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Social Media at Work: Viral Shift towards Information Age

2011-05-30 - 23:47:36 by PeterThoeny in Social Business
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Over the last decade I have seen organizations change fundamentally by applying wikis and other social media technologies at work. I was recently invited to speak at a panel on "Social Business as the New Organizing Principle" organized by South Bay Organizational Development Network (OSBN) on 2011-05-02 where we talked about the paradigm shift social media brings at the workplace, some of which I am sharing here on twiki.org with a broader audience. Key point: Organizations that adopt social media internally tend to make a shift from from industrial age towards information age.

Industrial age and information-age
Applying social media at work can affect an organization virally, typically in a positive sense. Imagine a scale as seen in the diagram to the left. On the left are industrial age organizations, on the right information age organizations. A company or agency may be anywhere on that scale. Where is your workplace?

In a simplified way, industrial age organizations are arranged top down, in a command and control manner. Think military organizations, governments and traditionally run companies. There is a head, people reporting to that head, there is a second level of command, etc. This is the spider in Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. If I work in an industrial age company that is at the far left of the scale I mainly operate by title. My power is primarily attributed to my title. I only share as much as needed to do my work or to help my position, but not more. The reasoning is, if I share too much, someone might take advantage of me. Knowledge is power in a sense of exclusivity.

Information age organizations on the other hand operate in a fundamentally different way. Think smaller startup companies in the Silicon Valley, large internet companies such as Google, and NGOs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. There is typically a top down reporting structure, but work gets done in a distributed way and has less to do with the reporting structure. This is the starfish in The Starfish and the Spider book, where the organization is made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other. If I work in an information age company that is at the far right of the scale I mainly operate by my status as a knowledge worker or Guru. The idea is that the more I share, the more I am understood to be an expert in my field. I like to network because it helps me learn more and do work more effectively because I can ask and engage other experts to help achieve my goals. Knowledge is power in a sense of sharing and connecting.

When I started deploying TWiki at work 13 years ago I had no idea how much this would transform companies. Wikis have been used for many years at work, long before the term Social Media was born. Other technologies joined wikis to transform the workplace, such as internal blogs, micro bloging and social networking. Initially not sanctioned by senior management, social media tools popped up all over the organization. People in the lower ranks liked wikis because they allowed them to achieve their goal as knowledge workers. More and more content gets shared online, which helps people do more work across team boundaries. This resulted in a fundamental paradigm shift on how work is done.

Organizations that deploy social media at work inevitably make a shift towards the right, e.g. in the direction of an information age company. This shift happens virally; wikis and internal blogs are often deployed without being sanctioned by senior management. For wikis, it is the wiki champion who plays a vital role in using wikis most effectively at work. Once bottom-up deployed wikis get at the radar screen of the CEO it is often "too late", the shift already started to happen. Leaders open to change learn and understand the value, and often embrace the new social media technologies.

On the other hand, managers who mainly operate by title feel threatened if the organization shifts towards the collaborative path. Naysayers will fight the change by suppressing use of wikis and blogs. Now it depends on the leadership of senior management on how to handle people who operate mainly by title. People are gently invited to participate and support the change, or let go if they no longer fit into the culture of the organization.

Last but not least, a small plug. TWiki was there from the beginning in 1998 and inspired other social media platforms such as XWiki and Jotspot (now Google Sites). These platforms help nudge organizations towards the industrial age. Google was there from the beginning: At WikiSym 2005, Shashi Seth, Sr. Product Manager at Google said that "this company runs on wikis," a statement made in reference to GooWiki (a company internal TWiki) and Sparrow. TWiki continues its path of innovation, the Twiki Workspaces product now offers a well integrated suite of collaborative applications that include project management, task tracking, team dashboards, document management, wikis, discussion forums and more.

I am looking forward getting your feedback. Do you see a shift happening at your workplace? Login or register on twiki.org and leave a comment below.



Do you see a difference between men and women and their ability to adapt to an information agent leadership? Are men more comfortable with top down leadership and women more comfortable with collaborative work styles?

-- Ellen Vera - 2011-06-01 - via Facebook

Interesting question. Women in leadership positions are on the rise, I am wondering how much that correlates with women being more comfortable with collaborative work styles? Certainly plausible.

-- Peter Thoeny - 2011-06-01


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Topic revision: r7 - 2013-11-20 - PeterThoeny

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