There is a great deal of news, opinion, and discussion these days about the wave of social business which is generally thought to include a shift toward new ways of doing business largely through the use of social technologies like wikis, social networks, etc.
As people who are thinking about the implications of this shift to social business for our future careers, or as managers or a members of the c-suite who are thinking about the implications of this shift for the future of the organization, it seems to me we need to step back from the river of information and predictions for a moment, and ask ourselves a basic question:
How fundamental are these changes likely to be, really?
After a good deal of research into , and thinking on the matter, i have come to the conclusion that the answer is: quite fundamental. To make my case, i won’t be relying on poll data, or industry stats, or historical analysis or case studies, but rather a series of simple logical propositions derived from decades of theory and research on organizations. As you follow along, check these against your own experience, and i think you will reach a similar conclusion. Ready? Let’s dive in.
Every institution (regular pattern of human interactions, i.e., open source software production, crowdsourcing, viral spreading, vendor relations management, group buying, etc.) or organization (a particular type of institution, i.e., WalMart, Zappos, IBM, Threadless, etc.) only exists because of a set of formal, informal, spoken, unspoken and textual agreements between people (a.k.a. attributions of function, rules, norms, institutional statements, in which two or more people “agree” that x counts for y in a given context, like “dollar bills count for purchasing power in a market” or “the title CEO counts for power in an organization”). No agreements, no institution or organization. Different agreements, different institution or organization.
Agreements are always constituted by social interactions like conversations, sharing of information, etc. No social interactions, no agreements. Different social interactions, different agreements.
Social interactions are completely reliant on symbolic communication. No symbolic communication, no social interactions. Different symbolic communication, different social interactions.
Symbolic communication is dependent on the medium that is available (broadly defined as something which expands the speed and scale of human events, like language, telephones, computers, etc.) and the way that the medium is used (speaking, writing, broadcast, social networking). No medium and use, no symbolic communication. Different medium and use, different symbolic communication.
At this point you may be asking yourself why you read this far. This all seems pretty obvious, right? Here’s where it gets interesting:
Working back up this logical chain, we can see that the increasing availability of new media forms, and the increasing use of these new media in very different ways, is making it possible to form new types of institutions and organizations. It is also making it more likely that people will form new types over time, largely because these new media and uses of those media are making new forms of symbolic communication possible and likely, which in turn makes new forms of social interactions possible and likely, which in turn makes new forms of agreements possible and likely.
When different types of institutions and organizations begin to be formed, whole ecosystems of institutions and organizations begin to change as these new forms (and the old ones) begin to interact with each other. Groupon interacts with box stores, Anonymous interacts with the FBI, Local Motors interacts with Crowdsourcing and General Motors, student bodies interact with teachers, teachers with school administrations, etc.
When these ecosystems change, some of the old types, and some of the new types of institutions and organizations survive and thrive, and others wane and disintegrate, sometimes from lack of continuity (waning use of the formal titles Ma’am and Sir or the lack of subscriptions for news corporations), and sometimes from formal disintegration (legal bans on the institution of hazing or the legal dissolution of a corporation).
With all of this in mind, now we can revisit our question: How fundamental are these changes, really?
Very. Because logically, the ways that social technologies are profoundly different technically, and differently used, than previous technologies are changing organizations not just by providing a new set of tools, but by fundamentally changing the nature of the agreements that constitute our institutions and organizations. Evidence of these shifting agreements show up in ongoing questions about whether hiding information still counts for power in all contexts, whether a unified company brand counts as more valuable than one co-created with consumers, whether a leader’s willingness to show faults counts as weakness in organizations, if owning source code counts as more valuable than sharing it widely, if paid content editors count as more qualified than groups of volunteers, whether playing World of Warcraft counts as quality social interaction or not, etc. etc.
We can see evidence of these shifting agreements when we look at new, powerful and sustained social business institutions and organizations like Wikipedia, Zappos, SalesForce, Anonymous, etc. which are only possible to form, and likely to be formed, because of the new technologies and their widespread new forms of use. We can also see evidence of this when we look at established, and surprisingly collapsing institutions and organizations like newspapers, encyclopedias, etc. whose agreements within their organizations, and with the public have shifted in an ecosystem of new media and new uses of those media.
Armed with a little deeper, more basic perspective, we can go back to the flood of news and opinions and predictions about the coming wave of social business with a more critical eye as we think about our future careers and our future organizations and institutions.
Here is an abbreviated list of sources you might want to read to further explore this topic:
- Searle, John. (2005). What is an institution?. Journal of Institutional Economics, 1 , pp 1-22.
- American, The, Political Science, and No Sep. “A Grammar of Institutions Sue E . S . Crawford ; Elinor Ostrom.” Political Science 89, no. 3 (2007): 582-600.
- Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press.
- Orlikowski, W.J. and Scott, S.V. (2008). Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization, The Academy of Management Annals 2: 433–474.
- Scott, W.R. (2008) Institutions and Organizations: Ideas and Interests, 3rd edn (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
- Zammuto, R.F., Griffith, T.L., Majchrzak, A., Dougherty, D.J., & Faraj, S. (2007). Information technology and the changing fabric of organization. Organization Science, 18(5), 749–762.
- Organization Design: An Information Processing View. Jay R. Galbraith Interfaces Vol. 4, No. 3 (May, 1974), pp. 28-36
- Beniger, JR.(1986). The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society. Harvard University Press.
- McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding Media, critical ed. Corte Madera: Gingko Press
One of the key marks of any sort of fluency is the ability to be a critical producer and consumer of meaning within a community. A fluent English speaker is able to critically think about what they say and hear, and then to figure out the hidden meanings and motivations, the power dynamics and subtle cues that have and create meaning. They are able to tell and understand a joke, figure out when a person is lying, when they are telling the truth, exaggerating, or perhaps even taking poetic license for comedic effect. A fluent person is able to fully participate in the range of communication, relatively free from manipulation, from embarrassment, or from inadvertently doing unintended things to others.
As more and more people begin to dip their toes into online culture, the pile of cases is growing of people whose lack of fluency, and specifically their lack of ability to create and consume meaning through digital media, is having adverse consequences for them and for the people around them.
Two examples will easily illustrate the point. The first came to my attention today, through an article by The Atlantic Wire about Congressman John Fleming, who recently seems to have mistaken a year-old satirical article by The Onion for a real news story. The result is a question in the minds of many about what other sources of information might be mis-informing the politician. Lest you think that Fleming is the exception, though, you may want to visit http://literallyunbelievable.org/, a web site dedicated to cataloging similar gaffes by the scores of people who are fooled by The Onion articles, and then post their comments to Facebook.
In the second example, a number of media organizations, including the excellent publication F@st Company, mistakenly wrote serious stories about a blog post of a girl quitting her job, when she was actually an actress, hired by TheChive.com to take part in a hoax.
The antidote to these adverse effects is the development of a trio of abilities that are part of digital fluency. They are judgement, or the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources, networking, or the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information, and transmedia navigation, or the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities. 
Armed with these abilities, the fluent person is usually able to quickly detect satirical or untruthful content, even when it is spread across multiple networks and platforms. They are also able to easily use their own human and technical networks to confirm the accuracy of their detections.
In any organization, the more people there are with these abilities, the greater will be its immunity from silly mistakes like misquoting an Onion article and more grave mistakes like falling for phishing attacks, passing along critical false information to decision makers, or accidentally giving away company secrets.
 Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century, white paper for MacArthur Foundation.
When using just about any modern social technology, each of us is eventually presented with a choice to share something we have created with a group, a network, or potentially to the entire connected world. For many people, this choice is thrilling. For many others, it is terrifying.
The difference between thrill and fear depends on our ability to play. Henry Jenkins refers to this as the ”Capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.”  Applied directly to digital media, it is the ability to look at the “what are you working on questions” boxes or the “publish” buttons in the image to the left without letting a negative type (there is a positive type of perfectionism) and amount of perfectionism prevent you from sharing the information effectively, or from sharing it at all. It involves a comfort level with action in the face of very uncertain outcomes.
In recent research, we interviewed a surprising number of gregarious, personable, technically-able people who froze when presented with the ability to post a 140-character message to their corporate team, or when afforded the ability to publish a blog post. In further conversations with these people, each of them mentioned struggles with perfectionism, which came from many sources. For some, it was driven by the desire to communicate a message with specificity and clarity, which seemed difficult to squeeze into 140 characters. For others, it was fear that their intent might be misinterpreted by the hundreds or even thousands of people who might read their message inside or outside of their organizations. Using a baseball metaphor, one CEO suggested that this tendency toward perfectionism—which he tied to the difficulty of using digital technologies—came from years of business training that encouraged people to carefully “wait for just the right pitch, and then to swing for the fences,” instead of trying to do little experiments, and experiencing little failures, to eventually achieve success.
The use of social technology is a far more open, public and performative action than using a telephone, or email, or meeting face-to-face, where we can more easily know who sees or hears us, and can more easily control the size of that audience. Consequently, any perfectionist tendencies (both positive and negative) we have already are heightened when we take part in these activities. An increase in the negative type of perfectionism can slow the sharing process to a painful crawl or shut it down altogether.
An increase in the positive type of perfectionism—that strives for perfection without fear of falling short—can increase the speed of the sharing process and increase our ability to play with social technology by spurring us to write and publish the best status update we can, or by pushing us to publish a well-enough-written blog post like this one, despite the fact that we know it is not perfect. (gulp)
 Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for
the 21st century, white paper for MacArthur Foundation.
 Stoeber, Joachim, and Kathleen Otto. “Personality and Social Psychology Review.” Personality and Social Psychology Review (2006).
Over the recent holiday, my wife and I visited family, friends and colleagues back home in Boston. I found myself watching the different ways that people communicated and got things done, and the ease (or difficulty) with which each did so.
Some were able to easily find the people or information they needed and coordinate their interactions. On one of the days, for example, I was able to fire up a Google+ hangout and have a short video conference with a colleague 1,000 miles away about a software project. On another day, an old friend sent a message via Facebook that she had serendipitously seen me walking across a street near Harvard Square, and I was able to change my schedule on the spot and stop by her office that day.
For other people, the ability to find the people or information they needed to coordinate their interactions was difficult and sometimes impossible. In one instance, an acquaintance who was trying to learn an important new software program on their computer struggled to figure out how to search for and play even one of the many free online YouTube videos that would have shown him in minutes how to get started. In another instance, I kept forgetting to check my mobile phone for text messages, and almost missed a chance to see my best friend.
Each of these is an example of different levels of time, energy and even money expended in order to interact with another person or to make something happen. If we stretch the strict definition of an economics term a bit, we can think of these levels as transaction costs. My Google+ hangout arguably lowered the transaction cost incurred by my meeting. It barely took any time, energy or money. I didn’t need to fly back to Bloomington, and didn’t even need to get out of my pajamas. My friend’s inability to find a YouTube tutorial arguably raised the transaction cost incurred by buying and trying to learn the new software. He agonized over the intricacies of the software, and at the time when I left him, had given up on learning the software at all.
Here is the big business implication: When an organization’s people have a high ability—the digital fluency—necessary to choose and use the right technologies for their particular context, the transaction costs of the organization are lowered, especially when those technologies include the powerful digital technologies—like mobile smartphones, wikis, social networks, wikis, etc—already in wide use today. In some cases, the transaction costs will be reduced so much that it will affect the way that the organization can and should structure itself—a fact pointed out by Ronald Coase in his 1937 paper The Nature of the Firm. In the paper, he suggested that changes in these technologies, or what he called coordinating mechanisms might cause significant changes to an organization—even to its organizational size and structure:
“Changes like the telephone and the telegraph which tend to reduce the cost of organising spatially will tend to increase the size of the firm. All changes which improve managerial technique will tend to increase the size of the firm.“
When Coase made this claim in 1937, telephones and “business machines” (later called computers) were beginning to change organizations, just as the economist had predicted.
When, on the other hand, an organization’s people have a low ability—the lack of digital fluency—necessary to choose and use the right technologies for their particular context, the transaction costs of the organization go up, reducing competitiveness, locking the organization into existing operating models and leaving it vulnerable to shocks.
 Coase, R. H. (1937). The nature of the firm. Economica, 386–405.
Here’s a little experiment. Make a mental list of the things that you know you should be doing, but are not. Exercising every day? Writing a book? Training for a marathon? Eating healthier food? Spending more time with family? Fixing the roof on your house?
Now put your list into two categories. Into the first category, place the things you have the ability to do, but don’t. Most people know how to eat healthy food, for example, and most of us have a general idea how to exercise, and spending time with family doesn’t require special training. Into the second category, place the things you don’t yet have the ability to do. Not everyone knows how to use the tools needed to fix a roof, for example, and not everyone knows how to properly train for a marathon.
The strategy you use to achieve the things in the first category (the things you already have the knowledge, skills and mindset for) will center on your ability to prioritize your time differently. Let’s call this an adoption strategy. The strategy you use to achieve the things in the second category (the things you don’t have the knowledge, skills and mindset for) will have to first center on your ability to do the things in the first place. We might call this a learning strategy. Applying the wrong strategy to the wrong category won’t work very well. If you haven’t learned to use a hammer or how to use shingles and flashing, you can adopt the behavior of fixing the roof, but there is still going to be a leak somewhere. Chances are, though, you are never going to get up on the roof at all.
Much of the recent thinking about digital technology adoption in areas like social networks, blogs, video, microblogs and wikis in companies focuses primarily on adoption to ensure that people migrate their work patterns away from inefficient uses of email, telephone calls and meetings and toward more efficient uses of newer technologies. This has limited effectiveness, because it hinges on a false assumption: that the knowledge, skills and mindset necessary to use email, telephones and face-to-face meetings are the same as those necessary to use digital technologies.
Over the course of the last two years, some colleagues and I at SociaLens have been developing a different model of how people move toward fluent digital technology adoption. Understanding where a person, team or workforce is in this process has big implications for whether they are candidates for an adoption strategy at all:
This is the initial stage where a person does not see the value in becoming literate (having the basic skills) in the use of a technology at all. In this stage a person also does not see the value in other people becoming literate.
This is the stage where a person begins to see the value in becoming literate in a technology, both for themselves and for others, though they do not yet have the knowledge, skills and mindset yet to be literate.
This is the stage where a person possesses the basic abilities that allow for the full use of digital technology. They know how to use it and the basics of what it is good for.
This is the stage where a person has moved beyond the what and how of digital media use, and now understands why the use is important and when it is appropriate (or inappropriate). Use becomes second-nature, or “easy.” At this point the person no longer needs to think deeply about the what and how, except to occasionally reflect on its use as the world around us continues to change.
Until enough people in a group or organization are at least literate in the use of digital technologies, which means they have the basic knowledge (like how information moves through networks, how identity is properly managed in open environments, etc.) skills (like how to tag content, how to create a profile photo, how to do effective searches, etc.) and mindset (comfort with public sharing of ideas, sense of commenting etiquette, etc.) technology adoption strategies that attempt to shove people into these environments are unlikely to work very well if they are not preceded by learning strategies.
Some colleagues and I signed up to take part in a Google+ Video Hangout last week with Kevin Kelly, techno-philosopher and co-founder of Wired Magazine, to discuss his new book What Technology Wants. It is the product of seven years of research and thinking about how we as humans should relate to the technium, by which he means not just technology but also its interconnected web of man-made
“..culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections.”
One of his feelings at the end of his research is that what technology (the technium) wants—by which he means its tendencies, its direction, its biases—is greater possibilities for the world and for humans by extending our abilities to act in the world.
“Yes, technology is acquiring its own autonomy and will increasingly maximize its own agenda, but this agenda includes—as its foremost consequence—maximizing possibilities for us.”
Toward the end of our discussion, the conversation turned to the blessing and the curse of the increasing number of human technology-enabled possibilities, especially as it relates to digital fluency.
That there is a blessing should be obvious to most of us. Humans now have the possibility of choosing from a wider range of life professions than in the past. We have the possibility of traveling by foot, bicycle, car, motorcycle, boat, train, or by plane to just about anywhere in the world. We have the possibility of using any of hundreds of free or cheap digital technologies in order to communicate and collaborate with anyone just about anywhere on the planet.
The curse is a little less obvious, though just as important. The more possibilities we have over time, the curse lies not in the possibilities, but in the increasing pressure to choose wisely between them, especially for those of us who have developed our mindsets and behaviors in times of scarce possibilities. At a certain point, it becomes possible that a person or an organization will fail by having too many possibilities than by having too few. In the digital age this seems to be occurring in more areas of our lives, especially those that include the use of digital technology.
In an age of almost infinite digital possibilities, it is easy to fill up a person’s or an organization’s time with data gathering, content sharing, connecting with people, that hurts more than it helps. Digital fluency provides the ability to know what not to do, and which technologies not to use, as well as the ability to know what to do. Like a person fluent in Spanish knows how to say just one or two key words out of the thousands they could say, and the fluent accompanist knows when to let the singer go a capella, the digitally fluent person is completely comfortable turning off their computer, or focusing on one out of the hundreds of possible streams of data, or choosing one or two key communications channels that will lead to the achievement of their goals.
Earlier this week, I waded through a freshly-minted report by Capgemini/MIT Center for Digital Business from their ongoing study of billion dollar organizations and their efforts to begin using digital technologies as a core part of their business—what they are calling digital transformation. The report is worth looking at for many reasons, though it is 68 pages in length, so be sure to block out some quality time if you plan to read it. If nothing else, take a look at the one-page conclusions at the end of the report, which include the following high-level recommendations for senior leaders hoping to transform their organizations through the use of digital technologies:
- Create a transformative vision of the organization’s digital future—including the assets that will be valuable, the ways that the customer experience, internal operations and the business model can be transformed, and the ways that units can work together differently using digital technology.
- Invest in digital transformation initiatives—including new technologies, smart experimental initiatives, and the development or acquisition of new skills and capabilities.
- Lead the change from the top—including frequent communication of the vision through new technologies like webcasts, internal social networks, discussion forums, blogs, etc.
These recommendations are important and valuable, but i would like to add two more which may be necessary for the first three to be effective:
- Build the senior leaders’ fluency with digital technology early in this process—There are two reasons for this. The first is so that the vision will be truly transformative. A person who has experienced first-hand how collective intelligence or distributed cognition (i will write more on these elements of digital fluency in later posts) work in digital culture is best positioned to understand the long-term transformative power that the use of wikis or internal social networks might have for their organization. A high level of fluency will make these senior leaders less likely to either under-estimate the potential transformation or over-estimate it, giving them the best possible chance of envisioning the long-term impact of digital transformation. It will also help them to communicate that vision with confidence. The second reason for building senior leaders’ digital fluency is so that they will be ready to use these new technologies as part of the process for creating and communicating the vision. Mixing telephone conference calls and in-person meetings with webcasts, jams, internal social networks and other means to build and communicate the vision is a great way to model the intentional use of the technology, and send a strong message of advocacy about the importance of digital transformation.
- Get as many digitally fluent people around the senior leaders as possible—One or two digitally fluent senior leaders on their own are going to have a limited impact if the board of directors, heads of business units, directors and even managers around them do not have at least some digital fluency as well. Support and buy-in will come more easily from people who understand the potential dangers and benefits of this sort of transformation.
 Early in our work on digital fluency, we defined literacy as the ability to understand and use digital technology transactionally, and fluency as the ability to understand and use digital technology transformationally. As a simple example, a professional photographer with a literate/transactional understanding of a digital camera might envision that it will speed up their photography process, or allow them to save money on film. The same person with a fluent/transformational understanding would be further able to envision the ways that a digital camera might transform their entire creative process and even her business model. For example, she might begin shooting and cataloguing thousands of photos and videos (something that was unthinkable before digital cameras) and posting most of them online under a creative commons license in order to create a widespread awareness and demand for her paid services.
I haven’t always been that great at predicting the future. If you had pulled me out of my math-for-jocks high school math class in 1987 and asked, i would not have predicted that i would be spending part of my time in 2011 teaching university students. If you had done the same in 1994, i would not have predicted that a simple web site that allows people to upload videos would be an enabling technology to middle eastern revolutions, domestic civil action, customer dissatisfaction, and artistic inanity in 2011.
Prediction in a Fast, Unstable World
As it turns out, i’m not alone. We are all a little behind the curve, but i’m beginning to forgive myself, because i’m in good company, and there are some good reasons for our lack of vision. I attended a talk last week by Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft Research, about digital technology and the increasing speed of change (which he attributed at its root to Moore’s Law), and the related big changes in human society—what Grudin calls “bombs”—that keep catching so many of us by surprise. I snapped a photo of one of his slides depicting the major bombs that have occurred over the course of the last few decades.
Grudin attributes our lack of ability to see the future to the difficulty of wrapping our minds around the logarithmic nature of Moore’s law, and the speed of the changes that accompany it. It is as if we are wired to perceive slower change, so when the speed of change doubles, and doubles again, and then again, we poor humans are constantly a step or two behind, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, looking “..at the present through a rear-view mirror.” and marching “..backwards into the future.” 
This week, I also happened to be reading a book from 1971 entitled Beyond the Stable State, in which Donald Schön (also one of the early thinkers on the idea of learning organizations) pointed out that the widespread use of “meta-technologies” like computers and communication systems (he was writing this well before the widespread public use of the World Wide Web) not only represent rapid change in and of themselves, but are also platforms which facilitate far more rapid innovation and diffusion of every other type of technological and social change as well.
The Next Bomb
In Grudin’s estimation, the next big bomb to hit us will be a rapid change in organizational and institutional behavior. My research and experience so far leads me to agree with him, though you would be right to approach both of our predictions with a healthy degree of skepticism!
Why The Organizational Bomb Is Dropping So Late
Grudin suggests that one reason this change is happening so much later than the changes that happened to hardware, software, user interface and consumer behavior is that organizations and institutions have a lot more inertia behind them, which help them to resist change. I think he is right in this assessment. In Beyond the Stable State, Donald Schön writes that “Social systems [especially organizations and institutions] resist change with an energy roughly proportional to the radicalness of the change that is threatened.”  Often, they display behaviors that are what Schön calls dynamic conservatism.
Looking at today’s organizations through this lens, we can start to understand why they have been slow to adopt newer digital technologies like social media and enterprise 2.0 so far. If we look at the technologies themselves, they don’t seem all that radical. Computers have been around for decades, and so has the Internet. But if we look at the practices that are co-evolving with the mass adoption of these technologies, they are quite radical from the perspective of traditional organizations. In fact, things like transparent workstreaming, fluid identities, many-to-many interactions, mashups, folksonomies, etc. touch deep within three core parts of what Schön says make up a social system or an organization: Its Structure (patterns of control and interaction between people including assymmetry of information, roles, etc.), its Theory (formal and informally expressed world views, beliefs and ideas), and its Technology (“hard” and “soft” tools and techniques which extend human capabilities like computers, market research, cost control, etc.).
I think there are three things that we can learn from all of this.
The first lesson for me is that we need to do more than just re-configure our organizations so that we can get back to a stable state. Rather, we need to reconfigure organizations so that they consistently overcome their tendency toward dynamic conservatism, and are able to adapt to, and even embrace increasingly unstable states. Mechanisms like rolling forecasts, the adoption of social work practices, the development of new collaborative and alternative strategic planning processes are key steps in this direction.
The second lesson is that more of us need to become better acquainted with the underlying digital material that is driving this change. It is no longer sufficient for the IT department and teenagers to be the ones with a deep understanding of digital technology. Managers and leaders today need to understand how digital information flows through sociotechnical networks, how it affects the culture inside and outside of the organization, how it shifts control and power, the economics of intellectual property, productivity, etc. much as the managers and leaders of the 1800’s needed to understand how the harnessing of steam power and electricity did.
The final thing, and perhaps the most important thing i think we can learn is humility. The faster things change and the more unstable they become, the less we can hold with a death grip to our long-term predictions.
 McLuhan Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books.
 Schön, D.A. Beyond the stable state. Random House New York, 1971.
As we continue to look at the management innovations and emerging technologies that enable the strategic alignment, resource fluidity, strong organizational culture and prepared minds of today’s adaptable organizations, a foundational, but often overlooked challenge that weaves throughout all of these areas is the need to develop digital fluency which will allow anyone in the organization to use digital technology to contribute to these outcomes.
Communication, Technology Change the Ways Things Get Done
I work with sociologists, behavioral economists and psychologists who study the ways that people work together to get things done. All of these folks will tell you that the use of communication and technology directly affects the ability to get things done, and that a change in the mode of communication or technology affect lots of other things, like the rules the group needs to put in place, the norms and practices that they adopt, the tasks that they can reasonably achieve, and even the way they will structure and manage organizations. Just this week for example, one of these researchers told me about a simple collective action experiment that took twice as long as expected when some of the participants spoke English poorly and others were native speakers. Another researcher in the group recounted how his simple experiment went awry when many of the participants did not know how to use Mac computers. This is not a new idea of course, nor is it limited to university experiments. It applies to businesses as well. Back in 1937, in fact, Nobel prize-winning Economist Ron Coase wrote that “Changes like the telephone and the telegraph which tend to reduce the cost of organizing spatially will tend to increase the size of the firm.”  It also applies to society at large. Thousands of protestors in the Middle East have been able to coordinate protests more quickly and on a larger scale using Twitter, but they have also posted many messages in English as a way of signaling to the world beyond the protest.
The Ability to Use Technology and Communicate Also Changes the Way Things Get Done.
I also work with people who study the ways that people learn and use different forms of technology. All of these folks will tell you that the mindset, knowledge and skills necessary to use a mobile telephone and email well are very different from those needed to use SharePoint, Salesforce Chatter, Facebook, Jive, YouTube and Twitter. Though the use of email and a company collaboration platform like SalesForce Chatter both happen on a computer in a window, they require very very different abilities.
Moving from Digital Literacy to Digital Fluency
Right now we are in the midst of a revolution in the communication technologies that are being used, and the ways that people are using those technologies to communicate. Adaptable organizations will not just have a few people scattered across the organization with a literate (transactional) level of ability to use Twitter, Facebook and SharePoint. Rather, they will increasingly be filled with C-Suite people, mid-level managers and employees with a fluent (transformational) level of ability to understand and to use any of these technologies in order to build the social capital in their organizational culture, create strategic innovation and alignment, locate and mobilize expertise and keep each other’s minds prepared with an ambient awareness of the organizational situation, and interact and innovate with customers and partners.
In the coming weeks and months, I’m excited to filter out and highlight some of the recent articles and research in this area, and to explore the need for digital fluency in more depth. I am also excited to explore the ways that this key set of abilities contribute to an organization’s ability to adapt and thrive in today’s complex environment.
 Coase, R. H. (1937). The nature of the firm. Economica, 386–405.