May 28, 2010

Information Osmosis and the case against Chief Culture Officer

Seen from the point of view of information, a modern company is a fortress - a fortress that's very good at erecting barriers to the natural flow of information from outside in and vice versa.

While these impermeable walls of opacity were (and probably continue to be) essential to being in business, they also raise the cost of doing business - by making it expensive to haul information across the border, both ways.

Expensive two-way communication across corporate borders may seem the natural order of things - but I don't think it is.

In nature, when water is transported across cell borders it happens through a process called osmosis. Osmosis itself extracts no energy from the cell to transport water - instead it is a property inherent in water, coercing it to perpetually flow from an area of low solute concentration to an area of high solute concentration. Provided the barrier is permeable (or semi-permeable.)

So also with information. The natural propensity of information is to flow to where it is needed - without the need for anyone to grease its path. A company builds secure borders around it precisely to impede this natural flow and profit from it.

But a border built to impede outflow can also be very efficient at doing the opposite.

And it's not just at the borders that the influx of information is resisted. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky writes about how the modern corporate hierarchy was designed to make the inward journey for information perilious.
"In addition to revolutionising management structure, McCallum wrote six principles for running a hierarchical organistion. Most of what you'd expect (number one was ensuring a "proper division of responsibilities"), but number five is worth mentioning: his management system was designed to produce "such information, to be obtained through a system of daily reports and checks, that will not embarass principal officers nor lessen their influence with their subordinates." If you have ever wondered why so much of what workers in large organisations know is shielded from the CEO and vice versa, wonder no longer: the idea of limiting communications, so that they flow from one layer of the hierarchy to the next, was part of the very design of the system at the dawn of mangerial culture."
One way of countering this is to airlift information (and along with it culture from the outside) to the very kernel of the organisation - the C-suite. And that's what Grant McCracken is suggesting with his idea of Chief Culture Officer.

I am inclined to be skeptical of any idea that introduces a) a new job title and b) an expensive kludge to stand in for the natural state of things. This one does both.

It is true indeed that companies could and should resonate more with the culture around them and do everything to avoid being blindsided and blown off-course by unforeseen developments.

That can be achieved by making the borders more porous and by flattening the hierarchy to put everyone, including the CEO, on the periphery - not just close to the rank and file but close to the information and culture that permeates on the ground.

Both can be achieved without a Chief Culture Officer. Both can be achieved with the right approach to social media.

When we are exhorted to "Listen!" on social media, it's not just advice to obsessively seek out what people are Twittering about our brand. It is also a battlecry to leave our mental and coporate doors ajar, so that when information and culture want to waft in they can.

Grant McCracken's own choice of the perfect Chief Culture Officer, in my opinion, proves the case for the opposite.

Steve Jobs is able to read and ride culture not because his designation or responsibilities are that of a Chief Culture Officer. He's able to do that because he's a CEO with a porous mind and a propensity to live on the periphery.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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