Leadership in a Networked Age

The popularity of social networking technologies, particularly social media, has created opportunities and challenges for nonprofit organizations. Social networks have allowed organizations to reach more people, faster and to collaborate in new ways on building networks and movements for change. At the same time, the rapid changes in technology have also meant that legacy organizations have had to move quickly to adapt, or experience the frustration on not keeping up. The social media revolution has also left funders looking for new solutions to the old, but increasingly pressing, problem of capacity development for legacy organizations.

In this blog post I’m going to look how the rise shift in technology had led to a renewed focus on leadership development and the quest for a skilled networked leader.

Social Justice 2.0

One funder that has led the way in mapping what it will take for NPOs to to flourish in the age of social media is the Levis Strauss Foundation (LSF). In 2010, just as the conversation about networked nonprofits was gaining traction, LSF developed a related model, Social Justice 2.0 — a play on Web 2.0, the tech shift that necessitated this shift in perspective.

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Like the networked nonprofit, Social Justice 2.0 describes a world in which organizations focus on empowering their networks, dialogue trumps monologue, and collaboration is the norm. What is particularly intriguing about LSF’s model, however, is the centrality of leaders to its theory of change. Leaders skilled in social media and collaboration can transform organizations, networks and movements.

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Investing in Leadership Development

In 2010, LSF launched a five-year experiment in capacity development called the Pioneers of Justice program. The program focused on five executive directors of legacy nonprofits in SF.  As part of the Pioneers in Justice cohort, the EDs participated in training in social media, collaboration, storytelling. LSF also invested in benchmarking and upgrading IT infrastructure and social media capacity of each participating organization. Finally, the initial grant included funding for experiments in networked movement building.

This substantial–in the millions of dollars–multi-year investment in capacity development of high potential leaders represents a significant shift in funding practice for LSF and for the sector as a whole. While investing in leadership development is commonplace in corporate America, in the nonprofit sector funding for leadership development has been minuscule by any measure. Between 2003-2012, the country’s top foundations dedicated less than 1% of total grants to leadership development.

Leadership That’s Relevant and Effective

At the same time that the Pioneers of Justice experiment was getting underway, researchers for the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), posed a similar question: What skills will NPO leaders need to effective in a networked world? According to the LLC’s report, the nonprofit sector was growing but failing to solve the most important social problems. Social technology represented an opportunity for the sector and for society, but only if we figured out how to leverage it toward solving adaptive challenges. The kind of gnarly, complex problems that no one but the social sector will confront. Like the Levis Strauss Foundation, LLC saw a new kind of leadership as central to the success of the sector.

Leadership in a Networked Age

Both the Pioneers in Justice mid-program evaluation and LLC’s Leadership and Networks report have a lot to say about what we might need from nonprofit leaders now. The list of possible to-dos is long. I wanted to highlight three practices that struck as both relevant and achievable for a leader of any type of organization.

 1. Networked leaders put the community first 

Both the Pioneers in Justice and LLC researchers found that activists connected by social media see themselves as affiliated with a case than organizations working on the cause. For example, in one study activists were asked to name organizations that they know who are active in their movement, many failed to name any–even the organization that had recommended that they be interviewed for the research. So while organizations continue to track allies and potential supporters, this interest is not often reciprocated. For leaders operating in a conventional context this lack of recognition would be represent a branding issue. But leaders operating from networked perspective see this as a new normal. Rather than working branding, networked leaders pursue “network weaving,” or pulling people together to facilitate their effective collaboration. Whether they get credit for their efforts or not. This is a very different view of the role of leadership than the “leader as hero” model that has been (and still is) the conventional default.

2. Networked leaders dismantle outdated processes, even when it’s hard 

According to Abdi Soltani, head of the ACLU of Northern California, and a Pioneer in Justice cohort member, even in the age of Facebook it was common for  ACLU chapters to share most of their information via monthly board meetings and nowhere else. This, after all, is how the organization had done it for 80 years. Soltani sought to reshape the system by introducing digital tools to make communication between volunteers more frequent and updates on time-sensitive issues more relevant. He reported that the process of shifting the ACLU volunteer network to this new approach felt “agonizingly slow”.

The systems that LLC researchers saw needed dismantling were traditional leadership programs. To help leaders master network behaviors leadership programs would have to adopt and model network principles. This meant the leaders of leadership (often funders) would have to give up control and give participants opportunities to self-organize and co-design their experience.

3. Networked leaders share power

The Pioneers for Justice cohort found that decentralizing leadership is one way of dismantling organizational barriers to network development. To do so means relating to leadership as a practice rather than a formal position. Day to day this can look like job-sharing top roles like ED, not out of need but by choice. It can also look like distributing leadership for a program across several organizations rather than owning a successful initiative outright. According the LLC researchers, sharing power requires first daring to “have explicit and authentic conversations” about power dynamics with staff, board, service recipients, and funders. Networked collaboration is built on a foundation of authentic communication, or not at all.

The Networked Nonprofit

In my first post, I looked at the impact of social media on social movements.

In this post, I’m going to look at the impact on nonprofit organizations. Just as social networking tools are shaking up the way companies do business, they’re also changing how nonprofits operate. But while in the for-profit sector social organizations use technologies to bolster internal networks, in the nonprofit sector social technology is being applied to foster collaboration between organizations.

This “networked” approach is upending how nonprofits operate. Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano captured the shift in an article on the networked nonprofit in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“Unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.”

In her research, Wei-Skillern’s found that nonprofits are more effective when they adopt a networked approach, building alliances with others in their social sphere, even with organizations that were previously perceived as competitors.

A Shift in Perspective

For folks working in the nonprofit field, this networked way of operating represents a shift in perspective and behavior. In their book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting With Social Media to Drive Change, Alison Fine and Beth Kanter listed the characteristics and traits of a networked nonprofit organization:

  • Transparent
  • Engaging people outside the organization in sharing their work
  • Focused on building relationships
  • Willing to trade control (even of program and brand) to generate more involvement for the cause

Social networking technology, according to Kanter and Fine, makes these ways of operating possible. While the technology is important, the investigation of the networked nonprofit centers on the behavior change that’s required and demonstrated when an organization adopts this approach.

Changing Behavior

Ultimately, according to Kanter and Fine, organizations that want to become networked do end up doing things differently. To shift from organization-centered to network-centered ways of working nonprofits can take the following five steps:

  1. Understand their ecosystem. To become networked it’s important first understand the networks in which you operate. Kanter and Fine recommend mapping the networks and identifying the influencers (network weavers, is the term they use) and what’s important to them.
  2. Create social cultures. This includes embracing a greater degree of transparency, rewarding staff for engaging in learning and reflection, and embracing social technologies as tools for authentic conversation with internal and external stakeholders.
  3. Engage in social channels to create relationships, increasing their interactions with external audiences.
  4. Increase the transparency of the organization. Share as much information as possible. Create opportunities for questions to be asked and for people outside the organization to contribute ideas and critiques.
  5. Simplify organizational structures. For example, foregoing formal contractually underwritten partnerships for more loosely constructed “networked” relationships with other organizations. Letting go of control whenever possible in favor of taking more action.

Of course just as companies have a compelling business case for adopting ESN technologies and cultivating internal networks, nonprofits step into the networked world in order to optimize their performance. Like advocates for social business in the for profit world, champions of networked nonprofits argue that failing to adapt means missing out on opportunities to connect with customers–i.e. supporters and donors.

Kanter and Fine make a distinction between organizations that sprung up in the past 16 years and so have the networked way of operation baked in, and legacy organizations, older nonprofits, for whom embracing social networking and the networked way or working represents a change.

Change is a challenge for an organization of any size. In the next post I’m going to look at how some leaders are shifting their legacy organizations into the new networked world, the obstacles they face and the results they’re producing.

Social Media and Social Change: An Evolving Narrative

There’s a quote from Li & Bernoff’s book Groundswell that I loved (and still love, actually) and always tried to work into presentations back in the day when introducing organizations to social media tools was a full-time gig for a communications consultant. The quote goes like this:

“Social media is a social trend in which people use technologies to get what they need from each other rather than from traditional institutions.” It was exciting in 2008, to consider all the good that could come from the connections the technology seemed to make possible.

But, obviously, a lot has changed since 2008, when Groundswell was first published. Social technologies, tools and channels have grown immensely becoming almost ubiquitous.  Consequently, the use of social technologies by social change movements and social service professionals has also grown.  The narrative about the role of social media in social change has shifted as well.

As someone now wading into that narrative stream for the next few weeks, I thought I that might start this series of posts by looking at some ways that the story about social media for social change has unfolded since Web 2.0 tools took off in 2008-09.

This is by no means the full story. Just  a thin sliver of the evolving narrative on social media and social change to get us started.

A Star is Born

How did the connection between social media as a tool for social change first develop? A key early link seems to have been forged during the Iranian student uprising in 2009.  This was the first of the Arab Spring uprisings labeled as a “Twitter Revolution”. Though the use of Twitter by Iranian activists was actually quite limited, a new meme had been born. The narrative was reinforced during the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, where the use of social media channels as an organizing tool was genuinely significant.

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Photo by Awais Chaudhry

“In Tahrir Square I sat one morning next to a 60-year-old surgeon cheerfully tweeting his involvement in the protest,” wrote a reporter for the Guardian. “The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones.”

Today the use of social media is a through line the runs through much coverage of social change movements.

Skeptics vs. Evangelists

One of the early controversies about the effectiveness of social media as a tool for social change broke out in October 2010 with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s takedown piece in the New Yorker.  In the article, Gladwell, best known as the popularizer of the tipping point and himself no stranger to public derision, took full aim at social media advocates, taking them to task for overvaluing the role of social technology as a tool for social change. Don’t believe the hype, Gladwell warned. Social media was good for somethings, of course. It could be used to quickly mobilize networks of people to take quick low-risk actions, like signing up to bone marrow donors.  But it couldn’t and wouldn’t create the kinds of committed relationships that real social change requires. “Where activists were once defined by their causes,” Gladwell wrote in frustration. “They are now defined by their tools.”

Several months later, in early 2011, Clay Shirky, one of the evangelists singled by Gladwell in his New Yorker piece, responded with a long article in Foreign Affairs. Shirky admitted that social media—which which he categorized as text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking “and the like”—had a mixed track record. Sure, social tools could be said blamed for created cadre of slacktivists, folks whose activism was limited to thumbing-up posts. But, beyond that social media had become, according to Shirky, the coordinating tool of choice for organizers. Gladwell’s critique was “correct but not central to the question of social media’s power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.”

Occupying the New World

Like its peers in the Middle East Occupy Wall Street, or the Occupy movement, as its come to be known is claimed both by skeptics and evangelists as an example of the power and limits of social media for social change. We’re told that Occupy organizers relied on social media extensively but also that fearful of surveillance they avoided social tools at key points. Regardless, by the time Occupy Wall Street moved into Zucotti Park in September of 2011, social media had already redefined how social change activists went about their business.

Here’s a nice summary from a 2011 issue of Wired:

“From the beginning, the core of the Occupy movement has  been the same distributed network of small protests groups….Whether or not they see technology as their primary means of organizing, technology is utterly crucial in the way their whole model works —keeping connected without the benefit (or detriment, as the case may be) of a central authority.”

And here, by the way, is what some of the Occupy activists are up to today

Facing the Dark Side of the Force

The experience of the Arab Spring, Occupy, and work down by cyber-skeptics, such as Evgeny Morozov, all demonstrate that social media can be a boon and a threat to progressive social change.

Smart dictators, Morozov has pointed out repeatedly, take full advantage of social media to monitor, disrupt and to destroy movements and activists. If social media can be used to dispel propaganda it can also be used to propagate rumors and to discredit change agents.

Activists who use social media to organize can use it to turn on each other in ugly and self-defeating ways. For more on that, check out this frank Ted Talk by Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian engineer who launched the Facebook page most associated with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

And since technology is morally neutral, it works equally well for activists of all stripes. ISIS is said to be winning the social media war. And so is this guy.

What’s Next?

Predictably, the narrative about the role of social tools in social movements continues to evolve. You won’t be surprised to learn that topic of social media use in the Arab Spring has launched a thousand research projects. Here’s a 7-page literature review with three pages and 109 sources cited just about the role of Twitter alone. And the narrative arc as presented in the popular press will keep changing, and changing, and changing.

While researchers and journalists construct a narrative by looking back at past events, funders in the philanthropic sector seem to be trying to look forward to anticipate the  changes in organizational structures and leadership models required in a social media enabled world. More on that in the coming weeks.