The Hyperlinked Organization: Radical Transparency, Crummy Meetings & Micromanagement

By Michael Stephens | The Cluetrain Manifesto “Org charts are pyramids. The ancient pharaohs built their pyramids out of the fear of human mortality. Today's business pharaohs build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they're afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain. To be human is to be imperfect. We die. We make mistakes.”
David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chapter 5: "The Hyperlinked Organization"

It amazes me how fast the semester has flown by; teaching full time has been both rewarding and challenging. I enjoy the courses I teach, the faculty, and the students. The best part is talking with the GSLIS students, and giving them articles, blog posts, books, and such to discuss.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a discussion about Chapter 5 of The Cluetrain Manifesto “The Hyperlinked Organization.” It got me thinking about libraries (as the Cluetrain often does) and the shapes of our organizations. And how we manage our people and ourselves. And what changes and trends may shape our future institutions.

David Weinberger's chapter “The Hyperlinked Organization” is a roadmap of sorts, pointing the way to improved communication, flatter structures, and greater transparency. And it's all because of the weird, wild, wonderful Web. What did we ever do in the age before this communication tool?

So I put to you the question my Introduction to Library and Information Science class considered a few Mondays ago: "What might we take away from reading this chapter in 2006, in a time of plugged-in social networks, library and librarian's blogs, YouTube videos, and a return to human conversations via online technology?"

Maybe you've been pondering that library weblog, staff intranet blog, or internal wiki to break down barriers. Here are some points to use when making the case for your library to become hyperlinked.

We Need to Be Human
That's my favorite principle of Library 2.0: the library is human. Communication, externally and internally, is in a human voice. The librarians speak to users via open, transparent conversation.

Weinberger writes: “The Web, in short, has led every wired person in your organization to expect direct connections not only to information but also to the truth spoken in human voices. And they expect to be able to find what they need and do what they need without any further help from people who dress better than they do. This has happened not because of a management theory or a bestselling business book but because the Web reaches everyone with a computer and a telephone line on her desk.”

Are you mired in the flavor-of-the-month management style that your employees have come to resent? Does it work? Are your communiquÉs from the top in faux corporate speak? Do your employees trust you? Talk to them. Blog with them (but don't blog “back at them!”) You might like the results.

Be Radically Transparent
Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, another book we used in class this semester, posted recently at his blog about radical transparency. Noting how corporate speak is changing because of blogs and other social tools, Anderson writes, “Perhaps the most interesting of these is the shift from secrecy to transparency...." Anderson also addresses the "what happens in the company stays in the company" idea: “Aside from some special exemptions," he notes, "such as conferences where those employees trusted enough to go chatted guardedly with outsiders, employees were cautioned that what happened at work should stay at work. Loose lips sink ships, etc.”

This isn't Vegas folks. And it certainly isn't the Pentagon. The fact that we are building collections and creating services for our users means we should be letting these folks know what we are doing and how we are spending their money. If you are doing it well, you can tell your users a mighty fine story of what benefits and value the library offers. If you are afraid to tell them, you have a problem. Go back and rethink please. I'll wait right here.

Flatten that Chart Folks
One of my favorite quotes from this chapter is “The company org chart… is a map of whom to avoid.” I worked in the public library a long time and soon realized who you went to in order to get things done and who could take care of something that needed to be fixed. Sometimes, we adapt and seek out those people, and then when they transfer or leave the organization, everyone realizes all the knowledge went out the door with them.

The best libraries will flatten their organizational charts, break down the layers of “permission” and “channels” to get things done, and look for ways to streamline processes, procedures, and the dreaded policies. These libraries will also have a plan for succession management and knowledge transfer—and not just use these terms as buzzwords to hide behind.

Michael Stephens presenting at the California Library Association 2006 Don't Kill Your Staff with Bad Meetings
Another favorite passage in Weinberger's chapter: “…after the carefully controlled meeting is over and the bigwigs are congratulating themselves on how well they managed it ('I think we got exactly what we needed out of that meeting, JB'), the 'junior' people are back in their cubes firing off e-mails parodying the results and pillorying the personalities.”

This happens. I know it does. The folks at The Onion got it right! Have meetings like the folks at Google. Managers and administrators could take a lesson from that Business Week piece and have office hours, time when any staff member might stop in to chat. That's a step toward flatness.

Micromanagent Has No Place in a Hyperlinked Organization
To the librarian I once overheard saying, "It is my personal duty to make sure we have no typos on anything!" I must say: Don't miss the forest for the trees, Dear Lady. Typos can be corrected, especially online, and focusing too much on those little details may lead to missing the big picture. You're the one that staff may be e-mailing about, while they wait to launch the new wiki, you are still proofing the proposal for the wiki! A nimble organization can move quickly if not mired in proofing, re-proofing, and proofing one more time a policy change, FAQ, or other document.

And don't get hung up on every minute of your librarians' time being spent on task or the fact that a group may be watching a YouTube video for a few minutes in the reference office. It happens. I also believe that's how we learn about these new technologies and the lines between what's frivolous and what's a chance to see how a social video-sharing community works and think about how it might impact what libraries do. Employees should take care not to abuse such openness with too much IM, too much personal blogging, or too much flickr surfing. That's important as well and part of being a professional. The tools do not matter—IMing all day with a buddy or leaning on a reference desk chatting with a friend for 20 minutes is unacceptable.

Beware micromanagement! Regardless of the motivation the effect can de-motivate employees, create resentment, and damage trust.

Here's a secret, Micromanager... I learned this from The Cluetrain and from years of listening to what employees have said and say, both as an employee and as a manager, and now as a teacher. Folks in your organization have identified you as a roadblock. They are working around you. Avoiding you, even though your hold a place on the chart most tightly.

I don't mean to be rough, but to those reading, look deep inside your professional self and decide: are you hyperlinked? Open? Transparent? Is your institution participatory?

Please, no matter what you think of The Cluetrain, revisit these ideas. Read the chapter. Maybe discuss it and the other resources at a staff meeting. Have a conversation. Be human. Think about your organization as a flat, open, and growing organism!
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