Are You ‘Open’ For Business?

Are You ‘Open’ For Business?

The last two years have seen an explosion of books, articles and talks about ‘social business’. There are currently 108,250 social business books on and when IBM have written a book about it you know it’s a big deal.

But the problem I have with the phrase ‘social business’ is that it does not really communicate the nature of what’s happening. Socialising is what we do on Facebook. What we do – using similar platforms – at work, is different. The principles of collaboration, sharing and connecting in the workplace is more about being ‘open’.

Social business should really be called ‘open business’.

What Is Open Business?

An open business is a work environment where ideas can come from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Open-ness means getting away from the command and control ideas of traditional management. Indeed it is often tradition, as well as ego (of the manager) and fear (of the worker) that get in the way of being open.

The manager thinks they know best, as they have the experience and status. The worker fears being seen to be critical. Both fear being made redundant by their own suggestions. So people return to the default roles of ‘worker’ and ‘manager’ – it’s just easier that way.

But in my opinion an open business is the only way to run a modern business.

You need every perspective, as the world is a more and more dynamic place. You cannot possibly know or see every angle, so having many pairs of eyes on a problem isn’t just ‘nice to have’ – it’s the only way you’ll survive.

Why And How Be Open?

Management thinker John Hagel talks of outside Knowledge Flows being key for success in modern business. But first you need to unlock the knowledge flows within your business. This is easier said than done, as company culture – particularly corporate culture – doesn’t tend to encourage people to speak up.

This cartoon by the great Tom Fishburne – while focused on external collaboration – neatly illustrates the point:


To foster an open business, you need an open culture. This doesn’t happen overnight, or with a new ‘social’ intranet – it’s a genuine commitment from the top down to open up and listen – and systematically act on the feedback.

At Techdept we operate what we call The Open Business System. This is where we systematise the business (into a series of simple checklists) – and say to our team:

  • The system is the boss
  • You can change the system
  • Therefore you are the boss

This comes from a genuine belief that the founders and directors cannot be the fount of all knowledge. It’s impossible, and actually pretty arrogant to think so.

The objective should be to pool best practice as a team, and learn as we operate – a learning organisation. We are – after all – reliant on each other for success, and you cannot know everything in advance, so agility and open-ness to ideas from any source is critical.

Techdept is on a journey of opening up and encouraging greater participation. But it is still early days, and what is apparent is that these things take time. As the Managing Director I can stand up and say ‘let’s do this’, but for people to really engage in this vision takes hard work, trust and focus.

There are others who have progressed far further on their journey of open business practice, from whom we can all learn.

Industrial Democracy

The ultimate in open-ness is in companies where the workers run the business. Perhaps the most well known of the proponents of industrial democracy is Ricardo Semler  – owner of Brazilian industrial conglomerate Semco. Under his leadership, revenue grew from US$4 million in 1982 to US$212 million in 2003.

Semler has built a manufacturing business with the workers making the decisions. It’s the total antithesis of modern management thinking. If the workers set the targets, then they will set them low, right? Actually the workers would set targets which were realistic, taking control of all aspects of production. So as and when things went wrong – for example, a supplier being late with parts – they would move heaven and earth to get their commitments fulfilled. It was truly owned, as a matter of principle – not outside ‘management’ control.

The more recent Holocracy movement, has codified an approach to a ‘manager-less’ business – which you can read here. I find it pretty hard reading to be honest, but there are most definitely things to learn from their thorough approach.

Holacracy is being practised by a range of companies, including Medium – the content platform Twitter founders created after Twitter. You can read about how they operate here.

For Techdept I was very influenced by an article that I read in Harvard Business Review. It was the headline which initially caught my attention: First, Let’s Fire All The Managers.

The article is a great insight into methods of creating transparency and distributing authority, describing the practices of Californian tomato processing plant Morning Star (revenues of $700m):

Morning Star, which has seen double-digit growth for the past 20 years, has no managers. That’s right—no bosses, no titles, no promotions. Its employees essentially manage themselves.

What I liked about their approach was the idea of creating a peer review system which essentially managed the business, acting like an interconnected support structure. As a Morning Star worker said: “around here no-one is your boss, and everyone is your boss”.

This level of transparency about people’s roles – and what Morning Star calls their team’s ‘personal mission statement’ – is healthy for a company.

We have adopted these ideas at Techdept and while people initially felt a little uncomfortable standing in front of each other discussing these things (it’s not a very ‘British’ thing to do!), people now have a far better understanding and empathy for each other’s jobs and the pressures involved.

If people don’t know what their colleagues are truly focused on (for example their personal mission and KPI’s) – then frustrations can occur. Or in the worst case, people hide behind an unfocused and unclear role, letting others take the strain.

Transparency around precisely what everyone is focused on helps everyone understand and empathise with each other, and hold each other to account. A manager shouldn’t be the only person with that awareness and responsibility – it’s too little focus, often too late.

If we’re all one team delivering the vision of the business – we should all hold each other to account, no matter the status.

So How ‘Open’ Are You?

I believe that the longer term impact of social media on business will not be new intranets or ‘like’ buttons on company forums. It will be a deep and profound change in how people perceive the issue of management and how they operate as a team.

It makes perfect sense to me, but what do you think? Can your business become an open business?

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