The system matters more than people

Summary :”with, by and for people”…such seems to be the creed of the “social” transformation. And results still look uncertain. Sometimes non-existant, sometimes great but looking like exceptions and not the consequence of a perenial systematic trend. The web syndrome has struck again, forgetting that employees were not common people or the people they are at home. They are a part of a large and complex system that impacts them more than it’s impacted by them. Add to that that this system is what turns potential value into tangible value and it’s easy to understand that the people lever, that is powerful enough to make some passionate people participate into communities out the flow of work, is not enough to change people’s day to day work and the way the organization produces. Nothing will happen or last if the systemic part of the organization is not changed. But if no-one wants to deal with this part of the problem, we’ll still be discussing this point in 10 years about enterprise 5.0.

I already wrote on the need for making the new forms of organization more structurall, that’s to say having them deeply rooted in employee’s day to day work to make them make sense, don’t make them too dependant of people and fashion and, most of all, do not make schizophrenia a part of people’s behavioral DNA. In this problematic lie two cornerstones of businesses’ life and transformation. Until now, Social Business and enterprise 2.0 approaches used to focus on people : accompaniment, supporting adoption, exhortations of all kinds that had more to do with passion and religion than logic. After all, “its about people”. What will happen will because of them and for them (although this point can be discussed). And what about the system ? Only a couple of enterprise 2.0 specialist are mentioning it and businesses, even if they see more tangible benefits there, are afraid of what looks like a change that’s deeper that was was told at the beginning.

But what if the system lever was much more important than the human one ?

What do I mean when I talk about “system” ? It’s a whole made of things like processes, decision making models, job description, review and rewards systems, corporate culture…(this is not an exhaustive list). What’s the impact of the system ? Some will say systems prevent people from showing initiative, that they make organizations heavy, that they have a negative impact on people and their self-fulfilment. Systems can be either good or bad. It all depends on where the cursor is set what can produce any kind of effect as well as the opposite one.

To define the impact of the system in a few words, let’s say that it determines the way people will react in a given situation. Will he make a decision of forward the problem to someone else ? If so, will the decision follow a defined mindset ? Will the person be able to innovate or only chose among a set of pre-defined choices ? Will he help colleagues he has the right skills or experience or will he let them manage by themselves ? Will be share information or anything to help others or consider it’s not his job and may even make him lose a kind of superiority.

Of course, systems can be more or less rigid or flexible. Practically speaking, organizations used to build very rigid systems when they tried to bring the taylorian approach in the service industry. Now they realize that more flexibility is needed…but still struggle at changing or improving the system.

Of course, some people can also have fringe behaviors. More restrictive or less respectful. But from a global standpoint, most people in any organization will act according to the system, no matter they prefer doing things differently or not. They may show some reluctance, not do their best but, in the end, people follow the system.

As a matter of fact, is there any other explanation to the following facts :

• while a large majority agrees on that the way we’re working is not working, very few take advantage of opportunities like the implementation of a social network or anything else as long as the system is kept unchanged.

• many people that are highly networking and connected in their private lives become isolated and try not to draw attention on themselves at the moment they step in their office building. And that seem logical, obvious and full of sense to them.

So let’s talk about the people, cornerstones of any social business program. Let’s remind that most of adoption strategies rely on…the adoption of logics, usages, behaviors and tools by people, most of time without changing anything in the system. To such an extent that sometimes it looks more like exhortation or brainwash than adoption. As a matter of fact, everything relies on the assumption that the social system will exist because of people and for them, so they’ll rush on it et try to make things change from the bottom. Skeptics say that, in fact, no one dares changing anything in the current system so they leave the job to employees….so managers won’t be blamed if anything fails.

The people level shows it was very effective to lead some transformations, most of all when businesses try to launch a social network with communities that imply a form of participation that is out of the flow of work. Quite logical after all since these activities are “out of the system”. And the less the system tolerates such activities the more chances it will all end up with only a few passionate participants once the novelty effect has left.

On the other hand this lever is far from being enough when one want to change the way work is done. With “work”, I mean activities related to production, decision, that will deliver an outcome the customer will pay for, directly or not. Everything that implies a reflection on management models, decision making, accountability, coordination. Not optional things that people would do or no, if they want, among voluntaries. We’re talking about maybe 90% of people workdays, the bottleneck between knowledge and the tangible benefits it can drive, the last “mile” to the customer, what makes that talent and knowledge are not an internal and abstract concept anymore but something the customer will see, touch, recognize, value…and pay for.

French dialogue writer Michel Audiard once said : “A sitting intellectual goes less far than a walking goddam”. The people lever aimed at turning employees into intellectuals but nothing has been done to make them walk.

And let me add one thing. People will help to change the system because it’s good for them, they’re asking for it. Are we really sure ? Do all employees want more responsibilities, autonomy, empowerment ? Not at all. At least, not at any condition. To sum up their thoughts : “why not but I want to know exactly what I can do or not, I don’t want to have issues with my manager because I accept to play the new game, I want everyone to jump on the bandwagon with me, else I won’t go. And I want the accountability system to be clearly defined”. Here again, that’s a whole system that needs a make-up and exhortations to be social and try won’t be enough.

So we’re back to the point of one of my previous posts : organizations need to learn how to learn and act on a global scale but if this is the only side that’s improved, the impact on operations will be insignificant. So there are two works to be done jointly : the learning and knowledge side and the execution and delivery one.

Conclusion ? Nothing can be done without people. That’s clear and even more true when we talk about supplementary activities out of the flow how work. But that’s not enough and organizations wil face huge bottlenecks if nothing is done to improve the flow of work. At this point, 75% of the effort should focus on the system. Ideally it will be supported by people but, as we can see everyday, the system dictates most of people’s behaviors, whether they like it or not, because it says what’s the rule, defines a kind of normalcy and sets a new centre of gravity that will drive people in another direction. It does not mean that redefining the system could not be made in a bottom-up way, involving those who’ll make it live, as Vineet Nayar did.

Businesses like Semco, Morning Star nd others reinvented their systems. Often with people. But they started with this approach. They can show things that work and financial results. Some focus on people only as a transformation lever. I’ve heard the noise of some “wet firecrackers” but haven’t seen many big fireworks…

Anyway, what will lead organizations to their future is not social networks or anything of this kind, even if it will be a part of the solution. What will make businesses enter their future (or not) is their systemic.


Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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