Social media certainly connects us to whoever is on the other end of the line, and so extends our social networks in amazing ways. But this can come at the expense of deeper personal relationships. When it feels like we’re up-to-date on our friends’ lives through Facebook or Instagram, we may become less likely to call them, much less meet up. Networks connect; communities care.
Marshall McLuhan wrote famously about the “global village,” created by new information technologies. But what kind of a village is this? In the traditional village, you chatted with your neighbor at the local market, face-to-face: this was the heart of community. When that neighbor’s barn burned down, you may all have pitched in to help rebuild it. Is crowdfunding in this global village quite the same? Like those fantasy-ridden love affairs on the internet, the communication remains untouched, and untouchable.
A century or two ago, the word community “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part.” In contrast, the word has now become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community” — ”people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.”
Does this matter for managing in the digital age, even for dealing with our global problems? It sure does. In a 2012 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movements in that country: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media sites] can become addictive substitutes for real action.” That is why, while the larger social movements, as in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on Wall Street, may raise consciousness about the need for renewal in society, it is the smaller social initiatives, usually developed by small groups in communities, that do much of the renewing.
At the organizational level, as I have written frequently, effective companies function as communities of human beings, not collections of human resources. Of course, all companies need robust networks, to communicate among their parts as well as to connect to the outside world. And this applies especially to their managers: networking and communicating, even for its own sake let alone for decision-making, is a major component of every manager’s job. But far more crucial is the need for collaboration, and that requires a strong sense of community in the organization.
We tend to make a great fuss about leadership these days, but communityship is more important. The great leaders create, enhance, and support a sense of community in their organizations, and that requires hands-on management. Hence managers have get beyond their individual leadership, to recognize the collective nature of effective enterprise.
Especially for operating around the globe, electronic communication has become essential. But the heart of enterprise remains rooted in personal collaborative relationships, albeit networked by the new information technologies. Thus, in localities and organizations, across societies and around the globe, beware of “networked individualism” where people communicate readily while struggling to collaborate.
The new digital technologies, wonderful as they are in enhancing communication, can have a negative effect on collaboration unless they are carefully managed. An electronic device puts us in touch with a keyboard, that’s all.
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