Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What CEOs Need to Know About the Social Web

What CEOs Need to Know About the Social Web
Posted by Tom Weber

From blogs and Wikipedia to Facebook and Twitter, each new wave of digital communications generates more upheaval for businesses. In his recent book, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations," Clay Shirky explores the ramifications of a world in which people can find each other and collaborate with increasing ease. Mr. Shirky is a writer, consultant and faculty member at New York University (we recently highlighted his comments on the payoff from converting TV-watching time into more productive endeavors).

Buzzwatch recently caught up with Mr. Shirky to discuss how these technologies are changing the equation for companies, managers and CEOs. Read on for Mr. Shirky's thoughts-and don't miss his unusual approach for handling information overload at the end of the interview.

Buzzwatch: Sum up the basic changes you're talking about.

Mr. Shirky: My five word summary of the book is: Group action just got easier. The thesis is that humans are natively good at doing things in groups. We know how to share, collaborate, converse. So whenever you get a new tool or technology that makes it easier for people to share or collaborate, you're going to see a lot more of that going on. The Internet-and increasingly, mobile phones-have provided us with a platform of huge new tools and services to do exactly that. So we're seeing now the first phase of experimentation and people saying, "What can we build on top of these tools?"

Buzzwatch: What does a CEO need to understand about the ways collaboration is changing?

Mr. Shirky: There are two different big things. The first is: Inside your hierarchy is a network. This isn't about networks replacing hierarchies-we're still going to have managers and promotions. But particularly for large companies, there's a lot of value that can be unlocked by letting employees work with one another. There were two research groups at IBM separated by the Atlantic Ocean-one in Armonk and one in the U.K. They were working on the same problem, but of course they didn't know that. They employed a tool IBM built called Dogear, a tagging tool. These two groups discovered-without any managerial oversight-that they were working on the same problem. They said, "Why don't we get together and collaborate?" That's the kind of enterprise value that can't be driven by the manager. In any complicated field, the people you're managing know more about the problem than you do. This is a way of getting at that value.

The outside message is: Your customers, who have previously been relatively separated from one another, with their principal connection to you, may start becoming your competitors or your collaborators. CEOs need to be in the position of understanding what might happen and then try to work out strategies for the threats and for the opportunities.

Buzzwatch: If you could suggest one collaboration tool for businesspeople to get familiar and comfortable with, what would it be?

Mr. Shirky: There's no one tool that does everything. So that's the first thing to understand. That said, one tool I would pick is Flickr. The value of understanding Flickr is in seeing how completely simple participation can be. You take a photo, you upload a photo. Flickr has me-first value. The principal value is to the user. But then you start to see what happens when you add even a little bit of participation to the mix, letting people label photos and comment on photos. You will see how quickly the social component can form around these artifacts.

There's also something that CIOs rather than CEOs need to understand. It's almost universally the case with social software that the software that launches with the fewest features is the stuff that takes off. The shift is from thinking about the computer as a box to thinking of the computer as a door, and nobody wants a door with 37 handles. Twitter has six features, and it launched with only one. A brutally simple mental model of the software that's shared by all users turns out to be a better predictor of adoption and value than a completely crazy collection of features that ends up being slightly different for every user.

Buzzwatch: Apart from the broader business implications, do you see lessons for professional managers? What can a manager learn from self-organizing groups?

Mr. Shirky: What a manger can learn is that self-organizing groups don't stay self-organized very long. This is one of the great myths of this stuff, the hive mind. Go look at the talk pages of any moderately frequently edited Wikipedia entry. When you look at open-source projects, these are not non-hierarchical paradises. These are strongly hierarchically managed projects.

The lesson for managers is that the kind of social issues that create the need for management don't go away. They're going to surface in any large project involving humans. But the skills needed now are different from the ones we're used to. We have a world in which the two classic poles are the micromanager and the grand strategic visionary.

But when people are self-organizing, it requires a management skill that is much closer to facilitation. When you see the really good ones-a Linus Torvalds on the Linux project, or a Teresa Nielsen Hayden managing the comments on Boing Boing-you see people who aren't operating with an ironclad set of rules but are responding situation by situation. To the degree you start opening up to insights of people who don't work for you or you can't control in the same way, that facilitating function becomes a core management skill.

Buzzwatch: Crowds can be wise, but they can also be shallow. What are the downsides in this new environment? What can be done to minimize them?

Mr. Shirky: The downside is that if society does not have the ability to affect which groups do and don't form, it creates negative as well as positive repercussions. I have an example in the book, these pro-anorexia groups. In the past they could not have taken out an ad in the newspaper or met in a church group. The people who control the bottlenecks wouldn't have let them. Now there are no more bottlenecks. It's similar to the way the First Amendment says to society, we can no longer prevent bad speech, so we put society in the position of reacting to bad speech. We can't prevent these things, we just have to react to them. It just takes more attention and more work.

Buzzwatch: How do you personally cope with information overload?

Mr. Shirky: Here I think the lesson is, there is no such thing as information overload. Or rather, we've been in information overload since 1500. Which is roughly the year there was more written material to be read than a human being could read in a lifetime.

What we're dealing with now is filter failure. Imagine going into a bookstore that had no organization, with books being dumped into the street and the store saying, "Wade in and find the management book you want." The bookstore would be as broken as our sense of email is today.

So the single most important change is attitude. We are all having to abandon, a bit at a time, the idea of getting through our email queue. We have to instead say, I'm going to start at the top of my day with the most important stuff and work my way down. And I'm going to accept at the end of the day that I'm not going to be done. For people for whom a sense of completeness is vital, that's a painful shift.

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