Employees are drowning in the network effects created by the myriad internal and external communications and content channels.The Great Reevaluation is creating such untenable situations for people that they are leaving jobs without first finding another one – even in the U.S. where they risk losing health care. They are doing it against their economic self-interest. They are doing it because they can no longer tolerate their work environment. This reevaluation has been coming for some time; organizations have failed to adapt sufficiently to the changing information environment and the impact is largely left to individuals to absorb.
All the Responsibility And None of the Control
The amount of information and content in the world has accelerated quickly and is so big that it is hard to absorb, never mind process. It is a mind-boggling change in just the last decade and has fundamentally changed our relationship with information. There are so many sources for similar information that it is increasingly difficult to know what to trust. This has played out in devastating ways in civic society but that dynamic is also playing out in every organization which relies on knowledge and innovation.
In 2020, 64.2ZB of data was created or replicated. “The amount of digital data created over the next five years will be greater than twice the amount of data created since the advent of digital storage.Dave Reinsel, senior vice president, IDC’s Global DataSphere
In some ways, the challenge of navigating this information environment is easy to ignore. Unlike decades ago, when I was helping to literally shred 40 filing cabinets full of outdated confidential information at the Pentagon, we cannot see it – there is no constant, visceral reminder of its phenomenal growth. Yet we are asking individuals to navigate through it.
As information growth has compounded, organizations are buying more and more technology to process, mine, and surface it. It is no wonder there is so much interest in AI – because no human can get through it. However, that has also created an explosive growth in technology and applications that are just as dizzying as the growth in content.
One need look no further than the Marketing Technology Landscape that Scott Brinker has put together annually for a decade to see the change. It is mind-numbing.
People Are the Weakest Link
In 2011 I keynoted at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference and my message was that people were the weakest link – and that they were breaking. The pressure on individuals, which could be seen in 2011, has dramatically increased. People are suffocating under the weight of unchanging demands and expectations in a vastly more complex work environment. Instead of making life easier, it is driving up anxiety, distrust, and exhaustion while providing little emotional support, energy, or relief. To add insult to injury, they hear executives talk about ‘returning to work’ and feel completely unseen and unappreciated – because they have not only been working, they have been working through a pandemic.
Organizations – operating with yesterday’s governance model and yesterday’s metrics – have done little to change systemically. They are still pursuing outdated, production-era metrics that assume more is more – and organizations continue to produce ever-more content. In a chaotic information environment, however, more is less. More makes identifying trustworthy content harder to find and increases anxiety because it is so hard to process. Any complicated or lengthy message is lost, unable to rise above the cacophony. Because of this content is now only as good as the people who vouch for and recommend it. In a world of too much, people and relationships are the ‘metadata’ that determines the value of content. That trusted connection is what grounds and assures individuals when they don’t know how to evaluate the deluge coming at them from all angles.
Organizational governance and metrics need to be rearchitected to deepen trust and meaning first and deemphasize quantity as the primary measure of progress.Rachel Happe, Engaged Organizations
A Networked Problem
Every communications channel has a network effect, which essentially means that the more people use it, the more valuable it is. With so many channels to choose from, how do individuals choose? Individuals are left to decide which channels to use and, because of that, the most valuable channel is determined by a popularity contest rather than what is most effective for the work to be done. Without collective decisions about use, individuals are at the mercy of every other individuals’ decisions – so they have to be in ALL the channels if they want to keep up. It is far, far worse than one overflowing email inbox.
It is madness.
Individuals cannot escape from this quagmire on their own – because they are only one node in the network – and each node is making different decisions about how to communicate. Organizations – not individuals – need to take on responsibility for facilitating the consistent use of an ever-growing number of communications channels. However, organizations have no history or experience in what is required to help their organizations navigate this; IT’s job is to deploy the technology and show people how to use it, KM’s job is to structure and organize content that exists, and communications’ job is to add more content. They all see the problem – but they are only one part of the solution. Networks – whether teams, groups, business units, divisions, or enterprises need to agree on what needs to be consistent at each level – and how each channel is best used. Critically, managers need to support behavior change by encouraging and rewarding consistent behaviors. In groups where work is relatively routine, they may be able to rely on a business application for the majority of their communications. An innovation team will need a much bigger variety of tools because their work is constantly changing. The entire organization may decide there will be no meetings on Fridays.
What Can Executives Do?
Acknowledge the Problem
The most important thing that executives can do is understand and acknowledge the problem. Often, and especially in large organizations, executives are surrounded by other executives and have both assistants and communications partners whose job it is to filter information so they don’t have to see this mess – because it would be hard to be effective if they did. That is great for them but it distances them from what individual employees are experiencing. It is also easy to ignore or dismiss, which is not helped by a popular ethos in executive circles of ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ With that mindset, any complaint can be seen as an individual who has a personal issue or is whining. But this information issue, because of its network effects, cannot be solved by any individual – and there is no one right answer; teams, groups, and the organization as a whole have to collectively decide on and accept what is used for different purposes.
Fund an Enterprise Community Team
The next step executives can take is to create a team responsible for working with groups to assess their work patterns and information needs, drive consensus on where work will happen, design solutions, identify the behavior changes required, provide training, and coach the group until work behaviors consistently align with their own intentions. This is the work of Enterprise Community Teams. For those that have enterprise community teams, the 2021 State of Community Management research found that 91% of them are doing this work, although they still struggle for resources, and only 43% are formally tasked and resourced to do this work. 56% of Enterprise Community Teams get their budgets approved by C-level executives demonstrating both the strategic importance and the lack of an obvious operational functional area for them to fit into. Because there are few models to look to for guidance and the staffing required is expensive, these teams are struggling to keep up with the needs of their organizations – but they are also making headway contributing to communications efficiency, culture change, and speed of innovation.
This work is not going away – and Enterprise Community Teams are bringing a new approach to management to their organizations. One that focuses on providing some simple, clear guidance while managing the governance and culture of their group in a way that motivates and rewards individuals.
If you are interested in hearing more, have a listen to my recorded presentation for the Community Builders Summit earlier this month.
Join the conversation:
What else do you believe executives need to do to adapt their organizations to the new information environment?