Two worlds and in between

I recently attended and spoke at the most excellent Social Now conference in Lisbon. Enterprise social networking (ESN) and knowledge management (KM) are invariably a mystery to most workplace and property folk still nutting their heads against the rusty twin locked doors of HR and IT, the discipline bewitched by its own insularity. I used to attend CoreNet’s ‘Discovery Forums’ many years ago where the contended Prentice Knight would repeatedly draw the equilateral Bermuda Triangle of Property, HR and IT into which all idea of what to do next invariably disappeared. Needless to say we never discovered anything but we did have a very personable dinner with old friends at the end.

Yet the twin souls of ESN and KM effectively constitute the digital workplace as we know it. The struggle lies in the fact that they are neither HR nor IT (unless we confuse the app with its application), and certainly not property, nor in fact do they reside anywhere else within the typical organisational structure. They rely instead on those committed to meshing physical and virtual space, and they could be anywhere.

It’s not about finding functions who should be talking to each other. The silos remain, but they’re not important anymore. They can talk to each other all they like, it won’t make a lot of difference. They bumble on, equally misunderstood by one another, awaiting the day they will have been superseded by those who didn’t bother waiting for the inevitable and just got on with it. More on this soon. But meanwhile…..

A masterclass at the event with the renowned guru of all things ESN and a super bloke to boot, Luis Suarez (@elsua) drew my attention to some fascinating differences between the digital and physical workplace. Apologies Luis for the time it’s taken me to write it up.

Firstly, we talk about online communities and physical neighbourhoods, yet with the latter then talk about a sense of community. The former are free of physical boundaries, the latter defined by them. Yet essentially we are looking for them to achieve the same thing – connection, sharing, collective development, and being excellent to each other (the Bill & Ted approach). My workplace change approach is based on the idea of being a good neighbour and acting in a neighbourly manner. No-one needs a slide deck to explain what that means, we instinctively know. That approach should be equally applicable to digital space. Luis made a pennydropper of a point for thinking about change – communities share, while teams solve problems. For workplace therefore we’ll still construct neighbourhoods to create recognisable physical locations for individuals and teams, but we need a community mindset from the digital workplace along with neighbourly behaviour in our physical space.

Secondly, the difference between adoption and adaptation. Both Luis and I had, in separate spaces, come to the conclusion that ‘adoption’ is the wrong way to look at how we change behaviour. It comes with a shoehorn. Workplace types are always talking about people adopting new behaviours in new space (see my post on the Leesman report). I’ve come to see it as the most unhelpful idea possible in enabling change. Luis had it as adaptation, and hence we have early adapters. Adaptation respects the individual experiential journey, while adoption implies a forced change. A torment has been resolved.

Thirdly, the contrast between those we engage as change agents. *This is not (repeat, to fade) a generational comment. The digital world seeks out more junior participants, those less likely to make do who have both have time to help, and a more natural questioning attitude. It relies on intuition and experimentation rather than training. It’s about enabling change through the delight of discovery, and respects the individual journey. In workplace change programmes we naturally look to more senior individuals to lead change, with access to resources, shoehorns and the ability to unblock. They are focussed on addressing the resistors rather than the digital workplace’s intent to harness the enlightened. There is a lot more of the ‘Trojan mice’ idea about the digital workplace that the physical workplace must learn from. Along, of course, with a little patience.

Fourth, the difference between education (push) and enablement (pull). The online world looks to model and demonstrate behaviour, as a means to enable a change of behaviour in others. It’s an application of the idea of Tummeling (plenty in this blog about the subject). In the world of workplace there is a deeply unfortunate tendency to instruct and inform, the dreaded ‘etiquette training’ that is woven into so many change programmes, in a bid to drive adoption. Everyone does it so everyone continues to do it. The digital world seems much more comfortable with people changing at varying speeds, adapting, given that generally the tools come first and the usage thereafter, allowing existing behaviour to be phased out. Both old and new worlds invariably exist alongside one another. In the physical world, there is the limitation that when the new space is ready, the old space is entirely left behind and we invariably drop everyone in at once, expecting that they will apply what they have been told beforehand. We must still respect individual journeys – and once people know that we will, their perspective will change too. Those we often see as resistors will just be those on a different journey – we lose the classification entirely.

Fifth is the difference in the use of progress measurement. In the digital workplace we measure progress but don’t publish it, to avoid focussing on the metric and not the transformation process. It can take a year to eighteen months for behaviours to bed in, to be able to tell positive stories. The digital workplace seems much more comfortable with being able to describe the negative ROI not doing anything at all. In the physical world there is a far greater expectation of immediate results that we broadcast to all, driven by the pressure to report ROI. Everyone is desperate to know its ‘worked’. This approach stifles the individual journey, and underpins the obsession with adoption. Again, so much more patience would be beneficial.

Lastly, there is a contrast in making things happen between the plan/deliver approach to physical workplace and the do-something-today approach in the digital. In a flip of the application of patience, so often needed in the physical domain, the digital workplace is this time the fidgety one where even the smallest signs of progress can be important. It underpins Agile. Poor quality environments don’t need to aw await the wholesale mobilisation of the project, small changes can always benefit. Every physical workplace is in permanent beta, even those coming to the end of their useful lives.

A restless spirit and a willingness to get things done, a belief that things can be done rather than a list of reasons why they can’t – that’s got to be a worthwhile adaptation.

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