A Culture of Capitalism

And yet another company was cited for ethical behaviors. This time it’s Princess Cruise Lines for illegally dumping tens of thousands of gallons of untreated waste water into the ocean for almost a decade. Many will conclude and promote that this is another example of culture and/or leadership gone wrong. Volkswagen’s EPA violations and Wells Fargo’s illegal account creations are two others in recent times to get into hot water. And although I agree that organizational culture, driven by corrupt systems of recognition and reward, play a significant role but they do not play the only role or maybe even the main one.

It’s easy to pin the blame on an idea or a concept of leadership or culture, because really “culture” is nameless and faceless. The fact is though that individual employees knowingly entered false information to create bogus accounts, made modifications to override emissions data, and now installed pipes to bypass waste treatment. Each of these individuals had to have known what their work was in effect doing; jeopardizing people’s credit and polluting the air and the water. These workers chose to do it and chose not to blow the whistle. They got their directives by system or by authority, bullied or not, and consciously chose their path. Of course people were fired at many levels and organizations took on bad press and criminal charges but I suspect that even with all this, these behaviors will continue. There is another system at play that drives how our leaders lead, how business culture forms and how employees behave – surprise, it’s our economic system!

The Culture of Capitalism today is one where people can achieve unlimited wealth (and debt), and one that can obviously fuel unethical behavior. Few will risk being fired for speaking up and for speaking out. There is too much at stake, the job market is challenging for many and the road to financial hell is littered with do-gooders whose story can’t be told or won’t get heard at the next interview since they were terminated from their last position. Additionally Consumerism, “Keeping up with the Jones”, and acquiring the latest and greatest is far more the norm than the exception today as far too many live beyond their means because living within their means isn’t living.

So yes, I’ve argued that systems drive behaviors which creates the culture and I was speaking of activity inside organizations. But we are foolish if we ignore the influence of the outside getting in. Each and every day employees bring themselves and their lives to the workplace and Capitalism, with its offspring of Consumerism, really underpins it all.

The Neo-Dark Ages?

The Dark Ages (of Europe) were a period marred by fear and chaos forcing people to retreat into small fiefdoms for protection and security which resulted in little to no contact with each other or the larger global civilizations. Consequently it was a time where information was in short supply and decisions were made based on tradition, instinct and superstition.

Today however we have the opposite, a deluge of information is literally at our fingertips. But much of it opinion, fake news riddled with what’s been called post-truth. The problem however has never been the amount or type of information, rather it’s the skills to manage it all that are not well honed; skills like critical thinking, sense-making, and building dynamic trusted networks. As a result people struggle to make decisions, afraid that what they have is not a complete picture, the whole truth or the truth at all. Conversation in larger social spaces appears on the decline as fear of bullying or looking uniformed creates passivity over engagement.

Form follows function as indicated by our technology adoption. Larger social platforms are being abandon as people turn to huddle in their modern fiefdoms of chat platforms and apps; smaller, trusted spaces cut off from the outside. I can’t blame them, it’s safe, reassuring, and comfortable, but there is risk. These insular spaces retard growth as the DNA of thought is weakened by their homogeneity.

The end of the Dark Ages came about in great part to the expansion of trade resulting in different cultures engaging in the marketplace. Only through this diffusion of ideas did people learn new methods, tools, gain new perspectives and grow. Similar to this rebirth of medieval trade – improved, expanded social connection cannot be forced by authority. People will be pulled to exchange for their own benefit but only when their fear subsides, and for that it will take time, understanding, technological intervention, and of course courage.

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.

 

Social Is An Inside Job

In a few weeks I’m speaking at a local event here in Syracuse called the Social Media Breakfast #SMBSyr. My presentation is titled “Social Is An Inside Job.” Regular readers here can probably guess that my central theme will be about the distinction between social business and a social organization, that companies can not truly be social on the outside until they are on the inside, and that social is more about psychology and sociology than technology.

The audience is not my typical one as usually I speak to learning professionals and HR types. This presentation will be for about 35-50 mostly marketing folks. It’s free, it’s early and with a presentation on this look at social, I expect a lower turnout. Who knows.

I want to open with a good story and I had a few from my own work but I heard about this one recently in a conversation with a friend… an absolute tragic gem. I look to start my presentation with this and with the simple question: “How could social technology help here?

A elder care facility recently upgraded all the refrigerators on each of their 5 floors. These state of the art units have an enhanced sealing mechanism which makes them all that more efficient; when the door shuts a vacuum device tightly seals the door and it cannot reopen for 30 seconds. The staff must serve about 120 residents three meals a day and therefore they are constantly going in and out of the refrigerators to prep the meals. 30 seconds is an eternity.

Initially the staff naturally began trying to force the door open by pressing their foot on the lower part for leverage and yanking the handle. All units now have a highly visible dent. The work around that ultimately solved the problem however was to put a rag in the door so it couldn’t seal. Now the staff can quickly access all they need during dinner prep. However they frequently leave the door ajar and the temperature rises resulting in three painful consequences.

  • The food spoils and hundreds of dollars worth must be throw away
  • Residents are served warm drinks and food which is not only a violation but poor treatment
  • The facility has been cited by the Board of Health and fined repeatedly.

Not one food service staff member informed leadership of the issue. 5 floors, 5 refrigerators. It appears employees are doing what they are paid to do and nothing more – punch in, do what’s required, don’t make waves, punch out. Communication between them is poor and Management appears distant; focused on watching dollars and filling the next open position.

Devastating.

How could social technology help here?

It can’t. In it’s most basic form, social doesn’t even exist.

Social technology can make your organization more responsive and it can help surface solutions to sticky problems, but if the culture is as spoiled and communication is non-existent, social technology isn’t going to do a damn bit of good here.

L&D Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Yes, yes I know that many have said L&D shouldn’t be threatened by social and social technology. The argument being that a focus on social can actually improve L&D efforts by extending formal learning impact which is true and many in L&D leadership have made progress… but many more have not and only play lip service to the notion (I know, I’ve lived it). L&D has traditionally argued against social technology on the grounds that people will share the wrong information. But there is another reality and maybe the real truth behind the dismissing. At the end of the day, L&D does just what the executives want, a course. And when numerous employees have taken the course and then do not really perform any better, the blame is more often than not placed on the employees and not the solution.

The reason for this? A fine blend of two ingredients at the management level; the leadership echo chamber and a heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. Systems->Behaviors->Culture.

First, the echo. Executives build inner circles; a cushion of trust that, over time, membership in grants one the benefit of every doubt. The next is cognitive dissonance; the reconciliation of two competing beliefs where placing blame upon the employees is chosen over the idea that monetary investments in technology and “expertise’ was wasted. Both result simply in – It’s got to be them, not us.

“Look at all the work we did.”
“Look at the features and functions we built. You (boss) liked them.”
“You (boss) agreed with them.”
“The employees didn’t invest the time.”
“They chose to ignore the content.”
“They didn’t revisit the material.”
“It’s their fault.”

But the jig is up.

Like we have always known, social technology opens things up. Social technology leads to transparency. Social technology can challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take too many voices openly sharing comments about ineffectiveness to upend the whole game. More often than not though the channel directly to the employees is either too long and narrow, blocked by protective layers of hierarchy, and/or hindered by a culture of complacency. That’s a lot but still L&D, or rather traditional training-centric L&D, should be afraid of social technology, it’s permeating the organization. Once executives understand that social for social’s sake has value (which many vendors have abandoned) it will open the doors to the boardroom to all and change will be swift.