11 November 2011

The 'factory model' vs the social business

For some reason, I have been roped in KM (knowledge management) projects in almost every organisation I've ever worked in. All of them have failed. (No fault of mine, I swear.)

Years later, when Web 2.0 came around and the Intranet-based wiki became fashionable, it felt like déjà vu all over again.

It's recently occurred to me why social media hasn't taken off in the enterprise space. It's because of the factory model.

What is this "factory model"? It's a way of organising processes and resources in an organisation, centred around building standardised, reusable "parts": documents, code, skill-sets, everything. The goal is to optimise everything, and to minimise cost.

The factory model doesn't just apply to the manufacturing sector. It can apply to any business that makes use of highly specialised, modular and repetitive processes, and puts its products together like an assembly line. Most software companies, for example, have factory-model operations.

The factory model is the dominant way businesses today are organised.

The factory model is also why most social media initiatives fail.

The factory model is anathema to enterprise social media

Social media cannot thrive in environments that are over-optimised for cost. When workers are timelogged too closely, they concentrate on their project, leaving no time for non-core activities. No one would spend time working on things that are not reflected in their work appraisal report.

Let's suppose that management adopts a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy for social media. Better still, let's suppose management officially endorses social media (and many managers would say they do, for fear of being seen as too unprogressive), time spent blogging and enterprise social media can be easily seen as waste of time. No one would want to be seen as too active on the Intranet blog if it can be used as evidence for downgrading their work performance.

I've even heard of cases where management--quietly or actively--looked out for social media stars among the rank-and-file to showcase as proof of the organisation's progress towards becoming a "social business". Did these companies succeed in their clever plan to produce teams of social media experts without even trying? By and large, they didn't. It did surface a handful of social media or web content enthusiasts, but that was it. There was no company-wide shift to social media, nor did a knowledge-sharing community emerge.

Richard Templar's best selling "Rules of Work" contains gems such as, "Volunteer carefully" and "Never let anyone know how hard you work". These are golden rules--for the old economy, not the new one. If I were working in an "old economy" business jumping onto the social business bandwagon, I'd remind myself of a 3rd rule (also courtesy of Templar): "Know that you're being judged at all times."

Social business is harder than KM

After more than 10 years of the KM movement, we now know that most KM projects fail, even when they are great. And social media is an order of  magnitude harder. Not only does the social media team need to encourage staff to contribute, they also need to maintain staff engagement and sustain the community. The team must often deal with managements' fear of dealing with criticism as well.

Most companies make ill-judged assumptions when hopping on the social media bandwagon:

  • They assume altruistic motives in their staff; they assume that everyone in their staff can write and participate if correctly motivated.
  • They assume that community-based content would be high-quality, just like professionally copywritten materials.
  • They were naively optimistic about their tolerance for social media gaffes and disasters.
  • They underestimate the effort needed for change management, or the organisation-wide disillusionment that came from that last organisation development project.

Can corporate cultures be remade?

The only way social media can thrive in an organisation built on the foundations of the factory model and short-term profits is when it literally bifurcates its organisation culture--by separating a business unit to focus on research, product development, and--yes--blogging. For example, have the corporate affairs department drive social media, as part of its internal communications. That department alone will have luxury to read and share ideas. On the factory floor, it's business as usual.

This is not as radical as it sounds. Even in old economy initiatives such as Six Sigma, an expert team must first be trained in the methods, before facilitating the process throughout the organisation. In Six Sigma, the core expert team does the thinking and the talking. The rest of the organisation just takes orders.

The alternative to creating an alternative structure to facilitate socially enabled business is to remake the organisation culture. Which is near impossible, and not worth the marginal benefits that social media offers.

It's hard to choose the road not taken

As social media continues to mature and become even more ubiquitous among consumers, we'll see a generation of true knowledge workers. They will be even more comfortable with the web than the current generation, and they will have an extraordinary level of personal transparency and high thresholds for privacy. These people will be ideal for social-centric organisations.

But it will be very hard for traditional organisations to attract members of the "socially aware" generation. Not merely because these young employees won't be allowed to blog/tweet/facebook--that would be too facile a reason--but traditional businesses are filled with repetitive, brain-deadening tasks designed to minimise cost and extract maximum value from their staff--tasks such as social media and knowledge management.

Big, brand-name companies are creating positions that promise to give job candidates latitude and opportunities to drive social media within their organisation. But would good candidates join them? It's just easier for them to join an organisation that already has a reputation for its open culture.

Have you seen those statistics and infographics that say more organisations are adopting social media? I doubt they mean anything.