Thursday, July 07, 2011

Are we getting hung up in the Emperor's new clothes?

The wealth of words spilt in pursuit of organisational engagement is staggering. From ning groups of thousands to a plethora of LinkedIn communities, engagement is the buzz of the decade that's supposed to be delivering organisational success.

But what is it? Can we ascribe measurable benefits to it and can we turn those metrics into something that conclusively delivers results?

Working for a couple of large corporates this year, together with my involvement in Adecco's fascinating research project: Unlocking Britain's Potential and even my own research on organisational communicators' role within engagement, what strikes me is that what's being talked about now isn't a million miles away from the emotional intelligence of a decade and more ago or even the corporate dialogues I was involved while working at Nationwide Building Society 20 years ago.

Back then, before the Internet; when communication was face to face and backed by print, we were taking faltering steps from top-down communication into a world where employees were 'empowered'; they had a voice in decision making and all our focus was on breaking down silos and getting cross-functional teams to collaborate within a culture of success to deliver on a range of defined and beneficial corporate goals. We worked with the eager young tyros who wanted to rule the world by e-mail, and with their elders brought up on paper-based systems to find common ground and a way forward that made the most of their blended skills.

It felt good but didn't seem particularly revolutionary then. Now it seems to be happening all over again - this time with social media advancing the collaboration quicker than email and the first clunky iterations of Lotus Notes ever could.

20 years ago, I learned two allied lessons that seem to have been lost, forgotten and rediscovered. First, no organisation was ever going to prosper without great leadership; and second, business organisations are not democracies.

And that's where the Emperor's New Clothes come in. In the consultancy world, there are any number of people out there telling me that social media is engineering a revolution in engagement, bring people together as never before to create cultures that will reshape business as we know it. They've been telling me this for the last three or four years. Yet the reality is, aside from one or two organisations where the leadership already comes from Gen Y and the structures have been built from the ground up, most organisations are operating as they have since the 80s (in some cases, the 1880s).

The pyramid hasn't been inverted and even those organisations exploring the benefits of of wider, more social engagement are doing so through traditional HR/Marketing/Comms structures. The vision of a joined-up organisation with organic engagement remains largely a vision while good businesses built on meritocracy bolt on teams and departments tasked with delivering an engaged organisation. Somehow engagement becomes a process and the essence of it is lost.

Indeed, other than changing the toolkit, is what our engagement experts are doing actually any different from my days at Nationwide in the early 90s?

While organisations are undoubtedly leaner; have flatter structures and are slightly less driven by command and control, the nature of capitalist practice means that the need to drive the bottom line remains the default setting in the Board Room. Some are seeing that this demands a culture very different from traditional business - look at google for instance. But most aren't. And until a very different generation of leaders break into that Board Room, engagement will remain elusive in meaning, benefit and measurement - and those of us pursuing it from a number of different business avenues may well simply be evolving business practice further, as generations have done before us, under another fancy name.

I'm genuinely interested in what's really different this time round?

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