What I Said About the Revolution

Later this week, the Management Lab is convening a group of academics and practitioners to "to define the “Grand Challenges” for 21st century management, and imagine possible solutions to them." The list of attendees is very impressive; I’m flattered to have been asked to participate and anticipate learning a lot

As part of the preparation for the conference we were asked to "Briefly describe a “design flaw” or “impediment” that undermines the capacity of organizations to adapt, innovate, or fully engage the talents of their members." We were then asked to "Briefly describe a “radical remedy” that might help to counter or avoid the impediment or design flaw described above."

I wanted to share my two responses here (they probably won’t surprise regular readers of this blog.). I’d love to hear your thoughts; does what’s below capture a real problem? If so, does the solution address it? Do you agree that "it is striking how few opportunities people have to generate, modify, and share information freely and widely on the Intranet?" Did I leave anything really important out? What other comments or thoughts do you have? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Impediment or design flaw: People and Information are Deeply Mismatched in Most Organizations

Within most organizations at present, the great majority of consultable digital information is either highly structured (customer order records stored in a database), a reflection of the viewpoints and priorities of the formal hierarchy (newsletters), and/or static (document repositories). As a result, this consultable information does not show the current state of the organization as perceived by its members, nor does it accurately represent their views, skills, judgments, experiences, activities, etc.

In fact, it is striking how few opportunities people have to generate, modify, and share information freely and widely on the Intranet, especially when compared with their abilities to do the same on the Internet. Since so many organizations describe people as their most important assets, it is puzzling why these opportunities are so constrained.

These constraints have an important consequence: while most organizations are drowning in many kinds of data they are simultaneously starved for vitally important information — information that comes over time from ‘wetware,’ or the minds of involved people. Lack of access to this information leads to sluggishness, redundancy, inferior decisions, and missed opportunities.

Radical Remedy: Create an Emergent, Social Enterprise Information Environment

An organization should deploy a universal digital environment that lets members contribute and modify content in a ‘freeform’ manner — with a minimum of imposed structure in the form of workflows, decision right allocations, interdependencies, and data formats specified ex ante. This environment should contain mechanisms to let structure emerge over time; such mechanisms include linking, tagging, voting, rating, and trading, as well as algorithms that generate recommendations, assess relative popularity, etc.

Managers’ roles in this environment are to set expectations, guide the development of healthy norms, indicate appropriate uses, and lead by example. A managers most fundamental role here, however, is to ‘get out of the way’ — to stop using technology to impose constraints and culture on people and their work, and to instead encourage the appearance of an emergent structure.

This remedy does not necessarily include the transfer of any decision rights beyond those related to content creation. In other words, this remedy does not advocate that decisions related to the running of the organization be turned over to any emergent collective. It simply entails the creation of a novel information environment. Decision makers will hopefully consult this environment, but the environment does not become the decision maker.