Posted by: karisyd | December 15, 2010

Welcome to the Panopticon!

Hierarchy and the public nature of E2.0.

In wide parts of the E2.0 community the view is held that E2.0 is a way to change organizational culture, or at least to flatten hierarchies. We have read this view many times, in various contexts, and from various people, among them some of the thought leaders in the E2.0 discussion. The following quotes provide some ideas of the typical argument.

However, what does this mean? Has anyone questioned the view that E2.0 (e.g. Social Network platforms or in particular Enterprise Microblogging) will change hierarchies or how people behave in the organizational hierarchy? Will E2.0 really be an agent of change in that respect?

Well, wouldn’t you expect the exact opposite to happen? That these platforms will further perpetuate existing hierarchies, role behaviour – that they will reproduce what is already there, or even aggravate the situation?

If the culture is open already and hierarchies are flat, well perfect for using E2.0, we have good evidence for this! But what, if not? Is it likely that hierarchies will change, just because of a new technology – even if this technology becomes widely adopted?

Why would someone think that? Well, because it is easy to fall into equating technology with behaviour: Some cases which show open communication through microblogging then becomes: “microblogging leads to open communication”. But I have argued many times that E2.0 platforms are open and nutzungsoffen – they will not induce behaviour, but will happily accommodate whatever the users deem fit in a certain context (and of course within the means of the technical capabilities).

In a recent paper, presented at the Annual Australasian Conference on Information Systems in Brisbane, 2 weeks ago, @arimue and I have presented some results from our Communardo/Communote EMB study. We have examined Microblogging behaviour according to organizational role.

Well, what did we find? EMB behaviour matches expectations commonly attached with certain roles (CEO, team leader, consultant, developer etc.) perfectly. To the extent that, at the end of our study, we were able to predict from behaviour what role someone had.

We were quite surprised to see these results, given that the case company is small, dynamic and shows astounding openness in their communication behaviour. Still, people communicate very much in line with hierarchy and roles. But are these results truly surprising?

Think about it!  E2.0 create open, highly visible spaces for communication.

Anyone can talk to anyone. But everyone can also see what everyone does! Well, such an environment will not lead people to engage in social experiments, to test the boundaries of social, professional conduct, in particular in a corporate context.

Quite the opposite, I would think. People will carefully adhere to expectations held by others as to what is appropriate for someone in one’s own role and position in the organizational hierarchy. If everyone can see what one does, one will not want to act inappropriately. Hence, people carefully reproduce the already existing social norms and organizational culture – be it one of flat or deep hierarchies.

Open communication spaces act like a Panopticon – behaviour becomes truly transparent to everyone – including the boss, and the boss of the boss…

Now, what are the implications? Does this mean that E2.0 will not change the world?

Most likely!

But is this bad?

In fact, comprehensive change is exactly what most decision makers fear and what turns them against E2.0.

On the other hand, our findings imply that in E2.0 there is something in it for everyone. The power of E2.0 lies in the fact that they will facilitate communication, coordination, collaboration in a multitude of contexts. Due to their openness they will fit into most contexts – they might not be used in the nice, open, fancy ways as in some of the show case examples, and diffusion might take longer – but even the most hierarchical organization might benefit, without the organizational structures having to change (at least in the short term ;-).


Riemer K and Richter A 2010 ‘Social Software: Agents for Change or Platforms for Social Reproduction? A Case Study on Enterprise Microblogging’, 21st Australasian Conference on Information Systems ACIS 2010, Brisbane, Australia, 3rd December 2010. GET IT HERE.


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