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How social media can make your organization stronger

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This e-mail question-and-answer session is with Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of “Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.”

What does it mean for an organization to be “human”?

It means the organization has a culture and processes that are more compatible with what human beings are like — creative, social, changeable. For centuries, we have been intentionally creating organizations that are machinelike — rigid departmental silos, detailed policies and procedures, strict roles and responsibilities, detailed strategic plans, etc. These were our efforts to manage and control organizations in a mechanical way. Human organizations still have departments, policies and plans, but they are created and managed in a different way, based on more human principles — for example, being open and decentralized, trustworthy and authentic, generative and collaborative, courageous in the face of risks.

What are challenges organizations face in being human? Why is it so hard?

Becoming a human organization is hard mostly because you’re going against centuries of tradition that have a track record of success. We accomplished amazing things in our mechanically inclined organizations, yet becoming more human requires that we change the way we have been doing things. This challenge is common to innovation in general, so it stands to reason it would apply here, because we are trying to innovate the way we manage. It’s also hard because it is so deep-rooted. Becoming human as an organization requires changes from the 30,000-foot culture level, down through processes and structure and into individual behavior. We’re still at the point at which it’s easier to stay with the status quo than to change, but little by little those ways of working are crumbling, notably exemplified by the challenges inherent in successfully integrating social media into your organization.

What are ways organizations can use social tools to overcome those challenges?

Social media were built for experimentation. Because the tools are free and easy to measure, it’s the kind of thing that can start small, or in one department, then grow based on measured results. (You have to be careful what you measure, though.) In that way, it’s perfect for introducing human elements into organizational behavior, processes and culture. You can use social media to be more transparent or to keep information flowing to the lower parts of the hierarchy that need the information to take action. Social tools can greatly enhance employees’ capacity to learn on the job. Social tools can make it easier for people to collaborate, inside and outside organization walls. Transparency, ownership, learning and collaboration are some core elements of human organizations. Social media let you try them out without having to make a disruptive transformation at the beginning.

How can organizations make sure their use of social media actually enhances communication, instead of adding another layer of red tape?

This is where using social media helps you become more human as an organization, but it takes work. If you try to implement social media using a strictly mechanical mindset, it is going to struggle mightily. We’ve heard complaints about that. So instead of trying to force social media efforts into your existing structure, use it as an opportunity to make shifts in the way you do things. They can be small or subtle at first — requiring less approval for blog posts or comments on social networks, for example. As the social media get more active, you might have to change other processes internally, down to things such as how you structure and facilitate staff meetings to ensure the right people are sharing the right information at the right time. But be ready to make those changes, because embracing the human-centered power of social media within a strictly machine-centric organization spells trouble.

How do you build executive buy-in for these kinds of initiatives? How do you make a business case for being human?

The most glaring part of the business case is the amazing performance of social networks, numbers that most surely trounce any business on the planet. So ask your executives whether they added 200 million customers in nine months. Because Facebook did. Do they think their business could benefit from 1 billion hours of passionate volunteer work, for free? Because that’s what happened with Wikipedia. Social media are actually getting some credit for supporting democratic revolution across the globe.

These are not numbers or trends we’d associate with a fad or a particular bubble that is about to burst. And, more importantly, social media accomplished these incredible feats by being more human and less mechanical. That’s the reason it is so attractive to us. We can’t help but be drawn to things that let us be more human. It should be a wake-up call to business-case advocates that so many people have become more productive during their free time, outside of work. By running our organizations like machines, we’re leaving money on the table. Companies that start to tap into this power and can provide opportunities for employees to be more human through their work will gain a competitive advantage.

Are there organizations you look to as models of humanity? Were they designed that way, or did they evolve over time? How?

We’ve seen bits and pieces of being more human in lots of organizations but not one particularly complete case study. This is all evolving so fast that we’re not sure it’s a good idea to wait for the perfect case study. And we think that should that case study exist, it would be designed and evolved over time. The idea of looking for a complete “model” on how to run your organization has a mechanical ring to it, doesn’t it?

It is important to learn from others, of course. Whole Foods Market has done some interesting things in the way it is strategically transparent, allowing employees to see compensation data of all employees to determine which teams are performing best, allowing them to share what’s working. W.L. Gore & Associates, maker of Gore-Tex, among other innovations, has done amazing things with a decentralized structure, in which the only title in the company is “Leader,” and it is given to an employee by the person’s team, not by someone higher up on the chain of command. But one of the human principles we talk about is being generative: constantly creating and re-creating to generate value. So look at these examples not as models but as inspiration for you and your colleagues to create your own human organization.