There has been lots of talk in PR circles about value networks and the networked society. Here I take a closer look at what the fuss is all about and issue a note of caution and a call to moderate the hype.
Utopian PRs have been dreaming about “one world, people and planet” in which all the barriers between various publics come tumbling down. They envisage a connected world in which the lines of demarcation between internal, boundary and external stakeholders dissolve as they connect transparently and interactively in a value chain that links interdependent companies to their consumers and markets.
But such views ignore some major issues.
One is that in an open digitally-connected world, there’s more need than ever to conspire – organise, ghettoise, corral – to keep things confidential and hidden behind closed walls.
Indeed, we will see the kind of problem which Freedom of Information rules can produce: a clever, covert, closed decision making in which everything which really matters is centripetally driven to a cabal. (Remember the government of Tony Blair?)
Arguably, the more open things become and the more control bosses relinquish to networks, the more restrictions they will have to impose on those who operate in them. This might, paradoxically, lead to even tighter control on commercially sensitive information than exists today. It might lead corporates to adopt a civil service mantra of only releasing information on a need to know basis.
Another issue that the utopian PR camp ignores is competition. Companies forging various so-called value networks are as likely as not to form lots of them. They are as likely as not to value some more than others and to find themselves involved in contradictory and conflicting chains.
This will lead to lots of tension and uncertainty within corporates and institutions, such as government service providers, as they are forced to choose between their various product ranges, service offerings and partnership relationships, according to either their broader interests or their ability to sustain them. The resolution of such problems, or issues, will remain driven from the centre, from the top, by corporate or institutional bosses concerned with strategy.
Moreover, because of competition, PRs at either end of a chain, not to mention the middle, might find themselves pulling in different directions and unable to always align their interests, messages and narratives. There is no reason to believe that just because we introduce new tools into the workplace that real-world tensions, politics and commercial interests, will evaporate. We should, I warn, avoid the technological determinism trap.
My point is that we should not think that corporations are about to relinquish control to horizontal or flat digital networks. We should not kid ourselves that top-down management and communication are about to die out. Neither should we imagine, as the PR utopians do, that existing internal silos, lines of responsibility and accountability, will be or should be altered very much by commercial Web 2.0 and 3.0 applications.
… it’s definitely the case that social media like any other technology does not alter the realities of the business world. (I very much like your points about the chaos that would ensue in a company if everyone could relate to sales, customers etc). This is based upon the naive hippie prejudice that enterprises can become democracies run in the interests of employees empowered to act like free agents.
Another of the problems that’s being overlooked by utopian PRs is how social media usage in the personal sphere is maturing. They seem to have missed the point that the major stumbling block for social media of all kinds is privacy, trust and control over personal data. It would seem that social media users are emerging from the immature days of the early adoption period and starting to ask tough questions.
In the commercial sphere the risks and drawbacks have been fairly clear from the very beginning.
There is no doubt that knowledge-sharing, collaboration and instant feedback and decision-making all have great appeal. There is also no doubting that patents, IP, confidential information and in-house knowledge lie at the heart of commercial value. It is also obvious, or should be, that for legitimate reasons such as their survival, corporates are going to be reluctant to dilute and devalue their brand value and identity in an undifferentiated network. So the open Web 2.0 information flows between various players presents itself both as an opportunity and as a risk.
Yet there’s even more reason for PRs not to get over-excited about Web 2.0’s ability to transform the workplace as utopian PRs do when they talk about paradigm shifts. Some believe that Michael Porter’s value chain model has already been replaced – or almost so – “by fuzzy (and not linear) and immaterial (rather than material) networks that normally disintegrate the distinction between internal and external publics.” But the truth is that Web 2.0’s commercial applicability is in its infancy and has yet to make a great impact.
The point the utopians miss is how much experimentation will be required to ascertain where and how to make Web 2.0 and social media applications work best in the corporate and public sector domain given the virtual impossibility of measuring their benefits accurately.
Don’t get me wrong, however. I favour innovation and risk. I decry our current risk-adverse culture. I look forward to seeing more Web 2.0 and 3.0 applications introduced by business and institutions to deliver products and services. I don’t doubt for a moment that they can boost productivity and add great value.
I also accept fully that Web 2.0 and 3.0 provide a new sense of power and control to consumers and poses new challenges to corporates. So of course corporates need to manage this threat and turn it into an opportunity. But that aspect of the story was not what this post was about.
Note: This first appeared here in May 2010.