One of the central features of the Social Age is a rebalancing of power, held into a shift towards more multi dimensional landscapes of power. In general, we see that the individual, with Social Authority, held within community, can find a voice as powerful as that of the structural and formal broadcast.
Formal leaders are ‘given’ power, but Social ones earn it, and the two collide at the intersections of systems (which is to say, these days, everywhere…)
We see that technology fractures the relationships between space and power (although the metaverse may reimpose that power dynamic upon us), and that socially moderated power is more fluid and contextual than formal.
Indeed, i would normally go so far as to say that is you want to understand just about anything – from ‘people’, to ‘systems’, from ‘learning’ to ‘change’, then a good place to start is with power. Who has it. Who wants it. What flavour do you carry, and how does it interact with others.
Understanding how power ‘works’ is important in many everyday contexts: how voices are silenced, how ‘sense making’ occurs, how learning is transferred, how innovation is silenced, how change is initiated – or confounded – and how stories fly, or die, to name but a few.
Typically i would say that the Social Age is delivered to us through technology, but it is not ‘about’ technology. Clearly the rise of socially collaborative technologies, to the point where they are utterly pervasive and democratised, impacts upon power. People today are no longer simply connected through formal (and observable) systems: rather they are connected in many different ways in many different spaces.
In research in the National Health Service i saw a group of practitioners identity seventeen different technologies that they used to collaborate on a weekly basis. Of course they did not all use all of them, but that is the point: they curated their personal diverse ecosystems, and then inhabited them. A self selection of space, bordered by formally defined spaces. A mixed landscape. And a self selection of the systems of power that they operate within.
When you ask people about how trust works, they often describe aspects of control that relate to power: so they want to know who ‘owns’ a conversation, or where their words will be carried to. They want to know how conversations are moderated: through formal mechanisms or intervention, or social convention. They want to know how clear the landscape is, and they state that they ‘trust’ formal technologies (controlled by formal power) about 30% less than social ones.
Which is not to say that social ones are uncontrolled: whilst they may give that appearance, they are simply governed more by self limitation or social contention than expressly articulated rules. But they are still governed.
Sometimes we conflate ‘what we like’ with ‘good’, but good may be something we don’t like – at least from someone else’s perspective. ‘Good’ is not a universal construct, not an absolute one, and hence what it often comes down to is power.
Broadly i would consider that the Socially Dynamic Organisation still operates within a formally defined structure of power (a hierarchy) which carries both clarity and consequence within it, but it is more nuanced in it’s relationship with multiple social structures too.
That’s why i say that this type of Organisation, a Socially Dynamic one, is a negotiated construct more so than a formally engineered one.
Systems of power partly underlie the contemporary debate, wrangling, and frequent breakdowns, of the ‘hybrid’ or ‘back to work’ conversations: the move to remote not only moved the location of work, but also the power structures behind it, and then consolidated this through time. Hence any ‘return’ to a physical space is also a re-imposition of legacy power, and hence loss of individual agency. Again: the future will best be negotiated, and that negotiation may involve and active recognition of the new parallel systems and structures of power.
If you are interested in Power: ‘Power and Potential’ is an enquiry framework (my first published one in fact) that explores the shape and reach of your power through 16 questions.
In ‘The Social Leadership Handbook’ there is a chapter on Social Authority, which considers social power and leadership at the intersection of systems.