Give evolution a nudge

I once heard someone say "If you want to sort out your corporate computing make the standard platform Unix and if the buggers can't work out how to use it they shouldn't have a computer".

Sometimes I get all nostalgic for hand crafted blogs where you had to learn enough about PHP to set up a Moveable Type instance or corporate wikis with no WYSIWYG where staff had to learn wiki markup to share anything.

Sure not everyone wants to be a geek. Not everyone wants to code. Not everyone one want to write. And not everyone wants to express their views in public. But we can't stand back and say "Oh I don't do technology" or "We have people who do 'digital', or moan about Facebook's invasion of our privacy. We need to get our hands dirty. We need to get involved. We need to take responsibility for what is going on.

When I read that Google and Facebook are killing the internet or yet another social enterprise is dead story, I pause to wonder "Is that it"? Have we missed our chance? Is the genie back in the bottle? Will we inevitably revert to being passive consumers or employees, stuck in online walled gardens, our sense of what is possible or what is right or wrong being steered by algorithms we don't understand, being milked by corporate interests or too afraid to say what we think?

It is up to us. We need to grasp at this wonderfully evolutionary tool that we have been given and make sure we don't blow our chance.

Paranoia?

I have just read an article by Cory Doctorow about the privacy concerns of teenagers and the savvy ways they are learning to maintain their privacy on the internet. I know Cory, and respect the depth of his knowledge and insight into the consequences of our online lives. I also know how to set up a VPN and to use a Tor browser but do I really want to?

At risk of appearing naive, what are we all so afraid of? Who are we afraid of? Future employers, the government, sexual predators? What sort of world will we end up with if we stay afraid? Isn't it better to be brave and say what we think, open up to connections, and face up to the challenges that doing so represents? If our institutions are broken we need to fix them rather than hide from them. If we don't trust corporations we should regulate their activities - or stop using their products. Is hiding really the answer?

Next week I am giving a talk in Woodbridge School in Suffolk. I was asked to do it to counterbalance parental and school attitudes driven by media fuelled fear of the internet. I am going to be touching on the issues mentioned in this post. Should be fun!

The power of intent

Yesterday I linked to this story of a company and the 45 day process it went through to come up with what it saw as a killer tweet. This is why I talk of "the industrialisation of social media", it is also why I called my book Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do! Don't they get that this is a conversational medium at its best and a channel for yet more disingenuous noise at its worst? It doesn't have to be this way.

In most organisations there will be people trying to "go viral" by hook or by crook, or others who see their job as simply filling the content management system with stuff, whether people read it or not. And yet in my work I get to meet people in challenging jobs, representing complex organisations, genuinely reaching out through social tools to foster real connections.

Those of us on the receiving end can tell the difference. We know when we are being gamed and when there is a genuine desire to connect and share. Even through the 140 characters of a tweet we can discern intent.

Why is real people, having real conversations about real stuff that matters so hard?

Loving what is

It's my birthday and it is pouring with rain outside.

The thing about birthdays is that they are meant to be different. We expect to be especially happy on that particular day. We don't always get what we expect.

So much of our unhappiness comes from fighting what is; from clinging to our belief that things should be other than the way they are; from feeling sorry for ourselves that life doesn't work out the way that we think it should.

One of the most wonderful things about getting older is, hopefully, getting wiser.

The rain sounds exciting battering on the roof outside my window. It reminds me of childhood, snuggling inside with a book and not feeling guilty about not doing something else that I feel I should be.

Looks like I am going to have a great day.

The wonderful craft of blogging

I just added a break before the last line of my last blog post. I did this nearly a day after I published it. I did it because I realised it needed it.

I read a lot about writing. Currently about writing memoir, or creative non-fiction. This relates closely to blogging as it is about extracting universal truths from sometimes mundane situations and writing them in such a way as to respect those involved and help those not.

I am also getting into poetry and reading about writing poetry. The power of concision, the importance of rhythm, the decision as to where to break lines. These too relate to blogging.

Do I want to be a poet? Do I want to write fiction? Do I even want to think of myself as a writer? No. I am a blogger - and I love it!

Learning to play the internet like a musical instrument...

I have been saying for a while that being online so much of the time and for so long it has begun to feel biological. Some of my synapses fire inside my skull and some outside.

It occurs to me that it is also like learning to play a musical instrument. To begin with your experience is very technical and clunky. You play familiar music written by other people. Then over time you learn to interpret, to inject more of yourself into the music, and eventually to improvise.

If you get good at this you move people, you inspire people, you capture something about life that is hard to express otherwise.

Maybe the internet isn't so different...?

Good, bad, or indifferent?

I am currently listening to Game of Thrones and trying to keep a grip as good guys lose and bad guys win, then the good guys turn out to be the bad guys... you get the picture.

This got me thinking about how strong our instinct to work out what good and bad is and how we cling to the importance of doing so. Working out who were the good guys and bad guys in the recent elections. Working out the right or wrong things to do in teh world of work. The need to feel that if we see things as bad we can make them better. The idea of being in control. The idea of progress.

But is the balance between good and bad, as John Gray has so often argued, not linear at all but a constant ebb and flow? Is any idea of progress just the religious myth of redemption from a fallen state manifest in modern form? Is our perception of good and bad just made up stories and as the Buddhists would argue the only way to peace and happiness is to accept things as they are and love what is?

Do we make things better or worse with our labelling them as as good or bad and does it make a blind bit of difference?

What's stopping you?

Last week I did three workshops for CIOs and CTOs on how using social tools could help them get back some of the influence they have lost in their organisations. Rather than banning the tools they should be using them to keep their own teams better informed and to reconnect with their organisations.

As with HR Directors many of them aspire to be listened to at the highest levels but as I said, "How can you be a thought leader if no one knows what you think?".

My last four slides had the words Vulnerability, Courage and Trust followed by the question "What's stopping you?". It was fascinating to hear senior people express concern about saying what they think in public. Feeling exposed, issues of accountability, and even the old chestnut "I have nothing to say that people would be interested in".

Really? Is that really true? Is it true for you? What's stopping YOU?

Feeling out of your depth

I am about to leave on a three day cruise. Telling you about this might seem like I am falling prey to the Facebook tendency to only share the good bits of our lives and make them seem better or more exciting than they are. But I am going on the cruise, a speaking commitment and an opportunity to connect with several hundred IT Directors, because I am always looking for work.

My work mostly comes in short bursts or one off events. It all comes through word of mouth. If I don't keep meeting people, and those people don't keep talking about me and my ideas, work stops coming in. This feels vulnerable, it sometimes makes me scared. I wouldn't have it any other way but it is not always easy.

One of the challenges of working out loud, which I wrote about on Monday, is being willing to talk about mistakes, things not going well, or even just finding things difficult and feeling out of our depth. This is a big ask, especially in work where your ongoing success depends on being seen to be competent and your abilities are measured by others.

In a recent podcast Megan Murray and I talked about vulnerability and the benefits that come from being willing to be vulnerable. Others respond well if you are brave enough to be open about things you find difficult. We learn more from each other if we stop pretending that everything is easy. We get to address problems if we admit to having them. We get to share those problems and hopefully their solutions if we reach out and connect with others who are also struggling. We get to work things out together. This seems like a good thing.

Working out loud

Our new found ability to share thinking and insights so readily using our online tools is key to solving some of our biggest challenges. Our problems are too big for single individuals or isolated organisations to deal with. As I wrote in a previous post we have to get better at working things out together. The hard bit is that this involves working out loud which can feel scary and challenging.

I am currently reading Jane Bozarth's excellent book on the subject, Show Your Work in which she touches on the individual and organisational challenges of sharing your work as you do it. Sharing while it is still rough, while you are making mistakes, when it never gets finished or never quite achieves success. Doing this is raw and challenging but it is is how real learning happens. It is a million miles from the sanitised case studies that I occasionally rant about or the pernicious idea of "best practice".

In his wonderful commencement address for Simmons University David Weinberger writes of the importance of not knowing all the answers. Of being vulnerable and brave enough to feel out of our depth. Working out loud involves doing this in public, exposing our thoughts before they are fully formed, opening ourselves to dissent and difference while we are still feeling raw and unsure.

All of this feels scary, I feel it when I write these posts, but it feels real and so much more powerful than the controlled and measured means of learning that we are more comfortable with.

Ooh that's interesting

We were invited to the book launch of Curious by Ian Leslie Last night. Haven't had a chance to read it yet but it is about the benefits of curiosity and how important it is that we stay curious.

I have also just finished A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger in which he talks about losing our childhood inclination to ask questions. How this instinct to question everything gets discouraged at school and eventually can be seen as disruptive and troublemaking at work.

In my own book I wrote about the "Ooh that's interesting" principle that is behind a lot of what works well on the web. Because I blog I notice more. As I am working or travelling I spot things that I think might be interesting to write about or take pictures of. I am more curious about the things around me because I have somewhere to share them. I am more thoughtful about them because I start to think "Why am I sharing this? What am I saying? What will people's reactions be?"

If I get good at this other people hopefully go through the same process - "Ooh that's interesting, I might share that, why am I sharing it?". This collective "Ooh that's interesting" process is incredibly powerful. It is how culture is established. It is how things begin to change, however modestly. And it all starts with curiosity, finding things interesting, and asking questions.

I am saddened by a lack of curiosity in the workplace. People seem to stop asking why things are the way they are, why things work the way they do, or why they can't be done differently. I reckon we need to encourage more curiosity in our work - and to get better at it with a sense of urgency.

The perils of professionalism

I have written about this before but a couple of things prompted me to think about it again.

Yesterday, intending to be a bit cheeky, I wrote "Does having "communications" in your job title make it harder to have conversations?" I was having a dig at "professional communicators" who often get stuck in broadcast mode online or even face to face. To my surprise this kicked off a conversation about job titles!

Today the issue of personal insights in professional documents came up. Is it appropriate? Does it enhance the content or make it seem "self-aggrandising"?

Both relate to Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do.

What do we lose when we take on the mantle of "professional". Does it inevitably mean that we lose our individual voice and adopt the norms and conventions of the profession we have joined? Is it possible to deliver professional results but talk normally?

Isn't there a risk that by fitting in we all end up losing out?

Is authority more important to those who wield it or those who defer to it?

There is much talk amongst those I read and follow about re-humanising the workplace. Pushing back against the machine metaphor and re-discovering our individuality.

I always have an uncomfortable feeling that we sound like upset children, pleading with the parents to treat us better. People treat you the way they do because in some way, probably not even consciously, you have indicated that it is OK to do so. They do so because of a chain of actions and reactions going way back into childhood. They do so because of deeply held assumptions about authority.

They won't stop doing so because we ask them nicely.

Working things out

Life used to be simpler. The people around us showed us how to live, schools taught us how to behave, and work rewarded us for doing so. Following the rules kept us safe and modestly happy.

Things are harder now and they are going to get even harder. The grown ups in many, if not most, institutions and workplaces are losing the plot. We face a plethora of life choices with ever shakier means of making them. Even deciding if the information or images we see online is true or photoshopped and distorted is a source of stress.

We need to get better, faster, at learning how to deal with all of this. We need to get better at working out what is good, what is bad; what works and what doesn't; what is up and what is down. The internet is part of the cause of our stress but it can also help us. If we use it less to consume the ever increasing tsunami of information, and more to work things out, both individually and collectively, we might avoid the relativistic mush we are being sucked into.

Bloody good conversations

Last week Matt Ballantine said of me on Twitter:

@euan you're like the bartender in the great pub that is the social Web... Teetotalers make the best landlords ;o)

And previously Bernie Goldbach said somewhere that the comments threads on my Facebook posts was like watching late night TV discussion shows.

OK so yesterday's thread on Atheism was a bit extreme with so far a total of 168 comments. I did seriously think before I posted it as I knew it was a classic online flamewar topic, but I really wanted a good exchange about it. I thought long and hard about the way I expressed the idea and genuinely wanted to kick off a conversation. It was a blast!

Intent is everything. I am not doing what I do online to game people or market my services. Clearly I get work through people seeing what I do and wanting to emulate it, but I would be doing it anyway. In terms of numbers I don't attract nearly as many as other people I know, but I really, really love it. I love conversations. I love interesting subjects, I love working things out. I love working out loud.

Why can't marketers or communications and PR folks understand that that is what I want them to do when they come into my online spaces? I want them to be interesting, I want them to be interested, and I want them to generate great conversations about what they do.

A while back someone asked me to write something about metrics. I replied "How do you measure bloody good conversations with interesting people?".

Atheism

Atheism is not "a way of looking at the world". It is not an ideology or philosophy. It is a non-thing. It is a word made up by religious people for those of us who don't believe in their stories.

I don't have to proactively exercise non belief in a god any more than I have to put time and effort into not believing in fairies.

There is nothing for me to see or experience that I have to resist or deny. To believe in a god would take an act of will on my part.

I don't.

Atheist is not a word I use to describe myself.

Ever decreasing circles

I have just been sent an invite to a service that claims that their "matching algorithm globally identifies the best sparring partners for benchmarking and experience exchange among your peers." Now to be fair I haven't tried out the service yet but if it is another "people like you" sort of algorithm I am not interested.

In terms of making business connections I want to meet people who are NOT like me. By definition my potential clients are people who don't know what I know and haven't done what I have done. But even in personal terms I don't always want to meet people like me. I want to meet interesting people who stretch me, who help me learn something about life and about myself.

There is a real risk with our online tools that we end up in ever smaller echo chambers, reinforcing our prejudices and confirming our biases. I did say the other day that Facebook is like talking to yourself but better - but it is only better if it is not exactly like talking to yourself!

Balancing freedom and obligation

Some of you will be aware that over the weekend I decided to read a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Half way in I decided to stop. The increasing feeling that I "should" finish it was part of my decision to do so. As a fifty three year old adult I decided that it was up to me how I spent my weekend and with so many other good books in the queue - I gave up.

But there is still that nagging feeling doubt. Maybe a real grown up would have hung in there? I had the same feeling, many years ago, when I left a performance of Madame Butterfly during the interval. The music was turgid, the language alien to me, and there wasn't even much rushing around. I'd had enough. But the doubt lingered. Still does.

It is not as if I am a lightweight or philistine. I studied classical clarinet to a near professional level. My degree (just) was in English Language and Literature. I read constantly. I am no stranger to the need to introduce my kids to the idea of deferred gratification.

But there you are, I am trying to justify my decision to you. To convince myself that I am making a considered judgement as to how to pass my increasingly scarce time on the planet rather than running away from something I am finding arduous.

I may never escape this struggle between freedom and obligation.

Remembering Old Joe

I can see him now in his brown, zipped up, seventies style windproof. Walking towards me down Ashton Lane with his John Wayne swagger, hair newly Brylcreemed back, flask of tea and box of sandwiches in his plastic carrier bag, fag in mouth, mischievous smile on his face.

I loved Joe. I still do. Love may seem like a strong word to use for a guy I only met through my summer job in Glasgow. In his late sixties or early seventies, still having to work as a labourer to support himself and his wife, to many he would have seemed painfully ordinary. But he wasn't.

I loved his wisdom, his generosity, his kindness and his wicked sense of humour. I loved that he took me under his wing and told me stories. Endless stories of work and love, told in smoke filled Landrovers or in dripping oilskins as we sheltered under trees. Tales of Glasgow glamour from his Shawfield days; haunting memories of unrequited love for a Clydebank shipyard owner's beautiful young wife; numbing memories of unbearable sadness when predeceased by his son.

When I think of Joe I get an ache of sadness. I still miss him thirty years on. Forget stories of stones rolling away from graves. If there is immortality we achieve it by leaving a bleeding hole in people's hearts. Joe Wilson left a large one in mine.

Proper days off

When she heard that I was flying home on a Saturday a friend of my wife's response was "Oh do they make you work on a Saturday". My head went numb as I struggled with who "they" might be, the idea of "making" me do something, and trying to remember what Saturday used to mean as compared to the rest of the week.

The freelance life challenges many of our assumptions about work. It is unpredictable, has fuzzy edges, and there is no "them" telling you what to do. It calls on a steely nerve, for the times when work isn't coming in, and considerable self discipline to maintain a balance between work and non-work. Especially working from home the lines can get very blurred. Add to this the fact that I love what I do and there is a real risk of working all the time.

I am aware that my photos on Facebook can give the impression that I am always having fun but that's because the bad bits are less photogenic! I climb hills and take the chance when I am here to do things with my family to really turn off my work head. To make sure that I have proper days off.