Friday, March 17, 2006

The future of blogs in organizations

On the Learning Circuits blog Jay Cross raised the question of the use of blogs for organizational puposes, in particular bottom-up knowledge management. This has sparked a debate about how useful blogs are within organizations and what is required to turn them into tools of productivity. It occurred to me that there are two issues that need to be clarified before this straegy can become successful. One is technical (the evolving range of functionality of blogs) and the other -- far more important -- is cultural. The following expands on a comment I left in the Learning Circuits blog.

One of what I would call the "cultural" problems with blogs is that, although manifestly public, the implicit model of a blog is the personal diary. This apparent contradiction may help to explain some of the frustration we feel with certain blogs. It conditions how we write in a blog as well as how we read it. It also conditions our expectations as to what we might get out of a blog in terms of information, enlightenment or even a "sense of community".

When considering how the blog can usefully and naturally fulfil an organizational role, I expect that we will have to let the concept (and the blogging tools) evolve towards something that is more team-oriented and less linear in structure. The reliability of information offered by individuals qua individuals will always be suspect and the principle of growth by simple accretion (creating amorphous “heaps” of information mixed with opinion) may not be the best way of clarifying or even exploring important issues. If blogs were truly redesigned for team rather than individual expression, the teams could find, define and redefine objectives and then measure their performance against those objectives. They might thereby achieve the kind of focus that would make it easier for those consulting the blog to understand and use.

Blogs are currently purely vertical structures. Perhaps they need to become horizontal as well and to move away from the model of private individual expression “shared” with the public. This would be a cultural shift that would have an impact on how we contribute to blogs. The question then arises, "which comes first, the new architecture of the blog or the cultural shift?". The only possible answer, as with chickens and eggs and all other evolutionary questions, is "both". But this will only happen if our dominantly individualistic IT culture and global capitalist economy can themselves integrate concepts that are more specifically collectivist. I tend to believe there are powerful economic and political (and therefore cultural) forces that will seek to prevent this from happening in any significant way. The consumer society depends on the atomization of society, ensuring that people cannot easily and spontaneously organize into effective teams that may generate their own values at odds with the dominant ones. Effective teams born of bottom-up initiatives may be suspected of challenging existing power structures as well as disrupting planning based entirely on predictable (and/or controlable) trends.

Which, of course, shouldn't prevent us bottom-uppers from trying!


Jane said...

Peter, you say:
'But this will only happen if our dominantly individualistic IT culture and global capitalist economy can themselves integrate concepts that are more specifically collectivist. '

There is a misapprehension here that it will be the IT based cultures that lead the concept - I suspect not. There is an argument that when CoPs are manufactured or structured that their impetus is lost; that natural CoPs (thus not organisationally structured) are the way forward (how is this measurable).

However, to give you some cheer, even financiers are now being encouraged to consider human capital and the community based resource.

Since you are interested in variation of media, see whether this clip is of interest.

Peter Isackson said...

As with most cultural-historical issues, I don't think -- and didn't mean to suggest -- that one side alone actually "leads". I do think that the natural resistance to change must break down so that both can lead. The tendency towards polarization within Western culture (which has traditionally encouraged the ideals of both teamwork and spontaneity), makes it more difficult for change to take place since there is a growing suspicion of spontaneity as nothing more than a source of disorder. Over the past 50 years we have slowly moved towards a gated community view of society. And as anyone can see, a GC is anything but a CoP. It is designed simply to ensure individual privacy and is based on the principle of control.

Thanks for the link to the Lynda Gratton clip. I agree absolutely with her analysis and -- extrapolating a bit -- see how blogs could become vital "conversational" media. I would love to see her wisdom taken seriously, but I fear that few are listening. The belief that "time is money" and quarterly results are the measure of everything is still (and increasingly) much stronger than the belief that conversational culture is the key to future growth. Lynda Gratton quite sensibly highlights the importance of the long term, but our ambient culture -- and particularly the culture of finance -- only sees the short term.

All of which, by the way, encourages me to keep fighting for the long term and the kind of change that will break the current trends. We simply need to avoid underestimating the powers of resistance. That is why, curiously, the techies may be our best allies, because they are not only supplying the instruments of control that reinforce the polarizing profiteers (by definition, control freaks), but they are also producing the means to supplant them when their disastrous schemes fail on a major scale (as they are just beginning to do practically everywhere).

Jane said...

Glad you enjoyed the clip. I found it interesting in relation to the organisational structure at 'my' college. I work a s a member of the senior management team and have an open door (literally)policy which is often used. We recently enjoyed(?) a 360 degree appraisal exercise, facilitated externally and with limited input from direct reports.

A colleague on SMT and I scored in opposite ways. Her lowest score, not at all or in itself dire, was for her emotional intelligence and actions as a team catalyst - but she scored very highly on 'delivering'. This lead to a discussion on how SMT should prioritise - got us nowhere.

I steadfastly believe that if I have an effective team who feel that they can be directed but not micromanaged, that they can walk through the door and have a discussion (assuming someone hasn't beat them to it)and that there is a combined intention to move forwards together (rather than a blindfold/blame culture) then the strategic goals of the organisation are more likely to be attained. What this does mean, however, is that my paperwork is not turned around as fast as that of my colleague and that, were it not for my children insisting on a work life balance of some sort that this, too, could suffer.

I shall post Lynda's clip to my colleagues but am not confident of a good reception. Ironically, if I post the same to the curriculum heads for whom I have line management responsibility (my team) it will undoubtedly go down well.

So, where am I going with this .....

The development of (the) natural CoP(s) is crucial to ongoing organisational development. Someone has to start the ball rolling if the benefits of unrecognised but existing CoPs are to meet their potential. I see blogging as a medium, one of a number, that might facilitate this.

By the way, I dont believe that a GC can be a CoP ... and will post on that one later.