Reinventing Management For The Social Generation

Last week we looked at how organisations could build communities of passion. Today we are going to delve into reinventing management to ignite the social generation

Like the inventors of the light bulb, the telephone, and the automobile, the inventors of modern management were born in the 19th Century. Those long-dead pioneers – would be surprised to learn their inventions (which included workflow optimization, capital budgeting, functional specialization and project management), are still the cornerstones of twenty-first century management systems.

It is difficult for contemporary observers to appreciate the profound impact these revolutionary breakthroughs had on the organization of economic life in the early decades of the industrial revolution. In 1890, nine out of ten males worked for themselves, and the ones who didn’t were referred to disparagingly as “wage slaves”. At the time, the average manufacturing company had four employees, and few factories had more than 100 laborers. Yet within a generation, Ford Motor Company would be making half a million cars a year.

This transition from an agrarian and craft-based society to an industrial powerhouse required an epic resocialization of the workforce. Unruly and independent-minded farmers, artisans and day labourers had to be transformed into rule-following employees. A hundred years on, this work continues, with organisations around the world still working hard to strap free-thinking human beings into the straight jacket of obedience, conformity and discipline.

But now, for the first time since the early twentieth century, we are on the verge of another management revolution, and it may turn out to be just as unsettling as the one that spawned the Industrial Age. There are three forces at work that make a metamorphosis likely: three discontinuities that will end management, as we know it.

The first of these is a bundle of dramatic changes that have made the business environment substantially less forgiving. Companies around the world are struggling to cope with a wildly accelerating pace of change, an onslaught of new, ultra low-cost competitors, the commoditization of knowledge, rapidly increasing customer power, and an ever-lengthening menu of social demands. Traditional management models that emphasize optimization over innovation, and continuity over change, simply can’t cope with these unprecedented challenges.

The second driver is the invention of new, web-based collaboration tools. For the first time since pyramids were built, human beings have a new way of organizing themselves, via online, distributed networks. At long last, there’s an alternative to formal hierarchy.

The third driver is the mash-up of new expectations that Generation Facebook will bring to work in the years ahead. The Internet is as ubiquitous and transparent as water to fish. In the digital world, the Web is the operating system for your life, the indispensable and remarkable means by which you learn, play, share and connect.

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of Generation F. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of their work life to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than a mid-twentieth century bureaucracy.

With that in mind, I have compiled a list of ten work relevant characteristics of the social Web. These are the post-bureaucratic realities that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is ‘with it’ or ‘past it’. In assembling this short list, I haven’t tried to catalog every salient feature of the Web, only those that are most at odds with the legacy management practices that characterize most companies.

All these features of web-based life are written into the social DNA of Generation F, and are mostly missing from the managerial DNA of the average big corporation. If your organisation hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to understand these Internet-derived expectations and reinvent its management practices accordingly.

Each of us wants to find and follow our passion. That may be especially true for Generation F, but it’s probably true for you as well. Despite its drawbacks, we’re enamoured with the Web because it’s a passion multiplier; we can mould it to our interests, search its vast realms for inspiration, and use it to recruit collaborators.

Now ask yourself, how many of these things can be said of your organisation? Not enough, I warrant. If you had been alive in 1890, it would have been difficult to imagine an organisation as big and efficient as the Ford Motor Company. Today, it’s equally hard to imagine a global-scale organisation that exemplifies all the passion-boosting attributes of the Web. But that’s the challenge we should set ourselves as 21st century management innovators – because only by doing so will we create organisations that magnify rather than shrink human passions, and passion matters now like never before.

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