by Martin Veitch

Book review: Open Leadership

Jul 26, 2010
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Open Leadership – How Social Technology Can Transform The Way You Lead By Charlene Li (Jossey Bass)

Former Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li is widely acknowledged as one of the brightest people covering the way the internet is changing businesses operations, with particular respect to social media and marketing campaign management. With her previous, co-authored book Groundswell, Li examined how social media participants were creating a new alternative to the old, powerful institutions. In her latest effort, she takes aim at what the new rules of engagement mean for companies and how they can harness the power of social media in their organisations.

Li’s years of experience as an analyst make her books read like extended, detailed reports or commentaries. Facts are weighed, risks are factored in and case studies abound. Chapters are short and broken up into independently digestible chunks with plenty of summary boxes, advisory tips and matrices to break up the text. It’s rare that you will read for more than two pages before reaching a new all-caps strap, a box or a list. And of course there’s a tie-in website with lots more of the same.

Her take on open leadership is characteristically sober and well considered: that there are tremendous opportunities in embracing social media but you need to have appropriate controls in place. Li is sympathetic to those challenged by the revolution in the air but her clarion call, or the nearest thing to it, is to echo Bob Dylan by suggesting that the times they are a-changin’ and if you can’t understand that or you are unwilling to shift position accordingly then you should get out of the doorway and not block up the hall.

In her introduction, Li says that Groundswell (Read the CIO review here) acolytes that tried to change their organisations often ran into “curmudgeons” fearful of change. Here she attempts to placate and reassure this second camp by pointing out that openness does not mean providing staff, users, customers, rivals and the rest of the world with unfettered access to the company’s data, resources and dealings but a philosophical and practical willingness to be “real” and authentic in the way they conduct themselves.

In some ways this tone is an antidote to those web zealots who demand absolute transparency and it is perhaps indicative of the way the business mainstream is heading: towards a “more transparent” approach, disclosing information where sensible but also keeping private information private if need be. Minimised risk and maximised interaction: what more could you want?

How then do organisational leaders get to be open? This is where Li is strongest, offering hand-holding steps that let bosses open the kimono just so far without leaving them open to embarrassment. Much of this would be common sense to younger readers but will be a useful primer for old-school managers. Make sure you provide progress updates, share strategy, capture knowledge and actions, deal directly with customer complaints, crowdsource solutions and so on, Li says. And what’s better is that social media makes doing all these things so much easier and cheaper. Making and sharing videos or accessing experts are now almost free activities: all you need is the time and the desire to do it.

The CIO’s Role in Social Media Policy Development

Li is admirably realistic about challenges and declines to use the apocalyptic language of some of her peers but as she implicitly suggests in many of the case studies referenced, the stakes are very high and the likes of Toyota, Dell and United Airlines can all testify to the wrath of the social internet when consumers are unhappy.

Today’s business leaders had to change to accommodate the internet and many of the challenges they face in making best use of social media will be familiar. This time around they can’t have too many excuses if they don’t take full advantage of the new tools and for those who are unsure about what to do next, Li has written the perfect book.