A world of a difference

Having been in very different parts of the world over the last few weeks, with what were outwardly very different people, I am reminded yet again how alike we all are. Generally we like the same things, we fear the same things, and we express our likes and fears in very similar ways.

And yet we seem determined to find and focus on our differences. Watching some of the fear filled reporting on events in Ferguson in the US I marvel at our willingness to be steered to a sense of difference rather than alikeness.

We should be so, so wary of those who have a vested interest in playing on our fears of imagined difference. This would be a very different world if we were.

Some of my best friends are grown ups

I often quote an exchange, many years ago, between myself and Dave Snowden in which Dave accused me of being anti-religious evangelicals while at the same time being evangelical about my own world view. My response was that I don’t want people to think what I think. I just want them to think, to talk to each other about what they think, and by doing so we will end up somewhere exciting. Not maybe where I thought we were going, but that’s cool because we will have all worked it out together.

You may also have noticed my disparaging use of the phrase “grown ups”. This is my shorthand for those in positions of power and authority who take themselves too seriously, lose connection with those they serve, and increasingly are losing the plot as a result. It is also the tendency to assume the role of grown up in relationships, to infantilise the other person, reminding me of a favourite phrase “to rescue someone is to oppress them”. Things go wrong when some of us think we know better what is good for others than they do themselves.

When I was in Bangkok I went for a long walk around the city, walking along canal sides and rail tracks where people live in desperate poverty. But they were smiling and chatting and setting up stalls to sell food or do laundry and kids were playing with their dogs in and around the rail tracks. I felt safe the whole time and enjoyed the buzz and energy. I contrasted this during the workshop I was speaking at for the UN with the glass and steel tower we were in, full of people in suits perpetrating the myth that without the grown ups maintaining order and structure we would fall apart. It is not true, we don’t fall apart, and frankly the world of the grown ups can be pretty scary and unpleasant, or at the very least dead and lifeless.

My fantasy is a world where we all operate as autonomous, self directing cells in the greater organism of society. Sensing and adjusting on the basis of our own moral compass which we refine and adjust as we experience challenges and changes. Tolerant of the other cells around us doing the same thing we self correct and accommodate changes in our networks but move towards healthy and productive outcomes individually and collectively.

I’m bracing myself now for the grown ups saying “Ah but who defines healthy and productive? We need an overall framework, some sort of ‘ism’ or ‘ology’”. Do we? Don’t we all know when we are happy and at peace both individually and collectively? Don’t our problems stem from allowing others, marketers or religions, to tell us what they think will make us happy and manipulating us as a result? Might we not get on a lot better if we all grew up, took responsibility for ourselves and each other, thought more and talked more about what we are thinking and why?

This is all I hope for and work towards as I truly believe it is our only chance…

"Communication"

It always amuses me when someone introduces themselves as "a professional communicator" leaving me feeling like an enthusiastic amateur after fifty four years.

In most businesses communication has become a thing. A thing with its own department and dedicated staff. A thing that you can get certificates for and become more senior at. A thing that makes others, who are not blessed with the title communicator, feel that they are not good at or even entitled to do.

But we all do it all the time. It is the only way work gets done. In fact in pretty much anything but assembly line manufacture, and I suspect even there, it is a key part of everyone's job. It is something that we should all aspire to becoming better at.

Maybe professional communicators should stop doing it for us and start helping us get better at doing it ourselves?

The "initiative" challenge

I am going to be doing a keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit London at the end of the month. It is increasingly unusual for me to speak at a conference with those words in the title, or social business, or social anything for that matter. For some time I have preferred to talk at conferences focussed on specific aspects of doing business, or specific professions. Conferences that aren't all about social.

I am doing this one because it is being run by good folks and will give me a chance to catch up, but I am going to base my keynote on why I feel uncomfortable with the whole E2.0, social business thing. I guess I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about initiatives. Probably a result of the number of times I had them done to me while at the BBC. It is also because I believe passionately that real change happens one person at a time and for their reasons not yours. Initiatives are done to them rather than by them.

I guess this is the old problem of how do you encourage things to happen, encourage people to behave differently, make it more likely that change makes a positive difference, without reverting to the conventional management techniques and processes that are part of the problem we are trying to solve!

The power of words

"Oh yes, blogging. That is just people sharing their opinion."

Opinions matter, ideas matter, sharing them matters.

Why should only experts or journalists get to shape our thinking? We have outsourced our thinking to professionals for too long. We need to choose our own words, use them more carefully, share them more effectively and shape our worlds more actively.

Wherever you go there you are

Another post prompted by a quote, this one from Jon Kabat Zinn.

I am going to be in Amsterdam for a couple of days this week and possibly Bangkok next. I love being places and know that I am privileged to get to travel so much with my work. But I remember sitting on a tropical beach in Australia a couple of years ago and being struck that there I was, in what most would consider an idyllic setting, not really seeing the beauty around me because I was wallowing in the troubled thoughts in my head.

We are sold the idea that if we buy the tropical holiday we will be happy. If we move to the bigger house we will be happy. If we change jobs we will be happy. But happiness isn't something we get, it is something we do. We can be happy, or unhappy, anywhere and any time we choose.

Being aware of our thoughts and taking responsibility for them is hard work. How we see the world around us is a reflection of the way we are as much as the way it is. If we don't like it then it is ourselves we have control over. It is our thoughts we have to change.

Pushing eagles off cliffs

Increasing numbers of senior people face the challenge of social tools in their businesses. As these platforms become more widespread, and the numbers using them increase, the pressure to take part is growing. Even if they were the ones responsible for the deployment of the tools, using them on a daily basis is a different matter.

Some managers are willing participants and take to online engagement readily, but they are very much in the minority. Most are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Frankly they are not used to such close contact with staff. Hearing people's opinions and reactions to your decisions can be terrifying at worst, awkward at the very least. Working out how to react is challenging. Even finding the right words and tone is a significant hurdle.

But with a little help the majority will learn to cope, some even flourish. Supporting them is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It was them that my book was written for - let's face it I was one of them once! Watching them learn to fly and discover a whole new way of working is immensely rewarding.

Signal to noise

I am sitting opposite a city gent who has obviously just had a cigarette before joining the train. The smell is overpowering and I was tempted to write one of those witty observational tweets you see so often during commuting time.

I found myself thinking "Is this it? The power of the internet reduced to sarcastic comments about fellow tube travelers?" Instead I chose to write this blog post. On my phone.

I am on my way into town to take part in a workplace event and to talk about the power of writing on the internet. This issue of trivia versus import is what I am talking about. The right balance of signal to noise. The opportunity to think harder about things and share those thought, even on the move on a mobile phone.

I will leave you to judge whether this post was signal or noise but whichever it is I still find the potential it represents to work stuff out together, even in the midst of busy lives, amazing.

My outboard brain

In the twenties the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined the phrase noosphere to convey the idea of a layer of thought surrounding the earth. I first read about this idea more than a decade ago and it stuck.

While walking with Matt Mower last week I worried him when I said that I thought of him as part of my extended neural network. This is what it feels like. The ubiquitous short messages connecting those of us using social platforms allow me to push ideas in and out of my brain in an almost biological way never before possible.

This feels powerful and exciting. Literally worth wrapping our heads around!

Can we not do better than "nasty, brutish and short"?

Reading about sexism in the tech industry, and helping my daughter deal with bulling at school, I find myself yet again despairing of human nature. Is human life inevitably "nasty, brutish and short"? What makes us so blinkered to the consequences of our actions, so disconnected in our thinking?

The internet and social media are often blamed for our failings but they are just a mirror. They don't make us anything - they show us what we are. I remain hopeful that they are one of our few hopes of improving.

We are having our uglier behaviours held up to us for inspection. This feels uncomfortable and the first instinct is to hide them again. But we have to work through the discomfort and work things out.

Digital

Last week I went along to Reclaim The Net, hosted by Eva Pascoe one of the founders of Cyberia (who ran the first network of cyber cafes in Britain). Held in Digitas Lbi off Brick Lane it was attended by a mix of Hoxton Hipsters and hard core geeks.

Last night Henley Business School asked me along to ‘Driving Growth in Digital Britain’ with a keynote by Baroness Dido Harding, Chief Exec of Talk Talk. Held in a conference room in RBS Bishopsgate, it was attended predominantly by grey haired middle aged men in suits.

Aside from presented by women there was little in common between the two events either in style or content, yet both came under this umbrella word Digital.

At the first Bill Thomson said the early adopters had taken their eye off the ball and allowed business and government to squander the early transformational potential of the net. At the second there was talk of digital inclusion, and they had picked up on the meme of the need to learn coding, but the focus was on business and infrastructure, and at the end of the day money.

Two very different ends of the "digital" spectrum in the same week. Neither right or wrong, both doing what they think matters. These are interesting times...

Another small step

I often wonder what difference writing posts on social platforms can make. Is it just self indulgent shouting into the wind?

I remember being hugely upset by the changes that Jon Birt, Director General at the time, was making to the BBC I loved. It felt like he was doing them to us. We were victims - and acted like it. We felt defenceless.

But then it dawned on me that things were only happening because he said they should, often enough and to enough people. To the right people. At the right time. If he had said nothing, nothing would have happened. We all had that potential, but he did something with it.

This is why I now realise that all change happens one step at a time, one conversation at a time, one person at a time. There is no other way for it to happen.

This is why, no matter how small the chance of massive change happening as a result of writing your blog post, one thing is for sure. Nothing will happen if you don't.

Webinars

I am currently in the middle of delivering my series of webinars about the social web to the United Nations and was really chuffed to be asked to do them again, for a third time, next year.

There are five in the series broken down as follows:

  • Intro to the social web: how it works, why it works, and what you can do with it.
  • "Branding": how to get your message across without spamming the rest of us.
  • Influencing: how to reach out, build networks, and build trust.
  • Reporting: how to know if what you are doing is working and how to keep your boss happy while you do it.
  • Learning: how to use the social web to keep up to speed and keep doing things better.

If you think your organisation would benefit from something similar, or you know someone else's that would, you know where to find me.

Energy management

It occurred to me today that we focus a lot on the outputs of our work lives but not enough on the inputs. What it takes to make things happen.

It can take inordinate amounts of energy and commitment to bring about change in our organisations. This is true on a personal level as well as a collective one. Finding the reasons to summon up the energy to push, pull, cajole and inspire sometimes unwilling participants is not always easy. I often think that my work, whether my consulting, keynotes, podcasts or blog posts like this one, is helping people keep their energy up in the face of often considerable adversity.

Energy management is also a useful way to think about how you manage social networks, either inside work or facing the public. Watching where energy is focussed and where it is dispersed. What increases it and what saps it. How it changes over time and how it flows.

Any successful social enterprise initiatives get this right. There is a significant up front investment of energy, often from a committed individual or small group, to get things started. They then do the right things to increase and spread that energy wider. Those initiatives that fail, despite appearing to have done the right things, do so because of a lack of individual or collective energy.

Energy management makes all the difference. We should get better at it!

Exercising the right to talk rubbish

Following on from yesterday's post about standing up to bullies it occurred to me that bullying can be more subtle and widespread than we assume. And we all give in to it.

Every time we put someone down for talking rubbish it is a small act of bullying. It makes them feel small and us feel more powerful.

This happens all the time at work. That pervasive tone of disapproval so cultivated by managers who see their job as saving their organisations from people who talk rubbish.

You might argue that that is their job. To keep everything tidy and organised. The thing as that we have got so good at making our organisations look tidy, at reducing the levels of noise, that we have also driven out the signal. We are so afraid of talking rubbish that we are constantly at risk of saying nothing.

We need to practise. We need to say more. Some of which will be rubbish. If we don't get used to talking rubbish more often we will learn to keep quiet. We will learn to say nothing, and will all lose as a result.

We need to learn to be more tolerant of other people's rubbish - including our own.

Standing up to bullies

Sometimes the bullies are the state, sometimes they are money men, sometimes they are terrorists, and sometimes they are priests.

Reading news feeds about protestors in Hong Kong and Muslims around the world disassociating themselves from ISIS I am hopeful that we are learning that if we stick together we can stand up to bullies.

The real world

In my work I get to help amazing people, doing amazing things, often in tough places, using social media. Not marketing things people don’t want, not distracting them with silly viral videos, but reaching out to make a difference. It can be very humbling.

It is easy to sneer at the online world. It is easy to obsess about the latest tweaks to the interfaces we use. It is easy to forget that these tools are not an end in themselves.

They are what we make them. They can be the means to significant and important ends. What matters is our intent in using them.

Being brave

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing"

I have written a many times that using social tools at work, and reaping their benefits by sharing ideas and opinions, calls for small acts of bravery.

But it is not just at work that we need to be brave.

I shared a couple of stories yesterday. One was about Emma Watson being bullied for sharing her views. In a comment on the other (which asked why the middle class weren't rioting about dodgy financial practice) Anne McCrossan expressed the thought that the middle classes are not speaking out because of the fear of being monitored online.

Caving in to bullies, whether hackers in hoodies or the state wearing suits, is a really slippery slope. We can't let others constrain our ability to say what we think in public. Each time we keep our mouths shut out of fear we let ourselves and others down.

History has shown us that small, apparently inocuous, compromises can allow dreadful things to happen.

Being cruel to be kind

I often take digs at management, the media, and institutions of various kinds, lumping them together as "the grown ups". This may seem like sniping from the sidelines.

But those are the very groups I spend my days helping. Many of you who are reading this with will work for those groups. For all the enthusiasm for startups, and even the likelihood that smaller groups may be characteristic of the future, most of the world is run by large, bureaucratic, organisations, and most of the world work for them, or are influenced by them. They are not going away in a hurry.

Or are they?

The referendum in Scotland showed how frustrated we are becoming at the political status quo. Even something as apparently stable as The United Kingdom has been shown to be surprisingly fragile. Our financial institutions have been found wanting for several years now. Geopolitics look like going into meltdown with the actions Putin and ISIS. Even our supply chains are stretched so taught in the name of efficiency it wouldn't take too many logistics computers going down for us to be fighting for places in food queues.

We are going to have to get better dealing with these challenges. Some believe that in order to do so we give up on our current solutions and build new ones faster. I don't think we have time. I believe that we have to reinvent our institutions from the inside. We have to take individual and collective responsibility despite the challenges of hierarchical command and control environments. We do this by thinking harder, talking to each other more, and taking more frequent small steps forwards. Unleashing trojan mice. Repeated small steps of bravery.

This is what I help people to do and this is why I think it matters.

Facebook and the fear of being judged

Interesting to read a BBC story that there have been 10 million interactions on the subject of the Scottish referendum on Facebook. It confirms my sense that our use of Facebook is maturing and moving beyond just sharing images of cats. We increasingly use social platforms to understand and discuss our world.

This got me thinking again about why we find the idea of "Facebook for work" so challenging. Why is it so hard to get platforms on which people can help each other solve practical challenges or understand strategic directions better to take hold in our organisations?

I reckon it comes down to the fear of being judged. This is bad enough on something that "doesn't matter" like Facebook but all the more significant in the world of work. Being found wanting by your friends is one thing but being judged by your peers or your boss represents a whole different level of discomfort.

But it will happen. Eventually the benefits will outweigh the risks, both individually and organisationally. All it takes is incremental small acts of bravery, and once we start there's no stopping us.