State Of The Net - opportunity and threat

Enjoying the mind stretching presentations at State Of The Net 14 but swinging wildly between excitement and concern. The theme is "smart life" and there are so many opportunities opening up through greater thoughtfulness, increased openness, and smarter use of technology to help us lead better lives both individually and collectively. But there are also incredible challenges about regulation, privacy, and personal responsibility that could make people frightened enough to disengage from it all.

Part of the challenge is that most people lead busy lives and haven't been exposed to either the possibilities or the threats. Or if they have it has been through the filters of media and other interested parties. As we are learning to adapt to huge changes in our own capabilities our institutions are, for the most part, failing to keep up and adapt fast enough, clinging to their familiar paradigms and priorities.

What is ultimately so exciting is that we have, in our online networks and tools, the means of addressing our major challenges, upping our game and learning faster and better how to work this stuff out. But this will only happen if we all become actively involved, shrug off our training as passive consumers, and roll up our collective online sleeves.

Edglings and a world without centres

Many moons ago Stowe Boyd described those of us exploring the possibilities of online networks as edglings. Today a workshop participant picked up on the reference to edglings in my book and triggered thoughts about the edges of organisations, how impermeable they are becoming, who crosses them and recrosses them, and even edges within organisations between the many departments, silos and tribes.

Many of us feel that the interesting stuff on organisations happens at the margins - creativity, innovation, change etc.. But what if there is nothing to be at the edges of? What if there is no centre to be marginal to?

In a long but well worth reading article, The coming digital anarchy, Matthew Sparkes explores a world of decentralised systems where the algorithms behind Bitcoin are applied to other aspects of our lives and in which the centralisation of, and potential abuse of, power becomes a thing of the past.

Exciting? Scary? Or maybe both?

The two sides of my bed.

When I get out of the wrong side of my bed I see our online conversations corralled into walled gardens, corporate interest turning our thoughts and ideas into products, people becoming fearful about loss of privacy, and clients giving up on their large organisations and leaving them.

When I get out of the right side of the bed I see board members using What's App, staff using closed groups on Facebook to talk about how to improve their businesses, and more senior people realising that the internet isn't going away and social is for more than marketing.

Today I got out of the right side of my bed.

Bloody good conversations

I have been using the new ability to publish articles in Linkedin for my posts. Until now each has attracted at most a couple of hundred views. This week they promoted my "tinkering" post with the result that it has gone up to 3,000 or so views. It has also attracted forty or so comments.

The difference between that comment "thread" and what happens in Facebook is interesting. In Facebook I "know" the people commenting, know a bit about them, know where they are coming from. Even if we have never met we have a basis for mutual trust. In this Linkedin thread I don't know any of the commenters and it feels different.

Also the comments are mostly written like mini posts. In fact it dawned on me that the difference is that on Facebook it feels like a conversation in a pub, or as someone else said of my Facebook comment threads "like watching a late night chat show". The Linkedin thread is like a panel at a conference where each speaker does a mini pitch rather than takes part in a debate and the language and tone is more measured.

This is partly my fault as I wasn't able to take part at the start of the Linkedin thread, and frankly didn't know quite what to do with it. I didn't feel able to influence the nature of the conversation. In fact it didn't feel conversational at all. I reckon this is what clients feel like when they open up to talk to the public as opposed to internal conversations with colleagues. Not the "bloody good conversations" I aspire to online and worth mulling over why, and what to do about it.

Do you want transformation or tinkering?

This question keeps occurring to me in conversations with clients. I'm really not being judgemental - honest. I am the world's greatest procrastinator and tinkerer. I know how hard personal change is let alone taking a whole organisation with you. But the question hangs there in the background.

I don't think it is about scale. It is possible to tinker endlessly with big corporate projects and never get anywhere, and at the same time a well aimed, passionate tweet can change the world. This is why the idea of Trojan Mice is so powerful. Small things, repeated, going round obstacles rather than bouncing off them, instigating change one conversation at a time.

But you have to care enough to instigate and sustain even the small things. You have to have a sense of purpose and be in it for the long game. This takes energy and guts.

Bringing about changes in our organisations is hard. Numbingly hard. I often think that the tagline to my business should be "A shoulder to cry on" because part of what I do is provide a sympathetic ear to folks feeling the pain of being a lone voice in their wilderness.

In the face of this pain tinkering becomes the norm. Reading another case study instead of getting on with things. Trying to find just one more example of best practice. Endlessly asking for permission in different ways from different people - rather than asking for forgiveness.

Tinkering isn't what we are here to do. Tinkering rots your soul.

Manliness

So much that is wrong with the world is down to men.

Not due to biology, or genetic mutation, but expectations. How they expect the world to react to them, how society expects them to behave, what they expect to get away with and how they expect other men to react.

More of us should dash their expectations.

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.