Social adaptation for an unpredictable future

Profile picture for user euan_semple By Euan Semple November 2, 2014
If your social networks become active and productive enough, it is not inconceivable to begin to reshape your organization to reflect changing patterns.

One of the challenges of social networks is that they look unstructured and messy. To those used to divisions, departments, teams, job titles, and reporting chains they appear chaotic and unpredictable. To those in them they make sense. We know where the best conversations and best people are. We learn to see the signal in the noise.

In many ways this networked approach already exists. It is reflected in the mirror organizations that most of us already use to get things done, to go around the system, to adapt it to our needs. What we are talking about is being able to see and legitimise that shadow world and make it more acknowledged as the way things really work.

Online conversations that cross the boundaries and silos enable us to experience insights all the time in the normal course of our business. We can see what needs fixed and have a greater appreciation of what needs to be changed. The next stage is to have a an ability to bring about these changes. To enable increased adaptability in our people and our processes.

Part of this is going to be about changing the rules of how we do things and part of it is going to be changing the attitudes of the people involved. Most of us resist change and need to be convinced of its benefits. But if we cultivate an adaptable and flexible approach from the start we will face considerably less resistance.

Too many organisations write their social media policies before they have any experience of using the tools. They write them in the context of their current ways of doing things rather than with a view to new ways of working. If you feel the need to have a policy make sure that it is an enabling one that makes it clear that using social tools is a good thing that the intention is to make that worthwhile and to give people confidence.

Don't kill your social networks by over structuring them. There will be pressure on you to do this, from those who are more familiar with conventional structures, but do resist. Allow a sensible structure to emerge from repeated patterns of behavior.

Watch what is happening, watch for patterns, and respond to these. Not only will this process help your social network to flourish, it will also reveal the real networks and afford you an alternative picture of your organisation, possibly for the first time.

Ultimately if your social networks become active and productive enough, it is not inconceivable to begin to reshape your organisation to reflect those patterns.

Future shapes

So what sort of structures will we see in the future? For one thing, the edges of the organization will be less clear. More people will work in looser networks or small businesses contributing to the large ecosystems that will replace our current corporations.

Individuals will be more aware of the networks they work in and will see the patterns of alliances and dependancies more clearly. They will have a much more pragmatic and short term expectation of processes and procedures and will have in place the means of reviewing and altering these procedures on an ongoing basis.

Measuring and rewarding contribution are significant aspects of our work and these too will have to change in the future. The neat world of job classification and grading has never reflected reality and will increasingly be seen as a hinderance rather than a help. But what do we replace it with? Not all skills are equal and not all contributions represent the same value.

We are seeing organisations like Zappos grab the headlines with "holacracy" their attempt to work without management roles and hierarchy but is it what it seems? Aren't there still pecking orders and don't people still defer to those they perceive as more senior?

Other poster child organisations such as Gore have interesting alternatives to conventional command and control hierarchies, but they are still the exception rather than the norm.

The world of open source software development is often cited as an alternative way to productively muster resources and there is currently a lot of excitement around blockchain, the enabling protocol that supports Bitcoin and which could potentially enable decentralisation of many aspects of organisations and institutions.

These are early days. We don't need to, and shouldn't, lurch wholesale into new ways structuring our businesses. There is ample opportunity to adapt incrementally and deploy new structures alongside our more conventional norms.

But adapt we will have to. Not least because or the ongoing disruptive effect of digital technologies on our businesses. It seems clear that flexibility and adaptability are going to be essential characteristics of not just individuals but also organizations in the future.


Euan Semple is one of the keynote speakers at Enterprise 2.0 Summit in London this month, supported by diginomica. For more information, click on the logo.