“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.


2 thoughts on ““Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

  1. Liam Barrington-Bush (@hackofalltrades)

    Thanks for the thoughts, Patrick.

    I think I can see where you’re coming from. If I was to put it bluntly: you are not the primary target audience for the book. Quite consciously. (No offence!) I wrote this blog during the crowd-funding campaign, as a few people felt the title would put off management types. http://www.morelikepeople.org/are-you-really-calling-your-book-anarchists-in-the-boardroom/ It’s not exactly the same issue you’re raising, but I think it’s very related.

    The chatty style is both a manifestation of the approach I hope more orgs will get more comfortable adopting, and is an attempt to make it accessible to the vast majority of people in NGOs, unions and charities who don’t have the academic and professional background that you do… (Also – Read this yesterday: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/09/conversational_.html)

    I don’t mean that with any disrespect, but simply as a recognition that there are already lots of books – at least a few with broadly good ideas – that have been written with your criteria in mind.

    All this said, the argument I put to my mom, when she criticised the choice of title, was this: how can you translate it for the people around you to understand? (In her case, it was more middle-class church-going social justice types).

    If you find something uniquely valuable in it Patrick, you’ll know better than I how to frame that for the CEO of a big firm :-)

    Also – not sure if you’ve come across Common Cause’s Values and Frames work? Some very similar ideas to the stuff in my book, but definitely more ‘evidence-based’ and less chatty (though still aimed at a civil society-type audience): http://valuesandframes.org/

    Thanks for jumping into the conversation!


    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      Thanks for the links – I’ll follw them up.

      Interestingly, the title didn’t bother me at all – the idea of generating change from within – using social media to disrupt inside as well as between – organisations is a very powerful one.

      And I completely see that I’m not the primary audience. I think I was just struck by the paradox of having to speak the language of business to spread the influence of the ideas you discuss into the commercial sector.

      Of course, many in new businesses don’t need to be influenced: they already get it. My guess is that the recession will have spawned a lot more small, agile businesses, immersed in new media and socially responsible business models.

      Now, there’s a thought…


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