Two of our initiatives at the bank (widely available internal social media, and Innovation Market) have the interesting ramification that individual staff members in our institution now have an ability to broadcast their opinions to large groups of people, largely without much management-level control of the messages they're putting out.
As you'd expect, there was initially very great resistance to this, especially from managers. "Why", they wanted to know, "would we allow anyone to write just anything? What if they are negative or derogatory about our bank? About me?".
Unsurprisingly, a year on, none of the doomsday scenarios hypothesised when we made it possible for staff to create their own internal communities have come to pass. Of course, such a fortuitous outcome would largely be expected by everyone who participates in broad web based communities externally. It was not, however, to long term traditionalist used to iron control, but they have largely been mollified by the lack of significant negative consequences.
But now we are beginning to see a new phenomenon. I call it the Emergent Enterprise: staff are not only having their say, they are actually changing the way things work in material ways.
You see, along with social media, we gave our people the ability to create rudimentary business process and publish those as well. The idea was that workgroups would be able to automate things they did on a day to day basis easily, and without any input from the central IT function.
Interestingly, in such an environment, a business process is rather like a piece of media. Its success is determined entirely by how many users it has, just as a blog is successful if it has many readers. Where several choices exist, the process that has most chance of becoming the "one true way" is the one which is used by the most people. A process has an audience, and big audiences give the process owner significant say in how things are done.
We are beginning to see situations where workgroups have defined their own little workflows, and these are being adopted by other groups as well. Popular processes that help get work done spread relatively quickly.
Now, as a trend, workgroups sharing clever ways to doing things is nothing new. In the past, though, such sharing did not actually change things. When you add a bit of a social business process to that mix, however, real change can easily be the result.
I'll give you an example. In my team, we have a little business process we made that lets us send a small gift to anyone who has gone out of their way to help make our jobs easier. The gift is only a box of chocolates or similar, but you can go to this web page, request it with a personal message, and a few days later, it arrives. It has been a useful tool to encourage people to say "thankyou" when someone has gone above and beyond. It is also inexpensive.
I've now seen similar processes duplicated in other places in the bank, with minor local variations, of course. It seems the practice of minor gift giving may spread through word of mouth and ease-of-implementation.
Now, gift giving does not have significant strategic ramifications for our institution. But the Emergent Enterprise does, because very large changes are often brought about through very small incremental steps. It is not hard to imagine that a decade from now, socially chosen business processes will be the thing that defines how well an institution performs in the market. They are fast and responsive, not governed at the pace that large strategic decisions must be. Market-appropriate behaviour "emerges" as the result of lots of people adding their ideas for improvement.
My real interest in this "emergence", however, does have to do with the strategic questions which face us going forward. As innovators, we know the biggest long-term threats to institutions rarely come from large, established competitors. No, it is the start-up crowd, with their nimbleness in responding to boutique opportunities and niche segments which are the competitive issue here. The problem is there are so many of them that a strategic level response is neither possible nor appropriate.
But an "emergent" response, forming and norming by itself is just what is needed. Then, when a competitor becomes strategic, our own response will have grown to the point where it can be strategic as well.
Now, going from gift-giving, or workgroup level travel authorities, or team level content approval to an emergent-led response to a market threat is somewhat further than we've gone at present, and no doubt our ability to respond in this way will be an emergent behaviour in itself, something that will likely take years to develop.
What I don't doubt, though, is that emergent behaviours in enterprises – especially banks – will be one of the most powerful competitive weapons we'll have in the future. You see, everyone always says that "people are the most important resource" and that "the war for talent" will be one of the great competitive battlegrounds in the coming years. The thing about the Emergent Enterprise is that it allows all that great resource to actually make a difference.