Social media in a decentralized organizational structure

In the SWOT analysis of orchestras and new media that you can find in my e-book, I used the textbook Strategy: Core Concepts, Analytical Tools, Readings by Thompson, Gamble and Strickland.

Every once and a while I refer to the book when trying to place social media in a bigger strategy context. Sometimes I just skim through the book to pick my brain a bit. Yesterday, my eyes fell on a section that deals with centralized versus decentralized decision making.

Many arts organizations have centralized organizational structures. Decisions are made by managers and department heads that have the required experience, expertise and judgment. This is why, in a lot of those organizations, it takes a while to get things done if the initiative stems from lower-level employees. The management bureaucracy must decide on a course of action.

Sure, it lowers the risk of bad decisions by inexperienced staff and has less accountability concerns. But when it comes to social media, decentralized organizational structures might look like the better alternative.

Thompson et al. write about decentralized structures: “decision-making authority should be put in the hands of the people closest to and most familiar with the situation.” Very few arts organizations have senior management with the required knowledge of social media. Nor do these organizations have the resources to hire for a specific social media position. Social media initiative often stems from lower-level employees that lack decision-making power, even though those employees are most familiar with the situation.

A word of caution first: this is not an excuse to put the intern in charge of social media. One can easily see the dangers of an intern who is untrained to exercise good judgment and who does not fully understand the technology, the market and your strategy. But on the other hand, senior managers are too scared of what they see as a lower-level employee acting on behalf of the organization on the Internet.

This perception is not entirely accurate. It is important for your patrons to know with whom they are communicating. Not the organization, but John Smith at the organization. Be transparent. Transparency builds trust. Think about it, when your patrons call the box office, they don’t speak to the XYZ Orchestra, but with Jane at the XYZ Orchestra. You probably receive daily thank you e-mails and notes from people that were so satisfied with your box office personnel helping them in their purchase decisions. I know I’ve seen them.

So who should handle social media? An employee who is knowledgeable of the technology and the environment and who at the same time understands, or can be trained to understand, your strategy and judgment.

As a senior manager, it is your duty to listen to those lower-level employees that might have more familiarity and experience with the tools and the environment and help them understand how it fits into your organization’s mission and strategy. As a lower-level employee, it is your responsibility to start thinking strategically and help your superior understand how to use the tools and how to adapt to the new environment. It is the responsibility of both parties to start trusting each other.

Returning to Thompson et al., this decentralized structure will encourage greater initiative and responsibility; promote greater motivation and involvement; spur new ideas and creative thinking; and allow fast response times (which are vital in social media).

How does senior management maintain control in this decentralized organizational structure? Thompson et al. advice placing limits on the authority (certain situations may require supervisor approval); holding people accountable for their decisions, rewarding people for contributing to good company performance and creating a corporate culture with peer pressure to act responsibly.

Perhaps what I’ve described here is a stopgap measure until senior managers are required in their job descriptions to have a firm grasp on or years of experience in social media. But even when that time arrives, I would suspect that the many operational aspects of social media would require a decentralized organization structure to make sure your organization truly connects and engages with its online audience.

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