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The impact of social media on organisational structure

the_world_is_flatSocial media are bringing down the artificial walls that organizations place around themselves – sometimes from the inside out but more often from the outside in, completely beyond the control of the organisation in question. They create a direct channel of communication between any employee and the people who make up their markets, bypassing the traditional mechanisms their organisations have put in place to ensure only certain people are allowed to speak – their ‘spokespeople’. In the world of social media though, every employee is the spokesperson. They just don’t necessarily know it.

Marketing is no longer the preserve of the marketing department. When every employee has the capacity to talk to people in the market what does this mean for the ‘official’ spokespeople, or even the CEO? As social media permeates the corporation – officially or, more likely to begin with, unofficially – what happens to the internal hierarchies it covets so much?

The traditional roles of consumer, employee, citizen, taxpayer and shareholder have all become blurred and intertwined, stripped back to what they really are: people. As an entity made up of people, the organisation of the future will not know where its barriers are – if indeed it has any. That is why this new found role for technology is becoming one of the most disruptive forces in business – externally and internally. It is not a technological revolution at all, but a truly social one.

I’m reminded of what Doc Searls’ said when interviewed by Shel Israel:

The walls of business will come down. That’s the main effect of the Net itself. Companies are people and are learning to adapt to a world where everybody is connected, everybody contributes, and everybody is zero distance (or close enough) from everybody else. This is the “flat world” Tom Friedman wrote “The World is Flat” about, and he’s right. Business on the whole has still not fully noticed this, however.

So it won’t just be the world that is flat, but the organisation too. Thomas Friedman highlights the blurring boundaries between companies and different groups of workers in The World is Flat, as well as the relationships between communities and the businesses that operate within them. As a result, the traditional supply chain relationships are changing dramatically, reshaping organisations – often from the bottom up.

Some in the ‘C-suite’ remain sceptical. They see social media as something that only kids and geeks care about. By embracing it, they fear they will risk legitimising those inane conversations about what people had for breakfast and alienating their ‘real’ customers, with not one iota of impact on their bottom lines. Yet more and more examples (from pure anecdotes to real business metrics) are surfacing to demonstrate that this new form of communication and collaboration can make a positive difference to business performance.

The biggest challenge with this emerging area of social media is therefore how well CEOs and CMOs – not just technologists and early adopters – comprehend, select and apply it.