Friday, June 17, 2011

The Long Tail is in the Zeitgeist (Part Deux)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote:

We are fast becoming a culture that is fascinated with cultivating a personalized experience at the intersections of every possible niche market or experience; this desire has penetrated far deeper into the zeitgeist than I think we realize.

What I failed to say was: in addition to being pulled into the niche by citizens, bureaucracies are facing tremendous pressure to be in the niches by their workforce. Today, I want to finish what I started by exploring three different examples: innovation, social media, and work-life balance.


Make no mistake, bureaucracies are 20th century organizations with 21st century challenges. So is it any wonder we make mistakes?

Take the common approach to innovation for example. How many organizations have innovation groups or secretariats? Making innovation a business line rather than your core business is one of the biggest reasons that the pursuit of innovation usually fails. The reality is that the size of the system ultimately undermines its ability to be innovative.

While it may be true that a large enterprise will never be as agile as eight people in a room with a coffee pot, it is also true that if we are to have any hope at fostering innovation we should acknowledge the fact that innovation may not be something that can be built into traditional hierarchical structures.

Perhaps we should focus less on formality and whether or not a particular innovation is scalable across the enterprise but rather ensure that we accord ample flexibility to our human resources so they can be innovative in their own right.

Social Media

The way in which government agencies are approaching social media is, to my mind, generally short-sighted. The overwhelming trend is to use social media as a way to disseminate information about the organization and it’s policies and programs to the public.

By now anybody who has spent any time in the space is familiar with the criticism that social media isn't a broadcast medium in so much as it is a conversation.

But, have we wrongly favoured a line of reasoning that privileges the narrow use of social media for official external communications over the widespread use of these technologies for less formal communications between and among staff?

I think we have. I also think this is precisely why we see departments with Twitter accounts blocking Twitter for its employees or departments with Facebook pages blocking access to Facebook. In short we have adopted an institution-centric model for social media rather than an employee-centric one.

I can't say for certain but I have the feeling that this may be partially a by-product of the fact that communications and marketing professionals are leading the bureaucratic charge towards the use of social media; communicators who are charged with communicating what their departments are up to.

Before moving to the next example, I think it is worth mentioning that one of the defining properties of the long tail is that the total niche of the distribution rivals the total mainstream and that the larger the organization, the flatter the distribution becomes; both of which are tantamount to evidence that we do in fact have much more to gain from diffusing these technologies informally across the organization than we do from formally centralizing them.

Work-Life Balance

Nowhere is the tension between the generic approach of the machinery and the desire for specificity more apparent than in the management of our human resources. People are desperate for autonomy, mastery and purpose but instead get telework policies and casual fridays. It's no wonder employee engagement is on the decline.

It's about relevance

If our public institutions are to have any chance at success, if they are to remain relevant in changing times, then they (we!) must get better at satisfying niche demands from both the outside and inside of our organization.

But make no mistake, this movement, from what government does to what government is being asked to do, will be painful.

How painful?

Well, I suppose that is a matter of how well equipped our organizations are to:

  1. create an environment conducive to what Vint Cerf calls "permissionless innovation";
  2. diffuse communications technologies and extend trust to use them; and
  3. allow people to exercise greater autonomy over their work.

Simply put, any organization tightening the managerial reins in this environment will experience more tension than those loosening them; and I've argued before that in a hyper connected age, this will undoubtedly effect the flow of talent between and among organizations.

Food for thought.

Originally published by Nick Charney at

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