A Connected Enterprise for the Network Era

Our dominant business models are the legacy of military hierarchies. But in a networked world these are inefficient, ineffective, and stifle innovation. Not a single major business disaster in the last half-century can be blamed on too much openness. However, many can be blamed on overly controlling management practices. The problem with hierarchies is that they are only as smart as the smartest gatekeepers. Networks are smarter than the sum of their nodes. Business models that enable connected leadership are essential in a network era.

Structures + Skills + Tools

The innovative work structures required for increasingly complex networked economies need to be supported by skilled workers with the right tools. We know that sharing complex knowledge requires strong interpersonal relationships, with shared values, concepts, and mutual trust. But discovering innovative ideas usually comes via loose personal ties and diverse networks. Knowledge intensive organizations need to be structured for both. Effective knowledge-sharing drives business value in a complex economy and this requires a workforce that is adept at sense-making.

Content Creation Skills & Tools

In a connected enterprise, capabilities need to be aligned with tools. A core requirement for both knowledge workers, and enterprise tools, is to share what we are learning and doing. Making work more explicit enables the organization to learn. Sharing user-generated content (knowledge artifacts) is how everyone can make tacit knowledge more explicit. Work is learning and learning is the work, when everyone shares. Of course this is more difficult if communications systems do not allow the easy creation and sharing of this content. Tools have to support the work.

Collaboration Skills & Tools

Most organizations have tools that support working together for a common objective. Coordinating tasks, conducting meetings that don’t waste time, and finding expertise are common collaborative tasks. Letting workers pick their own collaboration tools can go a long way in getting work done. Having an array of tools is also helpful. Modelling collaboration skills throughout the enterprise is even better.

Cooperation Skills & Tools

When people share openly, without any direct gain, knowledge networks thrive and the organization benefits. Cooperative skills include sharing openly with colleagues, communicating effectively, and networking to improve business performance. In addition, social media require new skills, beyond traditional face to face interchanges. Setting sharing as a default behaviour is a good start, but providing tools to enable sharing is also needed. As with collaboration, cooperative behaviours need to be modelled and encouraged.

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A combination of organizational structure changes, skills development and modelling, plus a suite of tools, can help to create a connected enterprise. All three are needed. Focusing on only one or two areas will likely not yield much success. This has been a problem with many social business initiatives which are too focused on the tools, like enterprise social networks (ESN). While an ESN may cover all the facets shown in the image below, workers still need those matching skills. In addition, the structure must support these behaviours on an ongoing basis. It takes all three components.

The Connected Enterprise Structure

Many of today’s larger companies have overly complicated, hierarchical structures. As they grew to their current size, control processes were put in place to create efficiencies. To ensure reliable operations and avoid risk, work became standardized. New layers of supervision appeared, more silos were created, and knowledge acquisition was formalized, all in an attempt to gain efficiency through specialization.

We are seeing growing complexity both inside and outside the enterprise. In this complex and connected world we cannot predict outcomes, but we can engage our environments and markets and then learn by doing. This makes constant learning a critical business skill. It requires do-it-yourself learning as well as social learning skills. How can we help people in the organization develop these skills?

Providing good tools and teaching by example is a start. While communication does not equal collaboration, social media have the potential to support emergent work practices. In changing complex environments, it’s not much use to rely on previous best practices. Social media can provide a space to develop new practices. How these tools get used is itself an emergent practice, but if workers are not allowed to practice, nothing will emerge.

In an age when information is no longer scarce and connections are many, organizations must let all workers actively manage their knowledge networks. Systemic changes are sensed almost immediately in an interconnected world. Therefore reaction times and feedback loops have to get faster.

Workers need to know who to ask for advice at the moment of need. However, this requires a certain level of trust, and we know that trusted relationships take time to nurture. The default action in emergencies is usually to turn to our friends and trusted colleagues; those people with whom we have shared experiences. Workers have to start sharing more of their work experiences now, in order to grow their trusted professional networks to deal with new and more complex situations. This is called working out loud. It helps build trust.

Sharing complex knowledge in trusted networks does not happen over night. It requires a combination of actively engaged knowledge workers, using optimal communications tools, all within a supportive organizational structure. Continuing to use industrial era structures and concepts will only lead to irrelevance in the network era.

It’s all about thriving in networks that are smarter and faster than you are. It’s all about being utterly screwed if you don’t know what I’m talking about. – Hugh MacLeod

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