Simon Terry

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Weave the social fabric with leadership

‘Judgement & discretion are not features of software. They are the product of human socialization & experience’ – J Seely Brown & P Duguid

The biggest gap between strategy & execution is often found in the social relationships in an organisation. Decision making, learning, negotiating and alignment of people are rarely well done by machines. The human elements of strategy such as alignment, capabilities and the decision making of execution let us down.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their classic The Social Life of Information discuss the challenges that this ‘social fabric’ pose for our visions of legions of autonomous bots exchanging information. They note:

‘For humans, rules and goals bear a complicated relationship to the social fabric. Both may shift dynamically in practice depending on the social conditions that prevail’

That shifting is a sophisticated form of responsiveness. Much of the lament about the failure to execute top-down strategy can be explained by the diverse actors of an organisation needing to adapt the strategy to the social fabric of the organisation and its networks. Employees need to change the goals and the rules to retain relationships in their networks.

Top down strategy is rarely iterative enough to learn from these adaptations. Much top down strategy is short term, transactional and fails to account for the social relationships. They are assumed away or assumed capable of surrender to the higher order needs of strategy.

Simply asking why employees must changing the strategy to suit their relationships can reveal significant insight and opportunities to fine tune performance or realise greater human potential. Often it brings back in more stakeholders and more systemic and longer term issues the initial strategy assumed away. We ignore the adaptability of human social relationships at our peril.

Many evangelists of big data propose it as as a solution to the challenges of strategy. They see it will allow for better data and deeper analysis to overcome the inability to execute analytical dreams. Big data analysis already brings great power and insight. Yet it cannot overcome the social fabric of an organisation executing a strategy. Big data at some point must interact with this social fabric whether it is the assumptions and hypotheses programmed into the system or the decision maker who must use the output.

Big data will often make the challenge of integration into social fabric greater as its black boxes may not account for such simple things as human needs to trust, to learn, to explain, and to understand. Knowing where you are falling short is rarely the corporate challenge in strategy. The challenge is enabling human resources to respond.

We need to stop seeing the inherent humanity of the social fabric as a barrier to the perfect execution of strategy. This idea demonstrates echoes of the industrial era thinking that dominates management. A corporation of automatons would be beaten by human ingenuity simply because our social fabric is the engine of learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and adaptation.

The social fabric of an organisation is the source of competitive advantage. Social factors distinguish responsive organisations. Culture eats strategy for breakfast because of its ability to shape learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and decision making. Organisations need to work with and on the social fabric to optimise their performance. The more human organisation will sustainably outperform.

The technology we need to engage with the social fabric is leadership. Leadership can shape learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and adaptation in an organisation. Leadership is the engine of human potential.

In 2015, organisations need their leaders to play to the role of helping work with and on the social fabric of the organisation. Social factors in strategy can no longer be ignored or assumed to be overcome. These very factors are the heart of the human potential & adaptation that will differentiate successful strategies.


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