Thursday, March 29, 2012

Towards an app-powered culture

Beyond Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business, there's the dream of something resembling corporate democracy - apps  could help get you there. If, that is, you have the right kind of leadership.

When beta is not enough


There are some amongst the pioneers in Social Business these days shouting that the whole matter is trickier than first expected and that personal responsibility is primarely involved if this transformation is ever going to happen. They are shouting, probably, that it would be too easy to just puting our values and beliefs in one technology or another. Shouting that deep change, and so I believe, happens one person at a time.

In the social business field, we ponder whether one or the other technology will prove more adapted to such or such business or functional goal. It seems important to investigate what the maturity level of the organization is, and how it will adapt to and adopt these technologies. It seems important to engage first movers, to expand the contributor base, to socially impact existing processes. Often, we pursue these activities in an experimental mode.

I am a believer in agile thinking and agile project management, in beta modes, prototyping or design thinking. And I have been leading these social business experimental projects for five years, always thinking that leadership would catch up in due time. But I found some resonance in Luis' post: this is not about pioneers or first movers anymore. This is about the future deep structure and culture of our corporations, and it's important for leaders to be able to make a statement about what they envision.

Because how these technologies are understood at leadership level and then used socially and politically (more than in a business sense) is what is critical for deep transformation. And c-suite people, in my experience, see Social Technologies either as a new opportunity (more or less important) to improve management of the organization and increase its performance along the same axes as usual; or they see them as the technologies that make the infrastructure of what is already a different society, made of more autonomous individuals with new needs and dreams, a society with which the organisation needs to establish totally new relationships and in which it needs to reinvent its mission and its role.


Reinvention cannot be incremental. It cannot rely solely on adopting another set of new technologies. It cannot be measured by ROI. It must be led by vision and co-developed by the whole social body of the organization.

Choosing your future


Vision, I think, cannot be articulated by any leader without a strong intimacy with technology and a precise understanding of how this technology and the enhanced relationships and life experiences it supports are building new dimensions into our reality.

By that, I do not mean that leaders need to become software developers (even though development skills could help), but that they need to be able to make a decision about technology that transcends "choosing a tool for business execution". Let's take an example: lately, there has been this conversation going on about whether apps or HTML5 hold a key to our better common future (here and here). The conversation, as I understand it, is not about technology, but about the underlying values of an open web vs a more controlled proprietary apps ecosystem.

I contend that technology limitations actually prevent some c-suite guys from understanding the social revolution that we are going through, and therefore how their corporation could play a role in this revolution. Without that understanding, there is no possibility to start choosing your future, that is, to start building it.

What's more, without that understanding, there is probably fear of letting collective intelligence emerge in any way that is not hierarchically governed, there is fear of seing any kind of real collective decision making emerge. Revolution cannot be controlled through classic management tools, and it is therefore avoided.

And yet, I think there is a methodology for this business revolution, that demands a renewed kind of leadership and engages the whole social body.

There's an app for that


I first wrote about the need to move beyond Enterprise 2.0 in 2009, and pondered how we could move from an age of users to an age of contributors to an age of builders. I really think that we have now firmly left the age of users, and that firms that remain there have not understood that their time is over.

For leaders that grasp where technology innovation allows us to go, there is now a way to allow transformation of everyone in her/his corporation into a contributor, or a builder, or both. It's called an app ecosystem.

What that is seems rather simple to understand : a huge number of apps, consistently developed and intelligently related, that are developed and used on a need basis, and where that need is defined at the individual level. These apps are made to solve business problems, to enhance internal or external relationships, mainly, and as such they are thought of as perishable. What should not perish, though, is the ecosystem.

If understanding the app ecosystem idea is straightforward, getting there is much more complicated. Not from a development point of view, as a matter of fact, there are real life examples, but from a management point of view. Because getting to this app ecosystem entails
  • Building a new IT infrastructure;
  • Reinventing support functions.
How technology is evolving or should evolve is being much discussed by the experts, for instance here. I am more interested in how the support functions must be reinvented.

An app is not enough : from support to frame


When envisioning an organization whose culture has grown through and with an app ecosystem, there are implicit assumptions about the employees (or should I say citizens ?) of that organization:
  • They are able to identify and choose the applications they need, they are able to use them, and they use them primarily in a social way;
  • Many of them not only use the apps, but build them. They build them following strict rules but allowing for creativity that takes into account (or precedes) other members needs and wants;
  • Succes is measured by usage, as quality is assumed as a given;
  • Value is shared between those who build, those who use and those who provide the platform;
  • Members are free to come and go, and if they stay and contribute it's because of the social and usage value that they find in the ecosystem. 
Such an organization, gifted with such people (employees, members, citizens, clients, ...), is ready to contribute to building some better future (it is naturally focused on innovation, not efficiency). Such an organization does not grow entirely by accident. I think politics are important in human history, and also that a very liberal, Darwinian view of the world, is reaching its limits today. So, with that in mind, the question is, how do you get your employees to move from their existing business culture to a culture defined by all or some of the assumptions above ?

So here it goes: you need to allow for experimentation, you have to expect "1000 flowers blossoming", but you need to care for your garden. And I think the organizational garden, today, can be gardened through three main functions: HR, Communications and IT. Not in their classic form, though, and here is where new leadership can help: by changing the mindset of these three classic, controlling functions, for instance along the following lines:
  • Framing to allow organic grow more than structuring an organization for execution;
  • Expecting and challenging initiatives instead of directing execution,
  • Growing people first and before (if ever) stretching them.
I think these three functions should go by the name of framing functions instead of support functions. And I think framing is a needed leadership skill today. Framing, that is, whenever the leaders feel able to design the frame with strong technology evolution awareness.

Do you think that would be useful to move from Social Business projects to social enterprises ?

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