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Capability meets Competence in the Generous Web

The advance of technology and humanity have never been in tandem. They have been in relationship to one another. When a inventor creates a new technology, the affect upon people is not immediate.  We humans have to adapt, catch up, master all its new dimensions.  This is no more true than with the advent of computer technology and the Internet.

All sorts of cool applications have been developed that enable those of us who are woefully inadequate in so many areas to find a way to overcome our limitations.  As a pack rat of information, I think the computer hard drive is a God-send.  And I mean that in all its spiritual implications.

That said, it is true that we have a long way to go to catch up with the opportunities that the ubiquitous web provides us.  Ron Burt in the introduction to his new book, Brokerage and Closure - No, it isn't a sales book for stock brokers - writes,

“Technology has expanded our ability to communicate across geographic and social distance.  Our ability to coordinate across markets has expanded accordingly.  “Global” is the word of the day.  The limited scale of yesterday’s organizations is today inefficient.  We removed layers of bureaucracy and laid in fast, flexible communication systems.

Ask the leader of any large organization about the most difficult barriers he or she has to manage to harvest the coordination potential of our communication capabilities.  They inevitably talk about people issues, culture issues.  People continue to work the way they learned in legacy organizations, in yesterday’s organization silos.  We are capable of coordinating across scattered markets of human endeavor.  We are not yet competent in how to take advantage of the capability.

In this period of competence trying to catch up with capability, authority in the formal chain of command no longer provides the answers it once did.  Matrix structures have people reporting to multiple superiors, which weakens the authority of each reporting relationship.  Efficiencies gained by removing layers of bureaucracy shift control from vertical chains of authority to horizontal peer pressure.  Work once defined by superiors in the formal organization is now negotiated between colleagues who have no authority over one another.  People are more than ever the author of their jobs, not told what to do, so much as expected to figure it out.  Feeling that someone must be at fault, people blame one another for problems created by the capability-competence gap.  … Then as now, technological capability exceeds social competence and we blame one another for failure: “…if only we put in more effort and pulled together as a team.”

I see the Generous Web meme that Bill Kinnon discusses frequently at Achieveable Ends as a step along the path toward narrowing the gap between capability and competence.  The technology of old organizational systems is rapidly being displaced by flatter structures that require more personal initiative and character by members of the organization than in the past. 

This is why I see what I term the Circle of Impact as a helpful guide to understanding the relationship between people, purpose and structure.  In other words, the structure was the relationship in the past. Now relationships are on a more equal footing with organizational structures, and therefore how we conceptualize both relationships and structure becomes important.

Everyone of my clients has a need for better communication.  Is this simply a mechanical problem requiring better newsletters? No, I think it is a human relationship problem masked as a communication problem. To solve that problem requires people to no longer look to the organization to communicate to them, but rather that everyone has the responsibility to take the initiative to communicate with others.

So the dramatic change that most organizations need is not technological, but a human one.  If people do not change, then their organizations will decline. If they do change, like embracing the idea of the Generous Web, then we will see a dramatic improvement in the performance of their organizations.

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