In 2009, the SociaLens team embarked on a journey to better understand how organizations can thrive (or why they fail) in the digital age. At the time, there was a general sense that the increasing use of social media platforms would present organizations with profound challenges and opportunities. To understand our journey, it may be helpful to consider the journey of the part of the business world dealing with business and digital communications in terms of three general waves, each of which added an additional focus to the previous one.
Wave 1: Technology Focus
As of 2009, many organizations and consulting firms were still focused primarily on technical solutions. Since Web 2.0 tools were so easy to use, they reasoned, a company should be able to find the best tool (Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, SocialText, etc) for the job, an then begin marketing, communicating and collaborating in amazing ways. As a result of this craze, organizations began jumping off the bridge into the unknown, some, like Dell, Comcast and Southwest Airlines, with remarkable successes. Many others like Motrin, Nestle and others followed the successes in jumping off the bridge, only to find out that their mothers’ childhood admonition “..just because Dell jumped off a bridge doesn’t mean you should do it too.” had been a wise one.
Wave 2: Strategy and Structure Focus
In mid-2009, a few organizations (and SociaLens was among them) had begun to realize that an organization’s strategy and the organizational structures like usage policies would have to support the use of digital technologies within the organization if they were to realize their potential. So we took what we had learned from our previous experience doing business strategy consulting, strategic marketing, etc., and began working with organizations to align their technology use with their strategies. The effort was not very successful. In fact, the conversations about strategy and structure finally brought to light one of the core challenges that organizations face in the digital age. This challenge became clear soon after a client meeting in the Fall of 2009, in a casual conversation between a SociaLens team member and his wife. Baffled by the fact that everything about the client seemed to suggest that they would be able to take full advantage of the promise of the digital age, he said “They are smart, social people. They have read all of the most current books. Their leadership have said that social marketing and collaboration are a priority. But it sometimes feels like we’re trying to get a bunch of Americans to speak Spanish–like there’s a core fluency problem going on..”
Wave 3: People and Fluency Focus
This was our turning point. You see, we and most other people and organizations had been looking too heavily at the technology/structure/strategy side of the equation, and had neglected the human side.
Rather than asking “what does this technology, strategy or structure help people to do in this situation?” a more important question seemed to be “what does a particular person or group of people bring to a situation which may render a technology, strategy or structure more or less useful?” And this led us to begin considering the questions literacy and fluency.
So in late 2009, we set off on a 6-month journey to answer a whole host of questions about the fluency side of these situations, including: What types of fluencies affect the digital organization? What happens in a group or an organization where there are people or pockets of different types of fluency? Are there different degrees of fluency? Which or which part of these fluencies are easier to develop, and for who? Are there different sorts of fluencies for people in leadership positions? Is there a difference between “literacy” and “fluency?” Are these fluencies (or lack thereof) related to other challenges that organizations are facing today?
Since this is the first research to date looking at these phenomena, we chose to conduct qualitative, rapid ethnographic research as a first step in our ongoing investigation. We observed or interviewed 50 people working in 10 leading organizations in all levels of the organizational chart. Notes, recordings and artifacts were collected over a four-month period, culminating in a three days of brainstorming and synthesizing the insights we extracted from the experience.
The result is our “fluency framework,” which provides a way to think about the balance of fluencies that exist within a person or an organization. Through our research, we have found that these fluencies are related to a person or a group’s ability to adapt to change – particularly in the digital world.