Social goal-setting, the key to turning middle managers in favour of collaboration and knowledge sharing?

Social business transformation is usually driven from the top or bottom of the organization hierarchy (or both in combination). Visionary leaders who lead from the front, by example, or skunk work initiatives from desperate people in the front line who see the potential of solving their hard-felt personal and business pains through working more efficiently together and through ease of sharing and communicating online.

Too frequently, middle management turns into a stumbling block, either by simply being passive or by even actively working against the change. Usually, it’s attibuted to lack of time, to being squeezed from both above and below, from being buried in administrative routines and systems or to the majority of middle managers being somewhat older and hard to teach new tricks.

There might be some truth to these claims, but behind them I see another reason: goals.

In December, I published a series of posts regarding setting social goals and this is where I believe we find the core of this challenge. As I state in Investing in social business, a key contributor to widespread change in the way work is done, is to change the way work is defined, and a major part of that definition is goal setting. What do the goals of middle management typically look like?

  • Increase sales by your team by x%
  • Reduce costs in your department by y%
  • Produce z units of whatsits
  • Develop q new products with a sales potential of ö money

Looking through the lens of the benefits of social intranets, where’s the broad sharing of experience, where’s the helping of colleagues, where’s the investing in the future of the entire organization

A substantial portion of the management of corporations happens through splitting up measurable goals into increasingly granular segments down the hierarchy. But, somewhere along the way, the shared goals that may be less easy to quantify are lost. And, you usually get what you measure. We have to reintroduce the common good into managerial and departmental goal-setting, through embedding collaboration, knowledge sharing and helping of colleagues near and far.

Fine, you may think, let’s include things like: Network size or growth in the goals for managers and employees alike. Or sharing of documents (or downloads and other signs of appreciation of shared documents – much better since it rewards quality or usefulness of contributions made). Or intensity of dialogue generated by contributions made or similar signs of impact). A very interesting approach is the engagement dashboard from IBM Research. (Of course, the ultimate move would be to automatically track re-use and economic impact of shared documents and contributions, maybe even single components like slides or text paragraphs. But that might be a bit of overkill.)

But, that would still not be good enough in my view. When it comes to conventional goals, managers aren’t measured on their personal contributions, but on the contributions of the team they manage, right? Why should social goals be any different? Let’s take goals like the ones in the previous paragraph, aggregate or average them for the entire team. Now, we’re talking! That would be a great step towards establishing social goals for managers to supplement their traditional ones.

Next, we should start analyzing those results for correlation with business results. Then we could start doing more useful work than repeatedly having to explain the business benefits of working as a social business.

For what do we get paid in a social business?

John had worked four weeks on the proposal.

Days, evenings, some weekends and even two nights. Finally, John and the team heard the words they had been fighting for so hard: We have decided to award you our business. And then – even better – …the solution you have suggested is more complete and smarter than your competitors and you have also done a better job of presenting the benefits our company will reap by choosing you and your solution.
Time to celebrate!

A week later, after the first turmoil of getting things started, John thought it could be a good idea to share the winning proposal with his colleagues through the social intranet. First, he hoped that such a strong proposal could help colleagues elsewhere win even more business. Second, John, who was a nice and empathic fella, wanted to save colleagues some trouble and hardship in creating proposals for similar deals from scratch. After all, he knew very well how unhappy he and his family had been with his workload during those four weeks. Finally, he realized that sharing the proposal would build his reputation as an expert in this field and as a good salesguy. Win – win – win!

But, first he needed to cleanse it from confidential information, client identifiers, financial details etc. It took him two hours to do so. But then he shared the file and posted about it in a couple of forums and – of course – in a status update on his profile page. (He added a couple of relevant tags to his profile too, while he was at it, by the way).

Over the following weeks and months, colleagues around the world re-used John’s shared proposal, tailored it to their needs and managed to win several deals around the world, spending only half the time and much less weekends and evenings in doing so. How many millions was it worth for the company?

What did John get out of this? Indeed, his reputation got a boost and people from near and far asked him for supplementary information. Flattering, but time consuming. He probably spent another day’s worth of time on answering such supplementary questions over that period. Still, John thought of the good business he helped the company to make and the gratefulness from colleagues who could work so much smarter than he had been forced to do.

But apart from some thanks a million in mails, chats and over the phone, what did he get out of it? Did it show on his pay slip or in the appraisal by his manager? Not at all. On the contrary. His manager said John, you winning that deal for us was great. But since then, you seem to have lost focus and keep chatting away with colleagues across the world. But out business is here. Our department is measured on the profits we generate from our clients in our local market. Not on some deal in Farawayland. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball, you know.

Social Business brings fundamental changes to the way we reward our employees

For ages, workers’ pay has been based on what they produced. Number of widgets produced, seams welded, kilos of produce, hours worked etc. Our pay has been in direct relation to what came out of our hands or our time worked. Only very few people have been paid for what came out of their heads: artists, writers and maybe a few others.

But Social Business breaks this direct relationship between our effort and the benefit to the company we work for. Our shared knowledge and experience can mean so very much more to the entire company than our original effort actually did. But – and this is the tricky part – we are unlikely to know where or when those benefits are generated and there is no good way of tracking the benefit to the company from what an individual has shared. At least I haven’t seen any, yet.

So, HR folks will have to work out new formulas to reward us for what we bring to the table.

And suppliers of social intranet software or other software manufacturers will need to come up with ways of identifying re-use and benefits reaped from shared knowledge

If they don’t, luddites will keep coming up with the same excuse for not collaborating and sharing: What’s in it for me really?

It will be most interesting to see what they come up with.