Disruptive digital cliques

We are only beginning to understand the power digital networks can bring to opportunists: individuals and groups can overpower the best of business intentions with corrosive behavior and exclusive digital silos
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

These are rapidly changing times in the enterprise world, with the erosion at the edges of the MISO (MSFT, IBM SAP,ORCL) mega vendors by SaaS and cloud often feeling like Christensen's seminal book 'The Innovator's Dilemma' being acted out.

In that mega IT vendor world sustaining maintenance contract profit driven enterprise processes by bolting on a layer of social technologies has been all the rage, but the reality is that the ways we do business today are changing and mutating beyond all recognition. Without planning and clear intentions the enhanced communication tools from vendors of all sizes typically only go skin deep and with limited spread, despite the plethora of new channels we grapple with (mobile, social networking etc). 



Much is made of Christensen's 1990's 'disruptive' concepts in our current era, along with the value of fostering innovation to ferret out ideas for new 'think different' products from within the minds of corporate employees and extended networks.

What I've been seeing and working on is a much deeper set of parameters and outcomes than are currently being discussed.  Social business concepts are often dismissed as fluffy in business circles where ideas don't exist unless they can be measured. Despite this tightly calibrated approach there is also much uneasiness in the same circles about human nature, often based on team experiences, and the ways people have of forming cliques and competing with one another. There's often an underlying fear that providing social networks can have unintended consequences from these logical minds. Are we invoking 'The Wisdom of Crowds' or 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds'?

Most projects, however large or small, typically have a beginning, middle and end. In some cases the beginning is loose collaborations, sharing ideas and fostering innovation. During the middle stages projects take shape, there can be more competition between people and personal agendas can build up…and at the end there can be sensitivity and secrecy as people guard their positions. The opposite can also be true: a project starts in intense secrecy for competitive reasons (inside and/or outside the firm), the middle stages have budgeting milestones and more and more resources brought to bear to get to the final product delivery, which is all hands on deck to deliver a new product or service to market on time.

There are countless other concurrent variants and subtleties to the above examples, but there is a consistency around the way digitally empowered sharp elbowed opportunists can seize visibility and the realities of digital cliques working in concert to further group and individual agendas.

In the collaboration world context is king, and organizing the ways people interact has taken on major new significance as seemingly endless channels have been opening up through which people can contact each other, share information and data both inside and outside formal networks. If you're at the edge it can be great fun - if you're running a large project with multiple distributed participants, large budgets, goals or deadlines it can be like herding cats in three dimensions…

We've solved the 'tyranny of geographical distance' problem, mutated the 'clue train' conversation concepts into filtering problems and currently live in a heavily monitored for-profit digital talk soup of community and connections across multiple devices. Governance and compliance is having a really hard time dealing with protecting sensitive data and information in a world where we have lost control of ownership of ideas and creations to nebulous networks.

In this new era, many firms now have layer upon layer of technologies, and the challenges of managing people and their agendas across them all takes on new significance when you factor in short job tenures and loyalties and ever shorter TL;DR ('Too Long; Didn't Read') attention spans.  The idea that large segments of the working population are stuck in their ways is very often wrong - it's actually the overarching collective corporate culture that's stuck, despite massive technology tool change. Different parts of the organization have different priorities and responsibilities, and glib junk business books about frictionless sharing and boil the ocean company wide visions tend to make life more complicated and fail to solve cross business problems. Add in digital vendor hype and it's been a difficult eighteen months for strategists of all stripes...

The core of successes in achieving enduring success with modern digital tools to enhance and simplify business performance is fundamentally about people, not the technology. Alarmingly large numbers of people have no clear idea of how they are expected to use powerful technologies at work and the result is typically very inefficient, with information and collaboration silos being spun up to suit cliques. 

Digital cliques can be the dark side of the utopian social networking idealism which many firms have bought into, at least conceptually, and are often very powerful and exclusive. There's nothing new here of course - many large firms have large areas that are socially calcified into silos due to rivalries and fiefdoms. 

If participants are working on research and development or similar 'needs to be secret' innovation that is perfectly acceptable and logical.

What many seem to miss is just how important architecting the ways people should work together with these powerful new tools has become - the power vacuums that modern social networks can create are all to often filled by people skilled at jumping in front of the parade, social climbing and brown nosing.

Exclusive closed digital communities can be highly disruptive both on the open internet and inside firms (what's behind that door? what are they scheming about? Is it a conspiracy?). Often these thoughts are imagined about perfectly innocent activities but the broader cultural damage is done. 

 The Old boy network is as old as commerce, but the power of these digital cliques be very corrosive in ways we are only beginning to understand and are often a significant barrier to the success of broader collaboration to achieve specific business goals.


Image from Babylon 5


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