The introduction to a blog post by Charlie Beckett about the US State Department’s dilemmas and dealings with the Wikileaks affair more or less articulates something I’ve been mulling recently: how can organisations respond to some of the more extreme effects of the web:
Authority hates uncertainty. Big business and government feel safest when life is predictable and stable. Change implies a risk that your grip on power will be weakened. And unexpected change is the worst kind of all. But if uncertainty is permanent, can systems adapt?
The State Department official told us that Wikileaks reveals the brittleness of the balance between necessary secrecy of government and the freedom of the press. He said, memorably, that WikiLeaks was like ‘a cartoon grand piano dropped down upon that arrangement’. A lot of noise and not a little chaos.
The post moves on to make some excellent points about networks and the implications of a networks world…
The Internet is more powerful at amplifying political forces because it connects personal, mass and economic communication networks to one connected communications system – the Internet. This makes these networks more powerful but also more complex, vulnerable and unstable. Whether its WikiLeaks or Wael Ghnomin on Facebook, The Internet is the Uncertainty Principle in Global Relations.
The disruptive effects of the web – the revealed complexity of networks, the speed things spread, that edge ideas move to the mainstream, the altered balances of knowledge and power between individuals and groups – are being seen first in international relations and politics, but it is coming to commercial life too (just ask Bank of America).
Wikileaks may be the prime agent of disruption at the US State Department right now, but it is a manifestation of bigger trend, or set of trends – transparency, web-enabled activist networks, distrust of politicians – rather than the whole story in and of itself. There are other organisations like WIkileaks, they just haven’t made the headlines yet. As for the tools to be able to do what Wikileaks has done – well they are available to anyone.
Privacy and private information – be it your own, or your organisations – is effectively at the mercy of anyone who cares to consider hacking it and making it available. Many people see a public interest case in shining a light on US diplomacy.
Many will see the same case for exposing the workings of large corporations. But how about smaller ones? How about NGOs? How about every single company and local government department? How about patient records? How about your own personal email, social network and bank accounts?
Well, there’s a whole other set of blog posts to be made about the forces that unleashed Wikileaks being taken to their logical conclusions, but what is to be done in preparation? The case studies that are discussed around crisis communications and social media for instance are the often told instances customer revolt and revolting employees. Maybe communicators should be stretching themselves a little and thinking through the implications of when Wikileaks comes to their town.
Immediately we cannot guarantee a secret, the issue becomes about how we do openness, how we do business. The Uncertainty Principle sounds ironically like an organising principle for communications, brand and indeed wider business strategy. Going back to Charlie Beckett’s post, we have to wean our organisations off of certainties if they are to adapt to the complexity of the modern world.
Horribly late with this, but for the record am posting notes, videos and slides from my talk CityCamp Brighton last Friday (I know, but I did manage to publish the slides ahead of the talk at least).
Glasnost moments: The gist of it…
Ostensibly I was combining two themes I’ve talked about before – how to analyse the impact of social media and networks on an organisation (and build a business case from that analysis) and how to think about and work with the web on a personal level (see the TEDx Superskills talk).
While preparing what was effectively a hybrid presentation, then, I was caught by an idea that had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time: that change to the way that organisations (and whole industries) work may come very suddenly, after years of the prevailing order being in a state of decline.
That decline – the sclerosis of over-divided, hierarchical structures, of bureaucracy consuming more energy than the original purpose of the organisation – is common, but collapse is not necessarily on the cards. Big companies limp along for years, decades, before some external shock brings about collapse and they fade away (creative destruction in the Marxist and capitalist models) or are radically rebuilt.
It reminded me of the process of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. These processes, which led the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe and soon after to the end of the USSR itself, were started by Mikhail Gorbachev out of perceived necessity (things in the economy were not going well) and out of a desire to preserve communism.
Once the process had changed people’s expectations and sense of what was possible, when further external shocks were experienced by the USSR and its vassal states (falling oil prices was just one of them) revolution and regime change was the outcome.
Bearing this in mind, and thinking of big organisations in all sectors – from the NHS to private corporations – we see the command and control, the centralist bureaucracies, being challenged by external crises. The ideas and approaches which are available as alternatives are horizonalist, networked approaches…
So while I talked about personal networks skills, and business change approaches based on blue-blooded business systems like Six Sigma, what I was saying to the CityCamp innovators was that speaking about networks in the language of the corporation could be seen as highly radical, as preparing the ground for command and control management’s “Glasnost moment”.
y bit is 45 minutes in if you want to watch just that bit, but I’d highly recommend taking the time to hear what the other two speakers have to say about organising in networks and sharing respectively.
There was a lot I would like to revisit in Dan’s talk, so I plan to write a post based on my notes very soon. You can read his notes and slides in a post called Hybrids, Assemblages & Tahrir Square at CityCamp Brighton.
And here are the slides that go with my talk.