In recent years, countless executives have confessed that more than strategy or vision, managing people is their toughest and most important job. Recently, though, a more nuanced version of the "people first" mantra has emerged. Instead of managing individuals, the new thinking goes, manage the relationships between them. After all, nobody working alone can accomplish great things on any scale. Leaders, then, shouldn't be focusing so much on how to manage people to make them better performers as on how to foster stronger connections among them.
This notion that relationships are the key to organizational success has a name—social capital. Harvard's Robert Putnam, who coined the phrase in a widely read 1995 essay, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," initially published in the Journal of Democracy and expanded into a popular book in 2000, defined social capital as the "connection among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." Putnam claimed the quality of social capital is so important to an organization that it marks the difference between a vital company and a stagnant one. We agree with Putnam in the value of social capital, and in the need for executives to pay more attention to social context, especially as our world becomes ever more networked and digital. Indeed, the whole notion of IT-business alignment hinges on the need for better relationships among people and teams—as well as units and departments—in any organization.
In this month's issue of CIO Insight, we take a look at the notion of social capital in our roundtable on youth and the future of the workplace. Both in today's workplace and, especially, in the workplace of tomorrow, the all-digital generation—now aged 6 to 26 and the biggest generation, in terms of sheer numbers, in American history—is just starting to make itself heard. Its members are striding into companies armed with vastly new ideas, attitudes and notions of work based on partnerships and peer-to-peer interaction—styles of working mostly foreign and potentially unsettling to today's managers. Yet, unlike past generations full of cocky self-assurance, the N-generation are experts on something their elders are not—information technology, which is forcing new relationships between employees, customers, business partners and companies within industries large and small.
Is your company able to manage the changes? Are you? In today's fast-changing companies, those who fumble the new requirements of leadership may well find themselves obsolete. Says Don Tapscott, an author and member of our roundtable this month: "We can't fear what we don't understand, because fear will get in the way of doing the right thing."
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