Is Management the Problem?

Last week at the Enterprise 2.0 conference I moderated a panel of early adopters. The conference organizers assembled a true group of all-stars: Pete Fields, SVP in Wachovia’s eCommerce division; Simon Revell, Manager of Enterprise 2.0 technology development at Pfizer; Ned Lerner, Director of tools and technology at Sony Computer Entertainment, and my friends Don Burke and Sean Dennehy, Intellipedia Doyen and Evangelist, respectively, at the CIA.

The first question I asked them, and the one on which we spent most of our time, was essentially "If Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches really are so beneficial and powerful, why haven’t they spread like wildfire?"  I suggested three categories of impediment: managers, technologies, and users, and asked the panelists to hold forth.

In their initial responses all of them identified users, not bad managers or inadequate technologies, as the biggest barriers to faster and deeper adoption of Enterprise 2.0. Entrenched practices and mindsets, some degree of technophobia, busyness, and the 9X Problem of email as an incumbent technology combine, they said, to limit the pace of adoption. These factors slow the migration from channels to platforms and necessitate continued patience, evangelism, and training and coaching. 

I didn’t expect the panelists to say that the Enterprise 2.0 tooklit is so incomplete as to hinder adoption, but I was a bit surprised that none of them identified management as a real impediment in their first round of comments. So I pressed the point by saying something like "I didn’t hear any of you point the finger at the managers in your organizations. Were you just being polite, or are they really not getting in the way of Enterprise 2.0? The new social software platforms are a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare because they remove his ability to filter information, or control its flow. I’d expect, then, that each of you would have some examples of managers overtly or covertly trying to stop the spread and use of these tools. Are you telling me this hasn’t happened?"

That is in fact what they were telling me, and I didn’t get the impression that they were just being diplomatic. They said that managers were just another category of users that needed to migrate over to new ways of working, and not anything more. In other words, the panelists hadn’t seen managers in their organizations actively trying to impede Enterprise 2.0. 

This surprised me. I’ve thought that since E2.0 tools and approaches have no inherent respect for existing organizational hierarchies and boundaries the people who have ascended the hierarchy within the boundaries might be actively hostile to them. For the organizations represented on the panel, this does not appear to be the case. The most counterproductive behaviors mentioned were the reflexive desire to work in private, and the temptation to build a large number of mutually inaccessible walled gardens of user-generated content.

The panelists represented large organizations, most of which had been around for a long time and had large numbers of managers who were used to, and probably comfortable with, the status quo.  Yet no examples surfaced of these managers trying to thwart or sabotage E2.0 efforts, and no panelist told a story about a managers darkly hinting to their groups that participating in the new social software platforms might not be the best thing for a career.

I can think of three possibilities why not. First, managers in these organizations could be unaware of E2.0’s profound indifference to hierarchy and facilitation of transparency. Second, managers could be aware of these trends and displeased about them, but see themselves as powerless to stem the tide of freeflowing social information. Or third, managers could be aware and in favor of (or at least unbothered by) these developments.

This final possibility, of course, is the most optimistic. It suggests that even in large, well-established, and conservative organizations the hierarchy is not full of bureaucrats, in the narrow and negative sense of the term.

In your experience and opinion, is this accurate? Or is one of the first two scenarios above what’s actually going on?  Or is something else entirely taking place? Leave a comment, please, and let us know your thoughts and stories about management’s reaction to Enterprise 2.0…