Category Archives: Organization

Social Media – It’s Not the Tools

Friday, August 29, 2003

500 years ago the communications system in the west was owned by one organization – the church. If you wanted something in writing a monk transcribed it. Few knew how to read as a result of books being so expensive. Your network news was delivered from the pulpit. The system supported the status quo of the power of God’s elect, the King and his henchmen the aristocracy and above supported the most powerful multinational enterprise the world had yet seen the church itself. The church was the largest landowner in the west at a time when land was the basis of all wealth. The barriers to competition were impossibly high.

I am sure that when Gutenberg built his first press that there was a lot of chatter about font types, about gearing and pressure and inks and about the best type of paper – the kind of geek talk that is central to all new things. This is where so much of the discourse is today about blogging – RSS etc. But the true power of the printing press was something else that went way beyond how it worked. It was how it was used that was to be important.

Within a hundred years huge numbers of people could read. It was possible to run off broadsheets – personal publishing very cheaply. So what happened as a result of this use of the new technology?

The reformation in Europe, the dissolution of the monasteries in the England the the redistribution of all that wealth to secular hands, the civil war and the end of the idea of monarchy being God’s anointed. The modern world was created where new ideas based on observation – such as a new vision of the universe – could not be held back by the establishment in spite of persecution.

So this is what will happen with blogging. What blogging is, is an end run on the strangle hold of our conversation and on our mindset that the corporate and institutional world has established. Until now the costs of having a human voice were set impossibly high. Only Rupert Murdoch or a government could play. But now communication costs are ridiculously low compared to the mainstream media and communications in corporations and government. Not only are the costs low but the interactive element of blogging is so much more powerful than the broadcast technique owned by the institutions. Any one of us can have a voice and groups can have power.Institutions are frightened of this voice and will fight it because it means that they will die as a result.

As at the time of the reformation – the general adoption of blogging tools  will lead to the overthrow of the corporate and the institutional mind. In so doing it will release the vast treasure that it locked up in the costs of corporate and institutional  life. It will free men and women from being peons in a feudal state where they had to live as liege men and offer fealty to their overlords.

We are not only oppressed by those in power in institutional life, we, like medieval peasant, are complicit. We know of no other life. Knowing no other life, like those in Plato’s cave, we cannot imagine what freedom from institutional life might be like. We fear freedom because we see no alternative to bondage.

Even simple blogging can help here. It offers for the first time to each of us the potential to find our voice. At first maybe to tell the world what we had for breakfast or to recall some work idea. But I have found in myself a huge change in the last year in my inner voice and in the confidence as I discover that I am not alone in how I think.

Until now people who think as I do have struggled alone. We are by nature are not joiners. Fewer of us every day work in institutional life and cannot use that voice. What “organ” do we have to speak with a human voice? Blogging By finding so many of us out there, we grow in confidence and our voice becomes less hesitant. I feel wonder as I read new blogs every week and see how close our thinking is. This is how power is created

Technical talk is helpful. It leads to better tools. But let’s talk more about how we will use blogging to change our world. It is not about making the corporation better – this type of discussion would be the same as a group of monks talking about how printing was going to help the church. It is about how to we take the institution out of our lives.

(Thanks to Dave Pollard for getting me going this week)

New movements tend to stall when the “in group” want to keep the movement within the
“in group”

The same may be true for blogging. The number of people that know about what a blog is among my clients is very small.  Intuitively I would say less than 2%. What would put them off? Anything technical. Blogging has to be made really easy.

Why do I mention St Paul? At the outset of Christianity there was a huge debate. The “In Group” as lead by the surviving disciples of Jesus insisted that to be a Christian you had to be a Jew. This meant adult circumcision for the men and backseat behind a screen for the women. Quite a “technical” hurdle!!!. Paul argued that all men and women should be able to become Christians – guess who won? Pride in coping with the technical sides of blogging is a block for take-up.

The real opportunity is when a group of “Ingroup folks” maybe like “socialtext” really engage with organizational life and find the fit. Step 1 has to be”Easy does it” Easy does it demands that anyone who can type can set up a good blog and that there are a number of great templates. We are exploring Typepad to see if we can make it even easier.

Step two has to be finding the immediate felt benefit. This is more challenging and I think demands that we find parts of an organization where building a community will help – maybe in the entire support area. This is where the whole KM issue rears its head. The idea of content management is an exceptionally stupid idea that flies in the face of how we understand knowledge. Only a small fraction of knowledge is explicit – the vast bulk is implicit – ie it is ten times better to talk to someone about an issue than to try and find what he has written about it. Who wants a manual when you can be walked through? BP has been a leader here in seeing that their key system issues is to find a way of connecting people with questions to people with answers. Each employee has a personal website that amongst other things has a lot of info about what they know. The deal at BP is that if you have question you search for the person.

Why should we care anyway? Blogging is our path back to being human at work. Blogging reveals who we are to not only others but more importantly to ourselves. For the first time mankind – the great tool maker – who has used tool making ingenuity to make the world and himself into a tool, or a thing, has created a tool that renews and brings back what it is to be human.

So like Paul – we are faced with an historic choice. We can relegate blogging to geekiness and tool making or we can work to change our relationships back from machine to human.

What do I mean by this bold statement? We can change democracy by making it essential for politicians to be real and to listen to us. We can get the issues that make sense on the table other than spin. We can make management of organizations transparent and give organizations a human Cluetrain voice. We can change how we learn – from each other rather than from institutions. We can change healthcare by empowering fellow sufferers to help each other rather than to rely on the priests of medicine. We so change the world as Paul did.

Are Universities too business like?

Sunday, July 13, 2003

I am doing some OD work for a university. One of the issues confronting all universities today is a quantum increase in organizational complexity. My ingoing sense is that the mechanism’s for managing complexity are poorly understood and that as maths changed at the turn of the century to take complexity into account, so we have to look for novel ways of managing complexity at universities.

My thesis is that we manage today as if cause and effect were our universe. Our systems are too complex for this midset and if we remain in cause and effect, conflict will be the only result. Some type of systems tool is required. A start may be some type of council that brings all partiers to the table – but I get ahead of myself.

Let’s look at the world of 1969 when I went up to Oxford and then at the world of 2003 for a modern urban university in Canada

When I went to Oxford 35 years ago, my college, Christchurch was mainly an undergraduate college attached to a cathedral. The Dean ran both. He and the Dons ran the college with a handful of secretaries and a lot of servants and he and the Canons ran the Chapter again with a few secretaries and a lot of servants. Christ Church was part of a Coop called the University where a few Dons sat on committees and set policy. That was the University – a few committees.

Our world was really the college. Small and compact. 90% of the teaching was in the college. We all lived in college. Each college had a its own funding. Christ Church was immensely wealthy with large endowments of land that had accrued over hundreds of years. There were few of us. All of us that went paid fees and it cost me then about L1,000 a year in fees and I spent about another L1,000 on having a good time. We were heavily subsidized by the college but it also lived well within its means. Our accommodation, though splendid, was also spartan as only an all male place of the time could have been. In my quad, the only toilet was on the ground-floor, and the building was 6 stories high. We used the sink for most things! The only baths were in the basement in one corner of the quad. When this was pointed out to the dean who built the quad, his reply was that ” they are only here for 8 weeks at a time”. I think I only had a handful of baths in the 3 years that I was there. I would go home on the weekends for a clean up.

Again my point – a simple set up with not much money flowing either way and almost no government involvement. The world was the college and the faculties. Being small there was little managerial complexity. All who were not faculty were in effect servants or students. There were no money problems and, apart from maintenance, little need for capital investment. The money fit inside the capital envelope of the college. The university ran a few libraries and exams. The simple college was our world where everyone knew everyone perhaps better than they wanted too.

I use Oxford as an example because it was the model for many other universities. But now what is the university world?

Money and social engineering are compelling drivers. The state has entered the game in most countries and has funded a huge increase in enrollment which has driven a huge increase in the capital requirement. Coed is the norm and modern plumbing has entered the male preserve at great cost. Equipping my college with toilets and bathrooms on every floor cost over L20 million! Imagine the plumbing issues in 16 -1 19th century buildings.

So what are the issues in many Canadian Universities today. They have a president whose job is to fund-raise and to deal with governments. His job is mainly a business role. He has to get the budget and make the money work. He has to compete for capital donors and he has to lobby government for more research and operating funds. He is supported by a staff that would not be out of place in any large commercial enterprise. But he has no power to tell the faculty what to do. The Product end of the university has not changed much since I was an undergraduate or indeed since the middle ages. The faculty is divided into separate disciplines who jealously guard their turf. Now usually unionized, my Tutor Charles Stuart must be turning in his grave, they hold back the online world as they know that this will destroy how they work. They do not want to teach because they move up the tenure track and in status by publishing. So they employ armies of servants, TA’s to you and I, to teach and mark in their name. In my day all the dons in every discipline met every night over dinner in hall. Today they all go home to their SOS’s and children. So the linkages between them are poor. All the fertile research ground has been tilled and new entrants scrap for weeds deep in the mud.of their field. There is little sense of collegiality.

They fear that the president will make their university into a BUSINESS – horror of horrors! They sense that undergraduates already pay too much but that is the President’s problem. They sort of know that demography will send fewer young their way – but that is the president’s problem. After all they don’t want to teach them anyway. . They reject any idea of using technology to teach differently – they fear that their precious IP will be lost if they make what they do accessible. So reducing the cost of teaching is the-President’s problem. They have their heads firmly in the sand but will not give an inch of thie power up to help.

Governments want every one to have access to university. They have set up a loan sharking business to facilitate this. The average debt for  BA is about $30,000. The theory is that BA’s get high paying jobs and will easily pay this off. Not so. Most are caught and flip hamburgers or some double up and go onto graduate work. Students will find new ways of getting what they want and will turn away from the traditional delivery and costs – they have no choice.

While the students are finding university too expensive. 50% of the faculty will be in the retirement zone in the next 10 years. Already a bidding war for the new talent is happening. In key areas, new hires are earning more than the old guard. resentment is building and costs are going up.A classic squeeze play is emerging. Costs are too high and rising. Each party balmes the other.

Universities have become huge. They now have armies of Administrators and Technicians who are still treated like servants by the faculty. They are unionized as well and have a deep sense of bitterness and entitlement.

So who would want to be a University President?

How can universities reduce this complexity. Maybe they can take a lead from our Provincial Politicians. They are recommending the formation of a council where the premiers meet as a matter of course with the Prime Minister. The underlying idea is that there is no process other than confrontation to meet the complex needs of a diverse set of groups who live under one hat, Canada. So maybe for universities.  Currently each powerful group has to attack the others. The poor President is stuck in the middle.

Maybe this is true for all organizations? Management and the rest was OK for simpler times. The 3 body problem demands a more sophisticated process. It recognizes that once there are more than two parties, then using cause and effect as the metaphor leads to conflict and failure. Most organizations are more complex than two body systems now. Understanding complexity and chaos will become essential tools for managment. More later