What Social Media Can Teach Us About Management

Modern management practices fail because organizations have grown too infused with machine-like thinking. Meanwhile, social media has garnered success for a simple but oft-overlooked reason: it plays to some of our most basic needs as people. So why not bridge the two to fix the shortcomings of modern-day management practices?

This question was asked by Jamie Notter, the co-author of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, who spoke Tuesday to a packed ballroom of HR professionals at the IHRIM HRMS Strategies Conference & Expo in Chicago.

Notter delved into a variety of topics during his near 60-minute keynote speech to kick off the conference. But the heart of his message was clear: Management as we know it is failing us, and organizations need to start being more human in how they organize and manage people.

“Management has not seen innovation like the rest of the world has in the last 50 or 100 years,” Notter said.

And social media’s rise might be the best example of how organizations can reshape people management. “Social media is going to show us the way because of the way it’s succeeding,” Notter said.

Facebook, Twitter and the host of other social media platforms have grown successful among consumers and businesses because they play to some of our most fundamental needs as humans — the desire to create and share, and build relationships.

“We create our own news, education, wisdom, entertainment, and we share it on a pretty massive scale,” Notter said. “The reason why this is so powerful is that creating and sharing are inherent human activities.”

Today’s management practices, on the contrary, insist on treating people like cogs in a well-oiled machine, which thwarts organizational flexibility and agility and, essentially, productivity. What management practices worked in the industrial age, when workers were mostly physical laborers, doesn’t work today, and many organizations have struggled to adapt to the staid practices that stem from 1950s corporate America.

“Management is failing because we have organizations that are run like machines,” Notter said. “Social media is successful because it’s treating organizations like humans.”

Part of the problem lay in dated perceptions of how to motivate people. Citing work by Dan Pink, esteemed author of books about changing the way people think about work, Notter presented the audience with the false perception that people are entirely motivated by money — and therefore paying people more should, in turn, increase performance.

But Notter said, citing Pink’s research, money has only proven to motivate a workforce when physical labor is involved — not when complicated or cognitive thinking is at the core of a job.

“If any level of complex cognitive ability is required,” Notter said, [workers’] performance goes down when you motivate them with money.”

Notter described four core human principles that organizations should focus their people management around. Organizations should seek to be open, trustworthy, generative and courageous. Each of the four, which certainly not exhaustive, is clearly evident in what has made social media a success — not just as a consumer product, but as a driver of human behavior.

Furthermore, there are some simple actions that managers can take to implement some of these principles.

First, Notter said, managers can promote openness by making a team, department or organization in general more decentralized. This is not to say that the organization or team shouldn’t have a clear leadership structure, he said, but decentralize in a way that invites “the periphery” to contribute.

“If you want to embrace decentralization, you’ll give a voice to other people,” Notter said.

Another component is ownership, he added. Managers should seek ways to give different employees within a team ownership of objectives. This way employees will gain a better understanding of different aspects of the organization, Notter said, and it will also provide a learning experience as to what works, what doesn’t and why.

All of this will require a certain level of change and, therefore, change management, he added. But change is inevitable in everything, and organizations shouldn’t balk at it.