Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why are government organisations slow at embracing social media?

This post was triggered by a question post over at Strange Attractor, asking Why isn't social software spreading like wildfire through business?

This is a question I have considered as well, in the last year from a government perspective.

It particularly puzzled me late last year when I made unsuccessful efforts to get a wiki in place for a very clear need within the organisation.

At the time it was clear that people in my agency wanted to collaborate more effectively, that they were committed to their jobs and highly able.

They were already making good use of the collaboration tools they had - meetings, documents, email and intranet.

At the time I believed the limiting factor was time. Everyone was overworked and stressed - people simply did not have the capacity to take on more meetings, read more documents or send more emails.

I also thought the solution was clear. To facilitate more collaboration what people needed was the tools to leverage their time for collaboration more effectively. I aimed to help them achieve this leverage using online social media tools.

ROI could be justified by travel savings, employee satisfaction and better quality outcomes.

However when attempting to introduce the wiki, I hit a brick wall and we went back to older approaches which, in my calculations, have cost the agency significantly more money and time and delivered an inferior outcome.

At the time I was quite disappointed and looked for an explanation of the cause within the agency's structure.

However after months of thought on this topic, I've arrived at the following conclusion as to why smart and able people resist the introduction of tools that would help them in their jobs.

It's command and control culture
The majority of organisations, both public and private, are structured as effective dictatorships. There is a CEO at the top, they allocate power out to trusted lieutenants, who transfer smaller amounts of power to underlings.

Each lieutenant has a particular area of power - be it Marketing, Sales, ICT, Operations, Finance or HR. They work together on the fringes where power must be shared to achieve the organisation's goals.

Now clearly this is an effective structure. It worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in medieval societies. Kings and Queens at top, ministers and advisers beneath them and fiefdoms owing allegiance to different groups.

However, by its nature this approach is divisive rather than integrative.

Each lieutenant competes over resources, recognition and money for their groups. There is only a small incentive to co-operate, and alliances do not always last very long.

Within each group underlings compete in a similar fashion, for power, prestige and position.

Again this isn't the most fertile soil for collaboration - except where there is direction from above or very clear and unequivocal win-win situations.

Now from my writing you may draw the conclusion that I am against this structural approach.

Actually I'm not. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a command and control approach. What is important is to consider the goals of the organisation and whether the means achieve those goals with the available resources.

As the goals and environment change over time, the approach needs to be reassessed to ensure it continues to deliver on the outcomes cost-effectively.

The impact of technology
Today organisations attempt to achieve a great deal more with fewer resources. Technology has already facilitated this.

Phones replaced telegraphs that replaced runners, computers replaced typing pools that replaced scribes.

These changes didn't happen overnight, but once a certain proportion of organisations made the change others had no choice but to also change or die.

This has happened with the internet as well. Entirely new companies have formed and become very successful in the last ten years. The 'dinosaurs' didn't die out overnight but are being forced to adopt some of the traits of newer organisations to survive.

This evolutionary process occurs faster in the private sphere due to competition over profits. Government, being funded by the public purse is not subject to the same degree of competition and has less incentive to risk change.

The network effect
Online social networks are one of the next steps in this evolution.

In some ways these networks are even more of a challenge for organisations than the introduction of personal computers, which could be integrated into a existing organisational approaches.

Command and control structures by their nature seek to control and restrict information flows in order to better direct and focus their resources (staff). They silo areas by specific functions - putting all the programmers here, communications people there and finance people somewhere else.

This approach makes command and control management easier, as teams are homogeneous.

It also leads to the formation of different cultures and approaches in different areas of the organisation. These can reduce organisational efficiency by forming isolated silos, each with their own language and customs - a Tower of Babel situation.

Traditionally command and control organisations have dealt with this issue by employing translators to allow information to pass between areas in carefully managed ways. These include people in roles such as internal account managers, business analysts and project managers.

However with social networks the goal is complete transparency. Almost all the barriers between silos come down to allow free communication and collaboration. The focus becomes the outcome, rather than the process.

Change is hard
Even in cases where organisations want to support the free flow of ideas and collaboration, achieving this is hard as the command and control culture simply isn't aligned to support it.

Pockets of collaboration can and do spring up, but widespread adoption requires widespread change.

This change requires visible and strong leadership from those who gain the most from command and control structures and have the most to lose in a network organisation - the executives at the top of the pile.

If these people do not enthusiastically adopt, facilitate and support the change it will not occur.

This is very hard for senior management as they have the largest stake in the existing structure.

They need to willingly let go of their silo power in order to harness an even greater power - that of the organisation acting in unison.

The challenge is to give up control in order to retain it
So that's my view of why organisations are slow to adopt social media.

It's not skills, experience, power or even need. It's a side effect of the dominant command and control culture.

I'd appreciate your comments and views.

Bottom bar - change in motion
By the way for a practical example of how difficult this change can be and how long it takes, look at China and the political change it has been undergoing for the last twenty years.

The nation is struggling with how to give up centralised political power without losing control - a struggle reflected in miniature in many organisations around the world.

1 comment:

  1. Great post.

    It is very definitely about power and being sensitive to people's fears about losing it is a large part of the skill in helping change happen.


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