Is social the end of top-down management? #BPM #socialBPM

The spectrum of views brought by adherents of social media in the workplace ranges from one extreme of, “If you build it, the rationale will come” to the other of, “Don’t implement anything without a clear strategy for how to use it.” There’s a logic to both arguments as any new technology pattern has the potential of unlocking value we simply can’t see right now and there is also danger of creating cynicism in the workforce by changing the latest trends without a clear business case. I find myself in the middle. I don’t need exact ROI to predict the value of social media in the workplace, but I also don’t want to chase technology rainbows and lose credibility and energy in the process.

I recently asked the question of whether social BPM is the end of focused expertise.  In a cynical view of social, everyone’s an expert and no one’s in charge.  Is that where the path goes?  Will we need management’s direction less as ideas no longer flow down but move laterally and up, even?

Classic management

Why do we need management in our pre-social world? It depends on the workplace, but I think we can generally summarize traditional management as engaged to meet the following organizational needs:

  • Delegation of work effort
  • Quality assurance of work
  • Evaluation of personal performance
  • Career development
  • Problem solving


If management meters out and balances the flow of work, this role would be affected by the ability for a wider audience to pick up tasks based on time availability and possibly enthusiasm. Rather than a manager having a defined group of resources to perform work, the work can now be managed across a stream that can be both internal and less structured or even external. Additionally, an executive’s strength becomes their network and not necessarily just direct reports. An effective manager draws on a large pool of talent and enthusiasm. As a contributor, I potentially create value not only through an official chain of command but potentially utilize my time, enthusiasm and talent across my own network. Managing the balance is my challenge, managing sourcing is my Manager’s.

Quality assurance

What better way to quality assure an idea than to open it up to broad inspection. More visibility means more use cases, and more opportunities to catch defects in the process. The manager in a social world is no longer the only work inspector and their ability to judge work based on greater experience is of less value.

Performance evaluation

The resource of the social world doesn’t only please their boss, they potentially serve a large audience with their expertise and experience.  It is far more difficult to ‘hide’ behind personal relationships or obsequious behavior when what we say and do is in the enterprise domain and beyond. On the other hand, someone’s ability to appeal to a mass audience isn’t necessarily the only indication of their value to the organization. We could be introducing demagoguery into the workplace as well. On the whole, though, the ability to be evaluated based on a wider view both up and down the organization outweighs the risk of ‘social popularity’.

Career development

Few things have been more stifled in a traditional world than career development. An employee under a supportive supervisor that looks out for their interests has been a springboard for many a career and likewise a disinterested or poorly aligned supervisor can cap a career quite effectively. A strong social network provides a wide net for mentoring in both directions.

Problem solving

Social technologies will break down the need for cumbersome command structures for support. The manager’s role of finding answers is made less valuable when the answers can be found through many channels and the employee’s network is again a source for support. Escalations, also, can be managed less as a chain-of-command question and more as a call for help to the network. The more connected the faster supported and the sooner the problem is solved.

In each of these cases, social technology may offer a new way of managing and being managed.  For the value to be realized, however, both managers and the managed must create a network and engage that network effectively.  Technology will foster the communications but personality and social aptitude will remain as the dark art behind successful careers.

BPM changes

As the hierarchy of management changes, the way we think of decomposition of work must also change. Our current frameworks rely on business process roughly following the same structure as corporate governance.  What affect will the changes in management discussed above have on traditional process models?

Up next: The effect of social technology on the management of business process.


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Categories: Social / Collaboration

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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11 Comments on “Is social the end of top-down management? #BPM #socialBPM”

  1. July 18, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    Of course it is not the *END* of top-down management. But it is worth asking the question: how will management be changed by Social Technology? Will it still be recognizable?

    One role of hierarchical management was to facilitate communications between divisions. Good management allows up good ideas to bubble up, while actively spreading decisions and other information deemed to be useful. Social technology may offer a way to bypass this. If people can find and exchange information directly. I wrote up something similar at:

    You list is great one can see that each item is cause by limited communication:
    * delegation is necessary because it is hard for group members to get a good overview of the distribution of work,
    * quality again is because those building are out of touch with those reviewing the final product,
    * evaluation is necessary to communicate clearly to the rest of the organization what a worker has been doing.
    * career development because it is hard for an employee to know what other opportunities exist, and
    * problem solving because it is hard to reach the right experts.

    All of these might easily in theory be replaced by social technology, but in practice we don’t yet know. It strikes me as a bit Panglossian to say that management will disappear. We know that there will be people who take advantage of the system (just as they do now). There will have to be a watchful eye to make sure that fairness is ensured, and to make sure that people can focus on their job, and not on “social office politics.” The new role of hierarchical management will be to do just that: monitor and resolve conflicts.

    • July 18, 2011 at 7:57 am #

      I agree that management won’t go away and more likely will simply change form toward coordination of collaboration inside and outside of organizational boundaries. Good comments!

  2. July 18, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Have you heard of Khan Academy?
    Khan Academy is doing for K-12 education what you propose for business processes. Think of teachers as managers and students as employees. Courses are atomic building blocks, akin to the processes defined in the PCF. But you don’t take individual courses without some larger goal, just the same way you don’t process an invoice just for fun. I suppose that there are people that learn new things just for fun, but I’d argue that most people learn something so that they can actually do something.
    Continuing the “teachers as managers” analogy, a student’s workload is the courseware in which they are required to participate. It’s akin to an employee’s workload of processing something. Khan Academy has tests that students have to take before they are considered to have mastered a subject.
    In this new post Khan Academy world, teachers are becoming more like “process owners” in that they’re responsible for the outcome of the process – the kid’s mastery of the overall material – rather than the day-to-day classroom management.
    Now, imagine that little Johnny demonstrates interest (capability?) in molecular biology. Using Khan Academy, his learning molecular bio learning coach can customize a path thru the various courses to quickly get Johnny up to speed – regardless of formal structured “grades” – with the latest in molecular biology knoweldge. Discussions along the way are facilitated by the building blocks – the atomic pieces that Johnny consumes, again akin to processes in the PCF. Social networking organized around the courses in Khan Academy is similar to social networking around business processes defined by the PCF or any other framework. If Johnny needs guidance on writing research papers (an atomic element required to be a proficient practicing molecular biologist), he can reach out to his social network, hashtag “#writingResearchPapers” and “#KhanAcademy” and quickly get feedback from course authors (procedure owners), previous students (those working on the same process at other organizations), or even grant writers (downstream consumers of the output of this particular process). Social networking organized around the framework of the Khan Academy courses is a great analogy to social networking organized around a taxonomy of business processes.
    The rapid decomposition of the processes we have known and lived with for generations is only accelerating. I just hope we can keep up!
    Here’s an article from Wired Magazine:

  3. July 19, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    I’m assuming that you are being a little tongue in cheek here, as I agree with @kswenson that it will not “end” top down management. There are several reasons for this…

    1. Organisations – and especially large ones – are not social constructs. Therefore although social media tools can support some aspects of what organisations do, and challenge/change others, they cannot – by definition – change the basic structures. Let me give one example: leaders of organisations create the vision and set the direction of travel. If Richard Branson decides to move Virgin Altantic into the budget flights market in direct competition with EasyJet, etc. (not that he has, of course), this is top-down management: the whole organisation will be affected by that decision and social media won;t have any bearing on that (though it may support dissemination of the decision).

    2. Your list of what management does is good, but not exhaustive. One of the missing elements is that management is there to enforce the policies and procedures of the organisation. For example, disciplinary procedures. Again social media may help in the mechanics of this process, but I can’t see how it could change the command and control nature of it. For one thing, employment law would have to change.

    3. Social media is chaotic, organisations resist chaos. (This is related to 1). One of the best examples of social media in action is the flash mob. This allows unrelated, uncontrolled elements to be coordinated and managed for a specific event. However the event is a one-off and cannot be sustained; also it cannot be planned in any great detail. For example a flash mob to sing the Messiah in a shopping mall may well take place, but will everyone know the words, sing in tune, come in on the right places, etc?

    I do agree with the thrust of your message though, that social media challenges many of the traditions of top-down management and may change some of these. But end it completey? I don;t think so.

    • July 19, 2011 at 1:24 am #

      @Bruce, this was most definitely tongue-in-cheek. The social zealots believe that this is a bottom-up revolution, but I agree with you that organizations resist chaos (as they must). Organization are affected, though, and that’s what I’m looking to discuss. As an example, I still meet people who refuse the concept of LinkedIn, but I suspect that group is small and becoming very small. Does anyone not have an email account? When I left my role as a Navy officer in 1998, my last command still didn’t have personal email addresses, but only email that referenced the work position. Things change gradually but they do change. Our current use of PowerPoint as a way to communicate has its roots in transparencies that were projected. The whole concept of slides is based on ideas that are no longer used, so why won’t management eventually go beyond a format established to harness the power of workers within earshot that could be managed by visual inspection?

      Just as an FYI, my first draft had a category called “carrots and sticks” that was your disciplinary suggestion. I failed to find a social angle to it, so I let it go.

      Thank you for your comments!

  4. Theo
    July 27, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Wrote about this 15 months ago, not a new concept and the games industry have been doing it for years too…….shame nobody listened back then, might be in a different place now…………

  5. July 27, 2011 at 6:24 am #

    Chris, I agree with you (and also with Bruce). The changes won’t be disruptive.
    The social aspects, if well driven and monitored, are going to improve the effectiveness and the overall expertise of the enterprise, but the final decisions and also the way to exploit the social aspects will be in charge of the management.
    In a sense, Social BPM is the place where top-down and bottom-up are going to meet.


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