Management: Need Help? Get it Here.

By Karen Lojeski  |  Posted 04-19-2006
Have you ever written a word on a piece of paper that you've been writing for years and suddenly it looks wrong?

This is happening to me when I look at today's management models. Industrial Age business practices often don't provide a meaningful guide for managers in the Digital Age. They look wrong to me. The language doesn't fit.

This was driven home for me in January as I attended the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (HICSS). I was following the collaboration track and, in this particular session, the presenter discussed ways to facilitate a virtual town hall meeting, some of which could have 30,000 or more attendees.

He began by posing some traditional questions about meeting facilitation: "What does the meeting facilitator need to do to effectively run the meeting?" "How can the facilitator help each of the meeting attendees feel like they are personally involved?" "How does the facilitator encourage meaningful dialogue during such a meeting?"

Up until a few years ago, an event like this was not possible. And as I listened, I began to get that same feeling of wrongness.

So I posed another set of questions to the group: "Are we really talking about a meeting as I have come to understand that term?" "Doesn't the town hall analogy assume the attendees have some familiarity with each other?" "Isn't the standard meaning of facilitation inappropriate when discussing ways to manage 30,000 people online?"

A newly energized conversation then took hold. We agreed that a 30,000-person online interaction could not be called a meeting in the traditional sense.

It was more like thousands of data points temporarily joined together—and a golden opportunity to run some studies on the attendees. An executive might give a large group of employees an update on a new product strategy, for instance, and wants to get some feedback.

Nor was the usual task of facilitation applicable. Personal interactions in this large-group setting typically occurs in sub-groups, and the overall trends were captured and fed back to managers and participants in real-time. Returning to the example of the new-product strategy, the attendees are polled and the results indicate that most employees think the new strategy is headed in the right direction.

This information, or trend as I call it, is then given to the managers and participants. Another example I have seen of this method involves changes to benefit plans. A huge online meeting is held and the attendees are polled for the kinds of changes they would like to see—more doctor choice, more choice for prescriptions, higher deductible plans, etc.

This information is then analyzed and the results are sent back out to the managers and employees.

This is an example of how traditional descriptions of interactions such as meetings and tasks like facilitation can sometimes become irrelevant and even distracting in the context of a largely digital workplace.

They are not wrong in their historical context. But as Stephen Roach wrote in his Daily Economic Comment on June 6, 2005, "Globalization is rewriting the script of some of our most time-honored macro relationships."

So too is the Digital Age re-writing the micro relationships that, up until now, have been used as the basis for modern management paradigms and workforce practices.

We need to find new scripts to change and enhance our dialogue to fit this era. The current state of management frameworks and the business lexicon is not acceptable.

We cannot keep going to conferences and seminars, content to listen to tried and true management techniques that worked in days gone by, even though many of them no longer make much sense when we test their meaning against our commonsense and experience. Our management jargon and processes need to comport with the state of our science and technology. They need to be advanced.

This column, which will appear monthly, looks to start a fresh dialogue— one that challenges historical models by letting go of our time-honored relationships with business language and methods, which were designed for a different time. It will take the form of a question and answer column.

We invite you to share your experiences and send us your questions (to Lojeski@ziffdavis.com) about business practices and models that have served you well in the past but seem out-dated now. I will answer as many as I can each month. This process, I sincerely hope, will help us create parlance and practices that look right in the Digital Age.

Have a management problem? Send your question to Dr. Lojeski at Lojeski@ziffdavis.com