Authority: the changing nature of authority in social learning

I need to get the clutch fixed on Herman, my 1964 Land Rover. If i was in any way competent, it probably wouldn’t be a huge job, but my level of mechanical ability stops somewhere after changing a tyre or, on one occasion, a windscreen wiper (which subsequently detached itself in a storm), so i knew i needed some help. I got onto Facebook and sent Matt a message. Why? Because Matt is my go to guy for all things Land Rover. He’s an expert and, as is the way of agile experts in the Social Age, he is generous with his knowledge.

Sources of authority

We used to get authority through position, through longevity, through expertise, but increasingly, in the Social Age, we gain authority through our reputation in our social learning spaces

Traditionally, people got authority in different ways: through position, through longevity, or through subject matter expertise. In the Social Age, we can add a fourth route to authority: reputation within your community.

Reputation sits firmly in the domain of social learning, because it’s something we can actively build and seek to curate. Supporting learners in building their reputation over time is a central part of much of the mentoring i do these days. In the traditional model, we would see people accruing authority in much the same way that coral reefs grow: accreting new layers very slowly over time. And, much like coral reefs, today’s ecology is not kind to accretive authority. It favours agile learners instead: people who can find out new knowledge and work with their communities to co-create meaning out of it. This is less a function of age than it is of social capital, one’s ability to thrive in social learning communities.

We’ve released a fun new leadership video this week, based upon some interviews, then a summary by a senior figure: it’s a perfectly valid approach, but very traditional. We start with the wide view and end up at the top, where the authority figure presents the findings. I like it, but then i know the people involved: i know their reputations. Without that knowledge, it’s just drawing upon positional authority: this guy wears a suit and is called ‘president‘, so he must know what he’s talking about.

A social model of authority

We can gain authority through longevity, standing at the top of the hierarchy, but reputation can be built outside this structure in our social learning communities

The thing about social learning spaces is that there is very little room for positional authority: whilst there is plenty of space to curate your reputation, sheer longevity won’t get you far. Maybe being a ‘community manager‘ will help, but not much. Your value is based upon your contributions, providing a great opportunity to shine.

Don’t get me wrong: there are still times and places where positional authority counts, but sheer longevity or indeed subject matter expertise are of less value than your ability to use that to good effect, to manage and curate your reputation in the community. It is, after all, to the community that we tend to turn as first port of call when we need support, much as i turned to Matt for guidance around my Land Rover.

The lesson? We can’t rest on our laurels: we have to take ownership and control. For example, there would be nothing wrong with a senior figure acting as a figurehead for a new product launch, but they need to be personally active in the community spaces too: they have to build a reputation to match their positional status. That’s what great leaders do! And that’s why great leaders don’t always sit at the top of a hierarchy: they may only be six months in role, but with a great reputation in their organisation and the wider community.

This is the Social Age, where traditional hierarchies of power and authority are crumbling, where our approaches to learning are changing. We have to adapt to meet that challenge.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Age, Agile, Authority, Brand, Community, Connections, Control, Culture, Effectiveness, Experience, Hierarchy, Knowledge, Leadership, Learning, Management, Meaning, Mentoring, Personal Learning Network, Social Learning, Tone of Voice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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