When we think about business structures, many of us picture an organizational chart or the layout of an office building. A structure often refers to the physical arrangement of things, the parts making the whole. What we have missed so far is an understanding of the business structures that can foster faster learning and help us work better with information. Conventional structures don’t address knowledge-related challenges as effectively as they do problems of measuring input and output or accountability.
What social media have helped us to do is to link and coordinate unconnected activities or initiatives addressing a similar information domain. There have also been great successes in diagnosing recurring business problems whose root causes cross unit boundaries. We know that the problems we face today are too complex to be managed by one person or one unit. It requires more than one brain, one point of view, to solve them.
Sharing a practice or sharing an information domain requires regular interaction. Work is interaction and the new business structures should be built on interdependence and communication.
Almost all business communities started among people who worked at the same place or lived nearby. But co-location is not necessary any more. The Internet has changed that. Interdependent people forming a community can be distributed over wide areas. What then allows people to work together is not the choice of a specific form of communication, face-to-face as opposed to email or social platforms, but the existence of a shared practice, a common set of situations. What lies at the core of those situations is the need for different perspectives requiring interaction.
When you design for live interaction, you cannot dictate it. You cannot design it in the traditional sense of specifying a structure or a process and then implementing it. As many have experienced, communities seldom grow beyond the group that initiated the conversation, because they fail to attract enough participants. Many business communities also fall apart soon after their launch because they don’t have the energy to sustain themselves.
Communities, unlike business units need to continuously invite the interaction that makes them alive.
Community design is closer to iterative learning than traditional organizational design. Live communities reflect and redesign themselves throughout their life cycle. The design should always start with very light structures and very few elements.
What is also different is that good community architecture invites many kinds of participation. We used to think that we should encourage all the community members to participate equally. Now we know that a large portion of the network members are and should be peripheral. In a traditional meeting we would consider this type of participation half-hearted, but in a network a large portion of the members are always peripheral and rarely contribute. Because the boundaries of a live community are always fluid, even those on the outer edges can become involved for a time as the focus shifts to their area of particular interest.
Because conversations and communities need to be alive to create value, we need an approach to management that appreciates passion, relationships and voluntary participation. Rather than focusing on accountability, community design should concentrate on energizing, enriching participation.
The new structures and new designs are about communities continuously organizing themselves around shared information, shared interests and shared practices. Business is about doing meaningful things with meaningful people in a meaningful way.
More: “Lead like the great conductors“