Evolutionary zeal

Dennis Howlett picks me up on a few things in a recent blog post and although I commented briefly there I wanted to give a more considered, and I am afraid lengthy, response to the points he makes.

I have to say I found the post slightly confusing as Dennis often starts a paragraph saying my arguments are flawed then ends it appearing to agree with me. However, at risk of putting words into is mouth as to some degree he did with me, the main gist of Dennis's concerns appear to be the use of the word social in a business context and the advocacy of social tools spilling into ideology and revolutionary zeal.

To take the social thing first I believe it is a mistake to see social as anti-business. I have said before many times that businesses run on relationships. Relationships between their staff and with their customers. Successful businessmen and successful businesses understand the value of these relationships and the fact that they are built on social interchange of one form or another. If this is true and if you believe, as I do, that social computing enhances and extends the ability to form relationships through social exchange then surely it is intensely business focussed and key to future success.

This leads on to the second point about use of the word "revolutionary" and an inclination to politicize the use of social media in business. The paragraph Dennis quotes from me was, ironically, originally intended to warn against utopian viewpoints and dogmatic intolerance and as I said in the comment on his post I believe that most of the motivation for getting involved in social computing in business is individual, pragmatic and if anything apolitical.

It appears that Dennis assumes that I see social media and its revolutionary impact as being bottom up. This is not the case. Middle and senior managers have as much need as anyone else to be able to communicate effectively, understand and be understood, and establish effective relationships with other managers and their staff. I have held both middle and senior posts at the BBC and fully understand the need to "get things done" and meet business targets. What I am now passionate about is an exciting and more effective way of determining and ultimately achieving those business goals. If I use the word revolutionary it is with the intention of conveying the degree of change in how businesses run rather than any sort of "up the workers" zeal.

However this doesn't mean that that there is no meaning behind what is happening at the moment and this is why I am reading so much about history, politics. philosophy and a whole host of related topics. My current reading Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin is, I believe, relevant to the current discussion. Kropotkin's main point is that our understanding of Darwin's ideas of competition and survival of the fittest are fundamental to many of our assumptions about society and used to justify all sorts of behaviour. Yet they were in fact mistaken. Any competitive advantage species enjoy comes from their ability to help each other and share what works in the face of the considerable adversity nature throws at them rather than some ruthless culling of their own weakest members. Even between species competition is more about the relative ability to survive than it is about killing the opposition.

Dennis asks his readers to notice language and I particularly noticed his use of the phrase "hard nosed business person" as someone to whom my own use of language wouldn't appeal. While I agree with Dennis that business has, mostly, moved on from the extremes of Taylorism and rigid command and control there is a new, shiny, corporate, alpha-male form of "business-like" that is equally unattractive and ineffective. I have seen time and time again "hard nosed" attitudes squandering opportunity or causing expensive mistakes through the unwillingness to listen, a macho assumption of being right, and a callous disregard for customers and their feelings.

Not far below the surface of "hard nosed" business attitudes lurk Darwinian kill or be killed assumptions and yet if you, like me , share Kroptkin's idea that mutual aid is the greatest guarantee of success then some of the words like "love" and "passion" that seem to press Dennis's buttons make a lot more sense. The very next section of Mutual Aid that I read after reading Dennis's post contained the following quote:

Compassion is a necessary outcome of social life. But compassion also means a considerable advance in general intelligence and sensibility. It is the first step towards the development of higher moral sentiments. It is in turn, a powerful factor of further evolution.

If any "hard nosed business people" out there don't like talk of revolution try evolution. If by introducing social tools into organisational life we can allow for more robust, more honest and more effective conversations that accelerate our ability to learn from each other and treat each other with a little more compassion then I believe our businesses and institutions will have become more effective and productive.