Clay Shirky :: hierarchy and leadership


Clay Shirky On Leadership and Management in an Interconnected World
A couple of days ago, as the FASTForward 09 conference opened, I had the opportunity to sit down with Clay Shirky, author of the book “Here Comes Everybody – the power of organizing without organizations” and a consultant, professor and writer. I wanted to bear down a little bit on some of the core ideas in his recent book and examine how his premises impact what management needs to understand and do with the new set of conditions created by an interconnected digital infrastructure that supports all communications and management of information – the lifeblood of an organization’s operations.
As a way to get into the issues, I asked Clay to offer his perspective about how the Web and its interconnectedness is affecting knowledge-based work.
Clay feels that it matters enormously how directed or undirected the knowledge work is. If the purpose of the knowledge work is to discover or extend something as directed by management, then the focus is on R&D. That of course is quite useful and goes on all the time (it’s a great example of what we think of as normal work, and can be highly collaborative or not so much, or anywhere in between).
But … Clay notes that this is not the really radical change that is coming to the interconnected knowledge-based workplace. The really radical changes become apparent when the work turns to finding or creating something new, something really different, when the direction is aimed directly at stimulating and supporting innovation.
Generally, knowledge work is designed to accomplish certain defined objectives, or accomplish specific purpose(s). And yet, particularly in today’s fast-moving world, conditions change like the weather and can strongly impact how accomplishing a purpose is addressed.  Dave Snowden, a well-known complexity and knowledge work specialist, likes talking about how the notion of a ‘crew’ can operate well in complex conditions … the members of a crew know their roles, have specific knowledge at their disposal and can swing into action and deploy their knowledge in a wider range of configurations depending upon current and future conditions.
However … the effectiveness of a crew structure depends upon the purpose or mission having boundaries; for example a start point, a destination, a flight of so many hours, favourable weather conditions, and so on … not straying into unbounded or undefined conditions. What about fast-moving and ever-changing flows of information, or being pushed by demanding clients and markets to stray into territory wherein an organization has not clearly thought through or designed the boundaries, and where accomplishing the purpose or mission is threatened by inadequate response ? This is where social networks come in … they make it possible to have crew-like work in less-well-defined, less bounded conditions. Social networks in a knowledge workplace provide a new foundation or substrate that enables crew-like work that is not so bounded at the edges … purpose-driven flow, much like gossip in social circles with the differentiation that the chatter, the back-and-forth exchanges, are aimed at the purpose of the work and the (eventual) accomplishment of objectives.
As Clay and I discussed the ways the Web and the new set of conditions are informing and impacting this less-bounded work, I offered the observation (with which Clay agreed); rather than following the long-established lines of reporting relationships on an org chart, in networked conditions “our agreements are our structures”.
Clay elaborated: The development of the first formal org chart is contentious, but one of the contenders is David MacCallum, whose initiative included five rules. Rule #5 begat the fundamental assumption about reporting relationships (upward), that information should only flow through hierarchical reporting relationships so as to avoid embarrassing people (typically upwards, as the embarrassment came from not knowing, not being up-to-date or using bad information to make decisions).
This led us into discussing the effectiveness and responsiveness of the traditional hierarchical structure. While the need and desire of the upper management to know what’s going on for their business as a whole and the need of line managers to know what to do is critical, in effect the traditional hierarchical model does not deal with today’s information flows fast enough or well enough. We don’t have to take a moral or an ethical view about whether hierarchy is “good” or “bad”, we just need to recognize that it is less and less efficient and effective in conditions of continuous and accelerating flows of information.
We delved into the subtitle of Clay’s most recent book … “organizing without organizations”. Clay stated that by using that phrase he did not mean the wholesale replacement of hierarchy. He clarified; we used to regard group action as a priori proof of someone instantiating and organizing the action. He offered an example, citing the case of the Chinese government’s concern about a widespread negative reaction in the blogosphere to the possibility of devaluing yuan, and its conclusion that someone must be behind this. There wasn’t … it was a case of a large-ish number of people noticing the issue and commenting on it and connecting and hyperlinking as only the blogosphere can.
The point ? We need to start getting used to seeing and noticing organic organization around issues and content.
We then turned to talking about the major implications for leaders and managers when considering what they will need to do to develop and sustain effectiveness in the new set of conditions. Again Clay used a story to set out an example .. the day after Obama was elected and Change.gov went up (during meltdown, wars, etc.) the #1 question was re: medical marijuana. It is not the case that there is automatic legitimation just because a crowd voted it up to the top, as in a ”closed” ( for the purposes of this post a community in which a large majority of members are focused on a range of  issues in defined domains) community like Digg, where the implication might be that Obama should be taking marching orders from the “community”.  Rather, the legitimizing issue for leaders is demonstrating to the community an effective response to the  community’s “are you listening ?”  *
To increase their effectiveness in these new conditions, Clay suggests  leaders need to listen (much more closely than before), clarify what needs to happen and why, and engage in real ways with their constituents. In effect, they need to state clearly “we have heard you, but that’s not the top priority for the following reasons – and here’s why”.  These tending-towards-democratic conditions resulting from the mass adoption of the Web ensure that communities and leaders and managers will continue to wrestle with what makes a group outcome legitimate.
In the past and in traditional hierarchies, not responding or staying silent on difficult issues was often used as a way of controlling group action.  Clay suggested, in closing, that leaders and managers will need to give up the fantasy that silence still provides effective control … .
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* see Shirky’s discussion of the complex issues presented by the “09 F9” digital key furor and the subsequent community leadership issues encountered by Digg / Kevin Rose, pp. 290-91, Here Comes Everybody – the power of organizing without organizations, 2008 .
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