The management challenges of social media

2011

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, command-and-control - "I know, I tell, you do" - has been the mantra of management. Yet whilst nearly all other aspects of our working environment have changed - many beyond recognition - we have largely failed to rethink the hierarchical way in which organisations are run.

But all this is changing. A quantum shift in the function of leadership is taking place in the workplace and organisations stand at a crossroads. They can either embrace real hierarchical change or dig in their heels and pretend that the change isn't really happening.

The reason for this shift is simple. A new generation of "digital natives" (those who have grown up in the digital age and with Web 2.0) is arriving into the workplace to sit alongside the "digital immigrants" (those who have accepted technological change but did not grow up with it). This new generation is both able and transparent, but it has a very different view of personal censorship.

The digital natives, whose emerging organisational methodologies are collaborative and non-hierarchical, are in conflict with traditional management (moulded on the principles of structure, standardisation and hierarchy) which wants to control and put in place formal lines of communication.

Hence the crossroads. And hence the fact that there is now a real need for organisations to change to accommodate this new reality – even more so since most senior managers are still unaware of what is about to hit their business and have made few, if any, preparations for it.

Not surprisingly, the USA is well ahead of the UK in terms of embracing and actively encouraging the use of social media in the work place. Having said that, even in the US, the more traditional professions and those companies steeped in 'heritage' are still hesitant when it comes to relaxing their leadership structures.

Because ultimately, this is what enabling social media within a corporate structure is all about - the relinquishing of power and control. This is about information as a commodity, rather than as a means of controlling people.

The successful management of an organisation which actively embraces social media and the changes in mindset it engenders requires a completely different set of skills to those which have been taught by business schools over generations.

Managers will no longer be able to tell others what to do. Instead, they will need to win hearts and minds. They also need to gain a clear understanding of what motivates and engages the new talent pool of digital natives.

This is the generation that sees the world in a very different way to even those who are less than 10 years older than them. They share information in a completely different way and their views on privacy (as shown by the Wikileaks controversy) are completely at odds with the accepted view of "confidential" information.

For a generation which has grown up with Facebook and shares information horizontally, it is difficult to see any value in the imposition of hierarchy.

As they enter the workplace over the coming years, the expectations this generation has of the working environment and their reaction to it will force us to re-evaluate the traditional hierarchical management systems and find new, collaborative methods of working.

For a start, the role of a middle manager as a conduit for information, disseminating information in the way in which they saw fit and, at the same time, providing their own editorial gloss thereon, will change beyond recognition. Where once information was "cascaded" throughout an organisation, speed is now of the essence and people have little interest from whence they get their information.

There is no longer time for a detailed and orderly transfer of information. Business has to be run as a sound-bite. Information will also be shared at completely different levels and it will be possible for Chief Executives to communicate with everybody in the organisation immediately, directly and without any editorialisation.

Similarly, people of all levels within an organisation will be able to share information in ways and across traditional boundaries which are completely uncontrollable by managers. As everyone is able to make their voice heard, decision making will become a more collective and collaborative process.

Those organisations who allow this to happen will find their managers will have more time to focus on the strategy of the business rather than on controlling, editorialising and disseminating information. Those who want to keep a firm grip on how information is disseminated will find they are increasingly clutching at fistfuls of sand.

Complicating all this is the fact that even within a given organization, there can be stark divergence of opinion regarding the acceptance of social media. There are many who feel allowing their employees to use social media will only encourage them to waste time on non-work related activities.

This type of debate boils down to managers' relationship with employees, trust and transparency. It is not about technological issues, but rather fundamental management styles and principles. In social media fora, individuals are not imposed as leaders but rather emerge as such because others find what they have to say interesting.

Stephen Fry became a global "icon" of Twitter not because he set out to make himself so but rather because people started to follow him. Similarly, people start to lead discussion groups and become unelected representatives for a particular group through force of personality and force of knowledge rather than through appointment.

The impact of this on the way in which groups are organised at work will be profound. Managers will no longer wield authority simply because of their titles. They will only succeed if they are able to mobilise a group of disparate individuals who have a very different view of how they want to be organised.

Whereas historically managers have selected people to work on a particular project and assigned tasks and responsibilities, in the new workplace they will post a particular project on an intranet and then those who wish to be involved in it will bid to become a part of the team. Tasks will be chosen and not prescribed and groups will become self-organising.

The advantages of this are numerous. Those who become involved in a project will, axiomatically, be those who are most interested in it. They will therefore have the most to give and they will believe that they have the most to give. By definition, they will be working with people who share a similar outlook and a similar set of values and who share common interests, thereby building a team which is going to be even more effective than one which can be imposed from above. Most importantly, the team will, by virtue of these shared values, get on better together and work more harmoniously.

However, the converse of this is that there are, within any organisation, a number of jobs which are significantly less attractive but still need to be done for the greater good of the organisation. The challenge for managers will be to ensure that these jobs still get done - and done well.

Mark Webber of the University of Waterloo and Keith Murnighan of Northwestern University, have noted that those individuals who are the "volunteers" within organisations are invaluable to companies but are treated as "suckers" for not pursuing their own interests.

In larger companies, says Prof Murnighan "it's hard for consistent cooperators to benefit from their actions. The consistent cooperator gets burnt once and it takes a strong character to come back from that".

However in the new environment, those who are cooperators, collegiate and seen to be so will, paradoxically, become the most valuable people in organisations and will need to be nurtured as such. They are the ones who will be prepared to assign themselves the jobs others do not want - but new forms of recognition will need to be devised to account for this.

As we move into this new environment where transparency is paramount and where leaders emerge rather than are elected, the role of a middle manager will need to be completely redefined. No longer a conduit of information, they will have to deploy their experience and their knowledge in order to assist others in getting tasks done. They will need to be the people to whom others go for advice and guidance and act as a repository of the business' knowledge.

So for the first time in over 100 years, we are being forced to examine nature, value, role and function of leadership in organisations. The responsibility falls on all those who are complicit in the development, recruitment, promotion and training of all leaders and managers to understand what it takes to manage in a more transparent, knowledgeable and highly connected world.

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About The Author

David Dumeresque
David Dumeresque

David Dumeresque is a partner at London-based headhunters, Tyzack Associates, where he runs their Media and Entertainment team.