Although the spectrum of possibilities offered by contemporary collaborative technologies for energizing our workspaces has broadened considerably in the recent years, we believe there is still significant space for improvement in terms of unleashing the human potential. Towards this direction and acknowledging contemporary organizational theory insights, we developed a corporate social platform, named YouTect, which aims to empower fresh ideas and energize both organizational spaces and their ‘inhabitants’.
The story presented here was initially inspired by the organizational problems faced upon managing a small family-run hotel chain. Such problems included among others a rather demotivated workforce, slow pace of innovation, limited cooperation among the departments and hotels of the chain and a limited sense of purpose and orientation. In what follows, we are first presenting five organizational problems that cover both functional and strategic areas and in the following section we illustrate how we respond to these problems through the platform we developed. The overall aim has been to design a sociotechnical environment that would bring new levels of aliveness and energy within and across organizations.
Problem 1: Perceiving the organizational space as a neutral pre-designed space
As social beings we all belong to a number of organizational spaces, such as the organization we work for, the neighborhood or town we live in, the association or club we are members of or even the family we are raised in. By “space” we refer to both the physical space as well as all the institutional, cultural, and technical arrangements within which we act and think. As these “spaces” have been designed by “others” and are to a certain extent given, we often find ourselves passively implementing procedures without understanding the reasoning of the organizational design in place. At times, we do not even bother to make suggestions for improving the existing practices and tend to feel so disempowered to participate in the strategy formation process.
Information technology and particularly the rise of social media and user-generated-content websites have emerged to empower us to be more active in our social circles through for instance sharing knowledge and rating services or products. Although our voice has undoubtedly become louder, we still have not reached our full potential when it comes to contributing more actively to the formation of our (organizational) spaces.
A key limitation related to this claim is that we tend to share our thoughts and feedback concerning a certain organizational space we have experienced on a number of places, such as social media platforms or third party websites and platforms, without necessarily involving the ones responsible to take relevant action and in many cases without being motivated to follow up whether and how things have changed. Social media is the perfect space to begin with, but what happens next –if anything at all- is a question not addressed by social media’s agenda. As a result, valuable knowledge related to the organizational spaces we experience remains disintegrated and fragmented within various websites or tools. For example, experiences related to services and products are mostly uploaded on review websites and are not directly shared with the organization in charge. Understandably, the popularity of those third party sites indirectly does assert power over the organizations and many studies have investigated the motivations of people who spend time and contribute to those. However, we claim that technological tools such as corporate websites, intranets and enterprise social networks have not yet been fully utilized as spaces in which peoples’ feedback could been incorporated into the organizational strategy. This can be attributed to the fact that information systems, being sociotechnical systems are still grounded in some of the assumptions of the mechanistic organizational model which are fundamentally contradictory to the recent trend for a more “open” and “self-organizing” model of management. Even though it has been theoretically explored as an issue, in practice contemporary organizations do not really provide a platform that enhances knowledge sharing, feedback and co-creation.
Problem 2: Static and non-transparent feedback mechanisms
Performance results within organizations are not always shared dynamically in real-time manner. For example, the feedback received from customer satisfaction questionnaires in a hotel is usually stored in a database and is usually communicated in the format of an executive summary during a scheduled departmental meeting. Due to geographical, financial and time constraints such meetings do not happen often, or at least not on a basis that would allow instant communication of feedback. This time lag prevents the members of the organization from initiating timely corrective actions.
Furthermore, scheduled physical or digital meetings do not allow sufficient time and space for members to engage in conversations, build consensus around corrective actions and explore new opportunities. Such limitations naturally result in disempowering organizational members who do not have a holistic and dynamic picture of their efforts as depicted by results.
Problem 3: Hierarchical organizational structures are not inspiring and viable in contemporary organizational ecosystems
Traditionally, organizations have been treated as hierarchical entities which are controlled and led from the top. In hierarchical organizational structures, knowledge is typically transferred vertically from the top to the bottom (e.g. from the headquarters or the hotel manager towards a hotel department which resides within a hotel) or from the bottom to the top (from a hotel department to the hotel manager and then to the headquarters). The dominance of the mechanistic organizational model is such that we tend to perceive the organization not as a set of communities that have similar structural characteristics and purpose but rather as a hierarchical system. As a result, knowledge is not easily shared horizontally among the members of a community (e.g. all the restaurant members operating in the different hotels of the chain). This in turn weakens the organizational structural ties and prevents organizational members from sharing initiatives and co-shaping the architecture of their community. As Wheatley (1999) notes, “one of the greatest challenges, after so many centuries of separation and fragmentation, is to discover new ways of thinking and sensing that allow us to comprehend the whole”.
The mechanistic/hierarchical model has been the root of numerous organizational problems in the contemporary organizational terrain. Among other problems, it depresses self-organization, a fundamental characteristic of all living systems. Although self-organization has been acknowledged as a key concept in management science, it has not yet been fully embraced by contemporary information systems (Knight and Halkett, 2010). Undoubtedly, organizational theory has been conceived considerably differently if we move from Weber’s bureaucracy to market based models, networks, situated arenas of improvisation, sense-making and bricolage to more contemporary globalized ecosystems. However, we are mostly interested in practically empowering this evolutionary conceptual paradigm shift with the relevant technological tools (without presupposing a distinction between the social and the technical, quite the opposite).
Enterprise social networks are a big step towards supporting collaboration among the communities that reside within the organization. They typically provide a “social” feed of posts or ideas for the members of public or private communities/groups, which are followed by rather unstructured conversations. Nevertheless, there is still significant space for improvement in terms of how social technologies can support collaborative strategy formation and implementation. While initiatives for change undertaken by the members of a group can be shared within a feed and can be accompanied by tags for easier traceability with the use of existing platforms, it remains difficult for a group member to “query” the knowledge posted. For example, it would be difficult for a restaurant manager belonging to the group/community named “Restaurant” to filter the top five initiatives for change undertaken by the other restaurants of the hotel chain. And it would be even more difficult to trace the knowledge related to a particular successful initiative, such as the alternatives which were considered, the implementation plan and the lessons learnt, which in turn would make the reapplication of a change much easier.
Problem 4: Organizations are not treated as parts of broader ecosystems
Organizations would function more effectively if treated as constitutive parts of broader interconnected ecosystems-which they anyway are-. In the era of coproduction, participatory design and collaborative innovation, having a standalone corporate social network would be insufficient. What is rather needed, to our understanding, is a more accurate mapping of the actual collaborations with the use of external networks for collaboration (this will be explained more thoroughly in the solution section). Currently, organizations can invite the stakeholders of their ecosystem to join a private network in which they can engage into discussions. For example, an organization can create private spaces (groups) to interact with its suppliers, its job candidates or partners (on Facebook, LinkedIn, Corporate Intranets etc.). However, existing technological tools offer limited possibilities for creating custom workflows in order to facilitate the collaboration with external networks and hence to expand the value network.
Problem 5: “Dead” standalone corporate webpages
It is unfortunate that content management systems (CMSs) have not evolved adequately to address the era of increased complexity. Most of the contemporary CMSs that are used to develop corporate webpages assume that such websites are to be maintained by a single or a few administrators who are also part of the pregiven “space” discussed above. Also, CMSs are not always user-friendly, as it is assumed that the administrator has IT skills. Therefore, the content of a corporate webpage is typically published by an administrator and usually there is no space for comments or discussion, or if there is such space it is mostly one-sided. As a result, the organizational members are not really provided with a space to express and interact with customers and other groups of interest. For example, it would be nice if the restaurant manager of a hotel could post content (say the cocktail or menu of the day), without the intervention of an administrator. He or she should also be able to interact with customers and receive immediate compliments, feedback and suggestions.
Both the wide range of existing corporate social platforms, as well as the rise of social plugins in webpages such as blogs, Facebook stream and tools such as Disqus and Live-Chat are already important steps towards supporting enriched interactions between customers and employees within corporate webpages. Nevertheless, they seem to be mere intermediate solutions and have a number of limitations being external tools which do not integrate with the corporate website.
Having acknowledged the problems associated with the mismatch between increasing organizational complexity and how information systems are developed, we proceeded with specific solutions. We developed a corporate social platform with a fundamentally different philosophy and architecture compared to the existing enterprise social network solutions. The main focus of the platform has been on enabling the dissemination and reuse of knowledge within and across organizations, which in turn would motivate the members to contribute more actively to the actual “tecture” (formation) of their organizational spaces. We now present specific solutions to the problems described above.
1. Encouraging people to architect their spaces
YouTect platform was designed to enable people to architect not only their immediate workspaces but any spaces they are part of.
Figure 1: Entering the different spaces you belong to
In the era of coproduction, open and collaborative innovation, the proposed platform enables us to “architect” our organizational spaces by making suggestions for improvement, by proposing ideas and by voting directly from the corporate website of the organization that has adopted the platform. In being able to express ourselves and to have our voices heard, we become more interested in understanding the rationale of the organizational design in place and more empowered to contribute to its ongoing shaping. More importantly, participation in the platform allows us to follow the outcome of our feedback. If our suggestion is found useful, we can participate in the discussions which shall follow, in the actual implementation plan as well as in the evaluation of the implemented strategy.
The knowledge incorporated within the submitted feedback is not anymore spread across different websites or tools but is neatly added to the relevant corporate space. Such feedback is automatically shared with all the relevant members of the organization and if it is considered appropriate it can become part of the strategy formation process. At the same time, organizations can respond more personally and directly to any ideas, suggestions or requests received from their extended environment (which is not external any more) and hence can manage more effectively their reputation.
Figure 2: Suggestions that are made on the public page (website) of the organization are shared with the relevant organizational members
2. Dynamic feedback mechanisms
The platform has been designed in a way that allows organizational members to feel part of a community and hence to align more effectively with the mission of their organization. Every member can have access to the activity that takes place within the organization –access rights can be easily managed-, engage in discussions and collaborate with colleagues. Most importantly, the design of the platform supports the dynamic sharing of performance feedback, as it enables file sharing easily with all authorized members and offers the possibility for embedding dynamic graphs from survey results. Such results are accompanied with strategic conversations between the relevant members. In conclusion, the dynamic sharing of performance metrics increases transparency and the sense of purpose, which in turn leads to a better alignment of the members of the organization(s) with the organizational goals.
Figure 3: Sharing performance results across the organization by embedding dynamic graphs
3. Unleashing self-organization
The platform has been developed with a focus on unleashing self-organization. And this has been achieved by enabling the creation of private spaces in which every initiative for change undertaken by every community member is shared systematically with the rest of the community members. The implementation of any of the proposed suggestions is recorded so that changes can be reapplied easier by other community members.
By allowing the horizontal and dynamic flow of knowledge among the members of a community, it becomes possible for change to emerge from the bottom, without the intervention of top-management. This in essence is the main property of self-organization. Novel behavior within the organization emerges through the dynamic interactions of the community members, while community members can adjust their behavior with one another and thus retain their structural ties through the passage of time.
Figure 4: Self-organization in practice: the members of the restaurant community implement an initiative
4. Working in a boundary-less organization
The proposed platform has a polymorphic design which allows the published content to be customized to the needs of every group of users. In contrast to the static architecture of existing corporate social networks, the platform is fully configurable so that it can perform any type of workflows for all types of user groups such as employees, suppliers, job candidates or any other stakeholders. For instance, the platform supports internal processes related to human resource management, ranging from employee timetables, requests such as expense claims or leave applications to training material and sessions for personal development. It also enables the members of the organization to interact effectively with their extended environment (e.g. they can send purchase orders to suppliers or receive special offers from them). Last but not least, the platform provides functions for talent management and for supporting the recruitment process. The power though lies in technically giving the freedom to the community to choose what sort of functions they would like to perform online.
Figure 5: Example of a workflow: leave application as requested by a team member
5. Vibrant and engaging corporate websites
We have envisioned the possibility for a “hybrid” corporate social platform which can act both as the intranet and webpage of the organization. By assigning user rights to the respective categories of content, it becomes possible to make the content uploaded within the corporate platform publicly available on the corporate webpage of the organization. Depending on the configuration of the platform, certain categories of content also allow social functions such as liking, commenting and rating. Moreover, when it comes to outstanding service and customers feel like praising team members, they can do so; yet another functionality that takes openness seriously by engaging customers in everyday management practices.
Figure 6: The platform can be transformed to act as an extension of the existing corporate webpage
The most important contribution though is the shift in how corporate webpages evolve from static and passive spaces towards colorful communities in which organizational members can interact in multiple ways with customers and other partners and establish relationships which mutually enhance human deep feeling.
The contribution we hope to make through the design and development of the platform is summarized by saying that we first and foremost aim at making ‘spaces’ alive. We envision organizational members and citizens being (practically) empowered to contribute to the tecture of the spaces they are part of and thus to the making of creativity, innovation and change in unprecedented ways. Towards this direction the platform encourages change at all management levels:
· Organizational members are actively becoming part of the creation of ‘space’ (organizational routines, practices, policies, agendas, schemes, decisions, initiatives etc.) with the use of specific tools, obligatory passages and motivation functions.
· Organizational boundaries are transcended and seemingly external stakeholders (such as customers) actively become part of the conversations. The design of the platform moves beyond distinctions between Intranet and Extranet; it is all about creative space-making in practice.
· Informed decision-making is encouraged through self-organization patterns and functions as well as horizontal and dynamic knowledge creation and sharing. The architecture of the platform allows advanced filtering and searching, but more importantly it empowers users to actively be part of the conversation to the desired extent.
· Part of how we address the identified problems is by proposing an integrated platform that brings back the idea of organizational wholeness. We often seem to have forgotten how and why all the tools and different platforms we use add value to our everyday work practices and how they help us achieve our goals. The proposed solution integrates functional and strategic tasks taking into account contemporary management theories (for instance the fact that we work in open ecosystems).
· The platform constitutes an interesting (we claim) suggestion as it practically reconsiders organizational boundaries and in particular what a corporate website and a closed Intranet are. The platform has been designed in a way that interestingly incorporates both by giving different levels of access to the relevant groups of people.
The application of the platform in the hotel chain and the positive feedback we received motivated us to develop it further so that it would be applicable to other sectors and types of organizations, including educational, (non)-governmental organizations and social enterprises. Currently we very much work towards that direction and are happy to realize how the polymorphic design increases the human potential in many more settings.
Organizations interested in adopting such a platform should first and foremost acknowledge that it should not be treated as a ‘technological fix’ or an add-on, but it should rather come as a suggestion towards a participatory and collaborative organizational culture. In what we presented above we have mainly referred to organizational problems that are partially (or not at all) addressed by existing technological solutions. However, technology is not a panacea per se if the sociocultural context and human resources are not in line with the underlying premises based on which the technology has been built. After all, our motivation has been to empower organizational architects, not to design just yet another technology.
Having mentioned this general challenge, a further challenge common to all social enterprise networks is how to convince and encourage organizational members to be spending time and participating on the platform. Our response to this has been already implemented as part of the design. By integrating core workflows and tasks within the platform and by abandoning alternative processes, we create a central space where all operations take place (functional, strategic and social). For instance, customer service management as a functional necessary task, that is logged in the system serves as the obligatory passage point that will potentially create further contributions and interactions, not for the sake of creating more traffic but to enhance efficiency, creativity and business value. Furthermore, the fact that organizational members interact with customers on the platform, as customer feedback and performance results are published, serves as a further reason for them to come back to the platform, self-monitor their performance and respond to customers. Other incentive mechanisms, including gamification, are currently considered and expected to be included in the next versions.
A further challenge is related to the fact that non-knowledge workers do not necessarily have access to computers in their working environment and thus might be excluded from participating. Our response to this is a user-friendly and responsive design that allows accessibility from all mobile devices.
Besides motivation and accessibility, path dependent behaviors and resistance to change are major challenges when introducing new technologies –even when these fit well with the organizational culture-. Users have been used to send numerous emails and memos, they may be using a combination of file management systems, real-time communication tools, ERPs, social networks and so on. However, it very much depends on top management and organizational leaders to communicate the transition onto an integrative platform that does all in one horizontally. There are many reports available about how inefficient emails are –e-mail has been a revolution decades ago, but as said, organizational complexity has increased ever since-. We provide the material towards a smooth transition, but every implementation is context and time-specific and imposes its own challenges.
The first beta release is expected in June 2014 and will be available upon request to a few selected organizations from different sectors. In the very near future, the platform will be publicly available to any interested organization.
To the work of architect and philosopher Christopher Alexander.
Knight, S., & Halkett, G., 2010. Living Systems, Complexity and Information Systems Science, ACIS 2010 Proceedings, Paper 33, 21st Australasian Conference on Information Systems.
Wheatley, M., 1999. Leadership and the New Science, Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.