I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively. The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world. The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?
You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring? Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:
- Real time information
Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices. ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.
Responding to a changing world
Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content. The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy. The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them. Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release. I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?
Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.
I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.
Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’. We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings. The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.
Transparency sits very closely with collaboration. With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively. You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.
I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state. More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced. I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way. The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?
This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change. These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world. If the world is changing then we need to change as well.
Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective. Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?
An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment. Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point. The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release. Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.
How do you influence behaviour?
I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this. Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces. Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it. The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means. It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.
Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally. More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate. This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.
Ultimately its all about making better decisions.
I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions. However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge. You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well. You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.
But we’re not out of control yet
This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined. Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work. In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward? If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.
Where do we go from here?
If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour
- Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences. The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game. If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
- Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes. We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
- Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well. If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within
We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally. There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives. It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.