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.

 

Social Tools: Organizational Learning’s Uber

I had my first Uber service recently in Austin, TX.  It was nothing short of remarkable.  A few glitches (mostly self caused) but a far better experience than I have ever had in a cab. It was during this ride, and conversation with my driver William, that I made a few connections between business, learning and needs. It’s got me to thinking that if content, context and connection is king, queen or some other type of royalty, then the Platform is God.

Uber, a platform, connects wants with resources. Nothing new.  But it is probably the most understandable idea of a platform for people who don’t understand or think about platforms all that much. A service that connects a driver and their car with a passenger and a need. Simple.  The success of Uber (and other share platforms) is all predicated on the idea that 1. resources are plentiful (cars and drivers) 2. demand is greater than the current model of supply can support and 3. convenience and simplicity reigns supreme. It is also a great example of a modern paradigm shift for people who don’t understand or think about paradigm shifts. For the better part of a century city dwellers couldn’t see it any other way. This monopoly, like all monopolies, had some stress, like:

  • If you needed a ride, you had to hail a cab
  • hoping the driver speaks your language,
  • hoping the vehicle doesn’t stink 
  • hoping you get to your destination safely,
  • hoping you get to your destination quickly,
  • hoping the cost was fair.
Sound familiar? Just swap out the word taxi for L&D or HR. 

These same criticisms have been levied against each for years but never so loudly as today. L&D and HR have long been the organizational learning taxi service, monopolizing organizational learning for far too long and supported by organizational leaders themselves like cities support taxi services; establishing a Learning Department has been default.  For the better part of a century employees couldn’t see it any other way. This monopoly, like all monopolies, had some stress, like:

  • If you needed to learn something, you had to hail L&D.
  • hoping they speak your (business) language,
  • hoping the (learning) vehicle doesn’t stink, 
  • hoping you get to your (learning) destination,
  • hoping you get to your learning destination quickly,
  • hoping the cost (your time and attention?) was fair.

But technology, and specifically the same technology concept (sharing) that launched Uber and others is changing this paradigm of the learning taxi service. People in organizations, through technology, are not waiting for the next course to be developed, instead they are using social platforms to building networks upon and connect with people and content regularly, and just-in-time as both are plentiful. Employees are not standing by waiting for the next resource to appear hoping it will meet their needs, they are actively seeking them out – rating them and their content as easily they do an Uber ride experience (for the benefit of others). The learning vehicles, like Uber’s cars, vary in size and type. The drivers of the content, like Uber drivers, are not specialized but are knowledgeable and can offer quick value.

People are discovering the power of social tools to get just the information they need at the moment they need it. The power is in their hands to build strong networks and choose their own hassle free vehicle. In a recent Washington Post article about how Taxi services were uniting against Uber and other ride sharing services was this statement: “[Uber] threatens a taxi industry that critics say has been slow to modernize and keep up in a technology-driven era.” 


Sounds familiar? So when people question the power of social technology to change the paradigm of learning, just ask them to look at Uber and the paradigm of transportation. 

Embraceable Me

Yesterday Tracy Parish challenged me to do a #Blimage. If you are unfamiliar, this is an interesting and fun approach to inspiring a blog post. It was introduced by Steve Wheeler and friends and the original post can be found here. Tracy wrote an excellent post based on an image of a cemetery titled Learning While Wandering. I enjoyed that she looked at learning very personally versus professionally and focused on the importance of reflection. Like all #Blimage challenges the object is to relate the image to learning and so she provided me this Star Wars snap from Flickr. 

First, let me begin by saying I am not a big Star Wars guy and fortunately I was able to immediately move past that part and look a bit deeper into the image (as if Star Wars Lego people can really be looked at deeply). Maybe the intent of the image is a Father-Son relationship or maybe it is to portray the comfort of hugging of a doll? For me, with the challenge of “learning” in mind, I see the “importance of the smaller self”.

The world around us seems to be all about The Big. Big announcements (watch how products are rolled out), Big technology (The LMS and Enterprise Social Network platforms to name a few), and Big data (analytics, measurement). Yet at an individual level we long to get smaller. Our personal lives merge with our professional ones as humility and being real is how we make sincere connections. Social technology puts the the large planet in our pocket. We find personal satisfaction in tighter, more focused networks where the work gets done. And real power is in being a node in these networks not in being the know it all. 

This picture reminds me that our smaller, less imposing persona is what breaks down barriers between people and putting our smaller selves front and center is what matters most today.

Choices, Choices

When I was a kid we had about 7 maybe 8 television channels (I grew up somewhere between rabbit ears and cable). It was easy then to decide what to watch or if to watch at all. Today though I can have options of up to 650 channels. Do I need that many? No. Are most worth my time? No. But I will experiment and give some a chance. If I find value, they stay in my line up. If not they are quickly removed. I learn which channels present the best content, consistently and some I just visit from time to time. Some I’ve never selected based on title alone; just not of interest to me. New channels appear and others disappear, I make room when I can. This is not difficult even with hundreds of channels to choose from. To me that number could be 60,000 and I feel no stress in the fact that I can’t watch them all or that I’ll miss something important.

We know what moves us. We know what we need or want. We learn and can separate the good from the bad. We find something we treasure and we tune in. We talk to our friends, those people who’s opinions we trust, and get their take on different programs and make choices from that. Who have you ever heard say TV is information overload or that they were suffering from a form of TV filter failure? Online time is the new TV time and yes, it’s all the time but we have choices. And yet people speak of too much information, unreliable content, and going down rabbit holes online but not of television. I find it interesting that the technology parallels of broadcasting ideas and opinions are eerily similar, yet the societal complaints aren’t at all.

Big Social Isn’t Always Best

I’ve been thinking more about how Social has become SO big, so fast. Maybe it’s having been in Texas recently (where everything is bigger!) for mLearnCon last week or it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of Stowe Boyd‘s reviews and research tied into his ideas on “sets vs. scenes.” Social is not necessarily getting bigger in the sense of popularity but in the sense that enterprise social, to be deemed successful today, has to involve the entire organization – the scene as Stowe would call it.
My observations and conversations have led me to believe that technology is ruling the day and leading the narrative. And having a vibrant ESN is the golden calf (or is that hippo?). Successful social is not however in the depth and number of connections but in the meaningfulness of the social activity. Often, unfortunately, the larger the networks, the more superficial the relationships can be. Whereas In organizations, our closest, most impactful relationships are those that are around the work we do. A simple principle to grasp is that Social forms around objects, and the object in organizations is the work. The farther one is removed from the work we do, the farther they are from our interests and that is quite natural.
By PJ KAPDostie CC BY-SA 3.0 

In my work promoting “social” in my various organizations, I found another principle to be true; the smaller the better. Specific groups, already with a clear “object”, be it shared work (department, project, program) shared experience (on-boarding, training), or shared problem (solutioning, crisis) were most successful. Larger roll-outs, not so much. Social technology success was achieved when it was used as a tool to solve small specific problems. From here it could scale, but please don’t call it a community. People sharing, collaborating, and conversing should not instantly be seen as a community. A feature in a tool called a “community” is not a community, it is marketing spin by ESN vendors. True communities form when their is trust, common purpose and mutual support. This takes time, not tools. Can these gatherings in virtual places become communities? Absolutely. They can also scale but that takes nurturing and attention, support and communication. If your organization is not ready for this, it’s OK. Organizations as community is not always the end goal or often immediately realistic. If groups come in and out of interactions using social tools to solve business problems then this should be seen as successful social too.


Maybe the message is as simple as the one I tell my kids; don’t let others define what success is. Celebrate the small wins, they add up.