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Network leadership – social media in the workplace

Innovation & Sustainability

13 January 2020

Roughly half of all management books really boil down to a single issue: once you’ve worked out a strategy, how do you get your people on board? Employee workplace engagement and identification with the organisation’s purpose are by no means a given for many (especially larger) organisations. The use of new technologies patterned on social media could well turn this around. “Employees will see the CEO in their timeline, and vice versa.”

A report with the provocative title Onrust in Voorspoed (‘Anxiety at a Time of Prosperity’) was published in the Netherlands last summer. The report was written by DenkWerk, a think tank which employs several members of the Dutch leadership elite, including Hans Wijers, Feike Sijbesma and Angelien Kemna. The authors note a growing social and cultural gap in Dutch society, where there is very little interaction between graduates and non-graduates, who therefore also hardly have access to each other’s networks.

According to Jaap Linssen, CEO and founder of consulting firm OrangeTrail, this phenomenon has also become widespread in the world of business. “It seems to me that, over the past few decades, employees in large organisations have gradually become more alienated from management. When I talk to board members, they often tell me they feel they’ve lost touch with their employees and don’t really know what’s going on in their minds, particularly those from the younger generations. They’re finding it more difficult to connect with these people. Email, corporate intranet sites and newsletters are really quite dated as communication media when it comes to strategy and purpose. We’re attempting to close this gap through the use of social technology.”

OrangeTrail has implemented software platforms at several large companies in recent years – including, Nestlé, Heineken, KNAB, Signify and SHV – which facilitate a new method of internal communication. Linssen: “It’s about solutions such as Facebook’s Workplace, Yammer, Microsoft’s Teams, or Slack. What these technologies have in common is that they facilitate direct interaction between management and employees. That means employees see the CEO in their timeline, and vice versa.”

Collective intelligence
Linssen believes these new communication platforms make it possible to transform traditional top-down leadership into ‘network leadership.’ “Leaders in organisations need to understand that employees possess all kinds of valuable knowledge and that you can tap into that knowledge by asking them questions. This technology enables CEOs to tell their employees: “We will be carrying out some major product improvements in the upcoming quarter. Competition in our market is fierce. What do you reckon our competitors are doing better than us?”. You can then decide based on their feedback what strategic direction to take. Instead of a traditional-style command-and-control structure, you engage your people in a meaningful dialogue,” Linssen says.

Gert Askes, CEO and co-founder of consultancy SPARQ360, is no stranger to this concept. His company also supplies software to European and American companies designed to facilitate a ‘strategic dialogue’ between executive and operational staff. Askes: “SPARQ360 started out as an open innovation platform, intended to translate high-potential ideas into new business models or cost-saving measures. But the idea is to do this backed by the entire organisation and not just the R&D department. However, we soon noticed that this only works if your employees are engaged, and that sort of engagement is sorely lacking in many companies today, to put it bluntly. Our software enables you to gain access to the organisation’s collective intelligence using a brief questionnaire with a feedback loop. We gather feedback on behalf of management boards on how employees at all levels at the company regard opportunities and threats. If you tailor your strategy to that and share the value you create with the organisation, the entire company will feel part of the strategic process. Because everyone will notice what a difference it makes to be given a say, to know that your feedback is heard and used, and that your personal input will have an impact. If you do this consistently, you can create a very strong positive flow in the organisation.”

‘Working out loud’
Linssen explains that today’s social communication technologies offer another major benefit: they significantly improve the quality of teams and teamwork. “The traditional way of working goes something like this: you draft a project plan 1.0, store it someplace, distribute it and then schedule a meeting to develop project plan 2.0. Then: wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not particularly efficient when you really think about it, because you and your team are dealing with dynamic information that changes constantly. Social technology makes it possible, during the process of writing a project plan, to gather input from team members and share your ideas. We refer to this process as ‘working out loud,’ and this has turned out to be a very powerful principle: it’s much faster, less prone to error, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel each time. This is how we work in our organisation, and we’ve learned that 80% of agenda items can be checked off the list before the meeting has even begun.”

“Social communication technology significantly improves the quality of teams and teamwork”

Askes points out that social technology also allows for a greater variety of perspectives. “Decision-making processes in organisations are often controlled by the more extroverted employees with quick minds, who are very vocal about sharing their opinions and ideas,” he says. “However, that doesn’t mean those people are always right. We also gather feedback from more quiet, introverted employees, and present the organisation with ideas that otherwise would have slipped through the cracks. We’ve found that it ends up changing the thrust of the conversation.”

Both men view social technology as the next big thing for businesses, even if Linssen feels this will require a change in mentality and overall approach. “You really need to rethink the way you work,” he says. “This is particularly true for communications departments, which have been churning out management updates since forever and whose job is now suddenly to facilitate an interactive and engaging dialogue on the company’s social business network. But ‘working out loud’ can be a hard sell in any company at first, as many people are happy working in their own bubble and may be reluctant to share work-in-progress with others. Then again, many former employees have told me they really miss this particular workstyle.”

Read more about ‘Tech for people’ in Capital Magazine