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.