The pioneering management thinker Peter Drucker once remarked that change was difficult, and something our entire psychological make up was organised to protect us from.

Change is often forced on us. This might be the best defence of the common management obsession with change, or more specifically, managing change, because it means businesses have little choice but to deal with the moving world. Noticing it, adapting to it, seeing how it could makes things better for the organisation; all this is all important, but that’s not what’s usually meant by “managing change”. The latter too often involves trying to force a management agenda against the grain of how things are, and too often for poorly-considered reasons. Change management ought to be about harnessing the tidal power of externally-driven change to generate creative energy in the organisation, but it too easily degenerates into futile control freakery.

These broad remarks could probably do with expansion, or substantiation, but for the moment I hope they can stand as a backdrop to some further thoughts about a technology-driven change (namely the rise of social media) and what it means for communication within organisations.

Ten years ago (or so) I set up a website for my teenage daughter, which I thought would be a platform for her interest in journalism. It was to be an online local news magazine, written by and for teenagers, about whatever was going on in the town.

I had been working for much of the previous decade on early entries to the world of the interweb. It was an interesting time, with much conceptual confusion about what this new creature was. Creative agencies swore blind that it was essentially a televisual medium, even though in days before broadband nobody really had the bandwidth to support moving graphics.

Another obsession was with how to create interactivity. Everyone understood that this was potentially an important part of the digital world, but before social media had begun to emerge the only model we had to go on was printed news and features media, where interactivity meant a letters page.

So I was all the more surprised (and a little shocked) when my daughter, largely driven by her more technically-minded and slightly older brother, came back with a version of the proposed On Folkestone magazine which looked nothing like a traditional magazine. There was no graphically-led homepage to draw you in, no attractive balance of photographs, nice graphical headings and body text. Instead they produced something that looked like a bulletin board, where readers could start their own threads on any topic and the conversation would go from there.

I realised that for my children’s generation, growing up with the Internet, interaction was a starting point, not an add-on, and though the resulting site lacked any apparent design finesse, it quickly became a popular destination for local teens, with a level of reader/writer participation that the corporate world could only dream of.

Since then of course we’ve seen the rise of Facebook, of mass blogging sites/tools like WordPress and Blogger, and visual social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. In their wake have come their business counterparts like Linked-In and Yammer. This week Microsoft launched its new Delve tools for its enterprise customers.

Social media are influencing how we expect to interact with any material delivered over the Internet, and by extension, web-based resources like corporate intranets.

This expectation is not evenly spread across generations, or even within generations. There are still plenty of people who don’t use Facebook, and never will. It would be unwise to see the introduction of social media in an organisation as a lever for change, unwise to depend on its acceptance by everyone, because that kind of behavioural change is almost impossible to force, and in any case, this is to look at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope.

Or to put it another way, many organisations are hard at work introducing social media platforms (it’s the plat du jour of the internal comms world), and if they are honest they would admit that it remains necessarily experimental. That’s fine, because it’s the only way to think right now, but there’s one certain thing : if you’re asking yourself “how do we get people to use our new social media tools/channels” you’re already on the wrong path.

Social media are a sign of a changing relationship between “speakers” and audiences, a relationship empowered by the Internet but reflecting other profound shifts in social attitudes, not least an increased individualism, coupled with a diminishing respect for traditional authority and institutions. Using social media regularly nurtures a sense that we need not be passive consumers of information or even entertainment, that at the very least experiences can be shared, may be the beginning of a conversation with others, and where the only common factor is that you have shared an experience, which might be deep or fleeting.

Social media are not in themselves an answer to any business need. They may with time facilitate more effective ways of working, but they need to be seen as part of a bigger shift in the workplace.

Using touch to control a computer is not generally as efficient for serious work as a keyboard or a mouse, but it will still increasingly influence how we expect to do anything on a screen. Similarly, organisations need to introduce social media tools not because they will necessarily offer a direct performance benefit, but because they are becoming part of the way many people expect to deal with information and communication, part of the way we touch the communities that matter to us, and the way those communities reach out to us.

In this sense it is quite wrong to see social media tools as just another channel for management messaging, a channel which happens to have a degree of interactivity built in, and it’s why the question about how you get people to use the tools is so wrong-headed. People will use the tools if it makes sense to do so, if they offer some value. This has to be a direct value to the employee, rather than something on a management agenda, and that value will depend heavily on other features of the workplace culture, as well as the degree to which individual employees already expect interactivity.

Social media tools undermine traditional hierarchical communication models, and they are not just part of the flattening of those models. They represent a different notion of allegiance and participation, one which goes wider, beyond assumed boundaries, and can support pragmatic short term co-operation as well as a deepening of chosen relationships.

They can be a tool for increased transparency, and a way of opening senior management concerns and discussion to every level of the organisation, which could promote a better understanding of those concerns, but this demands that senior managers think about their work in a different way, that they take transparency as a starting point (in much the same way that my children took interactivity as a starting point), and participate actively in the social media world.

It encourages diversity, serendipity, a more fluid interplay of the ways we might think of ourselves as individuals, or as part of multiple collective identities (perhaps defining myself at different points by my job function, my nationality, my gender, a product group within the business, a social activity, or none of these things).

Traditional management, concerned with tight control, will look at this complexity and feel that it makes the idea of alignment with corporate strategic goals all the more important, a way of bringing order to the chaos, but the opposite is true. It calls into question the value of alignment, and not least the way that internal communication practices have been mindlessly yoked to that goal.

It is reasonable and probably important that the projects and activities pursued within the organisation should to a greater or lesser extent support the priorities of its management. But this need for some kind of high level consistency does not require micro-management. It requires checks and balances at different points in the organisational structure. The idea that you can look for more than this, and try to engineer some kind of uniformity in the psychology of the organisation rests on (at best) a crude understand how culture works, let alone of what might be helpful. Equally social media can help make visible what should be a vibrant and diverse set of cultures in the business, which in turn should help stimulate constant fresh thinking about those priorities, about whether they are still serving the interests of the organisation in these times of accelerated social change, and whether they should be refined or adjusted.

It’s no accident that communication media in organisations have traditionally been seen as channels, as a means of controlling and limiting information flows. Social media are not like this. They are the surfboards of the new communication age, tools for riding the waves and enjoying their power. You can get on board, or you can go under, and in this turbulent environment those old and anal notions of alignment are as misplaced as they are futile.


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