Change is the normal state for organisations, but one that many are ill equipped to deal with. As it’s friday, i’ve decided to play with some new ideas: in this case a model to explore the role of social communities in change. Organisations are not perfect pyramids with the boss at the top, managers in the middle and the rest of us at the bottom. I mean, they may be on paper, but not in terms of how information flows, decisions are made, support is given or how we learn. Organisations don’t really even have fixed boundaries any more: the walls of the office are not the walls of their experience. Instead, we should maybe view organisations as collections of communities, some formal, others far less so, some purely internal, others cross border, connected by common interests and responsibilities, but with limited overlap.
The nature of that overlap is what interests me, because it’s at these boundaries that meaning is lost or made. It’s at these boundaries that we find the nodes, the influencers, the people who can facilitate the amplification of messages. The people who can make or break change.
Let’s just explore the diagram a bit further: at the bottom are the worker bees, the community that is delivering, the majority by headcount. This group is organised into formal communities, teams, sometimes agile, sometimes fixed, but rarely a homogenous whole. So we can divide them by team, but we can superimpose groupings based on friendships, based upon who joined together, who used to work at IBM, who sits in the same office, who plays squash together: there are multiple ways to group them, but some people sit as nodes in the system, members of multiple communities.
Above them you have managers, but again, there is not only a direct, linear relationship up and down: managers have current teams, old teams, shared interests, their influence is mapped on top of physical team structures and buildings. Then the boss, who may or may not have oversight of the whole team, even if they have overall responsibility. So look at the whole structure and think about how messages permeate: through formal and social channels. Formal channels are the corporate comms that filter down, by email, on posters, at Town Hall meetings. Formal messages are generally aspirational or information led, but often speak about stories that have little relevance to the individual. Now map over that the informal conversations and communities.
‘Did you hear that…‘ is the phrase that ushers in the informal conversation. Informal groupings are formed around more traditional engagement structures: people coming together through shared and enlightened self interest.
Informal communities are generally supremely efficient at communicating messages that are relevant to them. Far more so than formal channels, because the messages have relevance or are couched in the right tone of voice.
Now step outside the borders: outside the walls are people who bypass formal structures altogether, who link the top to the bottom, vertical slices, generally around shared interests. These are shortcuts, people who can provide wide perspective as well as shortcuts to communication.
So, layered across the organisation are formal, hierarchical structures, but also many different, highly fluid, maps of shared interest, informal community structures. But how does understanding this help us to engage?
Well, you’ll see the nodes: people who cover multiple communities, people with high social capital, maybe with excellent personal knowledge management skills, people who curate information effectively, people you turn to to find things out. Relevance joins people into circles, the nodes connect circles. And people in the nodes often have the high social capital required to amplify messages.
So communication within organisations, the ability to affect change, is not determined by formal, hierarchical, linear structures so much as it is by the ability to influence with the circles of relevance and to engage at the nodes.
Sure, you can change the formal structure, but the formal structure is only half of the picture and probably much less in terms of influence. You need to engage throughout and engage with people who form nodes. And you probably need to pay attention to the outside communities as well, because these are often facilitators too: remember the walls are permeable, so just because people don’t work for the organisation doesn’t mean they aren’t influencers within it.
In the Social Age, people are more fluid, taking full time, freelance or other roles, but maintaining influence and the ability to amplify messages whatever role they are in. Top down cascading of messages in the Social Age is highly ineffective, because our audience is highly adapted to social filtering, to scanning our Facebook pages for relevance. This is a social model of change, it plays by different rules.
So there you go, a model of change and communication for a friday afternoon. I may iterate it further next week, but do share any thoughts!