From Functional to Social, from meetings to online conversations – Part 1 of 2

In previous articles, I described a model called HIVE (Human Interaction Virtual Environment) whereby organizations can arrange the workplace to function in NOW Mode, using virtual spaces for communications amongst employees (through a social networking platform such as Yammer, Jive or Moxiesoft). The HIVE Model and the idea of NOW Mode have raised a number of questions but one that surfaces quite often in conversations I have with many people is the following:

If we’re structured to operate in functional departments, how do we evolve to a social organization, i.e., how do we move towards a HIVE Model?

The path I recommend for you to evolve from Functional to Social has a few phases:

1- Develop ‘social habits’ by implementing HIVEs that respond to unexpected events

2- Reshape Leadership

3- Progress to HIVEs that handle day-to-day regular operations

4- Reshape the organization

You may find it strange that I left the organization structure for last. On the other hand, you may find it comforting that you can go far in the path without dealing with it. You must, however, deal with Leadership early on.


Try to always remember that Social is not a Tool, it’s a Way of Operating. If you choose to go down this road, yours is not a choice of technology options; it is a choice of operating differently, in a different paradigm and philosophy. This is step 0: make that choice. So, what is your motivator?

Social organizations are phenomenally faster than functional organizations, particularly in conditions of high business volatility. If your environment is changing – market, customer preferences, global competition, price pressures, regulations, etc. – and changing often and rapidly, you need the ability to react and respond quickly to unexpected events and conditions. In that case, going social is not just an option, it’s an imperative.

Let’s assume that you make this choice, that there is sufficient buy-in at an Executive level to go down this road; what do you do next?

Phase 1 – Develop ‘social habits’ by implementing HIVEs that respond to unexpected events

In operational reality, there are two major kinds of events: things that happen as they should; things that shouldn’t happen, do happen. In my experience, upwards of 2/3 of the energy expended in operational life is of the latter kind. People spend more time dealing with things that go wrong than – new requirements, unexpected shifts, generally coping with situations they hadn’t planned for – than they spend dealing with expected situations, i.e., everything going according to plan.

And this is where you begin. You see, Functional structures and structured business processes are designed for a predictable, anticipated world. You don’t design processes and you don’t establish organizational functions for what’s not supposed to happen. Thus, when unexpected events hit an organization, individuals have to step out of that structure and improvise. So, using a new approach to handle the unexpected, is a great ‘hanging fruit’ because it is not offensive to the established structure and, if successful, provides a great benefit – greater speed in over 2/3 of what the organization has to do.

Ok, so you’re going to set-up HIVEs, i.e., social communities, to handle the unexpected. How does that work?

Choose your initial HIVE Unit(s)

HIVE units need a scope, a mission. You shouldn’t start by covering the entire company, that’s not wise. I usually suggest that you start at the core of the operation, where things get done. If you’re a very large organization, start with a business unit and select an area within that business unit. Here are some ideas to select your first scope of HIVE units:

  • If you’re a software company, you can select a project as being a HIVE unit – and I mean a project that delivers finished software to the market
  • If you’re a manufacturer, you may choose to subdivide your operation in product families and create a HIVE to run the entire material flow all the way to the delivery to market of one product family.
  • If you’re a service organization, you can choose the back-office area and again select one family of services; or you can select customer relationship management and focus on one customer segment.

Now that you have selected your initial HIVE unit or units, you have to map to that HIVE all the core skills you need so that the unit is fairly self-sufficient. Generally, you can exclude support functions that are not in the critical path – by that I mean HR, Finance, IT support, Legal and the like. But you should include in that HIVE all the core functions that are directly involved in fulfilling the mission of the HIVE.

The mission of any HIVE in this phase, by the way, is to respond to unexpected events rapidly, within the established scope.

In that sense, such HIVE’s are going to absorb the impact of an unexpected event, digest it, formulate action pathways and then trigger actions. Those actions can be performed by people in the usual departments of the functional structure – which the people in the HIVE belong to, anyway.

Of course, you need a social networking platform in the Enterprise so that people in the HIVE can discuss through virtual conversations.

So, the way it works is as follows:

  • An event occurs.
  • Somebody in the HIVE finds out and posts the event into the virtual space (using whatever social tool you chose).
  • Other people in the HIVE monitor their Feeds (the stream of conversations that are going on in the virtual space and is displayed on your browser or App, similar to your Facebook news feed) and see the  posting.
  • Thereafter, Spontaneous Association takes over and a conversation begins in a thread of successive comments to the initial posting. In this thread, we see the intervention of the various skills present in the HIVE.
  • In the first part of the thread, usually people are ‘chewing’ on the issue, trying to understand it. Then, they start suggesting actions and soon after that they begin to trigger actions.
  • The thread then becomes more like a journal of actions that are being taken in the operation to deal with the issue.
  • Eventually, the thread stops because the issue is resolved and there is nothing left to do or discuss.

Remember, this metaphor isn’t happening for one event. It is happening for many events at the same time. Each time somebody posts a comment into a conversation thread, usually the conversation migrates to the top of the News Feed, which makes it easy to monitor actions. No, you don’t need to print a list of issues and then manage an action list with date due, date completed, etc. That’s 1990’s style. The News Feed itself is your action list and your monitoring tool and your journal of actions taken – all at the same time.

Developing ‘HIVE behaviour’

But how do you develop this habit of people reacting and formulating action pathways and making divisions?

A big problem with functional structures is that people at the bottom don’t make decisions – they let managers at higher levels make those decisions. This is actually logical: when a problem occurs, no one silo can resolve it; it usually needs the participation of multiple disciplines. Thus, no one department feels responsible for making a decision and so decision-making migrates upwards until the issue ‘hits’ a manager or a few managers with enough scope to make a decision.

In addition, in functional organizations, when the unexpected occurs and multiple departments are needed, people get together by resorting to meetings. This is the setting that everybody is familiar with.

Use Meetings to End Meetings

Hence, what we have to do is develop (or liberate) the ability to make decisions in lower level people; and help them migrate from a meeting space to a virtual space. How do we accomplish this migration? The method I used quite successfully in the past is as follows:

  1. Train the people in the HIVE to post issues. This is not difficult, it is an individual task with no consequences.
  2. Set-up a daily meeting for the people in the HIVE to get together, open the social tool, look at the issues and try to resolve them. Usually, they will post something but they won’t decide much.
  3. Set-up a meeting twice a week with middle managers and senior managers as well as the people in the HIVE. In this meeting, this is what happens: one person moderates; the moderator opens the virtual space and goes through each conversation; here, managers must discuss with the people in the HIVE and make them feel that they can make the decision on what to do. This is an education device, a place where, by example, managers empower individuals to make decisions and encourage them to work as a team.
  4. In time, individuals in the HIVE start making more decisions at their daily meetings and start to comment and post outside of those meetings. As the new habits take over, more and more there is nothing to discuss or decide at either meeting and thus, after a few months, the meetings become obsolete and disappear.

I’ve done this a few times, in medium size and large organizations and it works quite well. My experience is that when you are at the core of the Enterprise, where the core activities of delivering products or services occur, bringing people to function in NOW Mode through virtual collaboration works fairly well.

As things progress, you can expand the number of HIVEs and the portion of the Enterprise blanketed by HIVEs. You may never put everything in HIVE mode but from a business standpoint, you have to cover core activities otherwise this endeavour is not worth it.

In my next blog post, I will deal with Phases 2 to 4. Phase 1 is the difficult one, anyway.

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