The Simple Shift


Over the past few years, blessed by rich experiences and conversation, my beliefs and practices started to change. I no longer saw organizational learning as something unique, I was seeing it as a part of a whole, working in synchronicity with all other elements of an organization. I have come to see learning as a part of the work we do and not apart from it. When we look at the majority of learning in and through the work we do it is authentic and impactful. When the work is meaningful and challenging like this, we are motivated, even excited and when we are truly passionate we want to include others. Social technology serves to do just that, invite people in to see, comment, contribute and improve. It seems so simple, yet for over 5 years I have been reading much of the same thing about the future of work. Much is written on what it will be, where and who we will need to be to thrive, yet the how is the challenge. I believe it really comes down to being human and all the elements that make up that humanity; kindness, empathy, trust, conversation, etc. We have unfortunately placed decades of hierarchy, departmentalization, machinery, and political layers over this humanity, burying what makes work actually work.

The world has grown more complex and we can’t navigate complexity with even more complexity, the same tools that can free us often enslave us. We need to muster the strength and courage to seek simplicity and cut through the noise and distraction. Organizations, like individuals, are unique. As Dave Snowden noted in his Cynefin framework – in complexity we only know what right looks like after the fact.  Our route to success then hinges on our ability to make sense of it all as quickly as we can, we have it within us, we just need to get outside of us.

The pivot graphic, like a dance step, was the perfect image for my space on the Web ; The Simple Shift. Dancing is natural, all humans are moved by music. The steps can happen easily with the rhythm of the music if we don’t over think it. For those who can do it, it appears effortless with the biggest skill, not being in knowing where to place ones feet, but just in having the courage to get out there and be one’s self.

I’ve put my love of learning into perspective. My thoughts, writing, and practice have really turned inward as I started to see that it’s the simple shift that needs to be made, One that starts with a better understanding of who we are and how critical that is to make it all work in our work.

Lead Social By Leading With Social

A colleague and friend who I regularly chat with, where we bounce ideas and thoughts off each other, is at the cusp of where many folks leading the social charge in organizations are; helping key leaders and stakeholder to build awareness and better understanding of the value of being more social themselves.

Meetings are being set, slides developed, activities, agendas, use cases identified and industry examples to share. This is the expectation. And that is a problem. It’s the same old story, employee comes to executive’s office or board room for a scheduled meeting, agenda set in advance, pitch is made and the executive takes it in, asks a few questions and applauds the effort. Maybe there is change, likely not, and it’s back to business as usual.

This isn’t a new sales approach or marketing campaign. And if it’s also social supported by technology it is also not a new CMS or bug tracking tool. Yes, software it needs electricity and it is built on code but that’s where the similarities end. Social is different. Social tools work to surface and amplify ideas, answers, and content but mostly they serve to extend and expand conversations, allowing the normally invisible interactions to be visible and this is exponentially more powerful for an organization. Conversation is the undercurrent of all business interaction. It’s omnipresent and eternal. It is also the least understood or nurtured of business elements. 

We have essentially buried conversation, the epitome of humanity, under layers of politics, hierarchy, processes, protocols, and technology and my colleague is in the unfortunate position of having to encourage social in the most unsocial situation. How ironic. 

Not only is social about transparency and openness it also needs this openness and transparency in order to step out from underneath the weight of traditional business mindsets and gain a foothold. 

After initially falling into the trap of business as usual, I collected myself and suggest we lead with social. The alternative, the antithesis of social, is like planting a seed in concrete!  This is not traditional business, it’s social business. So rearrange locations with the executive and meet in a neutral settings, a cafe perhaps. Set no calendar defaulted time limit, this is far too important for artificial restraint. Hell, wear jeans and ask that they dress comfortably too, social is casual. Scrap the agenda and see that they leave their title at the door, it will certainly be there when the conversation ends. And that’s really the point of it – Have a conversation, everything else is pomp. You each know why you are there, it’s no mystery. Set aside your presumptions, your status or lack of it and be humans engaging in the most fundamental, historical part of being human; a conversation… and see where it goes. 

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.

The Space Between Us

In a recent webinar by Luis Suarez (@elsua) he asked the question of the attendees of what the biggest problem was in organizations today.  He stated that it was employee disengagement.  I do agree that it’s a problem but I believe this disengagement is more a symptom of a greater problem. That problem being space; the space between us.

Space is created naturally or deliberately. It’s also physical and psychological. We have space when organizations expand; space exists in time, geography, and culture. We have space when a workforce is geographically dispersed, no longer can we see the many we work and interact with. Space exists when hierarchy places people in rank and file as an artificial pecking order is created and this space between us defines who we are and how we interact.  Finally, our departmentalized functions create silos of work where space exists between them. And those functions of course are controlled by people who decide on how much space. 

When space exists we can choose to fill it constructively or like a vacuum, it just gets filled like silt settling after a heavy rain. Regardless, it never stays empty for long. Hierarchies fill the space with the written and unwritten. Policies serve to reinforce space between people by having somewhere to point to rather than someone to have conversation with. Unwritten protocol is that which maintains space by authority and creates a false respect based on fear.

Disengagement then doesn’t create space, space creates disengagement.

What can be done? The opposite of disengage is to engage and to engage is an action of people and their work being drawn together. If we want to eliminate disengagement, we must first create the opportunities to engage, to fill the space.

Social media is that opportunity in organizations that bridges the geographic divides, opens up silos of work and can level hierarchy so meritocracy can flourish. There is no question it can do the job – but it can also be an empty vessel if not strengthened by the substance of meaningful conversation, dialog and debate. If social channels swell only with courtesies to avoid conflict, content that reinforces positions, or sharing to show off, then the space not only remains but becomes more permanent.

There are far more pressing questions to be answer in organizations than “how do we measure this?” Or “how do we get people to use this?” when considering social media in an organization.  We need to first be able to answer “Who are we?” And “who do we want to become?”