The Social Organisation

It was just coincidence that I began reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody on the tube on the way to the recent FutureGov Consultancy/Huddle event on internal collaboration, but a fortunate and relevant coincidence nonetheless. Shirky argues that the web can enable people to self-organise, and in turn will transform our world. The event’s speakers argued that those same ideas of self-organisation and reduced costs can – and should – transform our bureaucracies.

In a small group everyone is able to speak to everyone else to organise their time and resources. Once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, management is needed. But managing resources itself takes resources, and these costs tend to grow faster than organisation size.

This makes organisations quite inefficient. Like all large organisations, councils use quite a lot of resources on managing and communicating internally.

Huddle’s Charlie Blake Thomas told an all-too-familiar story: Someone sends around a Powerpoint Presentation by email to ten people. People make their changes and send it round to the group again. Soon you have eight or nine different versions in circulation. Version control goes out of the window. Inboxes are clogged up with crap.

In the past this was neccessary, but these days there are better ways of collaborating. Huddle is one of them, but other collaborative software is also available.

However, technology is no panacea. Becoming more collaborative requires cultural change. Councils are rigidly heirarchical structures and quite set in their ways. We’re used to working in silos, and many prefer it that way.

But as Bob Dylan so famously sang, the times, they are a changin’. It’s clear the public sector as a whole has a few turbulent years ahead as a result of tight public finances and changing demands.

In addition, local authorities are increasingly delivering services in partnerships, thanks to initiatives like Total Place. All of this means becoming more collaborative is not a choice, it’s a neccessity.

Anne McCrossan argued that old boundaries – between and within organisations – are increasingly irrelevant. The emphasis shifts from org chart structures to informal communication networks and those individuals within organisations who act as gatekeepers, hubs and pulse-takers. Organisations need to take advantage of these tacit information-sharing relationships in order to build effective networks.

Moving away from rigid structure towards a more collaborative way of working brings big benefits for organisations. First, it fulfills those needs that sit at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy; social participation gives people the power to self-actualise. By sharing information more widely, we present opportunities to learn. A social organisation is, by definition, a learning organisation.

Most importantly, it makes us more efficient. By reducing the costs of communicating and managing, we free up resources for service delivery. Private sector organisations thrive when they bring down management and transaction costs. We need to learn from their best practice in order to make the most of our resources.

McCrossan’s presentation echoed in many ways the work of employee engagement guru John Smythe. Smythe argues for employee engagement programmes aimed at moving employees up the engagement ladder – that is away from old structures of command and control towards a culture of co-creation.

Like Smythe, McCrossan emphasises the role of leadership in bringing about change, with a focus on behaviours and relationships rather than command and control.

Affinity, she contends, is stronger than structure. Organisations work best when they share a common purpose, comunicate that purpose, and bring colleagues along towards the common goal.

This is something local authorities ought to be good at; those of us who work for one know that ultimately our job is to make life better for people in the borough. But all too often we’re guilty of focussing on our own work and not the bigger picture.

Becoming collaborative organisations gives councils an opportunity to redefine their purpose. By focussing on working together with residents and partners towards our common goals, we can become more efficient and effective, as well as becoming better places to work.

Over the coming months and years local government will be asked to redefine its own purpose in order to become leaner and more efficient. That means rediscovering those shared goals and giving people the tools to work more efficiently towards them. Structures are inefficient: harness common purpose, though, and organisations can achieve more efficient delivery.

7 thoughts on “The Social Organisation

  1. A thoughtful and interesting piece, Sharon. Comes back to Will Perrin’s point that government at all levels is faced 21st century challenges with 21st century technology, but a 19th century system of governance. It *has* to change.

    The point about leadership being partially about facilitating change is interesting, too. Also leadership itself has to change, in reaction to technology and working practices. How does a council manager lead and inspire when half the team never come into the office?

    The financial situation will result in a remarkably high turnover of personnel over the next few months, and that itself may present an opportunity to get this culture thing fixed.

    • I agree, there has to be a huge change in how we think about leadership. Line management is not simply supervision, it has to mean engagement too.

      The recent MacLeod Review on Employee Engagement emphasised the important role employee engagement will play in the economic recovery in all sectors. There’s likely to be a renewed emphasis on this – and on the role of leadership in improving engagement – in the coming months.

      Turnover does present an opportunity to bring about this much-needed cultural change – but only if it’s handled correctly. Widespread calls for voluntary redundancies will disproportionally attract those most confident of getting jobs elsewhere. That means the highly skilled and highly employable – the very people local authorities need right now.

  2. Collaborating across departmental and organisational boundaries makes me think of microvolunteering and Google’s 20% time (where workers can spend %20 of their time on self-directed projects).

    With 20% time (or whatever proportion), council workers could be freed up to work on things that interested them, including other teams’ projects within the council.

    Then mix in some microvolunteering, where residents are able to volunteer time on a low-commitment basis to a particular project or even just a single, discrete task.

    Combine both of these and you could see much more effective and responsive projects that make the best use of people’s diverse talents outside their formal work roles and better meet the needs of the community.

    • An interesting idea, Adrian, but I’m not sure I can see it working in practice. In part because organising it would itself be a logistical nightmare, and probably require yet more management, but largely because I don’t think the public would stomach it. People like to know council workers are doing the job they’re paid for. The slightest deviation from this – especially for unfamiliar, out-of-the-box ideas – and the Taxpayers Alliance are up in arms.

      Councils could definitely do more to use people’s diverse talents, skills and knowledge – not just staff, but residents too. BCCDIY is a good example of the potential of this.

  3. I just wanted to make a comment on the promise that ‘social participation gives people the power to self-actualise’.

    I am sure it does.

    However social participation has also been the technology of choice for us human beings to make progress at all stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy – not just at the ‘self-actualising’ peak.

    Competence in social participation (or what de Tocqueville called ‘association’) and the ability to negotiate self interest through effective collaboration is one of the critical enablers in community and personal development. Whether it is learning to share a cave (or a housing estate) to meet needs for shelter and warmth or pursuing self actualisation, effective ‘social participation’ is the key.

    The challenge here is promoting social participation, collaboration, association. Not technology. In very few of the communities where I work is the REAL barrier to progress access to a networking site or high speed internet access (although these are cited usually after lack of money and skills).

    It is usually a lack of understanding about how collective self interests can best be met through negotiation and association. About the need to see what can be contributed rather than taken. About the need to build real trust rather than uncomfortable bureaucratic ‘compacts’. The other barrier to social participation in the real world is an almost complete loss of belief that progress is possible – manifesting itself in apathy and resignation. A belief that perhaps this is as good as it gets – and, if it is going to get any better then those bloody politicians had better get their fingers out, because I AM POWERLESS.

  4. Although I do believe in the benefits of the social organisation I wonder why the people currently on top of the hierarchies would give up their status and authority voluntarily. They are the ones who sign of the budgets for collaborative technologies. They are the ones who currently set the cultural framework of an organisation. How do we deal with office politics and personal agendas that are more concerned with status and personal development rather then long term problem solving?

  5. Pingback: Organisational communication 2020 « Sharon O'Dea

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