-way… and it’s an issue I’m especially aware of.

In short, he’s looking at the differences and convergence between two management models: the current corporate organizational model (if there’s such a beast) and that commonly associated with participatory communities of practice.

His text goes a long way to explain why both are different and won’t likely become the same, even when they share the same corporation. A “social enterprise” will give a larger role to community-type management, but it won’t eliminate the need for corporate-type. They are separate domains and will continue to be so, however much in-company communities come to determine such things as product strategy or training programs.

Three types of reasons come to mind:

  • Responsibility vs volunteering. Communities are intrinsically deficient at setting and following tasks, and getting things done. The reason is that they do not have the responsability concept as engraved as teams do: each member has a task to answer for, whereas a community spreads the task, and thus nobody really answers for it. At the core of every successful community, we will find a non-democratic, no-nonsense core team, making sure everything that needs to get done, actually gets done. Inside that team, someone is boss.
  • Vision and consistency. A corporation is built (and funded by shareholders) on a vision: what it aims to be, where it aims to go, what values it is founded on. A mob isn’t. Community membership changes with time, and it either changes its members, or is changed by them. If it just absorbs people and gives them a voice, the corporate vision that shareholders bought will become embroiled with others such as work-life balance, saving the world and office interior decoration. In a corporation, the vision can be imposed through formal authority and the corporate behaviour can be reined in to what the leadership wants. Not so in a community.
  • The enterprise in an enterprise. It is owned by outside shareholders. However strange, its main aim is to make money for those shareholders. You can bet that the employees won’t support outsourcing 20% of development hours to India. Unless the employees are the owners, a mob-derived decision that impedes this sort of management strategies is completely illegitimate.

Communities, and specifically communities of practice, have some experience on what happens when “the crowd” becomes disaligned with “the management”. Indeed, at Macuarium we have built just such a beast: a company that aims to lead, not boss, a community system… and have had to weather a couple of those situations or two.

A clash between leadership and community, in a well-run environment, is (most often) not due to a difference of opinion on how things should be done, but on what things should be done: what the community is about and who should call the shots. Communities confer their own leadership legitimacy. The management can either earn it or lose it…

… or steer clear of it. Management decisions should not deal in practices (save in strategic issues) and community decisions should not deal in resource management (save in knowledge issues). That is IMHO the cornerstone of a succesful “social corporation governance system”.

But of course, only practice, trial and error will make it happen.

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