Collaborate or Quit!

There’s an interesting article from Dennis Howlett on the ‘Poverty of Enterprise 2.0‘ in today’s ZDNet. It needs a darn good edit as an article, but the value of the article is in its central perspective that businesses and consumers are finding the process of adapting to the mantra of collaboration rather difficult. In particular, there is a grain of truth in Howlett’s notion that until the management of large corporations can massively shift in favour of flatter organisational information exchange – thereby undermining the very hierarchies that supported their rise to management – then it will be almost impossible to adapt social networking for much more than improved communication in a corporate structure. Importantly social networking technologies probably won’t generate the kinds of business improvements that the technologies promise.

But this is the same problem that faced the development of the internet over a decade ago. The promise of connectivity only became a reality when broadband became affordable and the social and usable tools of the Web 2.0 era began to emerge. For those of us building websites in 1994-1997 (and I was one of them) it was blindingly obvious to see how the accessibility of the web lended itself to information exchange and brought down the cost of access to information. But as advocates of new technologies, we lived through a period of doubt and refining of the technologies before we could demonstrate what we already understood about the WWW. And – to be blunt – some of that waiting period was effectively a form of waiting for people to die. Since 1995, all those business leaders who were technology doubters in their 50s and 60s have either been forced to adopt technology or they have retired. Now we’re on to the next wave of doubters about social media, and to some extent this is an even tougher cookie to crack because the promise of connectivity and collaboration can potentially break down the natural authority developed by hierarchical decision making.

Essentially however, this is another generational window. In another 10 years, I’m confident there will not just be comfort in the notion of collaborative decision making, but there will be legal imperatives for transparent business decision making that go much further than current corporate governance recommendations.

And the thing is, as a business leader, I can say comfortably that there will always be authority in upper management, because it takes a particular personality to be able to look after the interests of a business, financially, socially, and strategically. What is needed is the kind of manager that will adapt to the idea of collaboration but will maintain a cognizance of the legal and social ramifications of responsibility for decisions made either hierarchically or collaboratively. Because ultimately, all the social media in the world is not going to take away the generations of business and trade law that will still identify a Director when business relationships and business productivity fails.

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