How to deal with Openness
There are different strategies to implement a greater degree of openness, efficiently use social technologies and deal with the opportunities and challenges of being an open organisation.
The first step to deal with openness is an analysis of individuals involved, for example employees, executives, or competitors. What are the experiences they have previously made, are they skilled in the use of social technologies? Are they willing to use social technologies in their daily work? The main pillar of an open organization is the technological literacy and mentality of the organisation’s stakeholders. Even in very small organisations colleagues might have different perspectives on openness and different attitudes when it comes to using social technology at work. Some would love to participate in public discussion and to spend a lot of time in using new communication technologies. These are usually a minority. And yet they are driving the use of social technologies and they are generally most likely to support openness.
There is a second group of individuals that is of no less importance. This is the group of the skeptic. These are employees or managers who are full of doubts and who are uncomfortable with the idea of an open organisation. They don’t want to use new technologies and they do not believe that openness can contribute to the success of the organisation. One important way of getting skeptics on board is using case studies to demonstrate the benefits of social technologies and outline promising scenarios for the future of the organisation.
Defining the impact
After analyzing the individuals involved, the next step in dealing with openness is to define the organisation’s objectives of introducing a greater degree of openness. In addition to the ten elements of openness described above, which could already serve as internal objectives for an open organisation, it is very useful to look at the general impact of social technologies. According to brand management consultant and book author Olivier Blanchard, there are two impact categories: vertical impact and lateral impact.
Vertical impact refers to the direct relationship between the organisation and external stakeholders. Traditionally, the vertical impact was unidirectional from top to bottom – but social technologies also enable a bidirectional impact in both directions, e.g. an equal exchange between management and employees or between employees and customers.
The greatest potential of social technologies, though, lies in a lateral impact, that is, in the exchange of external stakeholders themselves. The urge for more openness could eventually arise from lateral developments. Because those who were previously customers, for instance, can now “use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations,” as authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff have put it.
Once the desired impact is identified, the organization should clearly spell out the objectives it wants to reach with the use of social technologies. It is important to integrate openness directly into existing organisational functions. The following list of examples should serve as an orientation of how objectives could be described:
- An important vertical objective is called lis tening. Is it important that the management of an organisation is always up to date about the latest developments in certain areas? Is it difficult for management to find this information via the traditional communication channels of an organisation?
- A second vertical objective is open dialogue. An open organisation does not only enable new possibilities to spread messages. Unlike Emails, others can write comments to the original message and start an open dialogue. Social technologies make it possible to follow discussions from the very beginning and to observe how opinions evolve. The organization can directly see if a certain message has an impact or not.
- A classical lateral objective is to enable individuals to support each other. The organization steps back. It does not focus on its own relationship with these individuals but it serves as an open platform for the exchange and collaboration of others. One example are large tech companies that publish their software code, which allows user communities or smaller companies to develop add-on applications or products. This turns the original software code into an indispensable environment and massively increases its value even though its owner has given it away for free.
- Finally, a mixture between vertical and lateral objectives is to engage internal and external individuals, e.g. employees and partners, in solving problems that are usually solved in-house only. In comparison to the concept of outsourcing, this last objective is also known as crowdsourcing: Outsourcing to the crowd of users.
Taking small steps
Another question the organisation should answer before making decisions on the use of technology: Where should the journey lead to in the long term? What is the desired degree of openness in three or five years from now? Managers and employees should imagine how their working day in an open organisation might look like in five years from now and what role social technologies should play in the near future.
Looking at strategic planning two more recommendations can be drawn from practical experiences with organisations that have been striving for more openness. First, the most important people in the organisation must fully support the philosophy of openness. Second, the plan towards more openness should be developed step by step. The strategic success largely depends on the level of experience of the individuals involved. These individuals should make their first experiences with small steps, before they increase the pace.
After analyzing the employees and the management of Unicef Switzerland and their readiness for more openness, a team of students at the University of St. Gallen came up with a surprisingly simple idea: Once a month, team meetings should begin with a new topic: five minutes for social technologies. For five minutes, the organization should discuss issues related to openness. Five minutes is not a lot - but it is a enough to bring more attention to the idea of being an open organisation.
Don't focus on technology
Over the past years, social technologies changed far too quickly to rely on a single application. A strategic approach to an open organization should therefore not depend on a single technology. The opposite is true and a good strategy for more openness should survive today’s fast-paced technological change.
About the Author
Daniel Michelis is professor at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences and visiting lecturer at the University of St. Gallen, where he received his PhD at the Institute for Media and Communications Management. The focus of his work is the usage of online communications and social media in companies and organizations.
He is the editor of the Social Media Handbuch (Nomos Verlag) and in 2013 he initiated the masters degree programme Online Communication at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences.