Friday, September 3, 2010

The Changing Relationship Between Accountability and Responsibility

Collaborative technologies apply flattening pressure to hierarchical organizational structures by diffusing the ability to publish, share and disseminate information. For example consider the action of publishing something to the corporate intranet compared to an enterprise wiki.

Intranet Publishing is a Linear Process

This linear process is designed to ensure compliance with a broad set of interrelated policy frameworks, such as official languages, access to information and privacy, information management directives, values and ethics, etc. It does so by making people along the chain responsible for formally approving the content. These people are gatekeepers, key decision making nodes along the pipeline. While this type of system may ultimately produce compliance, it does so at the cost of expediency and thus perhaps even relevancy. In short, when it comes to internal communication models, many hands don’t always make light work, sometimes they make long work.

Wikis are Different (or at least they can be)

In an open enterprise wiki environment, publishing is unfettered. It can be instantly achieved by anyone in the organization. This means that formalized structures (e.g. linear approval processes) are incredibly difficult to maintain. Since there is no formal chain of command that ensures policy compliance, there are no nodes of decision-making that act as gatekeepers. In this model publishers are not only responsible for production but for policy-compliant production. In short, wikis make for quick publication but at the cost of ensured policy compliance.

How Does This Affect the Relationship Between Accountability And Responsibility?

In an enterprise wiki, publishers may have new found responsibility but the traditional accountability chain (i.e. the hierarchy) remains intact. I can't say for certain what the exact impact of this is on the organization other than it is largely seen as an erosion of power of gatekeepers. Gatekeepers rely on the bureaucratic tradition of:

Power = Knowledge


Knowledge = Position within the hierarchy x # of direct reports x Information / relative importance vis-a-vis other areas

The reason this equation works is simple: the information/action/work must be routed through the established process. The minute that process changes, say by implementing an enterprise wiki in parallel to a corporate intranet, the power structure implodes. Ask anyone working in these spaces right now and they will tell you that corporate intranets are losing ground quickly to enterprise wikis.

These will be difficult times

This shift – enabled by changes to the relationship between responsibility and accountability – is playing out in the culture right now. It is creating confusion inside organizations, people are unsure where to put information, where to find it, and in some cases which source of competing information is the most accurate.

The underlying question isn't really whether or not we should replace our intranets with wikis but rather what type of culture do we want our institutions to support? The reason there is so much tension around these issues is that the institution isn't designed to work in the ways that new collaborative technologies now enable us to.

We are slowly moving into a way of working, a way of thinking – perhaps even a way of being – that is not conducive with our way of managing, how we create incentives and/or how we create disincentives.

Maybe it is time for a redesign.

[Image credit: chelseagirl]

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