Is authority the first word or the last?

David Weinberger was one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto which looked at the impact of the internet on markets and organisations. He wrote his first blog post in 1999 but didn't hit his stride until 2001. That's probably years before any of us had even heard of a blog, or social networking, which is where this particular blog post is heading.

He's a genuine guy and a deep thinker and he's written some great books and delivered some brilliant lectures.

Last week he came up with a gem about authority being increasingly about having the first word rather than the last. His exact words were:

"…in the old days, we took expertise and authority as the last word about a topic. Increasingly, the value of expertise and authority is as the first word – the word that frames and initiates the discussion."

This is at the heart of the dilemma that traditional management faces when trying to figure out the role of social networking in the organisation. Assuming the value is understood, it becomes mainly a cultural issue. Some organisations – especially knowledge-based ones – are predisposed to sharing, openness and self-direction, while others are more into command and control. In the first instance, management might define the desired outcome and leave employees to decide how to get there; Weinberger's "first word". And in the second, the process will be rigidly defined.

The management of each type of organisation adopts its style because it believes that is the most effective way to get things done. Although, it has to be said, persistence with a command and control approach could also be a function of fear (of the lunatics running the asylum) or laziness (because it's always been done this way).

Some organisations realise that some departments are well suited to a more collaborative, networked, style while others are best run in a traditional way. Marketing versus computer assembly, for example.

The problem such companies face is social networking creep. It's as if one lot of employees have freedom to work where they like and when they like providing they achieve their objectives and the other lot are chained to their desks or their workshops and have little discretion over their use of time and (in particular) online resources. The deskbound ones are the ones who will be eyeing the socially-networked crowd with some jealousy.

So what's a company to do? Widen access to online resources and social networking, even to those who don't really need it, and trust staff not to abuse it? Some companies who have done this believe that a lot of time and IT/communications resource is being wasted doing non-work-related things. Downloading and watching questionable movies probably being the most extreme example. (In philosophical terms, it's actually not so different to previous upheavals when companies abandoned switchboards for direct dial telephones or introduced email to all and sundry.)

One company solves the problem by allowing anyone to participate but it's thrown a firewall around all social activity – restricting it to dialogue between the company employees only, although it is about to invite some customers and business partners to participate. Another says, "do what you like, but achieve your work objectives." Another is trying to monitor all online activities in order to reprimand those who step out of line.

What's important is to figure out what strategy is best for your own organisation:

Do you keep communication behind the firewall? This would restrict access to valuable information and external contacts.

Do you let people do what they like as long as they achieve targets? This might work best if they pay their own communication costs.

Or do you monitor every move? Employees may find this distasteful, if not illegal in some countries.

In the end it comes down to trust. The social media evangelists will argue that it's only through openness, transparency and trust that organisations will move forward. Others will argue that this is nonsense and that some people simply cannot be trusted with these new tools.

The organisations that will have the toughest time are those that have embarked on the social thing, spread it too far and now wish they could stuff the genie back in the bottle. Perhaps an answer lies in ground rules and education…

To paraphrase Dr Weinberger, this blog is only the first word. If you have experience-based views on the foregoing, we'd love to hear them.

3 thoughts on “Is authority the first word or the last?

  1. Great post Tebbo and spot on. I saw DWs comments and it fired up some neurons but you have crystallised it wonderfuly, as ever.
    I think it goes to a deeper point though. It reminds me of the misguided belief many have when they have a logo and think it’s a brand.
    In the case of social media for me it is most likely not a question of which model fits ones company more than it’s a question of what type of company one is talking about in the first place. And for me there are only two core types:
    1) Companies that behave like a team.
    2) Companies that don’t.
    The former can do what they like with social media in the almost certain sense that they can do no wrong that they cannot recover from, as a team. The latter will find almost any adoption of social media (and any significant wholesale cultural or structural change for that matter) painful and probably best avoided.
    To companies in the latter group my advice would be first and foremost transition to the former group. If you can do that you can probably do anything afterwards anyway having achieved that initial massive transformation. If you can’t make the turn, exit and start again. Learning from previous mistakes of course.

  2. Thanks for the comment Al. I think you’ll find that some organisations are mixed. And life is very difficult for them. I can’t (i.e. won’t) name names though. Sorry.

  3. Well I suspect ‘mixed’ comes under the non team type…so for me their problem, as a
    business, is clear. Task one, is to become a team again…

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