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The personal and the institutional

5 April 2010 One Comment
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A number of things recently have lead me to reflect on the nature of interactions between social media, research organisations and the wider community. There has been an awful lot written about the effective use of social media by organisations, the risks involved in trusting staff and members of an organisation to engage productively and positively with a wider audience. Above all there seems a real focus on the potential for people to embarrass the organisation. Relatively little focus is applied to the ability of the organisation to embarrass its staff but that is perhaps a subject for another post.

In the area of academic research this takes on a whole new hue due to the presence of a strong principle and community expectation of free speech, the principle of “academic freedom”. No-one really knows what academic freedom is. It’s one of those things that people can’t define but will be very clear about when it has been taken away. In general terms it is the expectation that a tenured academic has earnt the right to be able to speak their opinion, regardless of how controversial. We can accept there are some bounds on this, of ethics, taste, and legality – racism would generally be regarded as unacceptable – while noting that the boundary between what is socially unacceptable and what is a validly held and supported academic opinion is both elastic and almost impossible to define. Try expressing the opinion, for example, that their might be a biological basis to the difference between men and women on average scores on a specific maths test. These grey areas, looking at how the academy ( or academies) censor themselves are interesting but aren’t directly relevant to this post. Here I am more interested in how institutions censor their staff.

Organisations always seek to control the messages they release to the wider community. The first priority of any organisation or institution is its own survival. This is not necessarily a bad thing – presumably the institution exists because it is  (or at least was) the most effective way of delivering a specific mission. If it ceases to exist, that mission can’t be delivered. Controlling the message is a means of controlling others reactions and hence the future. Research institutions have always struggled with this – the corporate centre sending once message of clear vision, high standards, continuous positive development, while the academics privately mutter in the privacy of their own coffee room about creeping beauracracy, lack of resources, and falling standards.

There is fault on both sides here. Research administration and support only very rarely puts the needs and resources of academics at its centre. Time and time again the layers of beauracracy mean that what may or may not have been a good idea gets buried in a new set of unconnected paperwork, that more administration is required taking resources away from frontline activities, and that target setting results in target meeting but at the cost of what was important in the first place. There is usually a fundamental lack of understanding of what researchers do and what motivates them.

On the other side academics are arrogant and self absorbed, rarely interested in contributing to the solution of larger problems. They fail to understand, or take any interest in the corporate obligations of the organisations that support them and will only rarely cooperate and compromise to find solutions to problems. Worse than this, academics build social and reward structures that encourage this kind of behaviour, promoting individual achievement rather than that of teams, penalising people for accepting compromises, and rarely rewarding the key positive contribution of effective communication and problem solving between the academic side and administration.

What the first decade of the social web has taught us is that organisations that effectively harness the goodwill of their staff or members using social media tools do well. Organisations that effectively use Twitter or Facebook enable and encourage their staff to take the shared organisational values out to the wider public. Enable your staff to take responsibility and respond rapidly to issues, make it easy to identify the right person to engage with a specific issue, and admit (and fix) mistakes early and often, is the advice you can get from any social media consultant. Bring the right expert attention to bear on a problem and solve it collaboratively, whether its internal or with a customer. This is simply another variation on Michael Nielsen’s writing on markets in expert attention – the organisations that build effective internal markets and apply the added value to improving their offering will win.

This approach is antithetical to traditional command and control management structures. It implies a fluidity and a lack of direct control over people’s time. It is also requires that there be slack in the system, something that doesn’t sit well with efficiency drives. In its extreme form it removes the need for the organisation to formally exist, allowing a fluid interaction of free agents to interact in a market for their time. What it does do though is map very well onto a rather traditional view of how the academy is “managed”. Academics provide a limited resource, their time, and apply it to a large extent in a way determined by what they think is important. Management structures are in practice fairly flat (and used to be much more so) and interactions are driven more by interests and personal whim than by widely accepted corporate objectives. Research organisations, and perhaps by extension those commercial interests that interact most directly with them, should be ideally suited to harness the power of the social web to first solve their internal problems and secondly interact more effectively with their customers and stakeholders.

Why doesn’t this happen? A variety of reasons, some of them the usual suspects, a lack of adoption of new tools by academics, appalling IT procurement procedures and poor standards of software development, and a simple lack of time to develop new approaches, and a real lack of appreciation of the value that diversity of contributions can bring to a successful department and organisation. The biggest one though I suspect is a lack of good will between administrations and academics. Academics will not adopt any tools en masse across a department, let alone an organisation because they are naturally suspicious of the agenda and competence of those choosing the tools. And the diversity of tools they choose on their own means that none have critical mass within the organisation – few academic institutions had a useful global calendar system until very recently. Administration don’t trust the herd of cats that make up their academic staff to engage productively with the problems they have and see the need to have a technical solution that has critical mass of users, and therefore involves a central decision.

The problems of both diversity and lack of critical mass are a solid indication that the social web has some way to mature – these conversations should occur effectively across different tools and frameworks – and the uptake at research institutions should (although it may seem paradoxical) be expected to much slower than in more top down, managed organisation, or at least organisations with a shared focus. But it strikes me that the institutions that get this right, and they won’t be the traditional top institutions, will very rapidly accrue a serious advantage, both in terms of freeing up staff time to focus on core activities and releasing real monetary resource to support those activities. If the social side works, then the resource will also go to the right place. Watch for academic institutions trying to bring in strong social media experience into senior management. It will be a very interesting story to follow.

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