Social media, start-ups and the system of management

In a start-up, the coordination of work takes place through the transparency of activities, close proximity of people working together and mostly informal, responsive, ongoing communication.

I have often wondered when and how the transformation to the world of formal reports and meetings takes place.

After closely studying several case companies, it seems to me that it is not at all the growth of the company that requires the development of formal communication systems. That takes place as a result of the managerial thinking that has evolved in response to growth.

The mainstream view of management science sees the organization as having a separate existence from individuals. In organizations, as in machines, the interchangeability of parts is thought to promote efficiency. This means that processes retained in workers´ interaction should be recorded in documents and passed back to govern work. The aim is to rise above the individual memory and to establish an organizational memory. This is what mainstream knowledge management was all about twenty years ago: “If only HP knew what HP knows”.

Industrial management has been about depersonalizing the workplace in the interest of efficiency, even up to the point of seeing people as (human) resources or (valuable) assets. Because of the strong desire to outdo the individuals, the communication habits of a “managed” company need to be different from the start-up. You have to go from conversations to documents.

Management is a system of communication

In this system you talk about flows, not people. There are flows of information to allow middle and upper management to monitor and control what goes on at lower levels. There are flows to guide the lower levels and to coordinate process steps. The ideology of management demanded “exact” written communication. It dismissed ordinary conversation as just talk. The controlled form of talk was a meeting with an agenda and clear outcomes. And you were supposed to come well prepared.

Industrial management is a particular pattern of communication based on specific assumptions about causality and human agency. This approach to coordinating activities was technically based on the high price and low quality of communication tools.

What social media allow us to do in organizations is to create transparency of activities, close proximity of non-co-located people and active, ongoing, responsive communication that coordinates and controls. The price of communication has gone down and the quality of tools is dramatically better today.

It is time to rethink some major issues.

What an organization is emerges from the relationships of its members, the interacting individuals. It is the people! The efficiency and creativity of the organization is a result of the efficiency and creativity of daily communication. We all enable and constrain one another all the time, meaning that we coordinate and control one another all the time – as we talk.

Changes in the organization always mean changes in the patterns of communication and vice versa. Novel patterns of communication necessarily change the organization. This is why social media challenge management as a system of communication and coordination.

Management as we are used to seeing it is getting more and more outdated.

We have started a research program on management in complex, responsive work. We study human-centric value creation that builds on the Internet and the very latest digital interaction technologies. If you want to be involved in the group of academic researchers and practitioners, please contact me or professor Doug Griffin.

We know that even very big corporations can be like start-ups!


Thank you @jobsworth for being the inspiration for this post. I hope the discussions around the “systems of engagement vs. the systems of record” continue

Thank you Doug Griffin, Ralph Stacey and Clay Shirky

More on the subject: Steve DenningUmair Haque.Peter Stoyko.

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Esko Kilpi

Esko Kilpi 

Esko Kilpi is founder and principal in Esko Kilpi Oy, a leading research and consultancy firm working with the challenges of knowledge work and digital work environments. The organization is based in Helsinki, Finland. In addition to his work as an executive adviser Kilpi takes part in academic research and lectures on the topics of organizational learning, knowledge based view of the firm and interaction technologies as key enablers for knowledge based value creation in Nordic countries, Europe, Middle-East, Far-East and USA. He has published various articles on these subjects and is the co-author of a book on teams and process management (1996) and books on management challenges of the information age (2001, 2006). His teaching and research interests are about organizational contexts, where creative learning takes place and organizational dynamics for emergence of coherence and novelty. A large part of his work has concentrated on principles of organizational viability based on what can be learned from complexity sciences and theories of complex adaptive systems. At the moment Kilpi’s work has focused on open source principles and social software implementations in organizational contexts. Kilpi has been a member of the advisory board of the World Bank on Knowledge Management. He has also been a member of the expert think tank on Knowledge Management for the European Union.


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