Eyes wide open

A bit like my post the other day about fake news being a good thing, the current brouhaha about what Facebook does with our data is also a good thing. While it surprises me the degree to which people appear not to have realised what was going on, it is a good thing that they are finally waking up.

I have often said that the internet is a mirror, showing us a reflection of our nature, warts and all. Sometimes that mirror is going to be deliberately distorted, like those old mirrors at funfairs.

When it is, so long as we know it is happening, we don't need to get literally "bent out of shape" about it. We can adjust our behaviour, expose the manipulation, and move on.

But we can do none of this if we've got our eyes shut!

Be that person

It occurred to me yet again recently how almost all successful attempts that I have seen to shift intranets from being passive content repositories to active places where work really gets done, and great conversations take place, have been down to one person.

Even if they have been supported by a small team there is almost always someone who cares enough, who is determined enough, and who is bloody minded enough to do all of the pushing, pulling, and cajoling with the dogged determination it takes to make these things happen.

Are you that person?

Right up my street

I don't write much about my various projects here. It's easier in terms of confidentiality and I am always always a little put off when people broadcast about every project.

But... I am really looking forward to the two talks I am doing at [Unleash][1] this Wednesday (after ten years working with them as HR Tech I am still having to learn not to call them that!)

I am looking forward to it so much because my two talks are titled "From Disengaged Employees to Changing the World" and "HR and AI - a marriage made in heaven or hell?" both topics that are dear to my heart.

Thanks again to Marc Coleman and his team for giving me the reason to think hard about stuff that I believe really matters.

[1]: http://www.unleashgroup.io/london/index

Why I love Facebook

Well, OK, perhaps that is overstating it a bit.


What has always interested me about the internet is the possibility it affords for bloody good conversations with interesting people. For whatever reasons Facebook is where that currently happens most often for me.

Take my last post on Supporting Change. A great comments thread on Facebook, in large measure due to Louise Robey's first response. And barely a flicker on LinkedIn. When I wrote the post I wondered if it was too business related for Facebook, almost succumbing to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is for friends, LinkedIn is for work. Bollocks.

I've always said “follow the energy” in online conversations and if it's in Facebook that it is greatest then it’s there that I'll spend most time.

Supporting change

Two conversations yesterday reminded me of how important training or other forms of support are when implementing large change projects whether involving new technology or new processes. 

In the first conversation the project had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on technology but it hadn't had the anticipated impact because not enough effort had gone in to explaining the "why" let alone the how! This so often happens, especially with social enterprise platforms. These enable such a new way of doing things, frankly a new way of seeing the world, that expecting people to "just get it" is naive.

The second conversation was again about a big change effort but this time the plan was to offer an extensive programme of coaching. Coaching targeted at helping people understand the why of the new processes and to grapple with what the changes mean to them.

Even with the technology project an investment in coaching, or group workshops, would have made such a difference. If your large scale project is worth doing, and is going to make a difference, then surely helping people make the most of it is a smart investment?

Avoid the tyranny of being picked

This phrase from Seth Godin has always resonated with me. Since leaving the BBC twelve years ago I have been in the very lucky position of either being approached by people who have heard about me asking me to work for them, or have been part of new ventures that have grown out of conversations. The result has been that I haven't applied for anything for about twenty years. 

Several people have said to me recently that as businesses realise that "digital" isn't going away and they are going to have to grapple with it, a part time Non-Exec Director role is one way for them to get strategic input at a high level and that this would be a great way for me to help them. 

These roles used to be predominantly filled on a who knows who basis and so the process has been appropriately tightened up and managed through recruitment agencies. 

So, back to my favourite saying from Seth Godin, I now find myself in the position of having to write a CV today. 



Helping people to catch up

One of the challenges of my work has always been balancing clients' need to anticipate the big technology driven changes that will impact their business with sometimes really basic questions about how to use Twitter!

Even those involved in "digital" can be unclear why. They focus on the practicalities and get busy building things or doing stuff - often simply because other companies around them are. But after a while they begin to wonder if all this busyness is really making the difference they expected.

While in some ways the world is changing very fast - in others, usually the important ones, nothing ever really changes. The challenge is working out which are which. What are the core elements of your interactions with customers or staff? What are the essential processes and what can be ignored? Very often people haven't had the time or space to consider these questions in their old analogue worlds let alone in the context of the shiny new digital one.

Sometimes the questions they have to ask themselves are difficult and uncomfortable. Not knowing the answers hurts. Getting them wrong hurts even more. Helping them to work through this is often a challenge - but it is a challenge I love.

Clever people

I am really early for my first meeting this morning and so am sitting in a Pret A Manger on Finsbury Square. I know I shouldn't be earwigging but it's hard not to listen to the group of men sitting at the table next to me. Essex lads from their accents, discussing what sound like office fit-outs.

Their conversation reminds me yet again of the amazing amount of expertise there is these days. Everything has become so much more sophisticated than even ten years ago and the possibilities to do things differently are endless.

It takes so many clever people to make things happen. Real things, things you can touch and pick up and use. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the online world and the world of technology with the cleverness that they represent, but it takes all sorts of clever people to maintain the world around us and we can so easily take them for granted.

Between the stimulus and the response

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

  • Viktor E. Frankl

I try to write as clearly and unambiguously in my posts as I can, but sometimes the comments that people leave really come out of left field and appear to have little to do with my original post. They seem more to do with the sensitivities or current challenges of the person commenting than with anything I have written. Sometimes they even express annoyance at things I didn't say!

The internet has always made it too easy to fire off a quick response, whether that ill considered email reply that you immediately regret, or an over-reaction that starts a flame war.

It's worth remembering that our reactions to what we see or read online have consequences. They are our volume control on mob rule. We should use that volume control with care.

Digital Transformation

I heard recently that in response to their “emissions scandal” VW have unleashed a new set of rules on “proper legal and ethical behaviour” on their staff. The irony of those who created the culture that caused the problems in the first place being the ones to issue the rules is staggering.

It’s the same with Digital Transformation. The biggest challenge is that the transition to a new world is in the hands of the old. Those who can bring themselves to use the phrase “Digital Transformation” are invariably those who least understand, or would like, its implications.

The true transformation of a digital culture is in behaviours and interactions between people. It is in the ability to more directly connect with each other in the workplace, to reduce unnecessary steps and overheads, and to be able to adapt and respond to challenges more quickly. All of this threatens the status quo and the authority of many of the gatekeepers who have, until now, been deemed necessary.

As I have said before, most organisations want tinkering rather than transformation. They would rather rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic than face the true challenges of “Digital”. They find it easier to digitise their dysfunctions than to face up to them.

This is human nature.

The brave will try harder.

Going numb

It is so easy to go numb in the face of challenges. Especially big ones, and especially at work. Everything seems so complicated and interconnected that we fool ourselves into thinking that we can't make a difference.

Even those at the top of their organisations feel the same way. I heard recently of an article claiming that Chief Execs experience the same Monday feeling of dread as their staff do. No one is immune to the feeling of powerlessness.

But we have much more agency than we fool ourselves into believing. Every challenge, no matter how large or complicated, is met one step at a time. Someone has to take that next step. It might as well be us.

Words, words, words.

"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." - Blaise Pascal, Pensées

He should have added "without a book"

I read all the time. Real books, e-books, even audio books. There is rarely a moment when I am not cramming new ideas into my head.

But it occurred to me recently that my appetite for reading is partly a diversionary tactic, a way of avoiding being present. I have prided myself on not "wasting time" distracting myself with television, or even reading fiction, but the incessant barrage of ideas is its own form of distraction. It brings its own pressure and becomes a higher order of noise.

The search for novelty, for the one big idea that will make everything better, the escape from the present into an idealised future, these are things to be guarded against.

I have begun practising putting my books down occasionally. This feels like a good thing.

Awash in a sea of truth

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information that we are bombarded with these days. I still maintain that a well managed combination of social networks can help to filter this incoming information but within those networks people can slog it out between polarised views and working out "the truth" about the various complex issues affecting us these days doesn't get easier.

This, combined with an equally varied and problematic professional media, means that it is ever more challenging to work out what we think about the world around us.

But then isn't part of the problem that we have been conditioned to expect to stay abreast of, and have a view on, everything that has been presented to us as news - much of which is a list of things to be frightened or worried about? And the list is mostly made of things that we can never do anything to change, that are totally outwith our control or influence, and in many cases don't directly affect us. All we can do is worry!

The actual events that directly affect us, and which we can influence, are a very small subset of the things that we feel pressured to respond to.

Increasingly I find myself asking "What can I actually affect, now or in the near future, and what do I need to know to do something about it". Everything else recedes into the noise.

Like two friends

The internet could be like this if we wanted...

“We are like two friends sitting in the park on a lovely day talking about life, talking about our problems, investigating the very nature of our existence, and asking ourselves seriously why life has become such a great problem, why, though intellectually we are very sophisticated, yet our daily life is such a grind, without any meaning, except survival—which again is rather doubtful. Why has life, everyday existence, become such a torture? We may go to church, follow some leader, political or religious, but the daily life is always a turmoil; though there are certain periods which are occasionally joyful, happy, there is always a cloud of darkness about our life. And these two friends, as we are, you and the speaker, are talking over together in a friendly manner, perhaps with affection, with care, with concern, whether it is at all possible to live our daily life without a single problem.” - J. Krishnamurti

Conversations not content

The internet still holds so much potential to helps us understand and improve ourselves and the world around us. Sadly much of it has been turned into one big content farm. It doesn't need to be this way. It is not too late.

Each of us can ask our selves every time we share, like, or write something:

Will this post trigger people to think more deeply about its topic? Have I written it in a way that is more likely to open up debate than close it down? Am I ready, even keen, to have people disagree with me and how will I deal with it when it happens? Am I sharing this post just to make me look clever? Am I fanning the flames of dissent and piggy backing on the latest scandal, or am I trying to understand and heal unnecessary and destructive division? Is this post helping me, and those who read it, to feel more empowered and inspired -or is it more likely to make us feel afraid and cautious? Is my activity likely to encourage others to engage more with each other, or does it help them stay passive consumers of other people's thoughts and ideas?

Like I said - it's not too late.

Social media is a symptom not a cause.

I am currently reading Johann Hari's excellent new book Lost Connections in which he explores the real reasons for the increased depression and anxiety in modern society.

As he approached the topic of the internet in the chapter on connection with other people I hoped he wasn't going to indulge in the common knee jerk response of blaming technology for our ills.

He doesn't.

Instead he confirms what I have always believed, that our internet addictions don't create needs, they meet them. The needs exist before we ever pick up our phones. Rather than blaming the technology, and increasing our sense of being out of control, we need to explore the deep psychological needs that modern society is failing to satisfy.

It is our relationships and wider societal norms that we need to question - not what we do with our phones to take the pain away. Social media is a symptom, not a cause, of a deeper problem.


I have little interest in the many podcasts that are just mainstream media distributed differently. Someone recently recommended Note To Self. The content was interesting but the jingles, editing, actuality, all felt intrusive. I wanted to be trusted to listen to the conversation. Sadly all BBC podcasts are like this. The perils of professionalism.

To me the pleasure of listening to podcasts is being able to hear smart people chatting about things I am interested in, taking their time, working things out, not trying too hard. It’s very different.


Mollie gave me Rory Stewart's book The Marches as part of my Christmas present, a travel book based on his relationship with his father and the land on either side of the Scottish border. Both of them had been in the army, in Scottish regiments, and both had served as foreign diplomats. The world he describes is very unfamiliar and occasionally off putting in its antiquity and stuffiness. But he sees this too and so far the book has been about him balancing this world of heritage and tradition with "the real world" that he knows they both now live in.

It made me think, again, about my own Scottishness. I come from a lowland heritage rather than Highland and therefore am more English than truly Scottish if, as I do, you consider the real Scotland to start above The Highland Line. I have lived more than half my life in the London area having moved down here in 1984. I also spend a lot to my time with people from all around the world and, although I feel very connected to the wonderful landscape here in The Chilterns, I am not involved in many things socially local to where we live. I sometimes even go so far to say that I don't think of myself as Scottish any more. I am where I am, I talk to the people I talk to, and identifying myself with tribes, whether online or off, feels increasingly alien.

But who am I? We define ourselves through our relationships, our sense of self coming from those we pass time with, our opportunities are steered by those we connect with most. However much time I spend traveling or online I am still a citizen of Britain, subject to its laws and norms. On a good day, and despite Brexit, I think there are many characteristics of those who live in these islands that are to be celebrated and shared.

But if I identify too much with the tribe, if I conform too much to its societal norms, then I stop thinking for myself, I become a passive pawn, I become too easily manipulable. Working out the balance between the individual and the group, the cells and the network, me and the world around me, takes constant work and matters more and more.

Using technology rather than letting it use us.

I use my iPhone and my iPad to read books about the origins of capitalism, the drives behind totalitarianism, the differences between socialism and communism, and the writings of Kropotkin and Tolstoy as they grapple with the ideas behind anarchism.

I find out about these books through recommendations from people in my social networks or the algorithms in Amazon.

I use my Apple Watch to record my increasingly radical ideas as I walk around listening to excellent podcasts by people like Russell Brand.

I use apps from the App Store to support my ever more serious commitment to meditation and to Buddhist ideas and philosophy.

People complain about what technology is "doing to them".

It's a choice.

My mate Russell Brand

I'm thoroughly enjoying working my way through the back catalog of Russell Brand podcasts. The most recent one I listened to was with Adam Curtis and was as usual a fantastic exploration of really important topics.

So why do I say "My mate Russell"?

Om a beautiful sunny day in the summer we had taken our two inflatable kayaks for a trip down the Thames. Having pulled the kayaks up onto the bank for a rest, and while the girls were snoozing on a beach beside the river, I noticed someone coming towards us on a paddleboard with a large Alsatian dog sitting on the front of it. This seemed unusual enough that I thought I would take a photograph. As I did so the man on the paddleboard pulled his hoodie over his head. I found this a bit odd but didn't think anymore about it.

About half an hour later we were paddling back downriver behind some little islands along a narrow creek. Again I noticed this man on the paddleboard coming towards us but this time the dog was in the water behind him happily swimming along. Again I took my camera to take a photograph and again the man looked concerned. As I got closer I asked him "Is it okay to take a photograph?" To which he replied "I'm afraid that's private".

Only when I heard his voice did I realise that it was of course Russell Brand. Once we'd got over the initial awkwardness, presumably he thought we had deliberately gone round the back of the islands to find him not knowing that we had now idea who he was, we had a great chat about how wonderful the Thames is, how little it has changed over the centuries, and spent some time discussing Kipling's poem about the Thames, The River's Tale, which we had both read!