Want to accelerate change? Embrace the org chart

The biggest barrier to enterprise change isn’t technology or regulations or the traditional hierarchy. It’s uncertainty about who decides what.

Particularly in companies pursuing social business projects, you’ll often hear “I’m not sure we can, so we’d better not.”

Removing that uncertainty involves an ironic twist. Because even as social business efforts try to flatten the hierarchy, they also need to embrace it.

“We too often mistake the way we decide for the way we work.”

In a post from the early days of the social business movement, Bertrand Duperrin articulated the difference between the goals and needs of enterprise 2.0. The goal involves changing the way people people work. But the need is for those changes to become implemented and institutionalized. And for that, decisions need to be made.

Are we allowed to put this data on our profile? Can we formally adopt this change to company policy? Does the workers’ council need to approve this? How will we get the resources we need?

These questions (and hundreds like them) all need answers before changes can really take root in an organization and become the new way of doing things.

The work itself may become more network-based and less hierarchical, but to get answers to questions like those above, you need decisions from specific people with specific responsibilities.

No middle management, no change.

That’s one of the reasons why there are limits to grassroots efforts.  As much as you need to build and engage a tribe within your organization, that tribe tends to hit a brick wall when it comes to things that traditional hierarchies do very well like sign a contract or pay a invoice.

Yet top-down support has its limits, too. While support from senior management is helpful, the necessary decisions tend to be made further down the org chart. And the messages and influence of top management tend to get diluted as they’re cascaded down the ranks.

To change the work, you need to be close to the work, to understand it, while also having the authority to allocate resources and address policy issues.

And so it’s middle management that you need to embrace.

An example

Do you want to change how HR works? Or IT or Operations or Sales? You need people in those divisions who can affect both policy and resources. Not just the CEO and not just the grassroots. But people in each area who can make decisions.

One proposal, particularly useful at larger firms, is to establish collaboration boards at the division level. These include people with both a passion and a knowledge for the work – not just the boss but line managers within the division – organized in a simple governance structure with a few specific responsibilities:

  1. deciding on the problems the division is trying to solve: e.g., reducing service calls through increased crowd-sourcing of answers or increasing role proficiency via communities of practice)
  2. agreeing on roles and responsibilities within the division: identifying who, in addition to the grassroots volunteers, will be made accountable to participate in solving the selected problem and be mandated to make further decisions
  3. agreeing on measures
  4. monitoring progress and making adjustments

While the words governance and collaboration don’t often go together, structures like these collaboration boards at the right levels can clarify who decides what.

“Can you have your hierarchy and network too?”

This may seem at odds with the spirit of social business efforts. After all, they’re typically associated with a self-organizing, emergent, network-style of getting things done. And so Andrew McAfee, author of “Enterprise 2.0,” tackled the question: “Does or should the network render the hierarchy obsolete?”

His straightforward answer was “No.”

Rather, the new form of management is “a fantastic complement” to the more traditional ways of getting things done. “You don’t have to abandon roles, job titles, and chains of command.” In fact, you need those things to implement the kinds of changes the social business movement is after in the first place.

As Bertand Duperrin also said “enterprise 2.0 is the ally of a hierarchy that want itself to be agile and efficient.”

Don’t fight your ally. Instead, use it to accelerate the changes you want to bring about.


About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Social Business and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Want to accelerate change? Embrace the org chart

  1. I agree. But I’d like to see this as the first step change. I’d like to believe that once you’ve infiltrated the establishment with new thinking, the rigid hierarchical structures that have oppressed creative thinking and thinkers in the past will give way to more fluid, agile, network-based organizational teams, as management and employees start seeing the fruits of working more socially, more interconnected. In many ways it’s the democratization of a results-based meritocracy that will make the future of the enterprise more competitive, as well as create a more loyal and engaged workforce due to the rewards of an employee experience they can help shape.

    I heard a quote today on NPR by Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the rules you have; not the rules you wish you had.” So, a step change, but in the right direction.

  2. John Stepper says:

    Susan, I was absolutely thinking of you as I wrote this. 🙂

    I have bigger, broader ambitions in terms of corporate change. But I won’t be yelling from outside the gates. I’ll be inside, building a big tribe, commercial benefits, and momentum.

  3. Brad Palmer says:

    Agree that making the social “dance” with the hierarchical is key. Inside enterprises work gets done by teams and it is critical that these teams be aligned and coordinated. That requires an extended structure that go beyond what a peer-to-peer network can achieve.

    Step 1 should be plugging social tools into existing structures, decision making practices and culture, making the organization more agile and adaptable. As you hint, massively changing how people work together is not a realistic first step.

    Full disclosure: I’m CEO and cofounder of http://www.jostle.me, an organizational platform that helps organizations achieve organizational clarity and deploy social tools without changing their culture and work practices as step 1.

  4. What interesting timing!!! Everyone talks about how social media is transforming the enterprise. I definitely experience the corporate decision making process / approach / cycle time being greatly affected by these new capabilities.

    I have been in sales for 20+ years, selling to large corporations. The drive to enable the organization to utilize social tools and collaboration tools has literally been the best thing that has happened to help get senior management and middle management working together. Dare I say it, I have seen large companies act “nimble” in response to executing social business plans.

    It is very exciting to witness… and a remarkably fun dialog to follow along side the day-in-day-out of business getting transacted.

    As always, I appreciate your thoughtful perspective.

  5. I agree with Susan. And, I think that the example you cite is (to my mind) a form of ‘modernized’ matrix management pulled together temporarily to encourage and guide (I call it champion and channel as opposed to command and control new forms of working and managing that work.

    “Networks make organization culture & politics explicit” (Michael Schrage of MIT). As Susan has noted, there is arguable a deep trend towards the democratization of knowledge work (and that trend started quite a long time ago .. there is an honourable history to all the new-ness of E2.0 / social business and collaboration. I suspect that trend will continue, and there are some deep characteristics of information technology and networks that will have significant impact on the decision-making, guidance and overall power of traditional hierarchy.

    That said .. yes, clarity and timely and effective decision making and guidance are critical to making real change happen.

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