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Hyperlinks subvert Hierarchy (Revisited): Lead, follow or get out of the way

A while back, it was only those nasty dictatorships that shut down communications, but now “enlightened” democracies like the USA and the UK are doing the same. However, it’s not really about social media, as they’re just the current manifestation of the Internet. The Cluetrain made it clear in 1999, “Hyperlinks subvert Hierarchy”. We are living in a complex, hyperlinked society and this interconnectivity is changing how we work and live.

Nine Shift likens it to 100 years ago when we left the agrarian age and moved into the industrial age: we are at a turning point in society (2008-2012) and the old way gives way to the new way (2010-2020). Mark Federman sees this point in time as just past mid-way in a 300-year transition of our dominant communication medium, from the print age to the electric age, starting with the telegraph and currently manifested with Web 2.0 [see Why Johnnie & Janey Can’t Read and Why Mr & Mrs Smith Can’t Teach PDF].

Social media for marketing was the tip of the iceberg. This didn’t shake much up, as there was no significant power shift. Corporations stayed in charge. But the real power of social media is for getting things done. Social media facilitate learning and working; which are now joined at the hip in the creative, complex workplace that’s 24/7 in multiple time zones. They give communication power to each person. Social media enable ridiculously easy group-forming, for both furthering democracy and enabling hooligans.

Institutions are just beginning to realize how profound these changes are and they are fighting back. The role of bureaucracy is to maintain the status quo. For the last one hundred years, our positions in the hierarchy have given us our purpose. In North America, people still ask, “What do you do for a living?”. It places us in the pecking order. This was very noticeable when I worked for the federal government in Ottawa 20 years ago. Each job title had a number of digits. The more digits you had, the lower you were, and therefore of less importance. Traditional, stable hierarchies will be blown apart by the interconnected, always-on electric age.

My observations show these are some of the required qualities for what is currently called the social enterprise, a better way of working together:

Work is open & transparent
There is a constant need to share and work is narrated
Continuous learning is a must
Conversation is valued
There is time for reflection
A culture of Perpetual Beta
Metrics are understood and measured by the workers

These are at cross-purposes with most of our existing organizational structures, whether it be the non-democratic enterprise with the CEO as anointed ruler or the bureaucracies where process trumps purpose. There is little doubt that the powers-that-be will continue to fight against the new medium because it is already destroying many of the old forms of power. This has happened with each communication revolution.

Therefore it’s no surprise that we will continue to hear about the Web being censored or government controlling our communications. If we want open and transparent work, education and governance then we will have to fight for it. The good thing is that the next generation is already onboard. We only have to look to them for inspiration. It’s up to us to step up and provide some leadership.

“Lead, follow or get out of the way” ~ Thomas Paine


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