Reboot 10 in Copenhagen last week was every bit as enjoyable as 7,8 and 9. I plan to recap my talk from last year, which was a bit off my beaten track, but for now I thought I should provide some context for my most recent talk since the slides are proving quite popular on slideshare but don’t convey the whole story. The slides were produced rather too quickly whilst socialising with lots of wonderful rebooters, but the ideas behind the talk have been swishing around my brain for a few weeks.
So, first, here are the slides and then the ideas behind them:
For a long time, I have believed that humanising the enterprise – treating people as adults and empowering them to take informed decisions rather than subsuming individual initiative and creativity entirely within systems and processes – is an essential part of increasing productivity and reducing co-ordination costs in large firms. But it is also important because it makes these companies better workplaces, thus increasing their ability to attract and retain talent whilst reducing the level of alienation felt by people who spend their days there. Work-life balance is more important to people today than it has ever been, and they are less likely to feel comfortable checking their values at the door every morning to do a job they do not enjoy.
However, there is another important reason why I think this is an important goal, which is that an organisation comprised of thinking, responsible individuals is more likely to behave as a well-socialised citizen of the global economy. ‘Doing an Enron‘ is much easier within a culture of secrecy and dishonesty, and much harder in a company where people are encouraged to think and act according to shared values rather than simply obeying orders. The level of transparency and connectedness that we have today means that companies are more likely to be found out when rogue executives take actions that create negative affordances for external stakeholders, so it is actually in the companies’ interests to have a workforce empowered to apply their common values in making decisions. I like to the think of the web of links and social connections that we weave with enterprise social tools and social networking as a kind of organisational immune system – like in biological systems, it might appear to have a high degree of redundancy, but this is precisely why it can maintain healthy networks and repair damage.
‘Forget about the enterprise!‘ I hear you say, ‘we are all startups now!’ Well, yes and no. Energy, food, travel, consumer goods, communications, pharmaceuticals, banking, automotive and other sectors are all dominated by large corporations. At least for now, it seems very difficult to imagine the current global economy functioning without them, and anybody who claims otherwise should first demonstrate that their lifestyle does not depend on the products and by-products of such firms. If you want to really make an impact, for good or bad, then these large corporates cannot be ignored. But I shall go further and argue that they might potentially be the key to codifying and spreading some of our emerging business values and behaviours, much as they did with previous generations of ideas at earlier stages in their evolution.
One of the most exciting aspects of our time is the extent to which new freedoms and behaviours are emerging from the interplay between social technologies and the new forms of networks, communities and individual relationships they are making possible. But we should not take these freedoms for granted as progress in this respect is rarely linear. In the 1970’s, it seemed we would all be commuting to work from London to New York in the successors of Concorde. Instead, not only do we not have super-sonic passenger planes, but our very freedom to travel has been reduced and in may cases severely curtailed by politics and war. Freedoms often emerge in bubbles, and can easily dissipate if we do not find ways to codify and protect them. The dot.com boom, the Cold War, the renaissance, the golden age of Islamic innovation and the Greek and Roman Empires were all bubbles that produced huge amounts of progress and some important freedoms, some of which were lost and some of which survived and we take for granted today.
The process of codification sometimes takes the form of laws, sometimes organisational rules and more recently, as Lawrence Lessig has written so eloquently, code. In the UK, it was until recently a capital offence to steal one of the Queen’s swans. In Windows Vista, decisions taken in MS-DOS many years ago live on like ghosts in the machine. We still represent emails with envelopes, which are a relic of snailmail, and in some countries the official stamp retains its authority on paperwork despite the invention of the colour photocopier. Abstract ideas and cultural values can achieve longevity through codification.
But this process can also gradually mutate ideas, sometimes with very negative results, by removing them from their original contextual moorings. Islam began as the most modern and liberating of the major religions of its time. Max Weber’s notion of bureaucratic systems was conceived partly as a way of freeing people from the whims of patronage and influence. Communism similarly began with humanising ideals, but in practice it very quickly placed systems and collective interests above human values with tragic results. One of my favourite expressions of this is to be found in the writing of Milan Kundera, who charts the way that Czech communism descended into absurdity, despite the energy and optimism of its early pioneers in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One story in particular, The Joke, exemplifies this process, when the book’s protagonist – originally an enthusiastic party member – tells a joke on a postcard to a friend that ends up with him being sent to the gulag and changing the course of his life dramatically.
So, how do we codify freedoms and new ideas without falling into the trap Kundera describes? Perhaps the best defence against this is people power. Any system, no matter how clever we think it is, should not be placed above the aggregate will or opinion of those who populate it; and I think this is one area where we are learning a lot about the role social computing can play. As far back as the fifteenth century, Etienne de la Boetie questioned why large numbers of people continue to accept leaders who do not govern well in his Discourse of Voluntary Servitiude. These days, thankfully, we are not talking about chopping off heads or revolution, but rather a constant feedback loop that is able to provide a check on power and also gradually improve governance of all kinds.
Technology has always been a major influence on the codification of new ideas and behaviours in organisational structures. Large enterprises bear the geological imprint of various layers of technological development, from the industrial revolution with its early machines and the development of double-entry book-keeping through to Taylorism and mass production. More recently, the introduction of the telegraph, the telephone and the personal computer have been just as influential on the way organisations are structured. In each of these cases, large companies has had access to these technologies before individual citizens or consumers because of their cost and complexity; now for the first time we are seeing consumer technology advancing faster than internal IT and influencing what we have come to call the consumerisation of the enterprise.
When computers first came to the workplace, they adopted some very old organisational models and metaphors, broadly based on Taylorist management thinking and centralised co-ordination and control, despite the far more visionary and liberating ideals of the early pioneers in Cybernetics. But many of the reasons why companies felt they needed to organise like this are now gone. We live in the age of network-centric management, not the factory. It is the difference between the First World War and Al Qaeda’s network of networks. Scale, resource scarcity and cost are no longer the big drivers of organisational methods.
The consumerisation of the enteprise and the introduction of new web and network thinking into corporations provides an important and exciting opportunity to think about how we can codify some positive values and behaviours into the systems that will support the workplace for the next 100 years.
There are three key dimensions to the challenge facing large organisations today that relate to humanising the enterprise.
First, old models of co-ordination, exchange and control are very costly and inefficient, and people often find themselves having to route around them to do their job. Business needs to be more direct, self-organising and easily scalable if large companies are to remain competitive with newer, leaner models of delivery.
Second, young people entering the workplace are less likely to tolerate working as battery chickens in their cubicles who are fed by email and expected to excrete reports. The ‘Generation Y‘ issue has been widely discussed elsewhere, but whatever the reality, it is true to say that right now there is a widening gulf between the way companies work and the way new entrants to the labour market are used to working.
Thirdly, corporations have grown in power as the state has waned. Internationally, they are free from many of the legal constraints that govern people and smaller organisations in a single country. But they also face greater scrutiny and transparency then ever before, so they cannot continue operating with impunity. They have permeable boundaries and complex webs of relationships with internal and external stakeholders. Old-fashioned defensive postures based on PR and CSR are not the way forward. Some of these companies are trying to become more socialised as good global citizens, but they don’t yet know how to conduct that conversation, and in some cases they are looking for help to do so.
What these three dimensions have in common is their dependence upon the people inside the business. By elevating the individuals in the organisation above systems, and by re-balancing the relationship between people and process, we can create a social fabric that lives and breathes the values that large companies are trying to instill in their organisations. We have the tools and the ideas to do this in ways that were not possible before, and we are in a position to finally move beyond Taylorism and the factory model to a new era of genuinely people-powered organisations and networks. We know how to create rich and purposeful social networks as vehicles for collaboration and co-operation. We know how to aggregate ideas and negotiate common language to create better forms of information organisation and retrieval. We know a lot more about what is possible when people trust each other by default; and we also know a lot more about how to engage in debate and deliberation with people who agree with us and people who do not.
Corporations are not evil, at least not necessarily so. They are made of people. The problem is that these people have previously been asked to check their values at the door and simply follow orders, whether right or wrong. That must change. If it does, then I think it is possible to envisage an outcome where corporations, entirely for reasons of self-interest, codify some of the best technological, communicative and sharing ideas of our generation and give them the same kind of longevity they afforded to the ideas of Max Weber and Frederick Taylor.
It is easy to forget that many large companies such as Unilever, Cadbury-Schweppes, Rowntree and others were driven by strong social values in their early growth, such as a desire to improve the health and well-being of their workers or to make available hygiene products and cheap nutritional foods to people who could not afford them at the time. Today, in the United States, business philanthropy is a major source of funding and initiative to tackle social problems, and as Anil Dash commented in relation to Bill Gates and his philanthropic work after leaving Microsoft, the scale sometimes dwarfs what governments and traditional charities are willing or able to achieve.
The big social challenges of our time – climate change, the future of energy, healthcare in the developing world and so on – are unlikely to be solved without constructive engagement with large corporations. But democratic engagement with business should not become a conversation between lobbyists and governments that results in weak targets, voluntary guidelines or other half-hearted measures that do not fundamentally change business behaviour; it should be a wider conversation with society as a whole. As well as shining lights on businesses’ mistakes and misdeeds, we need to really help them engage in what are often quite difficult conversations that they need to have with external stakeholders and public opinion. That way, we can apply our energies to solving real problems rather than throwing or deflecting brickbats.
When businesses are truly made of people, rather than impersonal monoliths, these conversations will be a lot more real and a lot more likely to result in positive outcomes for all concerned.