Engagement and Authority
January 16, 2010

Three decades ago many of us thought the strong emergence of teams, especially self-regulating teams, was a shift away from authority based organizations to more engaged organizations. Teams, now prevalent, have certainly increased engagement but they did not replace authority. A decade ago communities of practice emerged as way to link professionals together. We learned from our experience with teams that they wouldn’t unseat the authority structure of the organization, but we thought they would fly under the radar screen of the formal authority structure of organizations. However as we saw over the last decade, many of the most effective communities are well integrated into the authority structure of the organization. (See my 2010 HBR article on communities http://hbr.org/search/Richard McDermott/). And we see that integration with the authority structure of the organization doesn’t necessarily reduce the level of staff engagement in communities. In fact, it might increase it by demonstrating that the organization cares about the issues communities bring up.


Today, the emergence of social media again is heralded by many enthusiasts as a reinvention of organization where engaged contributors will replace authority.  I wounder if again we will see that organizational authority structures are not overturned by this technology, but that social media will find its way to be useful to organizations, like teams and communities. Perhaps in these changes over the decades we don;t see an undermining of authority, but a shift in how we understand authority, that it is not monolithic, but is slowly evolving at least in some organizations into a way of engaging and directing staff.

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