What If A ?Mob? Ruled Your Company?

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 3, 2007

5 Min Read

The ongoing community revolt (some might say "mob rule") at Digg is worth paying attention to if you are involved with community-building, social networking and related efforts for your enterprise. While Digg has some unique circumstances surrounding the site (very geek-centric) and this particular debate (possible violation of copyright protections), the issue of community empowerment is very much at center stage. If you take a step back from the nuances of this situation, and fast-forward a bit to a time when Digg-like tools are more widely deployed within an enterprise (which I believe will ultimately happen), how does that influence what might he thought of as traditional management decision-making?

Let's say that management decides a course of action and announces that plan to its workforce. What happens if there literally is a "digital rebellion" of sorts as employees strongly voice opinions that the company should take a different path? Most workplaces are not a democracy and the initial management reaction might be to forcefully shut down (by taking down the application) what is perceived to be "mob rule" - people might be disciplined, told to "just do their job" and so forth. But if we could get beyond the power/pride issues over who has what title/role, who has what formal decision rights, who has more information at their disposal, and the complex dance between knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow - what if the crowd was right?

Say the issue was how to address a product defect or a factory shut-down or the way claims were being handled after a natural disaster - the list of examples where collective intelligence within networks of people "on the edge" so to speak could provide a better compass to guide complex decision-making than centralized management structures.

But what if the crowd was wrong? What if the situation was related to a merger or acquisition or entering a new market or getting out of a particular business segment and management had done the due diligence needed to fully analyze the impacts and future market opportunities but the disruption would be painful in the short run so it would only be natural for people to react negatively.

You might dismiss the voice-of-the-crowd. But I might suggest that there is still some intrinsic value to transparency and public discourse. In some cases, the crowd may be wrong, technically, but the collective voice may be a signal to management that it failed to adequately address the human capital and softer organizational facets of how the decision impacted its workforce emotionally or in some other quality-of-life aspect. Such lingering sentiment may negatively impact the organization in other ways.

So while many of the stories regarding Digg will focus on the "mob rule" aspect, I believe the real take-away here is that the line between "mob rule" and "collective intelligence" is razor thin and that companies will cross back and forth across that line. The goal is to avoid significant and long-lasting chaos and anarchy. Some degree of ongoing cultural disruption can be a good thing actually.

There is danger however when enterprises look at technology alone to democratize the workplace. Those that go down this path, do so at their own peril. The ability of an enterprise to leverage the capabilities of the people it intentionally or inadvertently empowers is inextricably tied to its ability to handle the organizational dynamics enabled through the technology. Strategists need to consider a range of human capital and organizational development issues related to culture, decision rights, worker expectations, worker-management engagement, teaming, leadership, followership, etc. If you have an effective governance model in place, you build the needed resiliency and agility into the organization's DNA to become a "social enterprise". A social enterprise has the competencies and behaviors needed to continually right itself as it ebbs and flows between "mob rule" and "collective intelligence".

Social software does not mean the end of formality and the end of structure. Sense-making tools and decision-making systems are more critical than ever before within a network-centric organization. What we are still in the process of inventing are the next generation management frameworks. What is going on with Digg (and other communities that promote activism) will provide some lessons. At the end of the day, collective intelligence needs to lead to collective action that is purposeful in manner that supports the organization's goals and objectives. Otherwise, a "social enterprise" will be synonymous with the dot-com busts on the nineties.

Digg's Mob Rules

Power to the people" is a popular rallying cry of young Web companies whose businesses are dependent on the communities their sites empower to create and share content. But it's also their prime problem. Try as they might to guide the wisdom of the crowds supplying their content—and viewing their advertising—they cannot ultimately control them. "This is the flip side of these companies whose strategy is building up a community of users and encouraging those users to see the company as leaders of the community rather than their bosses," says Edward Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. "You can imagine a similar kind of thing happening in MySpace or YouTube or any of these places."

Source: Digg's Mob Rules

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