There is a lot of hype around social media these days. It has turned into a big thing. A thing that people feel pressure to get involved with. But in fact I believe what is happening isn’t so much to do with technology as to do with people re-asserting themselves, rediscovering their voices, re-discovering their humanness and this change has been happening gradually over the last decade or so.
I guess it kicked off when we lost the job for life mentality that our parents, or more accurately perhaps our fathers, enjoyed. Most of us now have a much more volatile relationship with our employers and the pressures to fit in in return for stability have receded. It was them who changed the relationship but it may be us who in the long run gain the upper hand.
In order to retain that job for life of the old days our fathers had, in most cases, to give up a lot of themselves, to fit in, to be the company man. This culture was most obvious in management where you were seen as the custodians of order, the ones who maintained the organisational facade. This is still true to this day and is in part behind resistance to the more networked world of work that is emerging.
Losing the tie
This pressure to fit in leads to a stuffiness about management that is very disabling when you encounter it. I called it “the price of pomposity” recently. That feeling of being disempowered and deflated by being in the presence of someone acting aloof. The feeling of being a child in the company of a parent. To this day that feeling is deliberately invoked by those promoted beyond their own comfort levels - in other words most managers.
I can well remember the feeling or responsibility when I got my first real management job. I felt I was supposed to be “running” something and “being in charge” of a group of people. In reality I saw myself more as an individual trying to relate to other individuals. Part of a network of responsible adults who turned up in the same place at the same time to do something worthwhile. I decided to stop wearing the tie and talking management speak and instead focus on people, relationships and networks. It was with this mental model firmly in my mind that I was lucky enough to meet the web coming the other way towards me.
So like many more are doing nowadays I deployed some of these web tools inside the firewall I began to play. You begin to realise that having a blog inside the work context means that you can start to say what you think. In fact to be interesting and readable you have to say what you think. You then find out that thinking about work is unfamiliar and saying what you think in public is intimidating. You start to explore ideas and start to attract others who share your ideas or are interested in them. You begin to realise that the more you talk normally, in your own voice, the more interested people become. You began to build networks online, increasing your odds of the serendipitous encounter that connects you with someone or something that helps you understand something better or be able to call on support you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. You begin to realise that building trust rather than wielding power is actually more fun and more effective. If you go out of your way to help others they will go out of their way to help you.
A perfect mess
You realise that your sneaking suspicion that the org chart doesn’t represent your organisation was true. You start to discover the real networks that represent the real business. You even begin to navigate your way to information and documentation by very indirect routes through conversations with people who you trust and who know what they are talking about. I use the analogy of old villages to convey how this works. Old villages grow haphazardly without any unifying plan or architectural styles. There are lots of varied buildings with lots of footpaths between them. You know where the pub and church are, you’re comfortable in the environment, and you can locate yourself. Corporate systems tend to be more like new towns . On the surface they’re efficient with lots of straight roads and signposting, but you get lost because everything looks the same, you don’t like hanging around in them and they are not conducive to standing on street corners chatting. Much of management has been about tidying up, about making things organised. In fact it is becoming clear that this is the way to make things confusing and hard to navigate. One man’s sensible taxonomy is another’s total bewilderment.
The way you view change begins to alter too. We use militaristic words like “target” and “drive” and “campaign” to describe initiatives and then wonder why staff become wary. We use phrases like “capture knowledge” and “extract value” and then wonder why people don’t join in! It is more and more apparent that real change happens incrementally, one person at a time. In fact all social media, no matter what you are trying to achieve happens one person at a time and for their reasons and not yours. This incrementalism is nicely captured in Paul ***’s concept of trojan mice, small things that needn’t cost a lot or attract lots of attention but which over time build into something significant and lasting. It applies to the deployment of technology as much as it does to culture change.
Networks of humans keeping moving and staying in touch
Instead of seeing the organisation as a machine with people strapped on as the “meat-ware” we will begin to see it as networks of willing collaborators keeping moving, staying in touch and heading for the high ground. This is less about managing a machine than managing an ecology. The skills needed to do this will require us to have the courage to become more human. Rather than bullying people with imperatives and deadlines we will have to enlist their support with greater shared responsibility and involvement. Patience will become a virtue. Not in the sense of being casual about meeting deadlines and targets but in the sense of allowing an organism to find its stride and grow to achieve great things.
If you are going to get an organisation of people to move from formal business communication, carried out with caution and in a climate fear, to brave new world of engagement and collaboration then those people have to trust each other. Perhaps more importantly they have to trust you The characteristics that will make you more likely to succeed in enticing people to put their energies into your collective organisational purpose are those very human strengths of courage, patience, tolerance and passion. They are the antithesis of the sanitized “business like” behaviours that have become so much part of corporate culture. Our metaphors and mental models will have to change as will our language.
Oh and yes .. our tools will have to change too.