A Tale of Two Socials

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – Charles Dickens

Social has come a long way, the notion of its importance in business reborn through works like the Agile Manifesto and Cluetrain over 15 years ago and propelled first by Web 2.0 and then through enterprise social technology. But there now appears to be a division of direction.

On one hand social and social technology can extend and expand human interactions like nothing else. It can transform business from the industrial models, and change the very nature of work. Yet today much of the technology (and the vendors building and promoting it) may just be But such awful workers, and such awful work!helping business be a faster, a more effective business as usual. Simply, enterprise social is supporting today’s work, not creating tomorrows’.

Wasn’t there supposed to be more?

Social Has Gone Corporate More Than Corporate Has Gone Social
Early social brought diverse people, groups and ideas together. The tools were simple and allowed people to be creative with their use and that was often the draw; autonomy and creativity. This however was not what business was buying, even though it is just what they needed for the innovation they sought.

The reality is that conversation and idea sharing are messy things, difficult to guide and even more difficult to measure. Vendors either couldn’t articulate this or they didn’t bother since it didn’t fit into the purchaser’s mindsets and models anyway.

Goodbye Connection, Hello Collaboration!
Collaboration became king to the point today that many wrongly see “social”and “collaboration” as identical. Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing, what is though is having collaboration become expected rather than encouraged. The command and control message within the social technology medium is this:

“We bought this platform, now go use it.”

To appease leaders, and to better ensure the tool fit measures of success (i.e. ROI), vendors focused on dashboards, and monitoring and measurement were promoted mostly for tracking the most frivolous of activity.

The Rise of Chat
The growing use of chat and chat platforms today is an indicator of this “social” conformity. Chat doesn’t scale. Chat won’t get you to transform. Transformation takes much wider connection and collaboration. Business loves chat; it’s about team-work not net-work; it’s about supporting how work gets done today… in silos. Again, faster, more efficient business as usual.

The User is the Loser
Another sign of stagnation is the emphasis on the terminal goal of user adoption and not work adaptation (the measures mentioned before support this). Of course using a social tool is a step forward, so too is working out loud (a collaboration invitation) but adapting work in a social environment is what can change the very essence of the work being done, where power and authority reside and therefore alter the organization itself – the true promise of social.


Yes, we should be disappointed at the state of enterprise social but not surprised. Change is rarely revolutionary and business is business after all, with the goal of most being to win the game and far fewer out to change it. All is not lost however…

We need new skills not new features. We need more understanding and growth in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and new organizational structures for learning and working like 702010 frameworks to not merely influence but alter the systems that currently bind us. For these, look no further than the work of Harold Jarche (Personal Knowledge Mastery) and Charles Jennings (702010) for details on explaining individual and organizational approaches.

Ultimately the minority that believe and embrace the power of social to upend the 20th century systems are those that will conform to social, and not work to conform it (to their current models). It will take some very special people in leadership roles and not special technology; People that can cast aside the very systems that enabled them to become the decision-makers today, those who really know that what got us here, won’t get us there.


The Big and Small of It


When I’ve see social collaboration happening, and I mean really happening, it’s been in small pockets within organizations. Tools aside, the trust, cooperation, collaboration and budding sense of community (what is often desired for the entire organization) happens around specific work “objects”. Strong connections without a doubt developed around a common purpose – brothers in arms if you will. The further away from this object, the weaker the trust, cooperation, collaboration and community.

When an organization is small, just starting out there is an all hands on deck attitude everyone is involved around the work object. The founder, the engineer, the marketing people, the designer are all fighting for a common, very visible purpose. Nobody is thinking title, division of labor, or making bonus. Everyone chips in everywhere, this is High Social.  So with that thought, I sketched out a crude line graph that you see here (now a bit less crude). My belief at the moment was that as an organization grows, layers form, distance is created, barriers with hierarchy appear, communication deteriorates, transparency is clouded, and openness closes. It happens subtly, without fanfare or justification. The prevailing belief is that an organization that goes from 5 to 5000 people requires infrastructure, departments, pecking orders, leaders and followers. This is old world thinking though and it’s not completely correct. But I’m not completely correct in my thinking either.

First, why this is old world thinking and it’s wrong.  Simply put it is the Industrial era model; roles, division of labor, management, etc. In more agile organizations today roles change based on need, talent and interest, silo’d work groups (departments) are considered dangerous to growth, and management is mostly an individual’s expectation. The greater part of this new model is driven by social technology that enables all to see the machinery and contribute across hierarchy. Email played it’s part early on where people could say and be heard by a few. Later, platforms and tools (more open in nature) allowed many to do the same but be able to speak to many and be heard by all (if they wanted to listen). In a nutshell we have the technology today to allow a company of 5000 to communicate as easily as one of 5.

After I sketched this line graph I realized I was a bit off regarding organizational size. I do still think its likely when an organization grows, the humanity it had declines as hierarchy rises but that is not the complete story.  Plenty of organizations remain small, 20-30 people, and yet distance is created between them over time by choice. But not a choice based on a desire to advance dehumanizing infrastructure, rather it’s a choice to forego adopting new models and allowing the old world model of “what should be” to devour “what is“. It’s learned helplessness on a larger scale as founders subconsciously subscribe to the current paradigm of business as usual, even in tiny organizations.  These same founders turned Presidents can see the changes the social web is making to their marketing efforts, to consumer behaviors, and to their competitors growth. Outside their “walls” the world continually transforms and yet inside it remains status quo.

This seems somewhat hypocritical to me, and in the social age hypocrisy leads ultimately to instability.

Call of the Wild

My wife recently took a position with the development department at the local zoo. As part of her on boarding she has been engaging in “behind the scenes” activities to see and engage the animals more closer with the keepers.  Last week she met with the Elephants. She learned of their love of jelly beans and was told that each night the Elephants check the locks as the keepers leave. Not to ensure they are locked but maybe in the hopes they might be unlocked.

This got me to thinking about captivity. How the once wild can remain wild in a controlled environment and if they really live as they had.   As we continue to support our internal network I’m curious of the specific interplay of people within an ESN (E2.0) vs. that of those in Web 2.0.  

How that, although the tools on the “inside” mimic the tools on the “outside”, the behaviors on the inside differ greatly to those on the outside. For example the food and environment (habitat) are similar to an animal’s natural environments but we know and more importantly, they know, they are captives.

In ESNs and zoo’s the “members” are each dependent upon others to maintain their environment and therefore are no longer functioning as they would in the wild. Both are observed continually, fed on schedule from “keepers”, limited in freedom, and regardless of the care, attention, and stimulization they receive, wouldn’t they still just rather be free? Free to choose, free to roam, free to test their abilities and explore different environments? 

ESNs are not cages and employees are hardly captives but the question is, can we ever fully expect the vigor, beauty, comfort and energy of those engaging in the wild world of Web 2.0 to happen in an ESN? I think not. No more than we can expect captive animals to remain unchanged.  To even come close to the benefits we see in the wild there are few principles ESN “keepers” might be mindful of:
  • Trust takes time. Trust as in trusting those with knowledge will share openly and share when its needed most. Trust as in revealing ones limitations is not judged as weakness. How much time? It’s different for each and their “lifespan” or tenure in the organization too is different for each.
  • Expand, not constrict the environment, encourage more of the outside look, feel and flexibility to come in. Remember, that unlike zoo animals, employees lead a double life inside and outside your network. Bridging the two is not a technical solution alone.
  • Monitor to aid the inhabitants not to manipulate as a showcase for onlookers (stakeholders).
  • Respect the ebb and flow of independent activity without forcing desired behaviors for the satisfaction of onlookers. 
  • Support the needs of the inhabitants rather than drive the wants of the organization. Organizational impact is a result of a healthy environment.
  • Maintain realistic expectations. No matter what you do, not all will *survive*.

As my wife grows into her role and connections at the zoo I want her to ask of the keepers, “how do you really know when an animal is not just surviving but thriving?” Might be something to look at more closely in our own environments. oh and if the Elephant finds the door unlocked, what then?

Learning’s Battle Against Tradition

What if you presented a tool or process to the c-suite, something that would (not could) increase revenue, improve morale and increase efficiency? No doubt they would leap at the opportunity right?
Not quite…

I recently heard a story (Axe Bat Wins Converts, But Has To Overcome Baseball Traditionaliststhat immediately made me see parallels to innovations in organizational learning and performance. The story was about a modern innovation applied to the baseball bat, which has remained in its basic form for around 150 years.

 Felling Axe by タクナワン 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Drawing upon the even older design of axe handles, the Axe Bat is more oval than the current cylinder style, similar if not identical to axes use in chopping wood, an efficient design used since neolithic times. The reporter explained that technology now allows us to easily craft a bat handle in any shape where in the past, using a lathe, round was the only option.  The proponents of the Axe Bat claim, like its wood chopping forefather, that it’s more efficient, effective, and reduces injuries caused by the unnatural ergonomics of traditional bat handles. 

In essence the Axe Bat would help players and help the game.

Yet in face of this information and a readily available alternative, there are few takers. 

Sound vaguely familiar?  Read on…

Age old technique (social learning) made more apparent with advent of new technology (Web 2.0) can transform accepted practice (organizational learning) and challenge long held conventions (learning via formal only). 

In essence social media for learning would help employees and help the organization.

Ironically though, the same resistance the hinders an innovation for baseball exists for organizational learning. This resistance is of course ‘Tradition’. The age old subconscious cry of “but this is how we’ve always done it.” People want to stick with what is comfortable even in the face of new or better. With the Axe Bat, teams would try it in practice situations but come game time they returned to the traditional bat.  With social media, people readily use and support it in their personal lives but are resistant to it’s use or promote it for learning in their professional ones.

Further reading of the story reveals the Axe Bat manufacturers are approaching increased adoption by doing the following:

1.  Focusing on the newest to the game. 
“just let them pick one, they’ll pick [the Axe Bat] because it feels the best. It feels natural to you.”
2.  Doing a lot of demos.
3.  Getting high profile endorsers.
“…get more high-profile endorsers as some of those college players turn pro.”
4.  Believing. 
“we know we’re going to overcome this (tradition).”

Sound vaguely familiar?  

If its social learning or innovative baseball bats, it’s a slow road to change when faced with well entrenched tradition. 

Too Small To Fail

I’m seeing L&D/T&D or rather the compartmentalization of “learning”as a lame duck practice. It’s one of those 20th century institutions that people cling to maybe for nostalgia.  Like bookstores and those that still speak of their need because some just like the feel of a book.  Is it time to throw this, and possibly other functional departments, on the trash heap of history? Segmenting “learning” as a function away from the rest of the business just can’t remain viable. Yes, training will always be needed but can we justify an entire department devoted to it?

We know learning is happening all the time with or without an L&D function. Can you imagine a company today having no L&D department? No training function? Sure, if the company is 25 people then doubtful they are having a formal department.  What about 250 or maybe even 2500? Now that seems more likely – but is it necessary?

The reason a L&D or T&D department didn’t exist when a company was small (25 people) was because a new worker was hired expecting to having great skill already, the company was very flexible in regards to tools, processes and policies because priority one was survival. And learning the ways of the organization happened through peer-to-peer interactions.

Today the agility often found in start-ups is not a result of trying to survive, rather survival is a result of being agile. Information and expertise is a click (or tap) away. Web 2.0 and the various tools available to help us share knowledge, collaborate and build relationships have the ability to make a 2500 employee company move like one that has only 25.

And what was the need again for L&D when a company is that small?