#SM4Biz liveblog 1: the Age of Reason

Oxygen – a great combination of gases for sustaining life as we know it. Social media – a useful collection of tools to aid your business. Yes, stating the bleeding obvious as though it were a revelation. Yet there is a gig, and I am blogging from it. When we have finished talking about everything else on social media, we can talk about social media. And while contemplating using social media for business can seem like wearing your favourite jeans to the office on a Tuesday, it is rather a fact of life. Like oxygen.

First up, as its essentially his conference, is Dr Nigel Oseland (@oseland), independent poacher turned corporate poacher – “a bit old skool” in his own words, the subject of his intro “the psychology of social media” reflected in his exponentially expanding collection of online personalities and brands.

My biggest problem with typologies is that in our desire to ascribe meaning, we trivialise instead. The recent mindnumbing flurry of excitement (really) at the “discovery” that introverts might not like open plan offices typifies our staggering from one stepping stone to another when actually the stream is only three inches deep and is quite refreshing. Being a social scientist, Nigel did what all social scientists do and posted a survey, because that’s about the only place social scientists are allowed to get any data from. What does it all mean? It means that online, it probably doesn’t matter.

Su Butcher (@SuButcher) is statistically about half of social media. She’s as interested in concrete as Daddy Pig – which is, very. As social media is about social (conversation) and content (subject matter), its about people. And of course the Doors were right. But in a world of b2b referral, property and construction need social media, whether they like it or not. Which its finally starting to like.

If you ever wondered about the science of social, even without a survey, then enter the world of social objects, status updates, platforms, “the viral” and SEO – the stuff that could itself have given rise to the complex adaptive system, if it didn’t spawn social media in the first place. The potential reach at our disposal via social is daunting enough, but when Su charts it for us it looks more frighteningly possible still. It may look and feel simple, but its technical – easy to goof, hard to do it well.

Paul Wilkinson (@EEPaul) goes back to 51BC and Cicero for an early example of social media – papyrus passed across the lands around the Mediterranean with commentary added as they travelled. Huzzah, Paul is talking blogging, but sidesteps the wonderful and immortal phrase “writing ourselves into existence”. There are 400m blogs out there, apparently – 250m on tumblr and WordPress alone. And I thought this was special. Apparently 86% of influencers blog, so one wonders how the other 14% manage to remain influential. Its all great stuff, but might have focussed a little more on the why rather than the how and what. If we don’t feel a compelling reason or desire, it doesn’t matter how technically able we might be, we just won’t.

And its 11.15am before the first mention of Google+ – surprisingly early, one might say. With that, the age of reason passed.

The thinner the air

In the days when travellers laid their trail only by postcard, I once asked a friend as to the best part of her irregular mungoparekesque forays into Asia and the subcontinent. “Coming home” she said.

I was reminded of this by Andrew Mawson’s reply to my last blog post, in which he opined that the displaced and confused distribution and exercise of power and authority in modern organisations – and the resultant imbalanced structures created – has rendered the contribution of workspace to allowing people to be at their best, irrelevant.

This blog has often taken an existential position in relation to work, considering that it is up to us alone to attribute meaning to our endeavours, and not a responsibility of our employer or organisation. The relationship we have with work is necessarily a subset of our relationship with our life in its entirety.

There are several trends contributing to the accentuation of this existential position, each one providing a necessary challenge to the existing order yet not without alternate consequence.

Like the agoraphobia of social connectivity, whereby we can meet, connect, maintain and develop relationships across continents and timezones without a need to rely on locality. Or to be anywhere at all, really.

Maybe the faustian Techno-Social Contract in which we are free to work from anywhere (with wifi, of course) and at any time, in exchange for unparalleled levels of intrusion and loss of privacy. With ever more features, ever less control.

Perhaps the dismantling of the certainties associated with hierarchy through the passive – either through the inevitable, as in the ever-increasing complexity of our relations in the postmodern world – and the wilful, in the championing and implementation of ideas such as holacracy.

Such forces at play remind us of travels in the world’s backwaters, stifled amid the mangroves, where the air is thinner. The tangled swamps could just as easily be the organisational structures in which we are lost today, our shortness of breath our struggle to understand.

Contrary to what many now claim, the more that we are pushed away, place – and the comfort, connectivity, contact, relevance and warmth it brings – may have never been so important.

Out of thing

It would be interesting to hear what the Icelandic Vikings may have thought of Holacracy, having probably invented it – or something rather like it – back in the early 900’s, when life was a whole lot tougher than the paradigm-proclaiming sanitanarchists see it today.

It was apparently difficult enough in Norway already under the tyranny of Harald Finehair (as the BBC History magazine points out), without trying to colonise a bubbling, inhospitable land barely able to support agriculture, devoid at the time of even a single boutique hotel or natural warm spring bathing weekend special offer, based on two sharing.

Those brave and hardy souls soon realised that their flyaway-locked monarch was too far away and too busy at home to bother trying to subjugate them. As such, they had no need of a central revenue-raising mechanism to fund a defence force. They were free to organise and regulate themselves. They found the place, they could run it.

Forget European feudalism. Iceland (the “varthing” – the whole thing) was overseen by a comfortably-round thirty nine local chiefs, whose authority rested on the loyalty of landowners (each a “thingmann”) whose lands intermingled with lands owned by those loyal to other chiefs. So at any time it was possible for a disillusioned or disheartened thingmann to transfer his loyalty to another, by declaring himself “out of thing” with the existing chief.

That is a phrase worthy of adoption. “I am sorry boss, I am out of thing with you – I am going to transfer my loyalty to the lady who runs marketing, she seems nice.”

It led to the formation of the world’s first parliament, the Althing, in 930 and the foundation of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Like most brave experiments in self-governance it later faltered, as Iceland became oligarchic and riven with civil war until in 1262 they submitted to the rule of the Norwegian king as the lesser of two evils.

Perhaps Holacracy is best suited to islands that are far enough away so as not to be interesting to those from whom it is escaping. Or maybe I am just all out of thing.

Jumping someone else’s train

In a bold move that has shocked the hipster community, LooChoob, manufacturers and distributors of vital cardboard toilet roll inners, has pushed ahead with the conversion of the company to ochlocracy.

Replacing traditional hierarchies and management structures with the irregular assembly of a fickle, angry mob demanding things, they have once again demonstrated why non-one has actually heard of them.

“By adopting a pathological approach from the outset we stripped out multiple layers of corporate deterioration through misguided decision making and lack of training and development, hence getting right out ahead of the competition” said Larry Schlepp, mob ringleader (formerly Chief Executive). “Those guys at Zappos who’ve done this holacracy thing, but that’s all very well when you’re making flashy lighters. We are a traditional business, being trendy for its own sake. We are installing a slide, too, like everyone else.”

After a short break to quell a civil disturbance at the tea point, Larry returned to the gazebo. “We modelled this approach on what’s really happening out there. You know, in social media, places like Twitter. The term has been around since the 1600’s so it was high time we pretended it was something new and claimed it”.

Challenging the top-down tradition, ochlocracy is a sideways-in approach, allowing emergent ideas to surface and gain credibility if enough people are really miffed about them. Work attains a new meaning, defined by ill-informed collective prejudice and unpredictable knee-jerk shifts in power. Stress-tested across centuries and continents, it has proved one of the most resilient methods of dispute resolution. Even if it created most of the disputes in the first place.

“We wanted to make the organisation more like people.” Larry paused thoughtfully.

“And let’s face it, they love a bandwagon”.

Desire lines

When we invent sparkly new terms, mistakenly believing because we have named something we have described it…..do we by implication denigrate the opposite? It’s quite possible that in our greed for the new that we leave a trail of destruction behind us, ignoring that what is claimed to be new may actually already have been going on for some time, but just not flagged in quite so garish a manner. In reality, a trail of more promise may have already been laid ahead.

When we talk about Smart Working, do we imply that all other practices are Dumb Working? If not Smart, they must be Dumb. Perhaps because everyone has been working in a Dumb way they were too Dumb to realise that they could be Smart and so were forever condemned to wasteful use of time, a disregard to technology, an insistence on a lemminglike commute, an adhere to rigid organisational and command structure. Yet within most environments, our natural resourcefulness has created smart ways to work – loose teams, freely available technology solutions, working when where and how it makes sense. Most people don’t need to be told its Smart, they just find smart ways.

When we talk about a Learning Organisation, does that means all others are Insular Organisations, recirculating the same information and ideas, without concern or focus on the development of its people, inwardly focussed and reclusive? In most organisations people and teams self-develop without invitation, they don’t wait for the call, they know what they don’t know and they seek it out. The open access to information means learning has never been easier. And the organisation benefits and develops from the sum of the parts, the drive of its people to learn and grow. It just happens.

When we talk about Social Business, do we consider that all other business is Unsocial at best, or Antisocial at worst? That the insular Unsocial Business has its borders closed, portcullis down, sharks in the moat – the organisation talks to no-one, and no-one engages with it – its people are locked down. Even in the most security-conscious or restrictive environment, people engage socially, face-to-face and on social networks. Business has become innately more Social. It’s not Social Business any more. It’s just Business.

And when we get excited about creating an Agile Workplace (itself a fiction – something inanimate cannot be animate), do we imply a rigidity and inflexibility in all others, a prescriptive and straightlaced reinforcement of the Unsocial, Insular Organisation with its Dumb Working habits? Or do we ignore that many people have found a natural agility in the way they work through necessity, by deploying technologies that work for them, using the 24 hours that each day allows in a ways that suit best, interacting in spaces and places that work? We don’t need a workplace to be called Agile for people to demonstrate their agility. They just do, because they can.

We need to be respectful of where we have got to even if we don’t trumpet every journey, and be careful where we tread. We can build roads where there are none, naming them as we go – or we can follow the desire lines, the trodden grass, the bare tracks. They probably lead us to a better place.

Warriors in Woolworths

Call me old fashioned but I like my rebels to look like rebels. Think – Mikhail Bakunin, “born not under an ordinary star, but under a comet” (Herzen). Thick, long, wild hair entangled on the winds of escape, a beard that could conceal a ten-pin orb, eyes so enraged they could light the fuse, the devil-may-care aura that their life was but a mere iron filing in the smelting of the clenched fist of the struggle. That is, scary. Rebellion is, after all, scary. For he and his fellows “the story is the deed” – so they did stuff, because for Mikey “idealism is the despot of thought”.

Yet without doubt 2014 is set to be the peak year of the ridiculous self-parody I shall generically term the “intrarebel”. Bracket in the self-appointed mavericks, misfits mavens, black swans, lone wolves, red foxes and mysterons. Self-parody because the agitant willingly working for improvement and change within the firewall has been with us since, well, when the firewall was really a wall, made out of breeze-block. Or wood. Or wattle and daub. Or dung.

The intrarebel only actually exists in a world of mind-enhancing techno-fantasy. Freshly photoshopped in thoughtful off-centre pose, slight smile but not enough to trivialise the spell, blemishes sensitively airbrushed, they have interesting names like Chabaline or Merz or Anno, and job titles out of an Alice in Wonderland roadtrip around Paraguay, like Stargazer or Millennial Engagement Advocate or Guardian of Social Capital. They use a highly restricted codified vocabulary in which words like collaboration, sustainability, serendipity and responsibility are fully interchangeable, meaning they don’t need to think about what they are saying when giving a TEDx talk, that everyone de facto loves as unconditionally as their first born. Even the members of this growing movement (you only have to sign up online) approaching pensionable age are actually millenials, gently steamed in a sanitised enclave to preserve their aura of springwater innocence. There are a wealth of shared resources available to the vanguard – to mark them out from their unfortunate colleagues and justify the freely-given look of warm pity at the 7am Monday morning sales meeting – all marked down on Amazon to 99p for the set. You just have to know where to look.

As the popular management movie the Incredibles said, when everyone is Super – then no-one will be. In the corporate, organisational world we have mainstreamed rebellion, candy-coated it, normalised it, removed all qualifying criteria, destroyed its meaning. Many at all levels within corporations or large organisations want and strive for better, try to improve the lot of their colleagues and themselves, to contribute to their organisation’s advancement and success, to make them more socially aware. That’s not rebellion, its just good citizenship.

Bakunin took part in the Czech revolt of 1848 and for his troubles was extradited to Russia, imprisoned in the notorious Peter-Paul fortress until 1857, then exiled to Siberia from where he later escaped. He had given up the life of a noble (his family owned a modest 500 serfs) for his convictions. The fuse in his expression was formed in hardship, determination, struggle and unwavering belief and commitment.

In his own words – “anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary”.

THAT’S rebellion.

The water’s edge

Having been led down a meandering path to the water’s edge one spring morning by kindly strangers, with promises of stories and wisdom beyond the spangled horizon, his curiosity could barely spare him. All he needed, he was told, were simple tools, freely foraged for those with eager eyes, and a thirst to know more and explore. The inlets would thread their way through islets and mangroves, some upon reedy banks where there was no way through the tangled weeds, some to lagoons where rest could be taken, some to seas wriggled with life and surprise. He set off, guided by those who warmed to his venture, urged further into the delta by those spinning out of view.

After some time, nourished by his trek, shaking off droplets of doubt as he wound his way, he called to those on the farther banks from where his tale had begun as he had once been called to. While some waved and some wished him well, many seemed doubtful as to the worth that his trail might bring. They preferred instead to cut wood, to huddle amongst the thornbushes, by anaemic fires to tell the same tales ever told until their familiarity brought a certainty that would let them sleep.

The boy’s concern grew to frustration, and then to fear that perhaps he himself had been led a lie. But his reflection in the clear ponds told him otherwise, he saw in his own eyes a zeal not born of monotony. Yet he was troubled in his rest, and sketched patterns between the stars of how he would bring others from the safety of their shore.

One morning, from the vantage point of a small knoll on which he had climbed to watch the sunrise, he could see the vast expanse before him – everything he had been promised, through kaleidoscopic eyes. He could see the world being woven together before him like a pool full of playful eels, changing shapes and patterns, their oily skin deflecting the prismatic light. He understood that his part was to weave and untangle, to speak and to listen, to learn and to unlearn, to spur and be spurred. There was no beginning, and no end, it just was.

As he turned to a near bank he could see the dim flames amidst the twisted branches, and wondered at those with whom he had once spoken, yet who preferred to remain.

And then as he turned away, they slipped from his mind as they had from his view. His heart beat steady, and his concern at last was gone. With all there was to discover and forget ahead of him he no longer cared.

Glass candle grenade

“There’s only our hair’s breadth between us, obscure as we are”
(Cocteau Twins)

“Community” – a word almost as prevalent in the age of social business (granted, “age” may be a little generous) as the spiritually bankrupt “collaboration”. Like collaboration, it is only ever seen (in the parlance of 1066 and All That) as a “good thing”. One risks a punishment befitting a heretic for daring to question its validity (perhaps a new meaning for another vacuous word, “stakeholder”). While that in itself sounds like a challenge too good to pass up, there is a serious point. Like most paradigms for which the universe gets out the bunting and streamers, it has a problematic side that has been exacerbated by social technologies.

It may be like throwing a glass candle grenade, but consider that communities may just…..

  • Reinforce a siege mentality – no-one understands us, it’s us against the world, if only you knew how tough our job was…
  • Limit learning and development through the exclusion – whether intended or not, or through the creation of barriers that discourage others from interacting – of other views and perspectives on similar issues faced – which is why most professional conferences are generally appalling
  • Create and reinforce petty prejudice – whether an antipathy towards another discipline or profession, or a customer group – or heaven forbid customers (or outsiders, as customers are seen) in general
  • Make it just too difficult to break in, even when in possession of credentials the group would approve of, by being intimidating, and by seeming to have reached a natural capacity
  • Become tedious, pursuing the same issues though ever decreasing circles, never getting close to a conclusion – take “employee engagement” for example
  • Factionalise, as small breakaway cliques form that grumble about the “centre” being too conservative or rational and wanting to shake it all up a bit by doing something that is apparently different but is actually the same
  • Become “managed”, because someone somewhere thinks it needs managing, and thereby become the sort of institution in opposition to which the community was established in the first place
  • Implode – as Nietzsche stated, “all great things destroy themselves from within”

It has been my contention for some time that the era of protectionist professional organisations is passed, that they will fall ever more behind developments in their own field and in wider business for many of the reasons above.

The opportunity presented by social technologies is to break down barriers, create wider and less logical connections, build relationships across boundaries and on multiple levels, to take our connectivity in directions that face to face communication has not the time or scope to achieve. We need to take care not to use it to simply reinforce the worst habits of conventional interaction.

This in no way means we stop working together, rather it means we work together in a wider, more open, less factious way. We need to face outwards, not in. It’s time to take off the badge. There is only one community.

Hiding in daylight

Social business – the preserve of the independent practitioner, macbooked, latté’d and unwired? It is easy to see how this view pervades. Check who is tweeting and blogging, and it doesn’t appear like there are many who get a regular payslip. This may not be surprising when stats (however accurate) are continually banded about that suggest that half of corporate employees find social platforms blocked by the leviathan’s portcullis. But that still leaves half of organisations with the gates wide open. That’s a lot of people.

Within those organisations, many of the more actively engaged social technology users may well hide behind a pseudonym or maintain at least a degree of obscurity for fear of the tap on the shoulder, whether real or highly unlikely. However the power of social to change behaviour – reverse character engineering – may well give them away. These changes benefit both the community and the individual. Being more social can help with being more individual.

Here are a few possible signs.

They credit sources, rather than concealing them or claiming insight as their own….which also shows they know insightful people, are aware of what they say, and listen.

They share stuff, rather than keeping it to themselves in the event that they may need it later – which also shows that they know where to find good material and ideas, and highlights that they may be a good “go to” person.

They open their IP and are prepared to donate it, which also shows that in knowing a lot of stuff, if they are prepared to give this much away they probably know more that hasn’t yet been tapped into and so are a likely source of great insight or information.

They deliberately expand their network in a targeted way, shunning the usual professional bodies that most sign up to feeling they should rather than understanding that they can build a more productive network by applying time and energy to social – which shows that they take networking seriously, and are discerning judges of character.

They are willing to answer your questions when you need help, or direct you to someone who can answer, which also shows that they are prepared to spare time, however busy they are, to help.

They display a willingness to ask questions in a humble and open manner, which also shows they are aware of their limitations and acknowledge the contribution their colleagues can make.

They are not afraid to exhibit their vulnerability, through a willingness to experiment, present, test ideas and thoughts, and admit to failure and uncertainty – which also shows that they will respect you for doing the same, and give permission for you to do so.

Or, of course, they might just troll you.


Elephants – its complicated

Let’s all acknowledge the elephant in the room.

But we have omitted to consider how it got into the room.

We don’t know that there isn’t another elephant directly behind it.

We might wonder how we are going to feed it.

We might also wonder how we are going to shovel up what comes out of the back end, and who will do it. Elephants rarely call the Help Desk.

We might consider that the elephant is a bit freaked at being in the room.

And even more freaked at being in the room in a meeting.

And knows when it’s being talked about, and doesn’t like it.

We might not have considered that the elephant might be thinking it’s time to acknowledge the humans in the room – who is the subject, who is the object?

We probably haven’t considered that the elephant might merely be a reflection of our own vulnerability.

And that we are the only one who can see it. Our own personal elephant. So acknowledging it might be embarrassing.

Or it might be cathartic.

Let’s all acknowledge the elephant in the room? If we just do that, all we see is the elephant.

It’s complicated.