Intranet Strategy: Understanding the Impacts of Networks, Power, and Politics

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Power has been an underdeveloped concept in the rhetoric surrounding the use of social intranets. Expressions like “liberation” and “enhanced collaboration” and “empowerment” are common in marketing, but is this really the case? How does power really work in the social intranet? Who is in control? What are the opportunities of this new model? What are the risks?

Using ideas developed by communications scholar Manuel Castells and his work Communication Power, this post introduces how we can understand network power inside of organizations and contemplate its effects.

Watch the webinar recording (55 minutes long) or read the blog post (6000 words):

This blog post is divided into six sections:

I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

I. The Way We Work

As the description of my blog post and its title implies, I’m interested in exploring the topic of power and its relation to social intranets.

It was a few months ago that, in the midst of a particularly intense professional services engagement for one of my clients, sitting jet lagged and exhausted in a nondescript hotel room with a colleague, that I became increasingly interested and compelled to investigate the topic of power.

Slide02

In looking at my notebook from that engagement, I found the following end of day notes:

  • fear of change
  • control
  • culture
  • power
  • the dark side of intranet deployment

I had just run an intranet strategy workshop with middle management stakeholders about the future direction of their intranet project. ThoughtFarmer had been selected as the platform and we were there, part way through the project, to provide professional services, consulting support for the new intranet.

Staff had described in a previous workshop that the new intranet project was to be transformational. 

A direct quote from the meeting notes:

“recap: we have chosen a more transformational approach (instead of the static / status quo approach) where the intranet is more communicative, collaborative, engagement oriented”

They had chosen a direction. Of many possible directions, I might add, of where their intranet could go. This seemed to them, like it seems to many of the organizations that I work with, to be the right way to go.

This was a declarative statement. A statement of intent. A statement of purpose. A departure from the past and the status quo into a bold new future.

In their individual minds and collectively through their public announcement of their intentions, they did not perceive the intranet to be an entirely technical entity, a jumble of standards-based HTML and CSS, a collection of PDF documents, a clever mixture of .NET code and SQL queries, all bound together through a model-view-controller design pattern.

“Communicative, collaborative, engagement-oriented” – these were more than technical attributes or properties of a bundle of code.

These words, these descriptors clearly spoke to a political, a cultural and therefore a deeply personal perception of the techno-social system of engagement that they were about to deploy.

So in our next workshop, we continued this strategic conversation, our investigation into this transformative future state and asked the questions:

What would it mean to transform? What is the potential? 

And following an exercise, out came these 10 themes:

  • organizational effectiveness
  • celebration & recognition
  • accessibility
  • innovation & creativity
  • participation
  • interdivisional collaboration
  • transparency
  • empowerment
  • trust
  • ownership

We then asked, “What conditions need to be true in order for these possibilities to happen?”

and we got dozens of quotes like

“culture of learning”

“it’s okay to make mistakes”

“employees demonstrate responsibility”

“willingness to share”

“willingness to ask questions”

“managers walk the talk”

And then as any good consultant grappling with the tricky task of assisting a client get from point A to point B, from the current state to some kind of future state, I asked, what are the barriers in the way of these conditions coming to be? 

That’s where things got really interesting. For the 10 themes, we got 30 barriers.

It’s worth looking at couple of them up close to give you a sense of what they were up against.

  • people don’t know what’s permissible
  • knowledge is power (why would I share? this usurps my power)
  • culture of “risk adversity”
  • culture of “control”
  • Paternal culture / work style
  • Lack of authority to decide
  • Lack of trust in employee judgment
  • Varying interpretation of what’s acceptable
  • Managers ill-equipped to participate
  • Knowledge – I don’t know what or how to participate
  • Effort – I’ve got my own priorities
  • ROI – what’s in it for me
  • Fear of retribution, no voice
  • Hierarchy; what’s my role, who can I speak to, what am I permitted to say?
  • Authority / power trip

And instead of all those words, they perhaps could have simply answered with one word: us.

The way we work.

The way we communicate.

The way we collaborate.

The way we lead, manage, and recognize.

The way we are.

And it was the journey into the darker side of bureaucratic life, literally engaging in the “dark matter” of the organization to use Dan Hill & Bryan Boyer’s expression, that I decided it is about time that we started talking about this. 

For after all, it is against this backdrop that all of the breathless value propositions and utopian visions of a “socially optimized, engaged, digital workplace” are set.

In reality, they are the two sides of the same coin. The Yin and Yang of the modern organization.

Perhaps you’ve visited this place before. Perhaps you live there right now.

And you may notice, no-one really said anything about intranets per se, let alone the so-called social ones. 

Nothing about Active Directory integration.

Nothing about WYSIWIG page editing.

Not a word about activity streams or micro blogging.

Nothing about keywords, tagging, taxonomies, or structured meta-data.

Nothing about commenting, voting, or favouriting.

Nothing about mobile.

Someone did mention SharePoint in the workshop, I will give you that. But it wasn’t good and I daren’t repeat it in mixed company.

Our workshop had intended to surface the question of “WHY?” a social intranet,

What does it mean?

The workshop participants had answered.

And so, we stood at the edge of the social intranet Rubicon – just as Julius Caesar crossed the stream marking the boundary between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, about to lead his army into a war. A one-way, no-turning back moment, thereby committing us to guaranteed battle, of size and shape yet unknown.

Slide26

And my metaphorical point is not to claim I was Caesar – far from it, that role was played by the CEO of the organization in this drama – but to point out that the structures, rules, behaviours, and patterns of culture that define the organization – to quote Gareth Morgan, the great organizational theorist – is our social intranet Rubicon.

Once you engage with these forces, there’s no going back.

And the reason for that – these structures, rules, behaviours, and patterns of culture – these “things” – if we can even grant them thing-like status, are entirely personal.

There’s no denying, we’ve done a wonderful job in our our modern organizations of abstracting and then codifying them, quantifying their existence, embodying them in the forms of policies, standards, and business process diagrams, storing them in systems of record, encoding them as fields and rows in relational databases…

But their material qualities don’t interest me (at least not in this talk today) – it is their individual and collective meaning which has been for so long in the background that needs to be foregrounded, brought into focus, blogged about and discussed.

After our mid-level manager intranet strategy workshop we spent some time with the project’s executive steering committee, composed of C-level executives and several key directors.

One of the most vocal members was the Chief HR officer, the person with ultimate accountability on the acquisition, development, and retention of human capital at the organization.

What was their take on this social intranet?

Well, they wanted to ensure that there was

  • One, lone contributor to the intranet.
  • No-one could leave a comment.
  • No-one could edit a page.
  • That employee profile pages contained no photographs of staff.
  • That Report-to information, the ability to see who manages whom, who reports to whom, was to be disabled.
  • And definitely no org chart either.

This was to be a totally closed, totally controlled system.

The contrast with what we had heard in the managers’ workshop couldn’t have been starker.

Our success in the project was not going to be defined as to whether or not we got ThoughtFarmer sync’ing with their Active Directory – but how we made our way through this organizational chasm, separating the present from the future, management from leadership.

And in order to do that, we needed a better an understanding of how organizations work and how they see themselves in the mirror of technologies like ours, than we have today.

I believe, we, intranet professionals of all sorts, we all need to develop a literacy, an understanding of power, of culture, and in particular of how they work in the context of networks if we are going to seek to have any kind of influence or chance of succeeding with our aspirations and visions of a more responsive, humanistic, and resilient organization.

And for goodness sake, we need to stop saying ludicrous things like “We just need to be more social” or grammatically incorrect and ludicrous things like “we need to do social.”

Jump to other sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

II.Politics

My social intranet story is intended to underline the simple truth, that organizations are places of divergent interests. 

Where there are divergent, differing interests, there is conflict.

And of course, power.

Deciding how to act, what should be done in light of this fact, is the fundamental question of politics. What should we do? 

My core idea of blog post – and my apologies it’s taken some 10 minutes of reading to get here – is that if we have an improved understanding of power inside of our organizations, how that power flows through the networks inside of our organizations, both embodied through the new-fangled social intranets we’re all so keen about and the traditional invisible interpersonal networks that constitute the social relations of our workplaces, that then and only then can we become more effective in our jobs as intranet managers, communications professionals, HR employees, IT staff, or whomever you represent.

Because there’s enough articles and blog posts about SharePoint web parts, on creating effective IA’s, and on how to evaluate a CMS. Not to diminish the importance or value of any of these tasks – far from it – but the elephant in the room to me when it comes to social intranets is no longer what can be done with the technology, but what should be done?

So it was, that I started my investigation into the topic, by exploring the work of Manuel Castells – one of the most prolific and pre-eminent communications scholars, philosophers, and social theorists of our time.

Image Credit: Manuel Castells Oliván. foto La Jornada Jalisco
Photo: Manuel Castells
Image Credit: foto La Jornada Jalisco

In particular, I took a run at Castells’ book Communication Power.

It is a lengthy and detailed attempt to understand “Why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind.”

 

Castells continues in his introduction to the 600-page text:

“The analysis presented in this book refers to one specific social structure: the network society, the social structure that characterizes society in the early twenty first century, a social structure constructed around (but not determined by) digital networks of communication.”

Castells’ analysis of The Network Society starts with the specific forms and processes of communication in society, of which the communications processes that flow through our social intranets and content management systems inside of our organizations can be seen, I believe at least, as a primary unit of analysis.

So I want to spend the next part of this talk reviewing the highlights of Castells’ big ideas (of which there are many in his work).

And then do my best to build a bridge from the ideas, to the real world of intranet professionals, in order to help develop that missing understanding.

And we may as well cut right to the chase.

Jump to other sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

III. Power

What is power, anyhow? 

Well, according to Castells,

“Power is the most fundamental process in society … since society is defined around values and institutions, and what is valued and institutionalized is defined by power relationships.

Power is the relational capacity that enables a social actor to influence asymmetrically the decisions of other social actor(s) in ways that favour the empowered actor’s will, interests, and values.

Power is exercised by means of coercion (or the possibility of it) and/or by the construction of meaning on the basis of the discourses through which social actors guide their action.”

Castells sets up the classic dichotomy of power in sociology: on one hand, the (legitimate or not) resort to violence and the fear of that violence and. on the other hand, the act of persuasion, influence, through construction of meaning – the construction of meaning being the result of communication.

For those with a background in sociology, you may recognize this as the theoretical positions of Max Weber vs. Michel Foucault

Castells continues:

“Power relationships are framed by domination, which is the power that is embedded in the institutions of society. The relational capacity of power is conditioned, but not determined, by the structural capacity of domination. Institutions may engage in power relationships that rely on the domination they exercise over their subjects.”

The modern symbol of organizational domination, that is, the embedded relational power inside of the place where you work, is one of the favourite targets of the new-fangled social intranet: the organizational form of the hierarchy, best represented as organizational chart visualizations like this, and it’s evil cousin and byproduct (dum-dum-dum – dramatic reveal), the “SILO”.

Intranet_Silos
PhotoCredit: Doc Searls

Essentially, by adopting an hierarchical organizational form, you are embedding and inscribing power into relationships through structures. That’s why hierarchies simultaneously work and don’t work. And as evil as it’s made out to be these days, there’s efficiency afforded by signifying power like this. Hierarchies have a long successful history, after all.

But before we go too far into making the same mistake as I hinted at earlier; I don’t think it’s fair to describe power is a “thing” that “lives” in a hierarchy. Or that a hierarchy is synonymous with power. They are not the same.

Castells is a firm believer in the idea that “power is not an attribute but a relationship. It cannot be abstracted from the specific relationship between the subjects of power, those who are empowered and those who are subjected to such empowerment in a given context.”

This notion of subjects and relationships I think is an important one to remember, out of all of Castells’ concepts.

And it helps us better understand empowerment – a word, an expression “Empower your employees!” which is used a lot when it comes to social intranet technologies like mine.

A sobering point from Castells in the rhetoric of empowerment to consider:

“The empowerment of social actors cannot be separated from their empowerment against other social actors, unless we accept the naïve image of a reconciled human community, a normative utopia that is belied by historical observation.

The power to do something … is always the power to do something against someone, or against the values and interests of this “someone”…

Within the social context of your organization, power means influence over another.

Having “the other” is a necessary condition for power to exist.

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So while empowerment is spun as some kind of individual freedom or liberation from the tyranny of hierarchy or control, some new “feel-good” sensation your employees suddenly experience by smashing the silos around them, there’s always a receiving end to empowerment.

I wouldn’t describe Castells’ characterization of power as meaning the organization is a zero-sum gain entirely, but he does not mince words here.

Power does not exist without those to wield power over.

So that’s power. Or at least some of Castells’ fundamentals.  He says a lot more, believe me. But I think that will suffice to move onto the next part.

Jump to other sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

IV. Networks

What is a network? 

“A network is a set of interconnected nodes. Nodes may be of varying relevance to the network, and so particularly important nodes are called “centers” in some versions of network theory. … any component of a network … is a node and its function and meaning depend on the programs of the network and on its interaction with other nodes in the network.”

Slide55

Nodes and ties or

Vertices and edges

Actors and relationships

I’d argue that with the introduction of communications technologies, enabled by computers and common network protocols, our dominant image for understanding the organization has changed. The network is becoming or for many has become the pervasive organizational metaphor for our time. And will continue for some time to come.

Networks of course, have been around for a long time. They are not new and not limited to computer-based communication technologies. They are a pattern that is common to all life, as systems theorist Fritjof Capra points out in Castells’ book.

We’ve just started to pay closer attention to them in the last little while, as our ability to quantify them, measure them, visualize them, and comprehend them has become very good.

Castells gives us 3 reasons why networks kick ass in our current organizational situation (my words, not his).

 …networks became the most efficient organizational forms as a result of three major features of networks which benefited from the new technological environment: flexibilityscalability, and survivability.

Flexibility is the ability to reconfigure according to changing environments and retain their goals while changing their components, sometimes bypassing blocking points of communication channels to find new connections.

Scalability is the ability to expand or shrink in size with little disruption.

Survivability is the ability of networks, because they have no single center and can operate in a wide range of configurations, to withstand attacks to their nodes and codes because the codes of the network are contained in multiple nodes that can reproduce the instructions and find new ways to perform.

With a fundamental concept of power and a rudimentary conceptual definition of a network in mind, we can now move onto the combination of the two, the typology of power that frames all of Castells work and the model that I hope you can derive value from as an intranet professional.

Jump to other sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

V. Communication Power

In asking the question, “where does power lie in the global network society?” Castells comes up with this handy, oh-so-easy to remember four-part typology of power:

  • networking power
  • network power
  • networked power
  • network making power

It was at this point in my reading of Castells that I had wished he’d named his types of power after colours or animals or something.

bunny power, dog power, sheep power, cow power

Wouldn’t that have been so much easier to remember?

1. Networking Power

Let’s examine the first type.

Castells defines networking power as:

“the power of the actors and organizations included in the networks that constitute the core of the global network society over human collectives or individuals who are not included in these global networks.”

Essentially, I understand this kind of power to be Who is In and Who is Out of the network. Again, Castells may be operating at a global, macro, societal level in his analysis, but for our intranet context, if work is being increasingly mediated through the digital technologies of the workplace, then access to that technology and the networks which flow through that technology, is a form of power.

You might think, “access to digital technologies – who doesn’t have that in the modern organization?”

Well, the organization that I started my talk with had a high percentage of outside workers. Staff who didn’t have workstations, staff who didn’t have even reliable mobile web access. Yes, even in the year 2013.

What power do those inside of the network possess over those who are not included?

Likewise, this form of exclusionary power prompts us to ask how do we define the question of access in our increasingly porous organizations; full time staff, consultants, vendors, partners, outsourced overseas labour; who gets access? who doesn’t?

This is not simply a question of who has network connectivity, although the question of the technical capabilities and hurdles faced to get access are very real. But it is bigger than that.

How do we define the membership of our social intranet?

Who is included in this so-called digital workplace and who is excluded?

Those of us in a position to grapple with these decisions are gatekeepers, in the truest sense of the word. We decide who comes in, who stays out.

And once in, you have power over those not included, especially when you belong to the same organization.

2. Network Power

The next form of power deals with those in the network, conveniently named: network power.

Network power can be understood as “the standards or protocols of communication that determine the rules to be accepted once in the network.”

They are the rules of inclusion.

You may be able to join the club, be a member of the club, but this club has rules. And the rules matter, because they limit what can be done in the network.

Castells borrows heavily from network theorist David Grewal’s work here – and the important part to the critique of the emancipatory aspects of the social intranet’s rhetoric is the two ideas inside network power:

  1. Coordinating standards, protocols of communication increase in value when more people use them (i.e. Zipf’s Law – read our post about the new laws of intranet ROI) – the old expression was it’s not much value if you’re the only one in the world with fax machine.
  2. These standards and protocols, by the nature of becoming standards and protocols, can “lead to the progressive elimination of the alternatives over which otherwise free choice can be collectively exercised . . . “

To paraphrase Grewal, A social intranet platform provides the solution to the problem of organizational coordination amongst diverse employee participants, but it does so by elevating one solution above others and threatening the elimination of alternative solutions to the same problems of communication and coordination.

We trade convenience for choice. 

Other implications to contemplate about your social intranet:

  • What are the rules of your social intranet?
  • Is it merely an IT acceptable use policy?
  • What communications protocols have you programmed into the intranet?
  • What can and can’t be said, for example?
  • What cultural norms exist?
  • Do they differ from your in-person, face-to-face organizational norms?

I ask that last question with an asterisk – does such digital/physical dualism even make sense to ask (see Jurgenson) – I’m somewhat skeptical myself.

And this question, I find to be one of the most interesting of all questions about the social intranet:

What are the protocols about inter-divisional collaboration? How does it relate to the other, embodied form of power that probably exists side-by-side along with the intranet, even represented by the intranet, the existing organizational structure, your org chart.

A hierarchy is still a network after all, a particular shape of network that sets forth a protocol for communication and collaboration (up and down, and only then sideways).

A multi-directional social intranet affords the ability to jump across those formerly developed up and down protocols and rules.

But has it been programmed to do that?

That is, are its participants capable and/or allowed?

And of course, who creates these rules in the first place?

But I’m jumping ahead, we’ll get to that question shortly.

3. Networked Power

The simplest way of understanding power, the third type, is also perhaps the most complicated. That’s “networked power

Simply put: “once in the network, some actors have power over others.”

We previously setup the two types of power over each other earlier: the resort to coercion and violence on one hand, and the use of persuasive power, the construction of the meaning of action in the minds of people through communication, on the other.

It’s the second form that is more predominant, I truly hope, in most of your organizations.

What are the implications of this power dynamic for the social intranet? 

As a shared place where all participants can see the actions and behaviours of their co-workers, it represents a new ability to perceive authority, control, merit, skill, and the persuasive abilities (or lack thereof) of certain individuals in the organization.

Our intranet software relies predominantly on the manipulation of text – you type words into a text field in order to communicate.

Well what if I don’t write well? Maybe I hold back. How am I then perceived? What happens to my power over others?

Perhaps I rely on my booming voice and physical presence to influence others – well, not so on the social intranet.

The same question holds with a shift or introduction of video-based technologies in this context. I don’t do well on camera, I do better in print.

This is not a new thing in organizations – text-based communications environments have been a safe-haven for people less likely to share their opinion in front of large groups for a long time. How many things have been said in email messages that would never be said in person or face to face?

Ironically, those higher up in hierarchies typically have less time to participate actively in systems of engagement – face to face, in-person time is still the hallmark of a busy, senior executive – it’s possible that typing into text fields isn’t perceived as an efficient use of their time. Like sending emails – it takes a while to craft compelling, persuasive content. It’s much easier to issue decrees from a position of authority, in a face-to-face setting.

Does less visibility in the system, less ability to be seen being influential and persuasive, mean less power?

Another popular concept in social software theory, participation inequality, is directly related to this: 1% frequent contributors, 9% intermittent contributors, and 90% lurkers that idea Jakob Nielsen uncovered many years ago (which may or may not hold true on the social intranet I might add).

Does frequency of contribution, raw quantity of communication suggest a shift in power? What about the 90% that never participate? Or what if 90% of the company does participate more than once per week, as we have seen in some of our implementations?

This type of power, while intuitive, is far from being clear-cut or easy to analyze.

So that takes us to the fourth and final type of power, network making power, is considered by Castells as the most crucial form.

4. Network Making Power

Network making power has two mechanisms: the ability to form networks and to program and re-program networks.

Who created the network in the first place? And who created the rules of inclusion that set the whole thing in motion? Who “programmed” the network? And who are the “switchers” as Castells calls them, the actors who control the points between other related and connected networks?

These questions are fundamentals to a concept that I didn’t include in my presentation abstract and have skillfully avoided using in all the other words I’ve used so far, but one which is often taken as irrelevant in the free-for-all many-to-many intranet Enterprise 2.0 world (I would argue of course, for the exact opposite) and that is concept is the one of governance.

Who decides on who is included or excluded?

Who decides on what is acceptable?

Who decides on what groups exist, don’t exist, and how their membership is negotiated?

In ThoughtFarmer, for example, we have open and closed groups – groups you are made a member of by someone else, and groups you are able to join as you choose.

Who sets those up? That’s programming (creating the rules of inclusion) and it’s also switching (the group becomes, arguably, a very small network itself), a network nested within a bigger network.

Lots of people groan over the topic of governance or try to ignore it or just run for the hills when they hear it uttered, but I’d argue this is essentially at the core of this type of power. It’s about decision-making. And who gets to make decisions.

Network making power forces us to ask the hard questions of governance and examine our culture of decision making in the organization.

Jump to other sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

VI. Power & The Social Intranet

So there’s a lot more in his 600-page text, but essentially, you’ve got the basics: power, networks, and his four-part typology of power.

So what can we, the managers of communications networks called intranets, learn through Castells’ analysis of networks and power about what’s going on inside our organizations? 

I think Castells ideas are is worth considering as we transform our intranets from glorified file servers to living, breathing social systems that are a more accurate mirror of the larger social systems in which they are embedded, at both the organizational and societal level.

The map, however, is not the territory. I am not saying that the social intranet is the organization or that any analysis of the organization can ever capture fully its complexities, contingencies, and meaning.

But we see a lot of organizations throwing themselves with reckless abandon, trying to become more network-like, to do social, to be social; whatever that ridiculous expression means.

I have no argument with their intent. With the meaning and motivation I saw from that group of managers in their workshop.

I have no quarrel with the sincerity of their desire or effort.

As Esko Kilpi so astutely observed, they are trying to shorten the distance between two randomly picked people inside the organization and to get more people who you know personally to know each other.

This in turn works to enhance the value of a network organizational approach, as Rob Cross describes it, which is intended to recognize opportunities and challenges and coordinate appropriate responses, quickly and effectively.

They are doing it to benefit from the network’s flexibility, scalability, and survivability.

It is a noble goal.

But we cannot shorten the distance between people without considering how power flows through that relationship.

We cannot recognize opportunities and challenges, collectively, without contemplating who’s opportunity or challenge it may be.

We certainly cannot coordinate appropriate responses without having power be a part of it – coordination is an act of getting people to do something together; power is a mandatory condition of coordination.

In this presentation, I have been involved in a form of critique, in particular questioning how power relations work and what their effects are in the organization and as a subset of that, on the social intranet.

With the foregrounding of the idea of power inside the social intranet and the organization that I’ve attempted to share today, I hope we focus on a bigger question and steer away from prescribing an ideal model that we’re all working towards, or the one “best practice” version of an organizational form, or a best practice social intranet, or even ideal relations amongst individuals and employees – certainly not something which can be put on a maturity model and “optimized” in all of its reified, Platonic glory.

Instead, I think that when we contemplate power, we essentially ask ourselves

What kind of political form do we want to belong to, in our organizations, to resolve the divergent interests that are bound to happen? 

The social intranet then is the convenient object, the “MacGuffin” in that strategic design exercise associated with answering that question, just as the suitcase in Pulp Fiction drove the plot forward, or R2D2 in Star Wars was the object of everyone’s search, or the infamous Rosebud in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Those were all MacGuffin’s too that held the characters attention and drove the plot forward. But really, the audience watching the film is more interested in the characters and their relationships. That’s what really matters here.

We live in a time when we are no longer limited by some of the physical barriers in organizing our work that we once were. The tyranny of distance has been overcome and our perception of time has been much affected by network technologies.

And so, if these costs are essentially reduced (and a corresponding set of possibilities are opened to us), we also then live at a time in our organizations to ask ourselves the corporate or institutional version of the Socratic question, “What is the life worth living?”

or rather,

What is the organizational form worth having? 

What shape will it take? 

What actions can it support? 

What relationships define its being?

What affordances are we able to design and create, to achieve some stated purpose, some hopefully agreed-upon collective way of carrying out the work that we believe needs to be done? 

To come full circle back to Gareth Morgan:

“Organizational politics arise when people think differently and want to act differently. This diversity creases a tension that must be resolved through political means. As we have already seen there are many ways in which this can be done:

  • autocratically (“We’ll do it this way”);
  • bureaucratically (“We’re supposed to do it this way”);
  • technocratically (“It’s best to do it this way”); or
  • democratically (“How shall we do it?”).

In each case the choice between alternative paths of action usually hinges on the power relations between the actors involved. By focusing on how divergent interests give rise to conflict, visible and invisible, that are resolved or perpetrated by various kinds of power play, we can make the analysis of organizational politics as rigorous as the analysis of any other aspect of organizational life. “

I am not here to decree a normative, best practice, idealized, future state utopia of the digital workplace to you.

I think that’s an even more dangerous journey to take, quite frankly, than the one you’ve been on with me today.

Our intranets have just as much likelihood of chance of re-enforcing the current modes of domination inside of an organization (further re-enforcing the power structures that are encoded and embedded in our institutions) as it does being an emancipatory force.

We can put all of the affordances we want into our user interface, but if the exec want to turn off comments and limit page authorship and editorship to one lone employee in an organization of several hundred people… well….

My call to you, as you work on these vitally important systems of engagement, inside of organizations, as you work on the preferred and promoted method of communicating, collaborating, organizing, and making meaning these days, my call to you is please don’t be naive about what is happening beyond the technical aspects of the social intranet and its associated buzzwords.

Try to understand that power, even “empowered power” or “power to the people” unleashed via a system like this, is always defined as power over the other.

Understand that some people are less capable or able of persuading or influencing those than others and are therefore less powerful.

Understand that the rules of inclusion, the standards of communication limit the possibilities of your organization as much as they are convenient and efficient.

Understand that someone sets those rules. Someone creates the standards. Indeed, someone creates, maintains, and programs the networks through which power flows.

Understand that we inscribe power in our structures – and that it’s not just hierarchies that have a monopoly on this practice – that your networks, your social intranets do it too.

And understand that to be critical about power is not to somehow be against it – that simply cannot be. We will never get rid of it. We can’t. It makes no sense. It’s like being against gravity or air. There’s no point.

But to be aware of it, how it works, and what our place and role in it, that provides us with a new sense, a new ability, a new literacy.

This is the literacy you, as intranet professionals, need to develop in order to be effective in being successful in a network transformation of you organization.

It’s perhaps out of our comfort zone, but I truly believe that understanding concepts like this, bringing a bit, even 6000 words of social theory into the social intranet will radically enhance and improve our likelihood of succeeding (however you and your organization define that, in whatever form of political configuration you choose), of leaving the status quo behind and benefiting from the power of networks.

Jump to previous sections:
I. The Way We Work
II. Politics
III. Power
IV. Networks
V. Communication Power
VI. Power & The Social Intranet

Interested in learning more about intranet strategy and management? Read our 8 Inspiring Interviews from Successful Intranet Managers.

Comments8

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  1. Larry Irons

    Hi Gordon,

    You have offered people without a background in sociology or political science an excellent way to think about where conflict comes from in efforts to change organizational culture. It comes from the interests of the people involved. I so appreciate the example of the HR exec because I’ve run into just that scenario before.

  2. Larry Irons

    Actually, forget “organizational culture” since what I meant to say what just plain organizations.

  3. Candace

    What??? Nothing Active Directory integration, WYSIWIG page editing, activity streams or micro blogging, keywords, tagging, taxonomies, or structured meta-data. How can that be?;))

    Great article Gordon! Thank you.

  4. Andrew Wright

    Great article Gordon, well written – I believe you have really got to the root of what’s critical when implemeting some kind of social software for business – ‘What kind of political form do we want to belong to, in our organizations, to resolve the divergent interests that are bound to happen?’

    Your article reminded me of an interesting book I read recently (which you may be interested in reading as well), Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (no, not the intranet James).

    To simplify, the book argues that a nation’s prosperity (or otherwise) can be traced back to the nation’s political and economic institutions (not culutre, the weather or geography). Those that are ‘inclusive’ and encourage economic growth are likely to succeed while those that have ‘extractive’ economic institutions, supported by extractive political institutions that impede or even block economic growth.

    Many examples are provided that support this view point including the example of North and South Korea. The people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions—with no end in sight.

    Interestingly I think many of the examples and lessons in this book can also be seen in, and applied to, the corporate world.

  5. Karen Drury

    Anyone who’s ever been a consultant knows – consciously or not – about power. It’s in the development of the brief, who’s paying the invoice, who has the final say on the design. And whether you decide to go with what the client wants, but you know instinctively won’t work, but what gets you the work – or to decide not to play.

    Some of this is about ethics – but much of it is about power. If you need the work, you’re less powerful than if you don’t.

    An interesting article, thank you.

  6. MaRK

    Great Article – Very interesting and thought provoking. I hope the budget (Power) holders are open to the concepts and the fact there needs to be a balance of requirements from all stakeholders in a Social Intranet

  7. Simon Carswell

    A really good post, thanks. A couple of additional thoughts:
    A social intranet will shift power, but from whom to whom? You don’t specifically mention managers, but they must be in the frame as the potential losers – at least if of a certain type. You mention that ’empowerment’ also shifts power, implying I think an internal shift but I think you should mention that the beneficiaries are/should be customers.

  8. Gordon Ross

    Catch up on comments here. Thanks everyone for taking the time and bringing up some great points.

    @Simon:

    re: “shifting power from whom to whom” – it’s a big question and the “who has power over whom?” answer is the simplest to understand and the hardest to somehow determine (#3 Networked Power).

    To return to the concepts of Castells (and others before him) power embedded/inscribed/codified in the org charts (manager power over their staff) is domination – some people have traditionally succumbed to it, others have not. Managers need staff to manage, by definition, but some staff are “more” manageable than others. But power is not a thing, it’s a relationship in his eyes, negotiated amongst two parties at every point in their interaction.

    So if we think about your question less about power as a thing I can give and take, and more of an understanding of how a relationship is changing, I would hypothesize that managers and leaders may have once been more directive in their relationship style (do this, do that) and now may be less directive in a structure that relies less on the encoding of power in titles, structures, and org charts.

    They may need to become more supportive (to explore the other complimentary dimension of leadership often referenced) in their managerial and leadership styles. This is most likely because the context of the problems they are working on in the organization are messy and there is no clear direction – uncertainty reigns and so their strategies for leadership and management need to adapt to said uncertainty.

    This is where my thoughts on the subject are greatly influenced by Dave Snowden and his writing, like the Leader’s Framework for Decision Making article in HBR amongst his many significant contributions.

    Power relationships change in uncertain contexts. High certainty = rely upon hierarchy, dominance, and structure to do the job for you. Low certainty = everyone’s guess is as good as any, you’ll have to work it out amongst yourselves.

    @Karen

    Thanks for bringing up the relationship of being a consultant. Clearly a form of #1 Networking Power – who’s in, who’s out? Your comment about deciding not to play resonated with another piece I read recently on Bartleby the Scrivener, by Melville – famous for his quote, “I would prefer not to.” The greatest act in the disruption of any game isn’t cheating the rules, it’s not playing the game at all.

    I think there’s something related to the topics of networked workplaces, inclusion/exclusion, and the surveillant / control oriented agendas of much of modern IT. But that’s perhaps an essay for another time (and not a blog post comment)…

    @Andrew

    Thanks for sharing the book link. I’m keen on adding it to my giant “to read” list. Another good one about failed projects of political forms is James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” – I used that a fair bit for my Enterprise 2.0 talk with Thomas Vander Wal on What Social Business can Learn from Urban Planning. I’ll shoot you a couple of links on twitter.

    And thanks @Candace and @Larry for your kind words.

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