The Role of Social Networks in the Rise of Christianity

Christianity after the death of Jesus was just a small movement under scrutiny and attack in the Roman Empire. Yet in less than 500 years it was their official religion. Devine intervention? Perhaps.

According to author Rodney Stark, in his 1997 book The Rise of Christianity, the faith spread not by formal means or force but in great measure through conversations that led to conversions.

Social forms around an object and for Christianity, the object was “hope” and the social agents spreading the message were women. But these were not desperate and destitute women, rather they were the wealthy women, those married into Roman aristocracy.

Women of means had the time and connections to commune and influence their fellow women and eventually their men participating in government affairs. Like most women of their time they were greatly impacted by paternal decisions related to child-birth, infanticide, and abortion. Furthermore, Christianity provided hope in times of trouble like when natural disasters struck – pagan gods had no answer. Christianity was a new message ALL Romans could connect with.

Women then were the key nodes in the network, they influenced the influencers and slowly the faith spread to ultimately integrate with all elements of Roman society.

What can we take away from this?

First, change doesn’t always come from the top and as the case maybe, sustainable change is bottom up driven. Additionally, community forms it is not created or built and it’s best supported from within. And finally, (most importantly) change – the kind of change that can influence the world for thousands of years begins in the same way that can transform an organization today… one conversation at a time.

To all my Christian friends, Happy Easter.


Humility is a Bluebird

I read that in sales circles the term bluebird is slang for an opportunity that is unexpected or very profitable. You can’t exactly create a bluebird in this context (sales) I suspect but in others, by doing the unexpected we just might. For example the moment we let are guard down, even just a little, amazing things can happen. Yes, the vultures can swoop in seeing it as weakness but so too can arrive a bluebird of opportunity.

BluebirdMany organizational leaders think trust-building is solely accomplished by being strong and decisive. However a deeper trust forms when people in charge reveal their humanity which is often unexpected. Humanity is humility.

In a past organization I was working for, the leadership was struggling to solve the problem of time recording. In the contract space an organization can only get paid if the records for billable hours are accurate and complete. With most employees working on several projects at once, it was an arduous task to complete time records each day. The early solutions, in place well before I got there, included a system of automated emails sent by the finance department each day. Those late in submitting their time card were sent an ominous note informing you that “you have failed floor check” at 10:00 am each day. However simple, it was doing little to curb the epidemic of delinquency.  The typical approaches were not working as, regardless of the non-compliance, everyone still got paid.

Visibly flustered by the inactivity, the head of finance saw training as the solution. Yet this problem was not due to a lack of skill or knowledge and one operations executive agreed with me. I convinced him instead to post in our new Enterprise Social Network. His post was not to be a demand or a threat but a humble request; in his own words he simply asked for help.  He explained why non-compliance was bad for the organization, the individual and frankly stated he was out of ideas. Within hours the first comments started to appear and due to the inherent nature of social technology followers of followers chimed in seeing that it was safe to do so. Most offered personal tips; approaches and tools they used to remind themselves to complete the task. Others acknowledge these ideas and openly thanked one another.  What eventually appeared however was a criticism of the failed floor check email message itself. One employee even referred to the HR handbook and noted a discrepancy – the email message implied that if you received it, you already missed the opportunity. This was inaccurate, as 12:00 pm was the deadline. The 10:00 am email was meant as a warning but the verbiage led many to take no action since they figured it was too late!  The HR handbook was quickly updated and the email alert corrected. Delinquency declined.

A simple and highly atypical hierarchical communication, one based on humility, led to open dialog, productive criticism and a small unexpected change with financial rewards; a bluebird.

Between Us

Real knowledge does not exist within us but between us, in our conversations is something I’ve felt for a long time. So with that, if we want to create more knowledge, we need to create more conversations.

In principle it’s that easy. However the practice, although simple, is much harder to do.

To create conversations we must understand what it means to converse. To be equals, to listen, to communicate without agenda. The barriers to real conversation today are not physical or even technological, they are cerebral. Ego, power, fear and positioning get in the way. Because of these, most conversations are only labeled as such when in reality they are just carefully crafted monologues devoid of empathy, compassion or respect for another’s perspective and history. In these communications information is shared but this information can struggle to become actionable knowledge because this transfer happens best when there is a human connection.

Ask yourself – when did you last have a true conversation and who was it with? In all likelihood it was with others you respected, trusted and enjoyed. The outcome was likely mutually fruitful and satisfying.

Now imagine if you could have these at work with peers and leaders alike. It starts with you.

Social Inconvenience is Important

Social networking is not always convenient. Our networks can be large, small, and many are in niche areas of interest but in all we’ve historically driven for miles, run in groups, flown to new cities, met in questionable venues and navigated personality differences to connect with the people that matter. 

The inconvenience of connecting with our network is never so great to dismiss them, we work at what brings us value.  Social tools are our new places. We comment “in” and post “on” no differently than when we meet “at” or go “to”.  Our new places for social interaction are equally numerous, unique, and sometimes as difficult to traverse. Yet after clearing the initial hurdle of a new social technology, we happily find our people and learn to move within and between new tools no different than we do new physical locations.

Organizations though, forever looking to catch lightening in a bottle and corral an advantage, provide their employees approved “places” to use for this activity, often a single place like an ESN. This of course is typical of business as usual and is equally unnatural, as are most organizational decisions which aim to control and guide human behavior. Hierarchy though is no match for Wirearchy. Technology affords us the opportunity to extend our relationships and conversations further and expand farther than ever before. These actions should be encouraged by employers not discouraged, as today an employee’s value is in the quality and diversity of their connections. 

Real knowledge doesn’t exist within us but between us, in our conversations

No doubt some enterprise social tools are used successfully for sharing and learning on the inside, but much of what influences this sharing and learning came from the outside and this is where organizational leaders miss the mark. By trying to drive people to a single location and expecting community to flourish and innovation to follow is a mistake. The organization needs their “place” to be in the mix of places but not sit above them all. Encouraging relationships to form with diverse people, ideas, groups and in different places presents the greatest opportunity for organizations and individuals today.

A Conversation for Innovation

Innovation is the engine to advance organizations today and although conversation is key to spurring creative thinking and innovative action, it is naive to think that just having more conversations where information is shared and people collaborate is enough. These conversations, often spontaneous, can be unconsciously valuable but we should strive for dialog if we want to see growth. 

“[Dialog is] a conversation in which the intention is to generate something in the conversation itself that did not exist in any one of the participants before the conversation began.

– Michael McMaster, The Intelligence Advantage

Dialog is not debate or discussion and its not brainstorming. Dialog calls for strong discipline to refrain from judging, and reacting. It’s having the ability to hold fast to a position of listening and for raising more questions that add to the conversation rather than trying to end it with answers.

Dialog is the stream that carries knowledge. And like knowledge itself, it too is ever expansive and ever flowing. 

Knowledge doesn’t exist with in us but rather it exists between us in our [conscious] conversations [dialog].

The barrier to more dialog is innately a human condition; we are competitive. Our business hierarchies only serve to reinforce this by rewarding those with quick wit, quicker ideas, and for being the loudest voice in the room. Social Media however is a great equalizer, it can support dialog; a conversation for innovation. Social Media provides an important buffer to this human condition, one of time and space. This buffer allows for (but can’t guarantee) reflection; a pause.  In social tools I can write my response immediately but I don’t have to hit submit immediately. I can sit idle and wait for those societal reinforced and rewarded behaviors to pass and use my response to seek clarity rather than try to provide it.

As always, the technology can only support the practice of dialog. This behavior, like most, is best learned through experience, practice, and reflection. Yet it must also be modeled and supported by leadership; those that hold innovation so dear… and where better for them to do it than in the tools that make the practice most visible.