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Designing a Social Business

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Designing a Social Business

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Knowledge work is in may ways different from the transformational and transactional work that organizations have tried to automate and improve with information technology over the past few decades. A colleague of mine said, that as knowledge workers, we don't follow a process; we follow a cloud of activities. In other words, we are creating the process as we go along. To do that we need to use our creativity, we need to look beyond the standard ways of doing things, and we need to ask a lot of questions. This is something completely different to how it is to work at a production line in a factory, where workers are supposed to follow predefined and highly repeatable processes and procedures. There, asking questions and questioning rules is often out of the question, as it has the potential to disrupt operations.

As knowledge workers we often find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Workload and complexity at work is increasing, while we at the same time are expected to produce more, faster and faster. And adapt to new conditions. Not only that, we are expected to be creative and innovative as well. The problem is that our organizations haven’t been designed for knowledge work under these conditions. Most organizations have been designed for efficiency and economies of scale, not for enabling collaboration, creativity and autonomy. Too often, knowledge workers are just cogs in a big machinery. Organizations fail to get the full potential out of their knowledge workers.

Furthermore, network-based collaboration is the only way to deal with the increasing complexity, speed of change and uncertainty that organizations are facing. Unfortunately many executives and decision-makers don't make the same connection. They tend to forget that collaboration is the reason why their organization exists in the first place; an organization’s sole purpose is to bring together people with certain talent, skills an expertise to work together on a specific enterprise. During the 20th century much of this collaboration has been encoded, hidden, automated and steered in our processes, systems and formal (and static) organizational structures. Most of the collaboration that takes place in a large enterprise today is running in autopilot mode following predefined paths. However, in a dynamic, competitive and unpredictable environment we can't rely only on the autopilot for collaboration. Many organizations need to become more agile, innovative and productive to survive in this environment, and for that to happen collaboration must happen more freely – with more flexibility and also at greater scale if needed – proactively initiated and driven by the right people.

When the role of technology was simply to automate manual tasks and remove the need for human labor, the technology didn't need to be designed to fit humans. If they were to keep their jobs, they had to adapt to the technology instead of the other way around. This is why, in my opinion, social business isn’t about tools, features or platforms. Rather, it is a way to design information systems and other systems so that they fits with human nature and leverage collaborative human behaviors. Thus it should influence all service design and will be an integral part, a characteristic, of most business services. There are five principles in particular that should guide the design of all business services:

  1. Openness. We need openness to get access to information that we might have use for.
  2. Transparency. We need transparency to be able to discover it.
  3. Participation. It needs to be possible for anyone to participate, because that’s how we can deal with any kind of problem or opportunity,
  4. Dialog. We need dialog to ensure that communication is effective, that we quickly can reach mutual understanding and take action.
  5. Recognition. We need recognition, to reward and motivate people to contribute and keep the wheels of collaboration and innovation spinning.

For a truly social business, these principles should guide not only the design of technology solutions and services, but also leadership, performance models, organizational structures, and physical work environments. We have yet to figure out exactly how to do this, but the important thing is to start exploring before its too late.

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