Why Michael Jackson flashmobs made me emotional

This morning I was moved to tears watching these two flash mobs dancing to Michael Jackson. This had nothing to do with the music of Michael Jackson - it happens almost every time I watch a video of a flash mob. Why?

There is something about people working together on something complicated without overt direction that seems to trigger profound feelings. Its like it is a basic human instinct, or at least potential, that kicks in when we experience it or even simply watch it happening. What a shame that we have been conditioned to think that without intervention the world starts to fall apart

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly's wonderful book Out Of Control in which he describes the actions of swarms of bees or flocks of birds in which there is no predetermined plan or particular leader but a group of individual creatures working within certain parameters can achieve complex operations on a vast scale without any apparent organisation. He then talked of an experiment conducted in a large auditorium where participants were given flags which could be turned either red or green and then asked to conduct relatively complex tasks such as play a game of Pong by making their choice of red or green behave like pixels on a large screen. After a couple of more simple tasks the group managed to replicate a flight simulator and "fly" a virtual plane successfully.

When I spoke at Reboot in Denmark recently I decided to do something a little different at the beginning of my keynote. When I was introduced by Thomas to an audience of approximately 300 people I didn't appear on stage but was in fact sitting alongside them in the audience two thirds of the way back in the hall. This alone was enough to disconcert the audience but when I began speaking, equipped as I was with a wireless microphone, they became even more agitated - some to the point of visible annoyance. My first words were to suggest that the feeling of discomfort that they were experiencing was likely to be very similar to the extreme discomfort that people are likely to feel when their manager doesn't do what they expect but instead appears alongside them acting very more like one of them than adopting familiar command and control behaviors. People have been trained to expect certain structures and behaviour and pulling those away without explanation or alternative structures in place can be very disconcerting.

This is why when I am working with clients I work with them as individuals and their attitudes, expectations and willingness to engage with others in a common purpose. There is , as far as I'm concerned, no "endgame". I am confident that if each of them operates with respect, tolerance, autonomy and fully engaged energy then as a group they will get where they need to get to. This is also what some clients, and certainly their bosses, find disconcerting. They feel the need of a plan and predicted outcomes.

Frankly an awful lot of management consultancy over the last few decades has been sold on the myth that life is that predictable. That if you apply McKinsey formula x,y, or z then outcomes can be predicted. I think this is less and less easy to pull off these days as things get more complicated and setting people up with the skills, attitudes, and insights to deal with whatever happens next and collectively work, in their respective Flash Mobs, towards a positive outcome seems a far more robust approach to adopt.

The risk of becoming conservative

No I am not talking about politics. I am talking about the increasing sense I have had over the past few months that "stating the obvious" is becoming harder. Some of you may have noticed that I have been blogging less over the past few months and there are a number of reasons for this.

Part of it is that working with the clients I do I don't always feel I can write about my work. Not that any of it is secret, but I feel sensitive to their right to choose when and how our work is made public. Secondly I have been blogging for eight years and there is this feeling, that continues to grow that, I have already written about most things - at least once!

The last reason is possibly the most concerning and the main prompt for this post. I feel more watched than ever before. I don't get vast numbers of readers for this blog but the ones I do tend to be smart, vocal and influential. As a result I get more and more concerned about what "they" will think. Will they think I am stupid, will they think I have lost my touch, will they think I have lost my relevance?

Risk is one of the main inhibitors to blogging, especially in a corporate environment. All those voices that you imagine saying things like "Who are you to say that?" or even "Who am I to say that?" or as an older relative of mine once said "Oh yes - blogging - that's just people expressing their opinions" - get ever louder and more difficult to ignore. Giving in to these sorts of risks though is why people stop saying what they think - and sometimes even stop thinking! It becomes easier just to stay quiet and let things pass you by.

Well, it may or may not come as a relief to you, dear reader, to know that I am going to resist these pressures and renew my efforts to state the obvious and continue to fill this blog with the inane burbling you have come to expect!

Blogging Guidelines

There comes a time in any organisation's use of blogging, and for that matter other social media tools as well, when someone feels the need of a line in the sand. A blog post from James Dellow at Headshift Australia brought back my own "line in the sand" moment at the BBC, the moment when having some "official" view from the organisation about this new field of staff activity felt like a good thing to do.

The thing is, a blogging policy can range from "Don't be stupid" to a multi-page legal document with every possible variation in between. The document says at least as much about the people writing it as it does about the people it will affect. The neat trick we pulled off at the BBC was to make them largely one and the same thing. We encouraged collective responsibility from the start. It wasn't one group of people telling another group of people how to behave. Attempting to do so rarely works in online environments and indeed government legislation often falls prey to this. One group, who have status and power and feel the need to control, writing legislation intended to apply to a sphere of influence and activity of which they have little or no experience.

The thing to remember is that bad laws are hard to enforce while good rules pretty much enforce themselves. There are loads of different examples of blogging policies out there that you can learn from but make sure you don't just copy and paste or worse still fall into the trap of letting someone else write yours!

Social by Social

Andy Gibson has pulled together a great list of 45 propositions for those interested in getting involved in social computing. They are all good but my particular favourites are below:

# Empowerment is unconditional. Telling people what they can and can’t do with your platform is like an electricity company restricting what its power can be used for.

# You can’t learn to fly by watching the pilot. If you want to understand new technologies, start using them. Dive in.

# Don’t centralise, aggregate. Do you really need data centralisation? Well do you? Use lots of different, disconnected tools and then pull the content together into a central location.

# Your users own the platform. If they feel own it, they will trust it, help sustain it, and find ways to use and improve the tools; if they aren’t interested, no amount of pushing will help.

Why HR, Comms and IT should be really excited about the social web ....

... but probably aren't.

Many moons ago when I was lost in one of the many twists and turns in my BBC "career" my father suggested asked if there wasn't someone in HR that I could speak to. I am sorry to say that I laughed out loud. Yes there were some notable exceptions but most of my experience of HR departments had been of people who saw themselves as maintainers of order rather than enablers of staff. People who made up rules and made sure I stuck to them, rather than people who had my long term career interests at heart.

Likewise communications departments seem to see themselves more as "managing" communication on behalf of senior management than enabling communication within their organisations. And of course when it to comes to IT they have sadly been the ones who have picked up on the motivations of the other two and come to represent control of risk rather than enabling the business. Of course I have made some sweeping generalisations in the last two paragraphs but I don't believe I am dreadfully wide of the mark in describing many, if not most, organisations.

The sad thing is of course that it doesn't have to be this way. As I said before I have known some very notable exceptions and good people have always found ways to go against the tide and do the right things. But from many processing stuff, conforming to norms and doing what is expected of them is the most that they can aspire to and of course having turned these corporate functions into commodities they are now being offshored or outsourced in their droves.

So why should people in these organisational functions be excited about the social web? Because people are starting to do it for themselves. Increasingly staff are using web-based tools to perform some of the functions that have ostensibly been the responsibility of these departments. They are writing CV's and finding jobs for themselves, even within the existing organisations, using Linkedin; they are using social sites like Facebook or blogs to communicate with each other; and they are increasingly using flexible tools such as Google Documents and calendar to provide basic platforms for working together. They are showing imagination, energy and a willingness to do with it takes to get their jobs done. These are qualities that organisations keep telling us they want their staff to have.

This energy should be seen as something that can be tapped into and enhanced. Use these people as models of how to get things done, learn from them and encourage others to copy them. If necessary bring some of the tools in-house or work out how to make them easily accessible and secure but be prepared to see this change in behaviours as an opportunity and not as a threat. HR, Comms and IT professionals who manage to do this will add real value to their business and the people who work in them. They will be transformed from gate keepers to enablers and they will more likely to have their jobs in three years time!

Social Nervous System

I had a great, long, chat on Skype last night with Joshua-Michele Ross who recently wrote an interesting post, The Rise Of The Social Nervous System, on Forbes. Smart bloke and well worth reading the rest of the article.

Given the complexity and precarious position of the modern world, getting people to genuinely reach out and touch their neighbors is a good thing but it will come at the price of reshaping our identities as part of a larger, interconnected whole.

Steve Lawson on Twitter

... if you’re the kind of incommunicative academic-to-the-point-of-being-incoherent buffoon who thinks Twitter is narcissistic, I’d say YOU most definitely have a problem with your sense of identity. Either that, of you’re so utterly self-obsessed, that you just don’t have any friends you’re interested in. Either way, I’d rather be where I am than where you are.

More here