In a social world, management’s new role is teaching social literacy

It probably comes as no great surprise that a recent study supports the argument that managers have a large impact on the performance of those that they manage.  In a paper unambiguously called The Value Of Bosses, Edward Lazear, Kathryn Shaw and Christopher Stanton explore the relationship between supervisors and their reports by analysis of data from a large IT services firm, and find this:

  1. The choice of boss matters. There is substantial variation in boss quality as measured by the effect on worker productivity. Replacing a boss who is in the lower 10% of boss quality with one who is in the upper 10% of boss quality increases a team’s total output by about the same amount as would adding one worker to a nine member team. Using a normalization, this implies that the average boss is about 1.75 times as productive as the average worker.
  2. A boss’s primary activity is teaching skills that persist.
  3. Efficient assignment allocates the better bosses to the better workers because good bosses increase the productivity of high quality workers by more than that of low quality workers.

Points one and two are quantitative measures showing the value of bosses, but the second point gets at the how of things: how do good bosses help their staff? By teaching skills that help others to improve their work.
So, in the modern social business — or a business transitioning toward being more social — what does that mean? It means that bosses have the added requirement of helping others become more socially literate (digital literacy in the social context), as well as learning the ropes of the job that social tools are enabling. In the context of an IT services firm, that means helping programmers understand Oracle or Github, but also increasing their skills in communication and collaboration on the company’s Jive, Trello, or Podio implementation.
Ana Silva recently wrote about social literacy in a similar vein, making the case that these skills cannot be assumed:

Let’s for once stop believing that because most of the new technologies seem easier to use, when compared to its previous versions (I’m thinking of the early collaboration tools) or to existing corporate systems like the ERP, that employees will fully understand how to use them in a work setting.
Let’s also stop believing that because everyone has a Facebook account it means they have a good degree of digital literacy to begin with and understand how to take advantage of these new tools to drive their work and careers forward.
As much as we’ve been (rightly so) demystifying the “build it and they will come” notion of social technology inside the company, I believe we should also demystify the “everyone will know how to use these new digital capabilities at work”.
Tools are only tools, enablers. It’s what you do with them, how you use them to your advantage (the importance of “what’s in it for me?”) that counts and on that front we still have work to do.

She goes on to make some great points, which I summarize and recast here:

  1. Let the most knowledgeable users teach the others — and these may not be managers to start with, although it must become part of the managerial skill set, since their primary activity is teaching persistent skills, and they are likely to be the only people tasked that way. A community of the most active users can share and grow the understanding of the group as a whole.
  2. Create a digital ‘sandbox’ — build a safe context for fooling around with tools, out of the context of actual work.
  3. Focus on what the tools enable, and require, not just the tools themselves — the goal is increasing effectiveness through digital literacy, and that requires fluency with specific tools. It’s analogous to learning a language, which is — at least for most people — not an end in itself, but a means to communicate within and understand the culture linked to a language.

So, one major requirement for a social business are managers who have been socialized by a digital culture, and who are proficient enough to help others become more socially literate.
My bet is that this is a forcing function in the business world today, and we will see that those that are the most digitally literate — of whatever age — will increasingly be assuming managerial leadership roles.