How will digital workplace autonomy satisfy corporate compliance?

The focus of the current interest in social networking is to enable the individual to make decisions about how they work, who they work with and what they share to achieve personal and business objectives. Working Out Loud is a fast-emerging element of this support of internal autonomy. There is a wealth of survey and anecdotal evidence that this fosters innovation and is good for employee engagement. One of the 2016 surveys was published by McKinsey & Company and was entitled “How social tools can reshape the organisation”. At the time of writing this blog the report had been dropped from the McKinsey website but there is a summary on the Consultancy UK website. It does rather read like a paean of praise for social networking at a time when other surveys (for example Digital Culture Clash from Cisco) are indicating that it is not quite as simple as some observers would have us believe.

No matter how much autonomy individuals have to create teams and make decisions on their own account  all organisations work within some form of compliance.  There will be a board of Directors that have defined responsibilities towards the organisation and towards shareholders and stakeholders. At some point a hierarchy will kick in. Hierarchies, like bureaucracies, have a poor reputation but have a role to play in the process of reviewing decisions that are going to commit the organisation to a specific course of action. Among the outcomes of the McKinsey survey was that 25% of respondents predicted that in the next three years strategic decisions would be made from the bottom up and that organisational hierarchies would either be much flatter or disappear all together. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t see major strategic decisions (21st Century Fox acquiring Sky is in the news today) being made bottom up when there are shareholders and regulatory authorities to take account of.

The challenge I see emerging is defining and managing the processes where autonomy and compliance meet. At what level within the organisation does this take place, and is it a hard transition or a soft transition? I’ve looked back through around 20 recent surveys on corporate collaboration and digital social working and I cannot find any discussion of this topic. It is not going to happen by magic. As a component of an overall social strategy for an organisation decisions are going to have to be made on how information and knowledge from autonomous working is sifted, verified and presented up the chain of management. In the final analysis the directors are responsible, in compliance terms, to shareholders, laws and regulations. This is enshrined in corporate law. An implication is that there is an audit route back to the decisions that were made leading up to the action being taken. When autonomy escapes compliance you end up with the Volkswagen story and a very large hit on corporate performance. It will be interesting to read the full Volkswagen story in due course.

I have no preconceived ideas about when and where autonomy and compliance should meet. Wherever it is this the pressure on managers will be very considerable as they seek to balance the demands from their own managers with the ambition of being supportive to autonomous work processes that are clearly having an impact on innovation, speed of response and employee engagement. Working out loud is an example of where a document or even an instant message written in the spirit of WoL is taken to be a definitive statement by someone who reads it in isolation. At present the focus on collaboration strategy is about what tools are needed to support this style of working. In my view the success of a collaboration strategy will be the ease with which outcomes from collaborative working can move through and up the corporate structure in a way that safeguards the interests of all stakeholders. This is not a technology issue but about supporting managers who find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If you want to read a story of what happens when ‘top down’ conflicts with ‘bottom up’ download this study of decision making in Nokia that led to the company losing the smartphone battle. What would happen in your organisation under the same circumstances?

Martin White