To change your world, put yourself in the boss’s shoes

Last month the National Computing Centre held its annual conference. Opening
the event, which was labelled Sustainable IT, the CEO said: “There’s never been
a better driver of change than green.” The conference chairman, the BBC’s Declan
Curry, took up the theme and talked enthusiastically of “continuous change”.

Although the word ‘change’ is neutral – it can mean a change for the better
or for the worse – the sense that came across was that change equated to
opportunity. But given that the event was about sustainability, this sentiment
seemed contradictory.

After all, change usually means chucking out the old and bringing in the new.
And that nearly always comes with an environmental cost, quite apart from
hitting the pocket of those who, quite literally, buy in.

Fast forward a few days to the Web 2.0 Strategies conference, an event
supported by IWR, and guess what? Everyone wanted to implement change in their
organisations. They wanted their institutions and companies to embrace new ways
of working.

Again, the change had two faces. It threatened some people but presented
opportunities to others. One of the most talked-about themes was how to make
bosses understand the need for change.

During these conversations, an old lightbulb joke kept on running through my
mind. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “First
of all, the lightbulb has got to want to change.”

And it’s exactly the same with social software initiatives. If you want to
introduce social computing into your organisation, you have to either persuade
your bosses to support you or do it by stealth, deferring the persuasion bit
until you have some evidence of value to hand.

This under-the-radar approach has an illustrious history. Take Euan Semple at
the BBC. Appointed head of knowledge management, Semple knew that knowledge
lived in people rather than machines. So he set about creating a social
infrastructure that would facilitate collaboration. Visionary indeed, and no
wonder he was chosen to chair the Web 2.0 Strategies conference.

During one exchange on the subject of organisational culture, Semple made a
casual aside which cut straight to the heart of the matter. “Culture is a
mealy-mouthed way of talking about power,” he said. It’s a good point. Why
bother with the fluffy ‘culture’ word, when the hard-edged ‘power’ word is so
clearly nearer to the truth.

We’ve been here before, with email. Once person A could reach person C
directly, then intermediary B became redundant. Unless B added some kind of
value to the conversation, they were just blockage.

Now, we can connect with many people and do it in a way that’s visible to
other members of the same group or, indeed, to the world at large, depending on
preference. Forget centralised planning and control. No one can plan these
connections, or their value, in advance. Power shifts to the participants who,
frankly, deserve it most.

Don’t think about what you want. Think about what the boss wants. Only then
do you stand a decent chance of gaining support. The boss wants answers to
questions like: How secure is our confidential information? How do we stop staff
wasting their time? What’s the net benefit to the business?

The first two questions are about trust. After all, staff could already use
the telephone to waste time or leak information. The third is about the hard
(usually financial) benefits to the business once the implementation costs,
which are usually peanuts, have been subtracted.

Good luck.

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