Saturday, April 26, 2008

Leadership at a Distance

I have just begun to read a book titled, "Leadership at a Distance" edited by Suzanne P. Weisband and published in 2008. I am also reading Clay Shirkey's book, Here Comes Everybody (2008). (also see Shirkey's blog)

Both books are interested in how people and organizations work in dispersed, often global environments. Shirky's view is that "forming groups has gotten alot easier. To put it in economic terms, the costs incurred by creating a new group or joining an existing one have fallen in recent years, and not just by a little bit. They have collapsed" (p. 18). In the opening chapter he describes a remarkable story of an individual who lost her cell phone and the way in which a lot of people worked together over the Internet to find and eventually retrieve this cell phone.

The Weisband book, on the other hand, focuses on the the various difficulties and failures of working and "leading" in a dispersed work environment. The scholars who write these chapters report on the variety of challenges and difficulties of managing work from a distance. They note that despite the availability of various communications tools (email, groupware, blogs, wikis, etc.) there are still many difficulties in using these effectively.

Two ideas come to mind in thinking about this. First, there may be many important experiential differences here. For the most part the authors who are studying organizations are mostly studying established organizations in which workers generally are used to working in more traditional hierarchical, F2F models of leadership and who are trying to adapt to a flattened, and networked world. Shirkey is looking at organizations and individuals who are developing activities within the new world.

But there are still reasons to be very cautious about some of the examples that Shirkey reports. He notes numerous successes in the networked world, but it would seem to me that the ease of creating new organizations also means that there is likely to be just as rapid an unraveling of organizations.

Two main thoughts come to me about this: 1) we need to understand more about how traditional organizations adapt to the new networked world and 2) we need to know more about not only networked collaborative worlds, but those that persist over time. It may be relatively easy to organize people to accomplish a purpose for a short-term goal, but much more difficult to sustain these organizational structures over time.

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