Digging in to Clarity over Control: Boundaries

Rice Paddy - Balinese style

One of the rallying cries for social media is “clarity over control.” Maddie, Lindy, and I used that as one of the organizing principles for our presentation at ASAE’s social media workshop way back in late 2009 (I think that’s, like, seven years ago in social-media-years), and it features prominently in the more current Open Community as well.

Of course, despite its pithiness and alliteration, clarity over control is actually a pretty complex idea. We’re not suggesting that everyone must give up all control, nor do we expect 100% perfect clarity all the time. That would be oversimplifying. We recognize that it’s hard work to integrate the clarity over control mantra into the very day life of your social organization. It takes some figuring out.

And one area in which you’ll definitely need to figure it out is your organization’s culture, particularly if you aspire to create a social organization. I think control is a very strong element of many (if not most) organizational cultures. And not just in the “command and control” sense (though that is big as well). Control shows up in our cultures in our focus on boundaries. All organizations have boundaries–invisible lines that separate different groups from each other: staff, senior management, customers, suppliers, volunteers, etc. Our culture determines how rigid those boundaries are, and also how high (or maybe opaque) the walls are that separate the groups and keep people or information from flowing across the boundaries. We can have very weak, porous boundaries that lets information and people move freely between groups, or we can have very sharply defined boundaries where each group mostly wonders what happens behind the walls of the other group.

A culture that likes control likes the boundaries sharp and the walls high and opaque. They like really clear roles and responsibilities so I don’t have to check with anyone else or sometimes even work with others in other departments in order to get my job done. Cultures that put a high value on control enjoy breaking their communication into little bits and distributing customized bits to the different groups, as appropriate based on the boundaries. There is a logic to all this, of course. I mean what, on the surface, is wrong with clear roles and responsibilities and customized communication? Isn’t that a win-win: control AND clarity?

Not quite. Clear control is still control. The clarity I’m talking about is one that reflects a shared understanding but allows for many more possible paths to the outcome than if you choose the control route. Clarity over control generally means clear boundaries, but low and transparent walls. Social media simply doesn’t benefit from the rigid control upon which so many of our organizational cultures are built. Social organizations choose clarity over control and pay much closer attention to how they set up and maintain boundaries, particularly in ensuring the walls remain low and clear. They have different departments, but information and even people can move back and forth easily. I don’t think there is one single, right culture for a social organization (that would be oversimplifying). But I do think they will embrace clarity over control.

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