Return to The Cluetrain Manifesto

Posted on March 4, 2009 
Filed Under Internet, Social Media

Re-reading the iconic Cluetrain Manifesto and discovering the gems there-in. David Weinberger’s Chapter 5 still resonates:

Modern business almost universally has chosen a particular type of togetherness: a hierarchy. There are two distinguishing marks of a hierarchy: it has a top and a bottom, and the top is narrower than the bottom. Power flows from the top and there are fewer and fewer people as you move up the food chain.

This not only makes the line of authority crystal clear, it also enhances the allure of success by making it into an exclusive club. As La Rochefoucauld once said, “It is not enough that I succeed. It is also necessary that my friends fail.”

No wonder so many of us stare at our bare feet in the morning and wonder why we’re putting on our socks.

A couple of other points about business hierarchies:

First, they assume — along with Ayn Rand and poorly socialized adolescents — that the fundamental unit of life is the individual. This is despite the evidence of our senses that individuals only emerge from groups — groups like families and communities. (You know, it really does take a village to raise a child. Just like it takes a corporation to raise an ass kisser.)

But the Web obviously isn’t predicated on individuals. It’s a web. It’s about the connections. And on the World Wide Web, the connections are hyperlinks. It’s not just documents that get hyperlinked in the new world of the Web. People do. Organizations do. The Web, in the form of a corporate intranet, puts everyone in touch with every piece of information and with everyone else inside the organization and beyond.

The potential connections are vast. Hyperlinks are the connections made by real individuals based on what they care about and what they know, the paths that emerge because that’s where the feet are walking, as opposed to the highways bulldozed into existence according to a centralized plan.

Hyperlinks have no symmetry, no plan. They are messy. More can be added, old ones can disappear, and nothing else has to change. Compare this to your latest reorganization where you sat down with the org chart and your straightedge and worried about holes and imbalances and neatness for heaven’s sake! A messy org chart is the devil’s playground, after all.

Second, business hierarchies are power structures only because fundamentally they’re based on fear.

Org charts are pyramids. The ancient pharaohs built their pyramids out of the fear of human mortality. Today’s business pharaohs build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.

To be human is to be imperfect. We die. We make mistakes.

Sometimes we run from our fallibility by being decisive. But doubt is the natural human state, and decisiveness — more addictive than anything you might shoot into your veins — is often based on a superstitious belief in the magic of action.

Within the pyramid we have defined roles and responsibilities. We tell ourselves that this is so the business will run efficiently, but in fact having a role brings us the great comfort of having a turf where we’re pretty confident we’re not going to be shown up… except maybe by that ambitious jerk on the fourth floor, but we’ve figured out a way to hook his brains out through his nose, which should delay him at least for a little while.

Of course, dividing the business up into fanatically defended turfs doesn’t really protect anyone from fallibility and uncertainty, the very things that mark us as humans.

So, here’s some news for today’s business pharaohs: your pyramid is being replaced by hyperlinks. It was built on sand anyway.

The Web liberates business from the fear of being exposed as human, even against its will. It throws everyone into immediate connection with everyone else without the safety net of defined roles and authorities, but it also sets the expectation that you’ll make human-size mistakes rather frequently. Now that you’ve lost the trappings of authority, and you find yourself standing next to the junior graphic designer for gawd’s sake, and you can’t hide behind your business card, what the hell are you going to do?

You’re going to talk with her. You’re going to have a conversation. And if you harrumph and try to make sure she knows that you’re Very Important by the power vested in you by the power that vested in you, well, she’s going to laugh once out loud and five times in e-mail and tell everyone else what an asshole you are.

You see, the hyperlinks that replace the org chart as the primary structure of the organization are in fact conversations. They are the paths talk takes. And a business is, more than anything else, the set of conversations going on.

Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is conversation — literally. And “knowledge workers” are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

“Can I super-size that?” “Have it on my desk by the morning,” “There’s no I in Team,” and laughing at your manager’s unfunny jokes are not conversations. Conversations are where ideas happen and partnerships are formed. Sometimes they create commitments (in Fernando Flores’ sense), but more often they’re pulling people through fields of common interest with no known destination. The structure of conversations is always hyperlinked and is never hierarchical:

To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human — acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together.

You can only have a conversation if you’re not afraid to be wrong. Otherwise, you’re not conversing, you’re just declaiming, speechifying, or reading what’s on the PowerPoints. To converse, you have to be willing to be wrong in front of another person.

Conversations occur only between equals. The time your boss’s boss asked you at a meeting about your project’s deadline was not a conversation. The time you sat with your boss’s boss for an hour in the Polynesian-themed bar while on a business trip and you really talked, got past the corporate bullshit, told each other the truth about the dangers ahead, and ended up talking about your kids — that maybe was a conversation.

Conversations subvert hierarchy. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Being a human being among others subverts hierarchy.

MORE.

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