Yesterday i ran the first of six sessions in California, exploring aspects of the Social Age: we started by exploring where we go ‘Beyond Organisations’, and today i will move into ‘The Storytelling Leader’, before tackling ‘Innovation & Disruption’, and ‘Communities’ later in the week. These reflective days are reasonably unstructured, Explorer sessions, looking not at the organisations that we have today, but more broadly at the type of organisation we may need to build for tomorrow. The Socially Dynamic Organisation will bring a more diversified strength, a deep capacity to change, it will be lighter weight, both from the point of view of size, but also hierarchy and control.
I don’t believe that we should abandon formal structure and control: indeed, the opposite may apply. We should strengthen and optimise it. But we should unhitch power from position: when people nest within structures of power, they perpetuate those structures, because to change them undoes their narrative, unravels their power. The key change we should make is to enable, facilitate, and empower, the social structures that sit alongside it: we should not simply recognise this social expertise within, and on the terms of, the formal organisation, but instead should create more equal relationship: maintain a dynamic tension between the two systems.
In many of the organisations that i spend time in, there is already a deep understanding of the need for change, a desire to explore new principles of leadership, of organisational design, of control, but often they ultimately struggle to adapt, held constrained by the very strength that made them great today.
One aspect i’m exploring this week is that of ‘two dimensions of change’. We are not just facing known challenges, within known ecosystems, to which we must adapt. We are not just facing known competitors within known markets. We are not just finding, hiring, and training, the best people in a known and understood labour market. We are, in fact, disrupted.
Today, alongside this known system (which we know how to adapt within, and respond towards), we face broader challenges, ecosystem challenges. Disruption, when it comes, it often asymmetric, unknown, and fast. Our markets are changing, not necessarily in shape (although with the emerging Internet of Things, they are that), but also nature: the shift from ‘transactional’, to ‘relationship’ based engagement is something that many brands have build great value upon.
But with relationship comes responsibility: Organisations are not entities that float above society, they are mechanisms of, expressions of, society, and, most importantly, increasingly accountable to society.
Consider that for a moment: organisations that are used to being accountable to shareholders and the law (and they are still accountable in these spaces) are increasingly accountable to their social communities. Indeed, the challenges faced by Uber, and increasingly by Facebook, are not strictly formal and quantifiable, they are social and emotional. The breaches we see may involve data, but they are judged on trust.
And all of this takes place against the evolved ecosystem of the Social Age: the second degree of change.
The illustration above is a sketch of this new world. Is it right? I doubt it, but equally, i doubt it is entirely wrong.
Without a doubt, the advent of socially collaborative technology, globally, at scale, has led to new nesting places for emergent tribal structure: trust bonded groups, striving for shared purpose, providing foundational social belonging and community value.
In parallel, education is on the verge of disruption: all of our old models were based upon outdated views of knowledge, and the geolocation of expertise. And today, both of those views can be challenged: the knowledge that we engage with most often is increasingly dynamic, co-created, adaptive, and tribal, held within these very practitioner structures that we feel most engaged with. Again, we still need the ‘old’, but we certainly need the ‘new’.
And the technology companies, who hold the vast and interconnected communities, are in a prime position to disrupt in this space. They are pouring money into immersive VR, which will provide experiential learning spaces, dynamic collaborative ones. They can produce high value interactive learning, in a global market with revenues that will make this attractive, and they understand that experience is everything. When i went to school, they were still using blackboards. And they’ve not come all that far since.
But this disruption in education will not simply be disruption of a known system, within a known space, to a known model. I suspect that we will see the emergence of lifelong engagement, the new ‘universities’ will not be physical structures, but rather engaged communities, providing ongoing, relevant, grounded, practice based, development, throughout our careers. They will form the portable community that travels with us throughout our career. Under this model, my ‘university’ would not simply write to me to ask for a donation: they would be engaged in, and invested in, my ongoing performance and success. And why not?
The fractured Social Contract has left us without a career backbone: the organisation you work for may be fantastic, but it’s unlikely to be with you forever, and in any event, the opportunity, and freedom, that you are afforded will often be grudgingly given, and limited in reach. People look beyond their organisation for true opportunity, and that is a tragedy. We hire people because of their brilliance, and then squander that brilliance through outdated notions of control.
It’s into this space that a truly meaningful model of lifelong education will emerge, indeed, aspects of it already have. Just look at Duolingo and Babbel, decimating traditional, location based, models of language learning.
One aspect i’m particularly interested in is the emergence of the new Guilds, although i’m unsure how this will play out. One thing i see clearly is that many organisations are forging intra market entities to look at shared costs around thinks like graduate programmes, and certifications, recognising that they cannot bear the formal costs of these things alone, in a market where people just leave. But this may be a short step taken too late. I suspect we will see the new Guilds emerging as professional bodies with real clout: holding both political power, high loyalty, and contractual power with organisations.
Just look at cyber-security: people in this field are constantly collaborating and competing, outside of any organisational structure. So why not collectivise, at scale, and shift from individual engagement, to Guild engagement? Combined with the evolved models of lifelong learning, and the need for organisations to shed structure in favour of purpose and effectiveness?
I’ve written before about the Socially Dynamic Organisation: indeed, it’s acting as a unifying notion across much of my thinking right now, and will form the heart of my next full book, ‘The Change Handbook’. The notion is that we must explore evolved models of engagement, evolved types of strength. The specific capability of the Socially Dynamic Organisation will be change, achieved through a deep comfort with curiosity, an ability to hold ambiguity, an evolved structure of power, which recognises Social Authority, and a cultural agility.
The cultural agility is not the thing to focus on: it will be an emergent feature of the evolved system. If we adapt leadership, if we adapt learning, if we dis-engineer redundant process, system, and control, then we may create the conditions where this agility emerges.
As i said at the start, i doubt whether this sketch is accurate, but that doubt is matched by certainty that our existing models of Organisational Design, of recognition and reward, of training and development, of education, of professional growth, are outdated.
People are more connected than ever before, and no matter what we do, they are not going to become less connected. Instead, it’s likely that these new, democratised, collectives will establish real power. But i think they will be more than new unions, they will be creative in their own right, not standing in opposition to formal systems, but rather engaged with, and collaborating, alongside them.
This is the opportunity: to explore how we can fairly engage, how we can recognise the opportunity and overcome the constraint which is so often not applied to us from the outside, but rather engineered from within.
I have no doubt that organisations will persist, but whether those are the organisations that we have today, i am far less certain.
Those that survive and thrive will be those that can change: to take their existing strength, to understand the new world, to experiment, and adapt. They will be anchored in fairness, rooted in social justice, actively in service of their communities, and remaining relevant in an evolved world