Communications as Crowd Control

I was reading this blog the other day from a disenfranchised individual in a large corporation (doesn’t matter which, but it wasn’t the Department), and he was complaining their central communication function was more about “crowd control” than empowering people with information to do their jobs.

That’s an interesting term, crowd control, and it got me to thinking: how many large companies have that kind of mentality in the way they operate? Tell staff those things that will keep them happy and productive. Control all aspects of the message, so that you ensure everyone knows only those things which support the agenda of management. Stifle dissent , or better still, provide no way for any dissenters to be heard. Above all make sure that there’s no way for groups of like-minded individuals to form around an issue. 

Sound familiar? 

I’ve written before about the power of connected crowds. But the whole post I was reading about crowd control made me realise – again -that there’s this phase shift happening in large corporations.The phase shift is the redistribution of authority from central senior management to the edge. The edge being, in this case, those who actually have to do the work that drives things forward.

The phase shift is interesting because it is happening whether an organisation engages in crowd control or not. For a piece of work I was doing internally, I tried to find all the places our staff go to be together online outside our firewall. You’d be surprised at how many there are. Of course, it goes without saying that you can’t engage in crowd control beyond the confines of your own network…

At the Department, we’re getting ready to deploy a suite of collaboration tools that will open up channels of communication between staff. It will be many to many communication, unlike the one way messaging we rely on today. It is impossible to imagine that we’ll won’t get groups forming around what they don’t like coming from management. 

That is entirely healthy and reasonable in my view. In fact, I’d like staff to speak out and make their views heard when they disagree. It forces us to consider all sides of any issue properly before making important decisions.

Anyway, having more brains on a problem is far better than having a few, which is what you get when you have a central group responsible for everything. 

The point,  of course, is that if the central thinking is that communications are about crowd control, then organisations are really forcing the many-to-many communication outside their organisation. Although I don’t think we are about crowd control at the department, the fact that we don’t have our new communications channels yet has already resulted in crowds forming beyond the firewall. Imagine the circumstance when new channels, far being lacking, aren’t even allowed.

My conclusion, based on this, is that crowd control is pretty much dead. And that centralised command-and-control will soon follow.

13 Responses to“Communications as Crowd Control”

  1. October 6, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I seem to recall you already have "power distributed to the edge" James. They call it a union. Got lots of banners and stuff and love marching with loud hailers, followed by their friends from the Socialist Workers Party. Management have been trying to "appease" them – sorry "crowd control" them for years…
    Good to see the Dept thinking about an independent tool for staff to collaborate freely. Maybe you could call it something catchy… how about… Got it. " Facebook"!!!
    Oh, what? someone's already done that? OK, DWPBook it is then…
    Only kidding. Good to see you guys embracing social networks. The trick is to allow it to free-fly and how to ensure negative comments don't become career-corrosive.
    Conversely, that it doesn't become the domain of the brown nose brigade.
    Don't forget the CRM plugins, barometers and metrics.
    PS: make it really independent. Stick it in the Cloud. For free. Here you go…
    Now. It's ready-made, free and could be live in minutes.
    How are you going to make that take 5 years, not work and cost millions so it fits in with your spending policy?
    Kidding again, honest…

  2. anon
    October 6, 2010 at 9:46 am #

  3. Alan Ramsden
    October 6, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Its certainly an interesting phrase and neatly sums up a version of ‘communications’. Although I don’t think the department wants to be in the position where it employs crowd control, I do think that by necessity (lack of resource – tools and suitible people to back them up) it does. Due to a lack of resource comms are an afterthought which is not unusual. That leads the comms to be tactical and of a ‘what do they need to know’ broadcast nature than trying to encourage a dialogue.
    We often try and make a nod towards crowd participation, but in a token, managed manor. In reality this is an extension of crowd control – the illusion of debate, but played out with measured, generic, agreed responses. The crowd cannot challenge anonymously and to stiffle ‘difficult’ questions being asked and no right of reply. This is little better than pure broadcast comms.
    Sadly in difficult times particularly, it is easier/safer/cheaper/quicker to control the crowd than address the issues they raise. This may allow change processes to proceed more quickly, but as you say, the challenge provided might lead to a more effective process of change, leading to far higher value for the organisation.
    Many organisations (and countries for that matter) use crowd control as first resort, as I said, I don’t think the department does but is forced into that position. Hopefully there are senior people out there who recognise when it is occuring, and try to engage the crowd on a more equal footing wherever possible.

  4. October 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    I think that you're making very good points, but i also think that if we don't provide a decent mechanism for staff to consult with each other, they will find one for themselves anyway. Would we rather provide a forum so that we can participate in the conversation, or have the conversation go outside the firewall, where we may not have any opportunity to engage at all? I think the former….

  5. October 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    Given the current state of affairs we find ourselves in, 30% job cuts, pay freeze, massive cuts to employment rights, pension rights removal, etc do we really want our people to have that type of voice?
    Spin is still alive and well and our current medium is used freely for this, take that away and the spin message goes too?
    In happy times when this could be used for common good I can see your idea as sensible but until they return it may just provide the forum for mass disent and unrest which could come anyway but not sure you want to provide the tools to increase the opportunity?
    Apologies for hijacking the URL but any free advertising helps given this might have to support me when the axe falls and not yet sure commenting on here isn’t career corrosive (cracking term that)!

  6. October 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    In that case, you need to set up anonymity otherwise the “management by fear” element will stifle any real debate – it is like the staff survey, it needs to remain anonymous to allow people to present their real feelings.
    The current climate will lead to significant levels of negativity and the challenge is not how to spin it so it all looks OK but to actually address, reassure and see how best to support people in this time. If you aim to use it as a support tool as well as an information sharing tool it may be useful but I do worry the great pressures we have will see this decline into mudslinging and frustration.
    We had something in EDS following the outsourcing in 2000 and it was soon turned off when management saw things they didn’t want to see/hear. It will take a very strong will to receive the level of vitriol that I feel is pent up in DWP but if the Board are strong enough it may help.

  7. Henry Law
    October 15, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    It happens routinely. In the latter days of my previous employment, when the company was deploying quite a high degree of “crowd control” and “spin” (to adopt two useful terms already in play) in the cause of getting rid of people, an external discussion forum flowered. People posted anonymously because the company could easily join the group and see the discussion.
    But of course, as is sometimes the way with social media, it generated a good deal more heat than light. And the company ignored it; why would they not?
    And they got their way, with 800-odd employees finding it advisable to comply with the company’s wishes and jump over the side.

  8. Anonymous
    October 21, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    I was recently presented with a print out of my personal private tweets by my director. He had instructed one of my own staff to monitor and report on them for him. I was reminded that as a civil servant I must not swear on Twitter or talk about any work business on Twitter.
    I was told there had been a complaint from someone in the DWP about my Twitter account. I am not allowed to know who. I was also not allowed anyone else present in the meeting.
    Interestingly a friend and colleague, the Head of Digital Media and Social Media advisory group at DWP, has never heard about this 'complaint.'
    I commend your attitude and approach but you have a hell of a long way to go if you're going to make this happen. A really long way.

  9. October 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    Dear Anonymous,
    I am really sorry to hear your experience has been so poor. But I would point out that there's a pretty clear guide for civil servants about what you can and can't do in the social media field. Talking about work is perfectly acceptable within sensible boundaries. And, as you can see, I talk about work all the time here… and haven't thus far had many problems despite the fact that media sometimes take my remarks and print them out of context.
    In the meantime, perhaps, I'd point out that despite your experience to date, you are obviously making points which are significant enough to have your Director stand up and take notice. This is probably an uncomfortable position – but can I thank you on behalf of everyone else, because your activities can only serve to make the path easier for those who follow.
    Revolutionaries never have it easy, I'm afraid. I commend you for being one.

  10. Anonymous
    October 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Thanks James.
    Sadly I'm only sharing narrative that's already in the public domain rather than making significant points. No media interest yet, or ever 😀
    When I think of revolutionaries I'm sometimes reminded of firing squads. That and iconic T-shirts.
    Hoping I'll end up with the latter.

  11. Stephen
    October 23, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    It is a thin line between right and wrong and allot easier for the judgementalists who stand back, critize and contribute nothing.
    Without causing any stress to James, I noticed one of his namesakes raising a challenging issue.
    I was left with the challenge of your story, a namesake story, and whether I dare or should have the courage to say anything…
    It is indeed a dilemma to put our heads above the parapet.
    Let's hope for god sake that we do, as a human race, we need to speak up and do the right thing.
    Rather that – than be silent.
    Free speech, openness and honesty must rule above political correctness.

  12. anon anon
    October 29, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    This may help :

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