Web 2.0: Leading the Brave New World

By Kris Girrell

Web 2.0: Leading the Brave New World

Most leadership models are built on the management techniques of the latter half of the 20th century. If we are being benevolent, that statement might be true, but there still are managers and systems that harken back to overlording pre-Industrial Revolution techniques.

Today, the leadership industry hears and sees a subtler, quieter and more disruptive revolution happening. It is borne on the wings of social media and its prophets are the youngest among us.  It may just re-invent our entire concept of leading and what we, as leadership coaches, assist our clients in doing.
Leadership involves a multitude of disciplines and practice areas. Not merely a set of goal-oriented behaviors as it was once classified, but leadership also encompasses a set of processes and relationships between the leader and follower(s). It is here that the naissance of this new revolution can be seen. 
Managers have generally tended to view employees as individuals and working groups or perhaps teams of individuals. It was as if the individual employee--occupying a defined space and time--were all that mattered. But increasingly, that individual has become much more. If leading is to remain the dynamic of leveraging talent, information and resources against a set of problems, processes and products, then shifting our understanding of the "individual" is imperative.

Let's examine the changes in two parts: what the new world looks like and what implications it poses for leaders.
Web 2.0, wikispaces, social and professional networks, microblogs, RSS and advanced search engines (the list is growing daily) have reshaped how information is shared. In the workplace, information sharing used to belong in the realm of management. It was often seen as the source of their strength and power. There was a time when managers were seen as the best at their craft in the room--hired for their expertise and promoted into leadership for excellence and achievement.

That is no longer the case.

A very good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the world of academia. Until recently, the professor was unquestionably the most knowledgeable one in the room. But now every student has a laptop open to one of several search tools to question, challenge and push the level of informed discussion to heights that are hard to imagine and even more difficult to describe. Why, then, should the workplace be any different?
What these new employees represent is no longer an individual entity, but rather an entire system--sometimes distinct from but often comprised of and accessed through the thinking and collaboration of their fellow members. Recognizing employees as windows into these vast networks of people and information sources, allows leaders to leverage far more than ever.

Yet the bulk of coaching and leadership models continue to treat employees as singular units or as members of the internal teams within the confines of the corporate entity. Leaders and leadership models must not only recognize the different dynamic of our new employees, but must learn how to tap into the power and capacity they represent.

The New View of "Employee"

The New View of Employee
A Single Person or an Access Portal?
However, beyond the employee, the network itself has become a living, breathing organism.  Something happens at a certain critical mass where the web takes on a life of its own.  Many corporate leaders fear this organism spreading out of control. They fear that they may lose control of the growth and spread of their brand identity or their ability to manage their "subordinates." But these viral systems, like all ecosystems, are somewhat fragile organic organisms that must live and grow on their own.
Instead of thinking of how they can expedite growth and development--and mess with the nature of their growing social media systems--corporate leaders need to let go, and let their internal workplace community thrive independently, and then look for ways that they can then join in as a contributing member of that whole, living organism. Letting go is not simply stepping aside.  In order for social media to thrive, systems need to be in place for employees to communicate, and collaborate. That translates to providing the resources (such as smart phones, netbooks, laptops and other hardware) to enable their capacity to collaborate. It also means encouraging the "multitasking" to occur freely and spontaneously.
Leadership coaches often describe the components of employee engagement as having employees who are aligned and motivated and who have the capacity to contribute. Providing space and resourcing these social media systems so that they can spring up and thrive does exactly that. 

By collaborating with their peers and other colleagues, employees become more aligned; by having a say in the direction and the ebb and flow of information sharing, employees are naturally more motivated; and by providing the systems, tools and permission for social media, employees have a greatly increased capacity to contribute.
Perhaps the more difficult task is one's involvement as the leader and manager. How might the leader have to change in order to lead from empowerment and people-engagement instead of from command and control? What does leadership look like when done from below?

10 Steps for Web 2.0 Success

Here are 10 suggestions to help leaders in this new social media world:
1. Get social. If you haven't already, get a smartphone, get on FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn, start tweeting, blogging and IM-ing. Learn about wikispaces and web 3.0 (yeah, that's already happening). Though the most popular social media tools are really intuitive to use and have a short learning curve, don't be fooled: shifting a corporate culture into using them takes quite a bit of time an effort, according to consultant Grady McGonagill, whose recent whitepaper details the best practices in leadership.
2. Shift your paradigms about how work happens, about what relationships are and about the many parallel universes of relationships there are. Equally as important: shift your paradigms about what leadership is as well. Leadership must become fast, fluid and flexible enough to be passed from one to the other around the network. Imagine, for example, stopping at mid-point in a public presentation for a tweet break to allow the audience to check in with others for their thoughts and questions.
3. Shift the direction of information flow from top-down to bottom-up. In the wired world of the iGeneration, leaders don't direct--they serve. This is not pure "hive mentality"--the random and spontaneous generation of thought movement. Leaders must provide a focus, a question or a goal and then allow for the on-going flow of information.
4. Resource it. Get the tools, find out what is most needed and wanted and get it in the budget. The important thing is getting the right tools--too many tools can not only clog the system but result in failure to use them at all. But don't fall into the trap of thinking of just devices.  Resources include setting up the human infrastructure as well, says Naava Frank, rresident of Knowledge Communities.
5. Eliminate walls and barriers to free flowing information. Granted, companies have confidential trade secrets, but if companies can figure out how to keep them under wraps while including customers in the ideation process, they can figure out how to open up the channels without giving away the store. The key is building mutual trust. Branding is different in wikispace: once you open the doors, all the company warts are visible.
6. Participate at some (any) level. Listen in and sit down with your newest and youngest employees and ask them how they suggest using these resources. But most importantly, decide how you want to "show up" and be strategic about when to step in.
7. Turn it over to "them." That's right--put them in charge, let go, and turn to figuring out what recognition and reward systems the company can employ to encourage and promote it. However, this does not mean that you let go of leading the process--even Wikipedia has an organization and a leader at its helm.
8. Find new ways to engage the rank and file employees in the process of informing, information flow and information capture. Find out what the motivators are in this new realm (they are changing). It should not be the leader's nor the organization's goal to engage or harness the entire social network (that is too big and far too time-consuming), just the part that is helpful in advancing.
9. Don't get tunnel vision on just information. The networked employee is more than an information conduit; she is a bundle of relationships, conversations and ideas yet to happen. The best advice is "Handle with care," says Frank, "these systems are fragile."
10. Set it on the path of building exponential growth. A leader's job is keeping the vision alive and out in front. Create the position of community manager to make certain that your networking employees have purpose and focus. And then you can start to measure your organization's results in terms of operational performance, speed and capacity.
Welcome to the digital world of the web-powered iGeneration. It is a culture that is self-empowered and has no sense of boundaries, and that actually expects and demands free access to all information and sources.

For your organization it can be a Brave New World, or Lord of the Flies. Much of that depends on how one leads. Leading a web-based, socially-networked organization requires not only self-confidence, but an ability to facilitate instead of force, and co-create instead of simply controlling things that happen. 

Yes, welcome to this braver newer world! One wonders if Lao Tzu could have imagined this when he wrote some 2300 years ago, "The greatest leader is the one of whom the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'"
By Kris Girrell is senior partner with Camden Consulting Group

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This article was originally published on 04-07-2010