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Grass roots change in the enterprise

I love the whole web 2.0 philosophy and the idea that we can break down organisational barriers and make workplaces better places for people to create and innovate. But an earlier series of comments by Nick Gonios got me thinking how this kind of grass roots change can occur in organisations.

Having spent the better part of my adult life in large corporations and working on large projects I can see why the web 2.0 philosophical approach to things is a good idea. But what I am still trying to understand is how organisations can be open to adopting this kind of approach, and how we as individuals can help this to occur.

Think about the characteristics of larger organisational structures. They are generally hierarchical and often there is high power-distance between staff and management. It is interesting to think about the *social networks at play within in an organisation since this is what really determines which memes get traction.

  • Which way does information flow?
  • Who does information flow through?
  • Who talks to and with who?
  • What forms do the formal & informal communications take?
  • How do new ideas enter? Who’s allowed to bring them in?
  • Who has permission to do new things? Is that permission formal or informal?
  • What kind of people (roles, gender, departments, etc) are allowed to push boundaries?

These types of questions are critical to work out the organisational boundaries for change. Why? Because memes are catching and you catch them from the people you hang out with. If your meme is to become ascendant then people who influence the power structures of the organisation need to catch your meme. Thus for guerrilla change agents enterprise social network mapping is a critical tool.

It is clear to me that change within an organisation must be given permission in some way, either formally or informally, otherwise the persons advocating the change will be ejected or marginalised.

It is all very well to say just go build a prototype and they will come. However, if the people in the organisation are not able to put that idea onto their mental maps or have reached their own limits of innovation then the idea cannot progress. This is why startup-land is full of people who pitched their great ideas to their previous employer and were rebuffed.

But, for those who want to stay inside an organisation and change it, what can they do? I’ve got some ideas that I’ll keep working on, but anyone who’s got the answer should let me know.

* social networks in this context means offline (not Facebook etc) relations between individuals and teams within the organisation