“Bureaucracies are honed by the past and almost never can they deal with the future.” This quote, from biologist Leroy Hood, starts the first chapter of Paul Boag’s excellent book, "Digital Adaptation."

There is an old saying: “That which makes you strong can kill you in the end.” What gets you here might not get you further. In fact, it might become a drag on progress. The greatest strength in one environment can become a major weakness in another. 

We recently did a survey of web professionals to see what their greatest challenges were in embracing the opportunities of the digital revolution. While we’re still analyzing the results, one thing has become very clear: senior management is seen as a major blockage.

Here are some quotes from the survey respondents:

  • “Outdated strategies from managers and higher-ups who think they can just continue on as they have for the past decade.”
  • “Poor understanding at senior management level of how to maximize return on investment when it comes to the digital presence.”
  • “Superficial senior management understanding and limited resources -- they 'get it', and know we need to be more digital focused and expect a lot but with limited resourcing. It is a challenge to educate them and convince them of the resources required to actually do digital properly.”
  • “Pressure from senior management who have a particular view of what the website should look like, and prefer the marketing-related images, and huge amounts of content.”

Senior management not getting it “is hardly surprising,” Paul writes in "Digital Adaptation," “when you look at the makeup of most senior management teams. These are people who grew up before the web and whose management techniques have been shaped by a different economic environment. They are used to a world of mass production, mass marketing, and are disciples of the mass consumer economy.”

Most organizations have rigid, silo-based, hierarchy-driven structures. Once you strip away the phony marketing and PR, most traditional organizations believe that the customer is there to serve them, and that customer loyalty is a form of stupidity and thus an invitation to exploitation. For many organizations, the more loyal you are to them the more money they feel they are entitled to make from you.

This way of thinking worked well during times when change was relatively slow and predictable and when there was a respect for authority, when customers were stupidly loyal. Today, we have an explosion of complexity, change that is constant and increasing in pace, and a skeptical and disloyal customer.

Nassim Taleb pointed out in his excellent books, "Fooled By Randomness" and "The Black Swan," that a key result of increased complexity is the major random event that is, by its very nature, unpredictable. How to deal with randomness? Flexibility, adaptability.

We need flexible, adaptable, nimble structures today. Ones that are constantly evolving based on feedback from the environment. And the environment has changed. The environment is now the customer, not the organization. It used to be that customers lived in a world of organizations. Now, organizations must live in a world of customers.

If we want senior managers to change then we, as web professionals, must become the voice of our customers. If there is one thing that can get senior management to change today it is the increasing dissatisfaction and disloyalty of their customers.