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Does social media spell the end for corporate control freaks?
Charlene Li’s first book ‘Groundswell‘ established that business couldn’t ignore social media, that forward-thinking execs were already embracing its openness and sharing, and, perhaps more than any other book, mainstreamed the corporate use of social media. Now she’s back with ‘Open Leadership’ — a practical guide to changing attitudes within organisations that has a suprisingly radical edge.
The book has the air of a self-help manual — there’s a reassuring tone (openness is just another business decision that organisations need to make), plenty of step-by-step guides and questionnaires to help managers draw up action plans; and numerous examples of successful cultural shifts within major organisations.
Among the latter I noted the following:
- The American Red Cross overcame its suspicion of social media in time to handle one of the most successful online fundraising efforts yet in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has an all-company question-and-answer meeting every Friday for an hour and has recently opened up the product development timeline to help the external development community using Facebook’s APIs despite the risk of tipping off competitors.
- Scott Heiferman, CEO of meetup.com, has junked the company’s org chart and now product managers just need to convince an engineer that something is worth developing for it to go ahead
- Ford’s social media-driven campaign for the new Fiesta achieved 40 per cent name recognition among Generation Y’ers within weeks — the kind of outcome other brands have taken years to achieve.
However, behind the confidence-building rhetoric and textbook narrative style lies an intriguing, understated and, for many executives and managers, threatening thesis: the qualities that have propelled business leaders to their current roles may be precisely the reverse of those required to lead their organisations in the future.
I’m a sucker for thinkers who can express themselves in simple graphics and Charlene Li is very, very good at this. This one just sums up the book:
Based on conversations with numerous business leaders, Li suggests that attitudes to the challenges of social media can be summed up in just two dimensions: 1) Optimism about human nature and the ability of all individuals to exhibit a degree of creativity and leadership; and 2) team-mindedness against individualism.
The nub of her thesis is that in closed, heirarchical organisations the ability to coerce people into following a top-down plan favoured rugged individuals who had little interest in their staff’s potential creativity. But now, to a degree that varies between industries, the balance is shifting towards a more collaborative approach that, with social networking tools, can unlock the knowledge and creativity of staff working at the edges of the organisation.
To put it in blunt terms, in the old days you needed a single-minded individual who could craft a central plan and enforce it. Now you need someone who can harness the intelligence of the entire organisation through a more subtle form of leadership and information-sharing.
Those that are involved in change management within their organisations may recognise the stereotypes in the diagram: ‘Worried Skeptic’ — the once all-powerful exec expressing scepticism over the value of sharing and opening up; ‘Transparent Evangelist’ the proselytising social media convert railing against the lack of urgency in the organisation’s transformation; ‘Cautious Tester’ the faint-hearted but consensus- and open-minded dabbler; and the ‘Realist Optimist’ — the pragmatist who senses the potential of the new approaches but understands that things take time, and can divine some kind of middle way.
While she seems hesitant in ramming home the point, Li’s logic suggests that corporate execs of the future will come from the top right hand quadrant rather than the bottom left.
In case this is all sounding a bit woolly, in a fairly detailed examination of Cisco’s transformation (one of a number covered) comes what I thought was the book’s killer quote from CEO John Chambers:
“If people are not collaborative, if they aren’t naturally inclined towards collaboration and teamwork, if they are uncomfortable with using technology to make that happen, both within Cisco and in their own life, they’re probably not going to fit in here.”