Supporting Learning-to-Performance in Organizations
Web 2.0 Wednesday: Create a Web 2.0 "Icebreaker" Activity

Can Social Media for Learning Co-Exist with Command and Control Work Environments?

Control In response to yesterday's post on supporting learning to performance, Dave Ferguson left me an interesting comment:

I think you have a good suggestion in terms of applying social media, though I'm not convinced it's always and everywhere necessary.

You say, for example, "when workers are sharing and discussing via 'closed' systems such as email and face-to-face conversations," information about thinks like lack of understanding or need for new skills "is less accessble."

That's true to some extent, but a person could also read that as saying social media is preferable to face-to-face conversation, which is just silly. (I realize you don't mean it that way, but I'm always leery of the manager in search of Magic Beans.)

Not every interaction between people needs to take place in the open -- as the mindless use of cellphones demonstrates. Not every individual responds well to public criticism, even if it's dressed as "constructive feedback."

I'm not saying never to use these tools.  What I am saying is they are no more The Answer than any other tool-as-bandwagon.

Speaking for myself, I'd rather have root canal work without anesthesia than have all my on-the-job coaching occur through blogs, wikis, or (saints preserve us) tweets.

Perhaps before the "learning professionals" plunge in and provide additional support and job aids, they ought to deal directly with an individual to confirm that he or she does "need" these things.

Otherwise, you end up with management-imposed requirements that, for example, everyone in the organization has to have a blog. Next, you have to post at least four times a week. Next, you have to have two posts a month on My Personal Learning Reflections. (It's not all that far down the road to "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?")

This mindset is what's made performance appraisal such a roaring success throughout the workplace.

I couldn't agree more with Dave that social media isn't the answer to everything. His comment got me thinking, though, about the whole issue of how to use social media to support learning.

To me, when you start mandating that people have to write two blog posts a week on specific topics, you are violating the very spirit of Web 2.0, which is built upon the idea of voluntary contributions to the network. Web 2.0 is about choice, it's about user-generated content built out of a passion for the topic, it's about the kinds of conversations that happen in pubs, not the mandatory appearance in front of your boss. It's this approach, as much as the tools themselves, that creates the value you get from using social media for learning.

I personally don't believe that Web 2.0 and command and control can truly exist together. It goes back to what Harold Jarche posted earlier this week on the new nature of the firm:

For enterprise 2.0 to work, it needs to embrace democracy in the workplace, something that rarely exists in industrial, command and control, organisations - which account for almost all of our businesses. Businesses run as monarchies or oligarchies but very few operate as democracies. . .

I think that enterprise 2.0 will not fulfill its potential unless its foundation is more than just web technologies or networked businesses. We need to integrate this democratic organising principle into our discussions on enterprise 2.0 and I am sure that many captains of industry will loudly disagree. Without an architectural organising principle, the enterprise 2.0 ship will not sail very far.

From a learning perspective, this means to me that we have to understand that to get the full benefit of Web 2.0 tools, we have to honor their nature. We have to not try to shoehorn old ways of doing things on top of tools that are fundamentally different in spirit. Mandating social media in the heavy-handed way that Dave fears is about as effective as requiring people to attend an organizational event and "network." There's a much more organic process at work here that we have to think about supporting--it's about creating an environment and options, not about mandating that people post on a blog three times a week.

But that's me. What do you think? Is it possible for social media to co-exist with a command and control work environment? If so, how does that work? And do we truly get the benefits of using Web 2.0 in that kind of situation?

Photo via Face It


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hmmm, what do I think?

I think I'm glad I read both Will Thalheimer's post and yours, Michele... they got me thinking about a number of topics, as I did here.

Oh, you mean what do I think about this post.

All work organizations, whether the traditional, more hierarchial ones, or the newer, more collaborative ones, need to have accepted ways of working together. That's not just the old go-through-channels thing. You can be working with the most 2.0-ish gang you could imagine, but if it's important for you to meet your commitments, then when you fail, sooner or later some kind of authority will emerge to help you get with the program, or offer the opportunity to find a different program altogether.

The newer ways of working are by definition newer, and people have to figure out how to work within them. I've just finished a project where I worked with eight other people in six other states. Two of the participants either couldn't or wouldn't used the content-management application that the client required. A third used it, but incorrectly -- e.g., she'd post her work as a new document, rather than as an update to an existing one.

The particular software hardly matters. The point is that one tacit rule -- make it easy for your colleagues to work by following the content standards -- wasn't adopted by everyone, and wasn't well encouraged / enforced by the client.

The result? Frustration for those who did adopt this pattern, and possible reinforcement for the person who decided that his or her way was good enough.

I think "command and control" is a somewhat harsh (or facile) label for the large organization -- in 18 years, I never had to salute anyone at GE. And no matter how up-to-date a group is, eventually someone has to take charge, at least on a ad hoc basis.

Certainly the 2.0 tools can work in both contexts. For more traditional groups, that's the same way conference calls and WebEx-style webcasts and shared whiteboards and all that other stuff can work. A lot of it's going to be adopted organically, I think -- like at the petrochemical company where a procurement group decided to use a wiki to capture knowledge about potential vendors, negotiation strategies, and the like. The wiki was limited to only the procurement group; they had a lot of concerns about confidentiality. But they also found it helpful and valuable, and gradually the internal groups they worked with became curious about whether a similar tool could pay off for them.

Hi Michele,
Thank you for your beautiful posts - about "Learning to performing" and this last one about the eventual co-existence between web2.0 and command-and-control structures: as usual, they are "mind-energizing" and keep me thinking about the deep transformations the school is dwelling with since these last couple of years.
While reading "The Starfish and the Spider" (by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom) I found they were speaking about organizations looking to reach something like "the maximum effectiveness point", where they would achieve a state of optimal balance between the vertical, centralized features that give the "leaders" effective control over the process and the horizontal, decentralized features, by which workers may collaborate independently of their rank, thus freeing creativity and enhancing democracy in the work place.
According to the authors, both approaches are indispensable and they combine with each other in such a way that organizations get the most of each one: on one hand, security and protection against all possible kinds of abuse as well as inner coherence; on the other hand, reciprocal confidence is enhanced and the spirit of innovation can be set free.
In order to "get the full benefit of web2.0 tools we have to honor their nature", as you say; hopefully the authors say it will be possible to protect the quality of the human environment they require to fully contribute to empower democracy in work places.

I think you have a good point and that it may be impossible for Web 2.0 stuff and command-and-control organizations to coexist. I think the key element (as you've identified) is the spirit of the thing. Anyone can be told to use wikis or blogs or what have you and they might even be useful. But the fun and unique-ness of Web 2.0 life is the spontaneous interaction and the connection between various minds on random topics (I love the pub analogy).

As I've been complaining about through comments on your blog lately, I've been experiencing some of that. One of my responsibilities is to write for our blog. but every blog entry has to be vetted extensively and so far, have all received many, many, many comments and edits. After that, its no longer my post and it strips the fun and excitement out of writing - so much so that I haven't been able to write a fresh post for weeks.

When things tip too far into the command and control mindset, the democratic feeling is squashed thoroughly and ends up leaving people disempowered in the most fundamental way.


I would agree with you that Web 2.0 is not a suitable method for a C2 (sorry, the Army in me coming out) based organization to actually exercise command or control. I do think, though, that it is possible for a C2-based organization to allow its employees to use Web 2.0 in the conduct of their jobs and for this to be very effective for the organization.

Going back to my Army reference above, today's military is an excellent example of this in action. Very much a command and control organization, the Army nonetheless is making great use of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies and techniques to allow officers and soldiers at the lowest levels seek out and share information and knowledge. Jack recently wrote about the US Army's KM Principles that talks about this in a bit more depth.

The comments to this entry are closed.