Sunday, April 26, 2009

The looming clash of cultures

Yesterday afternoon the family went to see State of Play. It was an entertaining movie with an engaging and plausible storyline. I was, however, taken by the subplot which paired a veteran Washington Reporter played by Russell Crowe with a younger blogger played by Rachel McAdams who worked in the papers "online" division. It was a very subtle subplot but it worked. He had a visible disrespect for the online division, she thought he was mostly clueless, he considered her somewhat inexperienced and naive. In the end it was journalism that brought them together, and the development of just enough mutual respect that allowed them to focus on what was most important, getting the story.

The movie handled it really well. As I mentioned, it was subtle, and allowed the subplot to develop without detracting from the main plot. It also didn't take sides, or denigrate the position of either character. It was a happy ending. I'm not so sure that in real life that many of our organizations who will live through the looming cultural change will fair so well. If only life were like the movies.

I've been thinking about this a lot of late. How we're living in these two parallel worlds: pre and post the Big Change. Most know that change is necessary, but are uncertain of the path forward. I've written about this many times in the past. People aren't just sitting back and watching the change happen-- they are actively resisting. (See: The Empty Quarter November 2006)

I was thinking about this a bunch yesterday while watching the movie. I'd just read three excellent articles on this very topic. The first was from Dave Snowden on how the old-school IT departments are resisting 2.0: Beware the blanket octopodes was to my mind a perfect description of how too many an IT department treats social computing. Creating net-like membranes that disproportionately exaggerate their role was a good start. However the perfect piece was ripping off the tentacles of the poor old Portuguese man of war and using them for defensive purposes. I've seen this too often of recent years, reluctantly dragged into the world of social computing which they only partially understand, the first reaction is to dismember it into something familiar and controllable, then use it as a weapon to fend off reform.

Then there was this piece from ReadWriteWeb on some new reasearch from LexisNexis: The Technology Generation Gap at Work is Oh So Wide

Yikes! Phones and PDAs are distracting and inefficient tools? Blogging is unacceptable? Who are these people? Unfortunately, they're the people who still have a lot of power when it comes to the decisions being made at the workplace. Baby boomers are the executives, the CEOs, the bosses, etc. while Gen Y is just now getting their foot in the door. But it's clear that these two generations strongly disagree on how technology is to be used.

Finally there was this piece by Xerox researcher Venkatesh Rao: Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War

The uber-cause of this war is that Knowledge Management was conceived as a top-down Boomer (born 1946 - 62) management effort, created by this generation just as it was moving into leadership positions. Social Media, on the other hand, is a Millenial/Gen Y (born 1980 -) movement. This overall generational cultural divide has shaped the ongoing corporate cultural war. This leads to vast, and I mean truly VAST, differences in how the two movements approach enterprise social engineering...

I don't know how you can read these three articles and come away with any other conclusion than, we have a serious problem here! Unless you've been living in a cave the last five years, I think it's clear to everyone that organizations have to make the transition to newer more democratic, flatter, open, and transparent ways of working. You either make the change or die. It's that simple. Social computing technologies are how we're going to get there: wikis, blogs, microblogs, social networks, blah blah, blah... AND YET, the current generation of leadership (see: The looming leadership paradox) is supposed to take us there? Tell me how this is supposed to happen?

Which brings us to the clash of strategies. There are basically two approaches being advocated-- the long-slow-one, where it happens through evolution. We know how this story ends, the current leadership eventually retires and the mantle of leadership is left to the next generation. Most people, including myself, don't think enterprises have this kind of time. The second approach, you create safe-havens for this newer and more modern style of working to emerge. Skunkworks if you will. This is exactly the approach that Venkatesh Rao advocates in this Stowe Boyd interview at the Enterprise 2.0 blog: Open Enterprise 2009: Venkatesh Rao, Xerox

Venkatesh argues that ‘culture change is hard’ may be an excuse for not pushing hard to get adoption to happen. “It’s part of people playing the Impossible Problem Game.” If you set up something as culture change, then everyone frames it as impossible, like boiling the ocean. You should look for a more ‘Darwinian survival of the fittest’ model, where various alternatives are envisioned as competing with each other.

Agreed! Forget cultural change, forget transformation, forget teaching old-dogs new tricks. Find those pockets of emerging culture within your organization, protect them, shield them, feed and nurture them, and let them set up competing models for getting the job done. You want tons of safe-fail experiments. Survival of the fittest at its best. Let them duke-it-out, and may the best model win.

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