Change is a fact of life and if it happens too fast then its overwhelming. The trick, perhaps, is to work out which changes you need to react to while you just absorb the others. My research interest is around social change. Specifically I am interested in social change with respect to new technologies and yes – I am fascinated by social networking and web 2.0.
Technology is perhaps the greatest driver of change but as a result I think sometimes we get mesmerised by the speed with which technology is changing and we allow that fascination, or fear, to mask our understanding or appreciation of the social change that is both driving and being driven by the tech. I think there is an additional challenge in this for managers and leaders in that as you become more senior you tend to move away from the latest developments as your team takes on the responsibility of keeping skills up to date and you concentrate on more strategic matters. The speed of technology development can put you out of touch of the underlying social changes – you focus on trying to keep a handle on the tech and lose track of the behaviours that are so essential to strategic planning.
Sometimes its useful to recalibrate and that is one of the reasons from my point of view in working with James and Martin to examine what leadership looks like in the more networked world which I believe we are transitioning towards.
I see networked behaviours as the lynchpin of ways that things have changed.
Technically this is simple thing – the internet and world wide web have the idea of connecting things at the heart of their designed purpose and new ‘social’ technologies have been created to connect people. This is an inherently non-hierarchical activity and this is where we see the resonance in terms of social change where we see traditional hierarchies being affected by the ability of individual actors to connect directly to anyone who shares a mutual interest.
This has two major effects – firstly a blurring of organisational boundaries as these connections are made across lines of interest not of structure. Secondly we can see informal power, which has always existed, operating more easily and more visibly.
Hierarchical organisations are under pressure from other changes – the end of the ‘job for life’, the speed of change throwing disruptive competitors into the market and the fact that the larger your organisation is the more difficult it is to adapt quickly. Systems are being built without hierarchies and yet we expend a lot of energy trying to recreate them – adapting to their absence would allow us to take advantage of the new environment.
There is also a new centrality to information – not just as a way of monitoring systems but as a potential economic raw material and differentiator in its own right. Information has always equated to power – this is an even more active relationship now. We need dynamic and rapid information management processes organisationally and individually if we are going to find and use the power in information. We can’t just give up on our inboxes and claim information overload – we have to find better ways of processing.
Another change that needs adapting to in the increase in degrees of openness both in terms of public/private boundaries and also in terms of access to information. The fact that information is available and easily replicable creates an expectation that it will be shared. The act of making more of our lives available to the information space, and the fact that we share the details of our lives willingly online brings a blurring of identities where we previously kept work and personal lives clearly separated.
The combination of this new openness in terms of personal and information is a pressure to do more thinking in public – to expose unfinished thoughts and ideas and to expose an idea before you have had chance to explore it throughly in order to avoid the risk of it losing relevance – the pressure to be part of the conversation.
This can make leadership of a hierarchical organisation something of a busted flush. You have all the responsibilities you had before but the power and knowledge in the organisation starts is starting to operate differently.
There is one question as to how to survive these changes and another I think as to how to thrive in this new environment. Survival is about finding a way to make innovation and change part of your strategic planning process at the same time as finding trusted colleagues who can help negotiate the pace of technology change. Thriving is more than that – I think it’s about establishing your relevance and centrality in a networked context where you can leverage your authority and convening power as a leader. This programme is, for me, a way of exploring what this means.
Personally I think the combined stance of researcher and manager, hopefully leader, is one way of staying on top of the change that is happening around us and I am not sure that I could manage it any other way. But there is a lot to figure out and discover about leadership in the 21st century and I am hoping this exploration, documented here and in the programme, will help.
Catherine Howe, Chief Executive of Public-I (www.public-i.info), responds to our invitation to reflect on what it means to be a ‘networked leader’ in the 21st Century Leadership context