A roadmap for transition

There is general consensus in this part of the world that the modern enterprise is a broken structure. Dissatisfaction with employment runs high, even at a time when it is difficult for many to find a full-time job. Just one, of many, examples is a 2013 Gallup Report that shows that 70 percent of workers are disengaged from their work.

The network era scares or confuses many people in positions of influence in large organizations. Having conversations about transparent processes and networked people actually working together to produce business value is like speaking a foreign language in most cases. Grant McCracken says that from the perspective of most corporations, the future looks like the enemy.

Most of all, we want a corporation that is porous in ways it was not before. We want it to cantilever out into the future. We want to make pieces of the future to happen inside the corporation. We want pieces of the corporation to happen out there in the future. In sum, we want the corporation and the future, once so completely separated from one another, to have a new reciprocity and transparency.

The industrial corporation is the wrong structure for the network era, just as cottage industries could not build modern railroads or create the petroleum industry. As Euan Semple says, organizations don’t tweet, people do. Corporations aren’t creative, people are. The creative economy does not need new business ideas as much as it needs new structures. Organizational transformation is the new innovation, according to Niels Pflaeging.

I have tried to distill what would be the simplest road map to make the transition from industrial corporation to connected enterprise ready for the network era. The aim of this is to start the conversation and define the scope of change. It is not as detailed as what Niels describes, but all I want to do is get enough attention to have a conversation.

The first step is get everyone working out loud. If work is not worth discussing, why bother doing it, especially as less of it is routine? Narration helps people understand each other better. Conversations make us human, which is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. Narrating work is also a powerful behaviour changer, as any long-time blogger can attest. It is empowering. In addition, having general conversations is one of the highest rated methods for learning at work.

Once people are working out loud, they can start building their own personal learning systems, using sense-making frameworks like PKM. Critical thinking, or questioning all assumptions, including our own, is part of this. Asking employees to engage in real critical thinking, and accepting the resulting actions, will not work unless there is a distribution of power and authority because critical thinking is not just thinking more deeply but also asking difficult and discomfiting questions. Without power to act, these questions are meaningless, so distributing authority must happen concurrently.

The principle of subsidiarity, or the promotion of the furthest possible distribution of all authority, is a good guideline to begin with. One example I heard of was that if three people agreed to do something, then it was fine to do so. If this is coupled with the promotion of critical thinking and working out loud, then the rest of the organization will know what is happening. Simple principles will keep the organization resilient to deal with change. Let people, not rules, be your risk mitigation strategy.

Finally, sharing the vision and articulating it will keep the connected enterprise on track for the long-run but still ready to adjust course as required. The Netflix vision is clear – “we seek excellence”. As Reed Hastings notes in his presentation, in creative/inventive work, the best people are ten times better than the average, so there is a huge premium on creating effective teams of the best people. He says that companies can avoid chaos as they grow by hiring more high-performance people and not making more rules. This requires people with self-discipline as well as the ability to openly question actions inconsistent with the company’s values.

The emerging transparency from distributed authority, working out loud, and active questioning will promote trust throughout the enterprise. Nothing will speed the flow of knowledge more than trust. These steps can be taken by any organization, at any time. If starting to work out loud is too much of an initial leap, then maybe it’s time to plan for network era obsolescence.

network era roadmap

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