‘Social’ Commentary on the Future of Organizations

I’ve just been looking over the 40+ comments left in response to my post “The S Word,” which was about leading with the word ‘social’ when talking about the benefits and possibilities offered by Enterprise 2.0. And I’m just blown away by the thoughtfulness and careful thinking on display, as well as the civility and respect for others’ positions. It’s one of those instances where the comments far surpass the post itself, and it’s become my exhibit A for how 2.0 technology like a blog can generate discussion and knowledge from a heterogeneous and highly dispersed group.

I strongly encourage you to look through these comments; they’re a great way to get up to speed on the state of the debate on what’s going on, and what to call it. A number of people made the point that when engaging in marketing, education, sales, and outreach efforts 2.0 advocates need to use language that will resonate with the target audience. To the extent that ‘social’ resonates, then, use it by all means, and avoid using it when it doesn’t. I particularly liked Gia Lyons’ image of a tag cloud of marketing words. ‘Social’ is absolutely part of this tag cloud, and in my original post I was cautioning against overusing it, not against using it at all.

A second main thread in the comments concerned how we 2.0 enthusiasts talk about the phenomenon not with those we’re seeking to bring on board, but rather among ourselves. In other words, do we agree that a social revolution is taking place in business today? That corporate hierarchies are being replaced by self-organizing and -governing networks?

If they are, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen plenty of examples where formal org structures have been supplemented by informal ones (whether tech-enabled or not). It’s also quite common for formal, pre-defined business processes to be supplemented by ad hoc and emergent ones, especially when the formal ones aren’t working perfectly.

Every time this happens, it’s social. But it’s not revolutionary. It’s not even new.

What would be new is a trend of companies throwing out altogether their org charts, management hierarchies, reporting relationships, job titles and descriptions, formal roles and responsibilities, review and promotion processes, and other aspects of classic, old-as-the-hills organizational structure and replacing them with an entirely new social contract. I’ve not seen or heard of a single example of this taking place.

I’ve certainly seen some recent complements to classic org structure. These include Google’s 20% time, Cisco’s deliberate push to become more collaborative, and the abandonment of formal vacation policies by Hubspot, Crowdcast, and Netflix (disclosures at end of post). I think these are innovative, cool, and laudable. They come from enlightened leadership and are made possible in part by modern technology. But none of these companies, as far as I’m aware, has abandoned any of the classic elements of org structure listed in the previous paragraph. None of them, in other words, is using the social as a wholesale substitute for the formal.

I’m aware that Wikipedia has none of these elements (except for a process to promote editors to the ranks of administrator and beyond). But Wikipedia is not a company; it’s a Web collective. When companies start deliberately refashioning themselves as Web collectives I’ll start to believe that there’s a social revolution taking place in business. Until then I’ll keep repeating that Enterprise 2.0 is not THAT big a deal.

Am I missing something? Do you know of existing companies that are throwing out all or most of the aspects of org structure listed above and replacing them with a configuration that’s entirely (or at least largely) amorphous and emergent? I don’t, but I’d love to learn of them.

I love William Gibson’s insight that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” In my field research I’ve seen a business future in which the social / collaborative / informal / emergent is a larger complement to the impersonal / regimented / formal / planned than it is at present. I think this is a great thing, but I don’t think it’s a social revolution. I’d love to see early indicators of a more revolutionary future if they’re out there. Please show them to us…

(Disclosures: I have no financial interest in Google, Cisco, Hubspot, or Netflix. I am on the advisory board of Crowdcast, and have a small amount of stock in the company. Cisco is a sponsor of the Center for Digital Business at MIT, where I work. Brain Halligan, CEO of Hubspot, is a friend of mine who has invited me to Red Sox games)