Jamie Notter writes for the SocialFish on The Social Organization.
Maddie and I delivered a session at the Great Ideas conference titled Truth and Authenticity in the Digital Age. In the session we told two overlapping stories: one about individuals and one about organizations. In each story, we looked how today’s world of the social internet has big implications for things like identity and speaking the truth.
I was in charge of the organizational part of the presentation, and as I was preparing for the session, a lightbulb went off about how organizations are operating in a different world today. In the “analog” age (pre social internet), organizations were treated like machines. We “build” organizations and “run” them. We “engineer” our processes and measure our “outputs.” Associations in particular have “components,” and all organizations have “silos.”
And when you look at issues of identity or speaking the truth, you see the impact of this way of thinking. Organizational identity is typically defined by mission and brand, but those have typically been very controlled and mechanistic. Our mission is a bland, somewhat mechanical description of our activities, and our brand is a collection of messages and images that WE create and choose and then deliver with machine-like consistency. Speaking the truth is typically the job of the top of our organizational chart and is something they direct or “release” at appropriate times. Mechanical. Consistent. Directed.
In the digital age, the machine metaphor is breaking down, so to speak. I replace it with the metaphor of an ecosystem. The organization is a substantial part of an ecosystem but not solely responsible for the health and growth of the entire system, and at the same time very dependent on the activities and health of parts of the system that are outside it’s sphere of control. Mechanical mission statements don’t cut it–we need Kawasaki-esque mantras or clear strategic principles that provide guidance to the parts of the ecosystem without trying to control them. Brand is now managed as much by outside “digital extroverts” and “information socialites” as it is by our marketing department, and truth–in a healthy ecosystem–is like pollen, where the more it is released from thousands of individual sources, the more the ecosystem grows and thrives.
So if you want your organization to embrace truth and authenticity in this digital age, embrace three principles:
1. Decentralized. How can you empower the parts in your system to do their own thing but in a way that supports your strategic direction? Train your staff. Allow them to “friend” and build direct online relationships with members. Help volunteers to create their OWN online groups or communities. Give them some principles to operate under rather than a set of specific directions.
2. Transparent. In the digital age, people expect to see more of you (that applies to both individuals and organizations). The more you can reveal as an organization, the more trust you can build. Trust is the key to powerful relationships, and relationships are the currency in this new economy. They enable word of mouth. They are the foundation of engagement. Be strategic about what you reveal as an organization in order to build stronger relationships, but definitely prepare yourself to reveal more.
3. No fear. If you want the truth to flow like pollen on a spring day, then you need to pay attention to fear in your organization. Fear inhibits truth. Fear stops people from saying things and doing things, and as such it disables everything I’ve been talking about in the points above. You will probably need to work on your organization’s culture, but remember: culture is driven by behavior, so if “culture change” is too overwhelming, then start by changing your behavior. Pick small areas (a specific team or project for instance, or maybe a blog post or two) where you can test out the impact of speaking MORE truth than you used to. Summon your own courage, and set the example.
We all talk a good game about our organizations being nimble. “We change with the times. We do our SWOT analyses so we stay on top of strategic challenges.” Now is the time to put our money where our mouths are. The strategic landscape has shifted, because the social internet is a game-changer. Are you responding? Do you think you can keep up with a mechanical organization?