An unusual — and unusually rich — funding opportunity inspired researchers at MIT and several other top-tier research institutions to improvise a comprehensive multi-media proposal on a tight deadline. While the schools’ own IT infrastructures and apps proved disconcertingly incompatible, Dropbox and skillfully edited Skypes facilitated exactly the kind of real-time and asynchronous coordination and “version management” needed to deliver a “knock-their-socks-off” plan fast. They won eight-figure funding.
More humbly, incompatible communications networks and a less-than-proactive IT department drove a company’s supply chain and procurement teams to use LinkedIns, private Tweets and cut-and-paste Sharepoints to quickly coordinate go-to-market product changes with key vendors. The ad hoc network enabled suppliers to transparently coordinate and collaborate with each other as well as respond to their customer’s requests.
These real-world vignettes highlight social media’s underappreciated and undervalued impact within and between organizations: the power to self-organize. For completely understandable reasons, enterprise social media tools and platforms like Yammer, Chatter, Jive and Sharepoint have been branded as great ways to communicate, engage, collaborate, coordinate, update and share information. That’s largely accurate. But those pretty verbs obscure where the real action is taking place.
Initiators and intrapreneurs aren’t just using social media to make their efforts more transparent and accessible, they’re using these platforms to improvise and organize new ways to get the job done. They’re using these tool and technologies to add value to existing processes or, indeed, to create new “just-in-time” processes (and programs) that the C-suite and other senior managers had never envisioned. Social media inside the enterprise and out lower the costs and increase the power of individuals to productively coalesce and coordinate on their own initiative.
In other words, social media tools enable “gray markets” in enterprise self-organization unanticipated by the organizations that provide them. Sometimes, organizations even experience “black markets” in social media-enabled “self-organization” when their people use unauthorized or unsanctioned platforms like Twitter, Dropbox, Skype, LinkedIn, Google+ and even Facebook to share ideas and coordinate their activities.
Why? For reasons healthy and dysfunctional alike. More than a few organizations provide such poor communications and collaborative tools that the only way people can really do their jobs is to create and maintain their own collaborative networks. Even worse, some individuals and teams in troubled organizations use external social media platforms to facilitate their own “Enterprise Spring” so they can accommodate and counterbalance the perceived incompetence and/or poor behaviors of their bosses.
Where IT once confronted the spectra of “shadow apps” and “gray market computing,” the rise of social media platforms inside the enterprise and out now means that entire managements now see “emergent” leaders and processes. These aren’t designed for or planned; they materialize directly from the perceived needs of concerned individuals and teams who now have the ability to self-organize inside the firewall and out because of these media.
That’s (potentially) revolutionary. That’s also why so many organizations are understandably suspicious and/or wary of what enterprise social media platforms might truly represent. Yes, they’re about communication, coordination, collaboration and transparency. But they’re also about power — the power of individuals and teams to reach within and across enterprises to effect meaningful change.
At Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Tech Conference, retired General Stanley McChrystal
observed that technology had fundamentally changed how America’s special operations command managed its special forces warriors. The technologies of situational awareness put soldiers at the front lines — not the Generals in the command centers — in the best positions to decide how to best prosecute their missions. The General recognized that these technologies were better used to empower rather than to second guess.
The bottom line: the most important impact of social media technologies comes from who — and what — they empower, not just the information they exchange. Do organizations appreciate and understand that these tools put them in the “empowerment” and not just the “better communications” business?
Reinventing Corporate IT
An HBR Insight Center