Which bureaucracies will survive the new media age?

Tony Clement tweeted the government’s opposition to the latest CRTC ruling on usage-based billing for Internet services. I may have learned about it before his Public Affairs department did. Everyone talks about Wikileaks and the role of social media in the recent changes in Tunisia and Egypt. The (neo)-Kremlin seems to be making plans to prevent a Facebook revolution. Are bureaucracies, which normally hold together governments, corporations and university administrations ready for the inevitable assault of the new media age on their fortresses?

Actually, what really led to this post is the “Piece of Mind” experiment. I did initiate this blog last November as a vehicle to inform, engage and involve the UBC faculty with the workings of their Board of Governors. The blog also dealt with issues of research funding and national R&D policy.  It was an attempt at opening up and demystifying academic systems and related institutions. A process that could lead to added awareness (literacy?) on existing and planned policies, more transparency and better accountability. Whether this experiment will work remains to be seen. But here is why I am somewhat hopeful.

Bureaucracies were created by nation-states – and later by organizations and corporations — as the necessary means by which their leaders could direct and control large groups of people (“the masses”) to achieve various goals.

Enter the new media (YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc.), which has essentially empowered every individual with the tools to reach out to large groups of people to achieve one goal or another.

Centrally controlled bureaucracies and their hierarchies vs. leaderless social networks of individuals, the clash –happening in front of our very eyes– should have a profound and cataclysmic impact on our world.

On the surface, these clashes can have different shapes and forms. Indeed, the showdown between Wikileaks and the US State department seems to be quite different from the facebook-empowered Egyptian rebellion against the bureaucracy of the state. But some say that the loot (leaks!) obtained in the first showdown has contributed to the triggering and fueling of the second one.

Are old-fashioned bureaucracies resilient enough to withstand the pressures of a technically savvy – mostly young (therefore rebellious) — generation that is empowered with an almost infinite degree of freedoms to create, innovate and communicate? Will bureaucracies still be needed altogether?

Malcolm Gladwell, for one, does not believe that “the revolution will be tweeted” anytime soon, and government bureaucracies seem to be surviving very well the Wikileaks onslaught. We need not wait, however, for an ultimate showdown and a decisive final victory to see how the new media is gutting the traditional foundations of government, corporate, or university bureaucracies. Indeed, social media technology is already changing how organizations operate, how they deliver products and services, and how they are held together.

In the good old days, bureaucracies used to restrict the flow of information in order to direct and control. In the new media age, they are advised to release as much information as possible before the new communication channels release it for them, sometimes in a less accurate and distorted form.

Traditional administrations favored rigidity and conformity in their structures, and expected to control every aspect of their constituents’ behavior. In the new media age, bureaucracies will find that managing conformity and adherence to rules will have to make way to an atmosphere of openness, trust and empowerment.

Governments and organizations used to have a monopoly on the spread of information related to their mandates. In the new media age, there is a glut of information on everything under the sun. “Close off your organization from the world, and you risk becoming irrelevant”.

More often than not, bureaucracies developed one-dimensional methodologies for dealing with a relatively controlled business and social environment. They are now figuring out that engaging with the world in the new media age is going to take more than just a decision tree.

“Governments, corporations and universities used to rely on their public affairs department to funnel their communications. In the new media age, they simply can’t keep up”. They have neither the capacity nor the expertise to react in a timely and knowledgeable fashion to the large variety of sources and channels. “Everyone in the organization is going to have to be a public affairs person”.

Bureaucracies developed and relied on their exclusive networks to direct, control and rule. These will be no match to the networked environments of Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere.

“The new media is going to expose organizations’ underlying values to the public … the good, the bad and the ugly”. The best way to deal with this new age is by not having anything that needs to be concealed.

This blogpost was heavily influenced by the article “Bureaucracies and new media: How the US Air Force deal with blogs”, which is the source of the quotes above.

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5 Responses to Which bureaucracies will survive the new media age?

  1. Moe Chan says:

    And they say we cannot use email for certain things. It is unfortunate how some international universities, some international research partnerships are still using paper mail to send their offers, and to announce their results.

  2. Frithjof says:

    While I agree that internet and social media have led to more openness and transparency in many cases, I also see severe threats on the horizon. If the internet loses its net neutrality, then corporations will (be able to) control the flow of information (http://www.neutrality.ca/). Not sure whether control by (in principle) elected officials or unaccountable corporations is more desirable.

    Secondly, internet content can be created automatically; companies may create cyber-personalities to support their causes online (http://www.monbiot.com/2011/02/23/robot-wars/). Internet and social media can be distorted, again, by corporations, and the value of these platforms for the public may be limited.

  3. I wrote a similar post a few days ago:

    Social Media is subversive, but maybe not how you think
    http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2011/02/23/social-media-is-subversive-but-maybe-not-how-you-think/

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