Rethinking Responsibility and Authority in the Online Organization

Seth Godin recently wrote about authority and responsibility in organizations. Achievers in traditional organizations, Godin says, lobby for more authority in order to get things done. In the top-down organization, one needs authority to act, build, implement. This structure doesn’t necessarily work in rapidly evolving and growing organizations, including nonprofits and others working to adjust to the impact of online networks. As Godin put it:

“Management by authority is top-down, risk-averse, measurable and perfect for the org chart. It’s essential in organizations that are stable, asset-based and adverse to risk.”

Those that demand responsibility should be granted authority, Godin concludes.

Having spent most of my career in and around nonprofit organizations that are “stable [more or less], asset-based [sorta] and adverse to risk [highly]” this got me thinking about the different natures of authority and responsibility in organizations, particularly those struggling to adapt to, integrate and manage digital programs and teams.

Perhaps the key word here is adapt. Online communications is a young and rapidly changing field. Few organizations had websites or email lists just 12 or 15 years ago. Those groups that created a website ten years ago have probably rebuilt it three or four times since (and are likely about the redo it again soon). Facebook, Twitter and much of what we call social media didn’t exist five years ago.

Today, more first gifts are coming in online than off. Organizations have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube pages and more. Time and money are going into growing these networks, text messaging/SMS, iPhone apps and more. Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is doing what, how much it is worth, how to budget and staff for it all and whether this is a communications, development or policy department role.

In other words, rapid change is afoot and is pressuring organizations, boards, staff, budgets and plans. It is changing the expectations of members, activists and donors. People are scrambling to respond but evolving slowly, if at all.

Responding means adaptation, testing, rapid learning and, increasingly, the ability to empower staff (and even outsiders) to speak for the organization on social networks and online media.

Authority-driven hierarchies don’t work well when a premium is placed on rapid learning and adaptation. They assume that the people at the top (organizational leaders and middle managers that might run departments or teams) have complete understanding of the problem at hand, the tools needed to tackle it and what staff need to do.

Does the rapidly changing nature of online run afoul of most organizational structures? Quite possibly. Online teams and structures vary but are generally placed somewhere in an IT or communications department and responsible to the authority of someone with minimal experience in online networks. Online teams may be given responsibility (to put together emails, run Facebook pages, create web content) without clear authority over resources or strategy.

The networked nature of social media can add to the complexity for these organizations. Most everyone – not just online or communications staff – is present on social networks and talking about the issues that concern them, including those of the organization. Activists and donors are on the networks. All of them are tied to the organization and can be speaking on its behalf but how does an organization manage them? It’s hard enough (or impossible) to “manage” staff in other departments. Managing those outside the organization won’t happen. Many organizations fall back to not engaging those outside in a meaningful way. It limits potential but avoids messiness and time-consuming interaction.

Does this mean organizations should dissolve hierarchy, eliminate management/directors/supervisors and watch themselves slip into chaos? Probably not.

But isolating online in a single authority-based team limits the ability of the organization to adapt, grow and share responsibility across (and beyond) the organization. Indeed, responsibility for much of what we think of as “online” rests in many places. Most staff are potential online organizers, communicators and fundraisers. Encourage their responsibility to act appropriately and independently without relying on authority to act.

And online teams themselves are (or should be) stocked with people that are highly engaged online and understand trends. Encourage them to take responsibility for adaptation, innovation and success by granting authority to make decisions and lead. If this threatens authority placed in traditional management positions then deal with that. Online moves fast and the adaptive teams and organizations will come out ahead.

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