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Thriving in networks that are smarter and faster than you are

industrial era

Many of today’s larger companies have overly complicated, hierarchical structures. As they grew to their current size, control processes were put in place to create efficiencies. To ensure reliable operations and avoid risk, work became standardized. New layers of supervision appeared, more silos were created, and knowledge acquisition was formalized, all in an attempt to gain efficiency through specialization.

These organizations are now facing increasingly complex business environments that require continuous learning while working. Typical strategies of optimizing current business processes or reducing costs only marginally influence the organization’s overall performance. Faster  market feedback challenges the organization’s ability to react to customer demand. Decision-making becomes paralyzed by process-based operations and the formal chain of command. Agility is almost non-existent.

We are seeing growing complexity both inside and outside the enterprise, so can anyone really predict what’s going to happen next in their market? Even most of the world’s economists have been wrong about where we are headed. Looking backwards has not helped us much.

In this complex and connected world we cannot predict outcomes, but we can engage our environments and markets and then learn by doing. This makes constant learning a critical business skill. It requires do-it-yourself learning as well as social learning skills. How can we help people in the organization develop these skills?

Providing good tools and teaching by example is a start. While communication does not equal collaboration, social media have the potential to support emergent work practices. In changing complex environments, it’s not much use to rely on previous best practices. Social media can provide a space to develop new practices. How these tools get used is itself an emergent practice, but if workers are not allowed to practice, nothing will emerge.

In an age when information is no longer scarce and connections are many, organizations must let all workers actively manage their knowledge networks. Systemic changes are sensed almost immediately in an interconnected world. Therefore reaction times and feedback loops have to get faster. Workers need to know who to ask for advice at the moment of need. However, this requires a certain level of trust, and we know that trusted relationships take time to nurture. The default action in emergencies is usually to turn to our friends and trusted colleagues; those people with whom we have shared experiences. Workers have to start sharing more of their work experiences now, in order to grow their trusted professional networks to deal with new and more complex situations. This is called working out loud. It helps build trust.

Sharing complex knowledge in trusted networks does not happen over night. It requires a combination of actively engaged knowledge workers, using optimal communications tools, all within a supportive organizational structure. Continuing to use industrial era structures and concepts will only lead to irrelevance in the network era.

It’s all about thriving in networks that are smarter and faster than you are. It’s all about being utterly screwed if you don’t know what I’m talking about. – Hugh MacLeod

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