Tomorrow's world vs today's problems

Designing quality business strategy that realizes the power of modern technologies requires alignment with traditional business values; the siren song of projected futurism can look embarrassingly naive in hindsight
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

How could you not love the engagingly kitschy 2 minutes of film above from GM's 1956 Motorama? The last part of a ten minute opus titled 'Design for Dreaming', the futuristic film showed the exciting world ahead to an enthusiastic audience. As is often the case with futuristic marketing the predicted future didn't work out that way and there's a lot of entertainment value in how quaint it all looks in retrospect…

The IT and business worlds are rife with similar predictive behavior, and the area I've been heavily engaged in for the last seven years, enterprise collaboration, has been very heavily featured in the crystal ball gazing world, complete with various buzzwords, conflations of case histories, vendor comparisons and of course books. 'Social' connectivity is now table stakes as a feature of various enterprise technologies, as I've written here previously.

One of my past ZDNet blog posts that continues to get good and regular web traffic is titled  ''The Purpose of a Business is to Create a Customer' - Peter Drucker Centenary" which was a celebration of the great thinkers birth back in 2009. I wrote back then

Drucker’s ‘Management by Objectives‘ -  participative goal setting, choosing the course of actions and decision making - works well for larger scale collaboration and is arguably more valid today than it was when he wrote about it in 1954.

At the heart of Drucker's thinking was the concept of 'Management by objectives' (MBO),  a process of defining objectives within an organization so that management and employees are aware of and agree to them and understand what they need to do.

This thinking arguably forms the backbone of  much western business strategy and superficially seems easy to achieve …but try orchestrating people to do this…I wrote back in '09

…two of my favorite Drucker quotes are ‘Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes‘ and ‘There is an enormous number of managers who have retired on the job‘, which somehow seem to fit together very well.

There's a live debate here on ZDNet on Tuesday titled 'Social enterprise: Real or fiction?' where Dion Hinchcliffe  (who is currently a VP at 'Social Business' consulting firm Dachis Group, where I was briefly a partner a couple of years ago) calls social media in the workplace "viable and valuable", while Dennis Howlett (who comes at the topic more from a bean counter and Enterprise Resource Planning perspective) dismisses it as "laughable, even ridiculous". The live voting is currently 78% positive on the topic as I write this.

The subject of social behaviors inside businesses has been a highly fashionable internet meme for the last couple of years and also a major part of the marketing of various enterprise focused vendors from huge (Salesforce, for example)  to various startups.

Like so many movements with the prefix 'social', the meaning varies depending on who you are talking to.  Currently, broadly speaking, the term 'Social Enterprise' typically means varying blends of ideas around Enterprise 2.0 thinking, Social Media marketing & associated analytics and mining, customer relationship management (CRM), cloud and mobile technology possibilities plus the old chestnut 'Facebook in the enterprise'. This last idea attempts to replicate and leverage the power of our individual social interactions on free networking services such as Facebook and Twitter in a collaborative environment inside an enterprise, preferably also interacting with the outside world - and most importantly customers and prospects - through the firewall.

Today there's no shortage of voices on virtually any topic in our current era, to put it politely, with what seems like virtually everyone in the western world on Facebook and/or Twitter, connected to each other and regularly opining. This is a far cry from the dawn of the Enterprise 2.0 movement seven years ago which began in the trenches of large companies. Frustrations around inflexible, on premise enterprise and desktop systems that complied with legal requirements but were very restrictive led to increasing add hoc usage of then just emerging Web 2.0 and mobile technologies to network between subject matter experts and capture tacit knowledge in order to finish projects more quickly and efficiently. Drucker's 'Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes' was well served by these activities.

These early users and evangelists lived in a completely different era to today - the economy was much healthier back then, but suspicions about 'shadow IT' were very strong, Twitter was mostly used by a small in-crowd of analysts and experimenters and Facebook's social graph was overshadowed by Linked In and MySpace. The evolution of mobile hardware and associated user interfaces has been extraordinary since then, but the way most companies are run hasn't really changed to take advantage of new possibilities: the economy is horrible, and clear ROI is not unnaturally required to release budget for changes that will demonstrably enhance the route to objectives.

Today's reality is that in the rapidly changing formal hierarchy of enterprises, including the growing numbers of contingent workers, many people have no idea what the true objectives of their employer are.  Another famous Drucker quote: ‘Management by objective works - if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don’t‘. This continues to be a significant  barrier to collaboration at scale across enterprises (which some would call 'Social Enterprise' in the current fashion season). Typically pockets of people in various parts of the company understand the value of collaborating with modern technologies and use them for various processes and interactions, but initiatives at scale are still relatively scarce for the above reason: most companies are simply not that well organized or centralized.

Another great management guru W Edwards Deming pointed out that Drucker frequently warned managers that a systemic view was required - a lack of understanding of systems commonly results in the misapplication of objectives. 'Garbage in, garbage out' is a huge problem in large organizations with many business processes coming across as ultimately bafflingly pointless - but people of course will work a sixty hour week to fulfill their obligations and get their paycheck regardless of the perceived logic or intelligence of their actions. "What gets measured gets done" is not necessarily of any use to anyone, with sometimes hollow 'S.M.A.R.T.' objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) a popular template in many organizations. Managers who have retired on the job can easily hide behind these types of constructs while appearing essential to perceived continuing efficiency measurement.

The year before I wrote the Drucker post Pete Fields of Wachovia Bank (which no longer exists after the banking meltdown) delivered a heart rending keynote at the June Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference, where he described

…employees arriving at their first job at a brand name company with enthusiasm through the roof. A year later many of these same people, having experienced the limitations of cranking to ‘keep the trains running on time’ lose enthusiasm and are just going through the motions of working.

Fields discussed the tremendous expense of bringing these employees up to speed, only to see them ultimately leave in frustration.

Since that time firms like Salesforce have begun to make significant inroads into financial services and other verticals, and separately I've  put in a great deal of time and energy aligning 'Management by Objectives' style thinking on various sized projects from international to local to realize the possibilities and value of what is possible in a more connected organization, with varying degrees of success. More broadly it is accurate to generalize and say that the way individuals interact in their personal lives is rapidly changing, and of course the devices they use are often brought with them to work and are always on, with personal connectivity with others at a rapidly growing rate. Like so many things in life however the promise of the future is a very different thing to the realities of what will actually work in a culture over time, and it is all to easy to project futuristic ideas and concepts on this new canvas of human behaviors as future fact.

A continuing barrier to collaboration and interactions at scale is the reality that many enterprise HR org charts are obfuscated - it's intentionally hard to find an overall 'tree' of everyone in the firm, with only division or departmental hierarchies defined. Personal connections can provide an outside corporate policy 'end around' on this legal convention, which is typically in place to protect from employee litigation. This continues to be a significant challenge to the concept of a 'Social Enterprise' and I've found it hard to influence change in policy to unlock the benefits of a more connected company (and satellites) even in cases where there were very clear advantages.  Legal, compliance and fiefdoms tend to rule what I call setting sun corporations - large firms which are fading out - while expanding companies tend to have fewer formal managers and more connected 'doers' in my recent experiences.

Essentially though the value of deploying modern technologies - and far more importantly new thinking and clear use objective directives to go with it - are highly contextual regardless of size of deployment. Defining actionable value and actually realizing it is far more involved than most people think in an era of short attention span conceptualizing. The paradox of harnessing the power of lightweight Twitter/Chatter style interactions across groups of paid collaborators (as opposed to, for example, loosely knit groups of spare time hobbyists) is the need for formal goals and use patterns which requires deep thought, directives, follow through and consistency to succeed.

You can call this a Social Enterprise or anything else you want (many firms internally brand their collaboration environments) the important thing is to avoid General Motors 'Design for Dreaming' style projection of some sort of 'Future of Work' vision - instead focus on specific, actionable clarity which is relevant to your specific business needs and the pain points you know need addressing.

Far too many people continue to look for case histories of other firms who have deployed comparable initiatives to your needs, but all too often this winds up being similar but fundamentally different. An analogy is examining a box of Chevrolet engine parts to solve a Toyota problem: you may have found a  water pump but it won't fit the use case you need. Confusingly similar but not fit for purpose…

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