Top critical review
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More about social technology than about leadership
on June 13, 2010
Charlene Li is one of the authors of Groundswell and that book helped set the stage for business use of social technologies. In Open Leadership, Li breaks away from her co-authors providing a discussion and examination of the social technology's impact on the enterprise in more detail. She enters a crowded world of recent social technology based books and adds value to the social technology conversation and less to the leadership conversation.
Overall this is a good book providing a starting point for people looking to understand what social technology is and what it may mean for the enterprise. However, the state of social technology has moved beyond naming names and describing solutions to understanding the tough decisions and executing plans to realize value in the enterprise. Li tries to take on these issues, but falls short, keeping this from being a great book. This is a four star social technology book and a two and a half star leadership book.
Open Leadership has more to say about social technology than a leadership or management. It spends most of its pages talking about social technologies and its implementations. The leadership aspects to this book are not unique to social technologies You can see this in terms of her new rules for open leadership
1. Respect that your customers and employees have power
2. Share constantly to build trust
3. Nurture curiosity and humility
4. Hold openness accountable
5. Forgive failure
These rules are important, but they are not unique to social technology. In fact similar rules have been the subject of management books for the last 15 years. It is not that these are wrong, or bad advice, but these are things that students of management and leadership already know.
I was looking for how one would use social technology to create open leadership and less about how social technology requires open leadership. Leaders should read this book, but more to get a sense of what others are doing, or can do with social technology than to see how their job and role changes in the enterprise.
The book is comprehensive covering a range of topics and questions. Li covers a wide swath of ground in social technology and the enterprise.
The book positions its discussion in multiple frameworks and classifications ranging from rules for open leadership, to types of leaders, to assessments and action plans. These are helpful to understand the issues and to coalesce the thinking described in the book.
The use of company examples and descriptions provide real life examples, which is good. The examples are from multiple industries, which is another plus. The case examples descriptive but do not provide sufficient depth for the reader to understand the issues they faced, the alternatives available and the reasons why they chose a particular course of action. Leaders need that depth of analysis as Li's recommendations seek to change their deeply held behaviors.
The book mentions a wide array of social technology solution providers, providing a market scan of what people are using and some of the benefits they are getting. This is helpful for right now, but the long-term value of these names will diminish over time.
This book describes a first generation approach where companies use social technology as an overlay or channel for their existing marketing, sales and support activities. These first generation solutions are powerful and important, but they also do not fundamentally challenge what it means to be a leader or a manager - in large part because the solutions described do not change the fundamentals of the enterprise.
The tools in the book are understandable, straightforward and applicable to a broad audience. This is good but it can leave corporate executives with the impression that they are trivial for their situation. I know that the book has case examples from CISCO, Ford, Best Buy and others, but when you go to use the advice you use the tools not the stories. The business cases examples illustrate this point. They are hypothetical and in some cases double count benefits. They illustrate terrific returns on investment in percentage terms, but they do not show the tens of millions of dollars in benefits that would lead executives to consider changing their approaches.
The book distills leadership and management issues down into a set of policy upgrades that Li calls "sandbox covenants." It is a catchy idea and policy changes are important, but Li does not address leadership issues of organizational structure, business process, performance measurement, among others to make this a book about leadership. Omission of these leadership issues further reflects the use of social media at it inception as an overlay and channel rather than a deep force requiring reform and change across the enterprise.
The book's multiple frameworks, recommendations and chapter structure do not fit together as well as they could. It is as if Li is unsure of which argument to advance so the author provides multiple ones. Examples of this include the five rules and the overall chapter structure - they are similar in some areas but not in others. The major themes form the case studies in the last chapter do not connect to the rules, or the other aspects of the book. This is understandable given the breadth the author is trying to cover, but it detracts from the impact of the book as its always telling me new things that are loosely related with the old.
You may think that I dislike this book. I don't.
It's a good book and one that you will benefit from reading. But, this is much more of a book about social technology than about leadership and management. If in this review, your feel that I have been too critical, then please accept my apology as it is not my intent to do so. Given the exploding number of books out on social technology and the limited reading time we all have, I thought that it would be better to be clear about this book's content and strengths which fall more in the area of social technology than leadership or management.
If you are new to social technology, I recommend this book over Groundswell, as the state of the art has advanced and this book provides a good overview of where people stand in terms of social technology. It is a four star book in terms of social technology.
If you are a student of social technology, then you can read this book to learn more, but do not expect to learn a great deal more about changes in leadership or management. It is a two and half star book about leadership.
If you are a manager looking to learn more about social technology, how it changes your job etc. Then you can read this book as well, but know its limitations.