I have spoken with lots of people over the last couple of years about the interplay between new media and organizations, and i have received lots of different responses, ranging from blind optimism (“Social media is the future of business!”) to well-reasoned rejection (“In our highly-regulated industry, social media doesn’t make sense.”) All of these have made good sense to me, based on the reasoning of the respondent. But the reasoning behind one fairly common response – mainly from people in management roles – has puzzled me.
“No one cares what i had for lunch!”
Even more puzzling to me is the fact that the wording of the response is almost verbatim from one audience to the next, across many different business verticals and geographic regions. Most puzzling of all, however, has been the very emotional tone of the response and the body language which is often of a sort much more intense, dismissive and defensive than i would have expected from these otherwise polite, staid people.
I know from general experience and from Psychology 101 that an overly-emotional response to a benign question is usually prompted by some sort of anger, insecurity or fear. But what about something as innocuous as Twitter could possibly evoke these sorts of responses from otherwise staid folks? And which emotion is behind them?
After a little reflection and reading of sociology, i think the source may be fear. From where? Let’s step back for a moment to think about what might produce fear in a manager.
Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of fields – which are “social arenas.. defined by the stakes which are at stake.”  Without going into too much detail here, all of us live and work in multiple fields. The manager generally works in the field of management, and may also live in the field of the middle-class. It is from these fields that she obtains her capital or, in other words, her social, economic, relational result of her activities within that field. It is the pursuit of these various forms of capital that motivates her to participate in these fields, and it is from these fields that she gains capital. In addition, her personal disposition, her beliefs (Bourdieu lumps these into the concept of habitus) are developed as she interacts with these fields. As a result, she becomes deeply attached to, and at least partially dependent on, these fields for her livelihood, her security, and even for her knowledge of the world.
..so when something seems to attack or break either her beliefs or the foundations of one or more of her fields, she is put into at least a minor crisis which in most of us, induces some sort of fear. It is this sort of deep fear that i seemed to feel in managers and leaders. But why would it be in reaction to Twitter??
The one field most in common between the people with whom i have spoken is that of management. Entry into this field traditionally affords a person with a great deal of social (authority, respect) and economic (higher pay, control of resources) capital – which is one of the major motivating factors behind student enrollment in Business School MBA programs – which increase both the speed and likelihood of entry into the field. As i have written before, though, the field of management, as it is currently practiced, has been showing some cracks. It is still practiced (and often taught) based on 100-year-old core principles of centralized decision making, scientific management, disconnected workers and difficulty of communication in a slow business environment. As a result, the field is straining under the weight of cultural norms of distributed decision making, returns to rule-of-thumb and highly-connected workers who are often better at communicating with each other than are their managers in an increasingly fast business environment.
..so why is it Twitter that might evoke fear in managers? In actuality, it probably doesn’t. But it may, in the eyes of a person who feels, on a deep (perhaps even subconscious level) that their field and their beliefs are being attacked by the free flow of information, by ad hoc group action, and by rapid, imperfect communications, that Twitter (and more importantly its widespread use in these ways that break very old paradigms) represents the most extreme and obvious (and easiest to attack) tip of the technological and cultural iceberg that is forcing a rethinking of core, 100-year-old assumptions of the management field, which in turn seems to threaten the manager’s beliefs and their ability to accumulate capital.
Assuming, for the moment, then that fear is behind the reactions i have seen, i think it is a false fear. “Management” as a field (in the Bordieu sense) will always be necessary. It won’t dissapear so long as there is some need for coordination, mentorship, functional differentiation, etc. within groups of people who are trying to accomplish a collective goal. But its structure, its underlying beliefs and assumptions, and the practices which produce and reproduce the field will change substantially. The widespread use of Twitter and other technologies only threatens the portion of the field of management which doesn’t question its 100-year-old assumptions, not the entire field. So in a post-Enron/WorldComm, de-centralized, highly-connected world that is looking for short, informal, consistent, genuine connections with leaders who are trustworthy, real people, perhaps a manager’s biggest fear should be his own out-of-hand dismissal of the organizational power of a 140-character message sent from his cell phone about a great pastrami sandwich.
I will be looking into this further in the coming months (the question is related, on a deep level, to the research we are currently conducting with organizations for our upcoming book), but i’d like to know what you think. Am i onto something here, or am i on something?
 Jenkins, R. (1992). Key Sociologists: Pierre Bourdieu.