Socialising Me, Socialising Organisations

I’m one of those people who invests a lot in work – not like Boxer in Animal Farm – not just time and energy, but also in working relationships. I’d like to think I have friends at work. Friends who I admire because of their skills, knowledge – because of the people they are. So when you move jobs it’s not just the challenge of a new job, the inevitable insecurities like wondering if I over egged it at interview, but also coping with some loss. Loss of the contact you had with people you admired and enjoyed working with.

Years ago keeping in contact as you moved work was difficult, or at least I found it hard. Now those I’d love to keep in contact with are largely using social media. It might be as a result of my evil plan where i cunningly spent part of my notice period along side the excellent @MichaelNewbury, delivering social media workshops. Whatever the reason, it means contact is far easier, I can keep my network close to me for support, advice, and humour. But will this experience help me in more than my social relationships?

Lately I’ve worked in organisations that have, as Minzberg calls it, a divisional structure. That structure has influenced my behaviour. Being composed of semi-autonomous units – or departments – doesn’t necessarily facilitate skills and knowledge sharing. The Divisional form is a structural derivative of a ‘Machine Bureaucracy’, an operational solution to co-ordinate and control a large range of organisational activities. It delivers horizontally diversified products and services. It produces horizontally diversified people as well.

In trying to introduce social media as a means of helping people develop networks that could help them get a job quickly I realised that what we were doing was helping to socialise the organisation. Connecting people not just through functional roles but critically through interests. To be honest it was a bit too late – but what did develop was a range of networks that added real value. They connected people with different and complementary skills and experiences together in way the organisational structure just hadn’t before. Most importantly those people could see the value in those connections and invested in them. As we developed the social media workshop I found a whole load of people in my 2000 strong organisation that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across before. People who if I knew earlier could have challenged and supported me to do a better job. Ultimately a better job for the organisation.

So now, in my new job, I’m wrestling with how to really capitalise on the immense experience and skills the organisation has. Those skills are partly locked away in each of the departments – keen to work together but struggling with a means of doing it. Understanding why it would be good for what we do – but for some reason lacking the catalyst to do it. Years ago I would have thought that catalyst should be a large change initiative. Now, I wonder if its simply doing something that allows people to connect on their own terms. Letting people build their own networks – but with a critical difference. Making those networks open so others who are watching and listening can see value in them and, in time, use them – perhaps that’s where the catalyst really is.

Will greater transparency lead to, errrrr, greater transparency?

Dick Cheney has yet another memorable quotation – no, not that one – this one:

‘I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble someday, just don’t write any.’

The Government is keen on transparency – especially if it’s about what money is spent on or how much public servants are paid. Increasingly data is being published on-line in usable formats, Council meetings are on YouTube, and politicians blog and tweet. Transparency has certainly had some impact but will it lead us to a greater understanding of why decisions are made or enable us to hold decision makers to account?

While I hope that transparency will increase accountability I have a nagging, and growing, doubt. Those invoices over £500 that are being published, let’s be honest, it’s difficult to know if the expenditure represents value for money without understanding more of its context. If I book a conference at a Racecourse is it better value for money than a hotel? Transparency has helped me know which one will get more flack regardless of cost – so perhaps that will inform my decision next time? If I try to hold MPs to account on the basis they promised something at an election and then changed their minds I’m told that ‘once we got in and saw the mess we had no choice.‘ If I dig into performance data I begin to wonder if anyone has heard of data quality? Its fine publishing data – but if it isn’t accurate am I any the wiser – maybe I’m just more misled than I would have been without it? Undoubtedly some of these things are teething troubles – old dogs learning new tricks – but will they all, ultimately, lead to the same place? The problem is that transparency is nothing without information and interpretation. Even then its just a path to a longer road.

Whatever your views on Wikileaks its clear that Governments across the world are happier with just the ‘right kind’ and amount of transparency. Enough to persuade us we can trust them, but not so much as to restrict their freedom of movement and ability to position the ‘presentation’ of difficult decisions. Will the perverse incentive behind transparency encourage some to record the minimum and increase ‘informal’ conversations to line up the ducks before the formal decision-making. Are we at risk of moving to a world where those making the decisions rely more on the phrase ‘what shall we say for the record?‘ rather than believe in the power of their own argument?

We have a choice. Lets be honest it was never going to be easy opening up local and national government to more openness. But the prize isn’t transparency. Its increased involvement of people in the services that have an impact on them and their communities. So what goes along with transparency is inevitably dissent. Arguably, if you share more information there is more room for disagreement and interpretation. Equally there is a good chance of more assent – if you have to spend time explaining your decisions more clearly then there is a good chance you will persuade some of those doubters – we’ve seen this with Wikileaks. The recent cable leaks have received a range of views with some American commentators pleased their Diplomats have a focus on American interests, others aghast at the self-interest expressed. While none of it seems a great surprise, it has forced governments to explain their thinking more clearly and fully. The transparency has created discussion and argument all essential attributes of a healthy democracy.

The prize for transparency is increased involvement of people in the decisions of the day, whether its simply hearing the arguments or influencing and making the decisions. Perhaps it might even generate an understanding that some problems don’t have an easy fix, or a pragmatic solution, and that the Politicians job is one that can’t keep everyone happy all of the time.