Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why how your company thinks is important - the need for governance change

Some thoughts on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

I have been all but floaded with posts and tweets on the above subject in the past few hours. It is an interesting issue, hotly debated in the United States, and it covers two issues, that I have first discussed in Robert Paterson's blog:
- How you treat corporations from a legal standpoint : treating corporations as legal persons (see corporate personhood) would almost naturally bring you to the decision taken by the Supreme Court;
- How corporations think and act internally, given the (overlooked) fact that they are legal persons that employ scores of natural persons, and yet, are not democracies. 

I discussed in my latest post why it was important to change the way a corporation thinks, using the OS analogy. The basic idea was that the increasing complexity of the economic, social and technological environment stretches the limits of the corporation's old industrial OS (taylorism, hierarchy, monolitic culture), and that social technologies provide an opportunity to reengineer this OS. 

If I push this idea a bit further (which is anyway where I want to go), what we also see is that, by working on ideas more than on products (intangible assets more than on tangible assets), corporations are slowly but firmly changing the human dimension they target. Let me be clear : industrial corporations helped increase the general well-being by developping utilities, infrastructures, basic products and services and (even though this is also often overlooked) by making hunger (in industrial countries) a sad exception. Corporations in the now-ending knowledge economy increased the part of intangibles in their operations.

I think this is fundamentally changing. Today, as most markets are mature and saturated (who would want to market cars, today ?), companies will compete for a share of attention, which is also a share of mind, of talent, of influence of each one of us. The human dimension that some of these new type corporations target is not physical well-being nor general consumption but values, beliefs, meaning. It's having all information flowing freely in the world within a "do no evil" philosophy; it's providing the people a technology so that they can invent new usages (see what Umair Haque has to say about ideals beating strategy in the 21st century).

So we have some corporations working on the very fabrics of society. And, oh, by the way, banks have taken on the business of creating money (and then using it to pay themselves bonus, that they can use in the real economy).

Another point. I will not speak here of SMEs, entrepreneurs or your average Mom & Pop business. Some corporations, though, are huge. Really impressive. I think McKinsey published something on mega-corporations being a key trend for this century. I do believe that is true. Some corporations are really too big to fail (from a social point of view). 

It is because such corporations have been given the legal person status that we have an issue to think about. Such corporations, today, try to have an influence on the landscape they compete in (business is business) and, with this Supreme Court decision, they have no real limit on what they can do.

Here, what we basically have then, are social structures (huge corporations ARE social structures) with influence in government affairs that are NOT democracies. Given the power that corporations will be gaining in the coming decades, when they work on ideals and attention, this will be entirely different from having industrial conglomerates that can lobby for the price of raw materials ... These corporations already behave as small societies, and some have for years already replaced the state or society for basic public services such as health, insurance, ...

I might be pushing this, but how different is this from having one of the 50 states not being a democracy ?

So, my opinion on all this ? Having corporations being able to influence political life is a real issue and I quite agree with people thinking about constructive capitalism, or with people trying to bring new, more collaborative ways and structures into the corporation. It's what I do. I also think the court decision did not really delve into what a corporation really is.

And that is what we need to think about now. I feel it is high time corporations governance included some references to democracy in the way key orientations are taken.  Once they reach a certain size, I certainly do not see why they should be governed by shareholders. And that seems a really tough political question to tackle

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Has the web changed the way your corporation thinks ?

 The year 2010 has but started and the web seems brand new to me these days as I read blog after blog : is it becoming a predictive, squared, intention web ? And as the persons polled  by Edge underline, will it change the way each of us thinks, individually ? Will it make this thinking shallower (or deeper) ? Will it push people from thinking to searching ? Will it allow rediscovering ways long ago forgotten ?

All of this and probably much more the web has accomplished or will accomplish shortly. Deeper, though, what the web is empowering is a new, key infrastructure in our society, a human infrastructure that changes the reach of our individual and collective thinking - and acting. This is, I believe, just a fact: the millions of people connected through social networks, the communities emerging, pursuing a purpose and dying in the social web, they have become a new human infrastructure. Look at what Brian Solis has to say about contextual networks.

How our individual thinking evolves is a question that will be debated for a long time, as it touches fundamental questions about what we are and what we are becoming. People like Ollivier Dyens or Ray Kurzweil have thought deeply about it.

To me, a more pressing and actionable question is, has the web changed the way your company thinks ? We all know that the web, along with this emerging human infastructure, is an environment for which the traditional, industrial company, is not ready. Young start-ups, the Googles and Facebooks of this world, were born in this environment. Not so for older companies, that still make the wast majority of an economy's players.

So, have you thought lately about your company's brain ?

From corporate OS ...

Because companies think, right ?

If we take some time to look back, companies, "enterprises" were at the beginning just that, enterprises born of the individual initiative, that is so cherised by neoliberal economists. Did they actually think ? It is likely that the question did not have a meaning for a long time. Companies accomplished  things, almost naturally (build, sell, ...). People in these companies had their thoughts, for sure, but if any thought was to be said to be a "company thought" that was the thought of the boss, the owner, the leader.

With industrialization, corporations began to think. Their thinking was like that of our first computers : limited and slow. But then, so was the economy. This thinking was based on what can be thought of as the first «corporate OS» : taylorism, hierarchy, corporate culture. If you think about it, one of the objectives of taylorism was to avoid shop-floor employees making decisions, in fact doing anything that had not been predicted by the management system, whether it was mechanical work, problem solving or even learning. Some people have defended that the very objective of all this was to be able to make predictions on profit (see André Gorz), and you cannot make (economic) predictions without accounting. It would not be that difficult to jump to the conclusion that accounting was the basic, unevolved thinking of the industrial corporation. We should also add some ideas about marketing and demand, and, more recently, TRS. Not quite poetry.

Complexity, in markets and in the economy at large, fostered a response from the corporation. As complexity grew, corporations began doing things that were not in their original genetic code. They began their mutation. Their environnement was hitting them hard with an accelerated stream of demands, social, economic, as the infrastructured that linked them to other companies, to the society, to the economy, began to grow and become more efficient.

We started thinking about the knowledge worker when the key issue was probably the knowledge corporation, this really being of a different kind than the industrial corporation. I think off the knowledge corporation as an evolved industrial corporation, still using the same OS, but adapted, stretched to its limits, to be able to manage relations in an evolved environment. Windows XP or Vista, if you want an analogy.

Just push that analogy a bit further and you will understand why, today, it is time to change that first corporate OS and help our corporations grow the brain they need to enter the conversation.

... to "deep brain"

Let me come back to that idea of corporate OS (I talked about it first in the French blog of Talent Club). We could look at the industrial corporation as a system with:
  • Ressources - raw materials, capital, people, ...
  • Users - basically, management, employees, clients
  • Applications - the practices and machines that allow users to make the system work
  • An OS - the principles that allow coordinating the activities of the different applications and allocating resources to them. In the industrial corporation, this OS included the org chart, hierarchy and some basic principles of corporate culture (management practices, ways of working).
What do we see happening (or should we see happening) in our corporations ?
  • Organization charts are being challenged (or complemented) by corporate social networks. A corporate social graph is surely better suited to identify and involve ressources in companies that compete in a market gone realtime;
  • Hierarchy as the only organizing principle is being challenged (Jon Husband explains this better than me) and new ways are being developed. I, for one, work most of my time at helping my clients develop their own collaborative ways;
  • Finally, the old, windows-based ways of working are being replaced with the new, more open, dynamic and collaborative ways of working that come from adopting and adapting web 2.0 tools.
Yet, this is all so more complex than just adopting Enterprise 2.0 tools... As a new human infrastructure has developed thanks to the web, so can it develop within the corporations that adopt Enterprise 2.0 tools. A new human infrastructure ...

It's not about intranet 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 or Social Networks, stupid ! It's not about challenging hierarchy ! It's about building the system (brain, organization, call it what you wish) that allows the corporation to adapt to the new competitive environnement by making its internal human infrastructure better than the existing, web based, human infrastructure. It's about reaching your corporate objectives (oh, you will need to revisit those, by the way) - satisfying your clients (oh, you also need to think again about client satisfaction) - rewarding your stakeholders (oh, you really need to know better who your stakeholders are).

Building your company’s deep brain and getting ready for the enhanced web in 2010

I wrote before that a deep brain was what a company needed to exist in this new, realtime web environment. And by exist, I mean business and meaning. It is the new, people-centered, corporate working environment that leverages both the strengths of the organization and of the social networks and technologies. I also wrote that the main difference between a company's brain and the internet-based, free, human infrastructure (quick brain) lied in how and why people made connections and what those connections were intended for.

My work in 2009 has allowed me to push those ideas just a bit further. If you want to build a deep brain (or, plainly speaking, if you plan to adopt social technologies in the interest of your company - and I mean interest in the context of constructive capitalism), here are a number of ideas you might look into.

  • First, technology. You do not buy technology anymore, you develop several platform strategies. Internalize key skills and leadership. Build a prototyping mode. Look first into your employees and clients future challenges. If your idea is just to have "collaboration technologies", stick to old MS Office;
  • Some examples here : do not buy a search engine, why not try developing the algorythm that fits you ?
  • Do not buy a social network, why not think about your own people-centered HR strategy ? And if that is not enough, involve the marketing and PR guys and make them think about client / partner collaboration;
  • You are all about idea generation software, folksonomy and social bookmarking ? First, why not try some evolution of your internal ways of working ?
  • And finally, management ... big question, what happens with management ? In my experience, nothing much, unless you give them a mission : make "social collaboration" (or whatever you want to call it) happen. I am lucky enough to have a client that has done just that. Obviously, you have understood also, that how he set people out on the mission was critical.
Leadership. It's all about governance. By governance, I mean that you need to go beyond what the board asks you to do. Beyond. Higher. It's about loosing micromanagement frenzies, quaterly objective pressures, alignment ideas, management engagement and all that stuff. Reinventing your job (earn that bonus, what the hell!) to reinvent your company.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Changing the way I think

I was not among the people that were asked "How is the Internet changing the way YOU think?" by Edge.  I just found out about this initiative as I was getting ready for a lecture on New Ways of Working.

Reading through the answers and reflecting on the question, I have to say that the internet has indeed changed the way I think.

First, I now relate differently to my sources. I rely less on names and official sources, on known bloggers or writters, and allow myself to search without precise direction for some time, relying on luck - in fact, believing in serindipity. Where I was used to reading I know have conversations with those sources, even though it takes me forever to finish a presentation or a post.

I spend much more time thiniking, in fact, than I used to, and thinking has become a structured activity, with different steps (deciding, looking for ideas, discussing the ideas, going back to the initial thought, formalizing, challenging, engaging in conversations). It's as if thinking today was not the same activity as it was some time ago.

Then, when I think, I now read, look and listen (to Ted, for instance), that is, I use more senses than I was used to.

And, more importantly, I am totally connected, with my reader, twitter, communities, all becoming available resources to help me deepen an issue. I prepare for non-connected periods, where I know I will do two things : some final deep thinking (but it rarely works well) or some easy, low value tasks (that I have to call thinking, because without them, I will not remember my own production).

So yes, definitily, the internet has changed the way I think. What I believe, though, is that my intellectual structure was already there, and probably because of that I am able today to manage these different sources, trends of thoughts, ideas, pieces of information, manage them and add my own little input.

After all, it's probably obvious the internet has changed the way we think. The important question is how the internet will change the way future generations think if it becomes the main element structuring their thoughts (as books ad teachers used to be for us). I am rather optimistic, not sharing what Maryssa Mayer thinks in the Edge piece, much more what Anderson writes. And in the end, being rather happy to participate in this new era that could deliver some collective wisdom.