April 25th & 26th
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Abstract Submission Deadline: January 19th
What does it mean that digital technologies are increasingly a part of...
Roger Cohen, The Quest to Belong
Next year’s Thanksgiving grace.
After a count of all absentee ballots, Pam Wetherbee has been declared the winner in Beacon’s Ward 3 City Council race by 6 votes, down from the 9 votes on election day.
This means that the Beacon Democrats have a clean sweep in the City Council elections this year, as reported earlier (see Democrats With Strong Showing Win Control Of City Council).
I’ve known Lee since 2004, I think, when a bunch of us put together an impromptu event in London called ‘Social Tools in the Enterprise’, which was surprisingly early. We’ve remained close ever since, although less so in the past few years, since the Reboot conference closed down. He was co-founder of Headshift, which merged a few years ago with Dachis Group. Lee is one of the deepest thinking folks out there, and since he’s left Dachis this year he’s headed in new directions.
About Lee Bryant
Lee is passionate about using social technology to put humans front and centre of the way we do things in the Twenty-First Century. He has been playing with words and computers since the age of 10, but it was in the mid-1990s, whilst working in international politics and diplomacy, that he discovered the immense power of the internet to influence and orchestrate change. He believes social networks, not bureaucracies, are the organising principle of the current era, and is excited about further exploring new forms of highly connected organisations. He is the co-founder of Post*Shift.
Stowe Boyd: You wrote a post recently, ‘The Shift Has Happened. What Comes Next?’, in which you make the case that the ideas of social business have become mainstream, but that culture is still lagging. You wrote,”I think we under-estimated the sheer level of inertia and resistance to change that exists in many companies.” Is accelerating cultural change what comes next?
Lee Bryant: Yes, I think it is. Whilst the basic social technologies are now regarded as normal within a business, and there is some awareness of the general benefits that more social working can bring, I think the real change we have been pursuing with social business for the past decade has barely begun. The technology and its growing acceptance by workers makes possible new forms of organisation and new forms of orchestrating labour, and this is what we see as the next stage of the challenge to improve business. At the same time, without such changes, the technology will not really fulfil its promise.
Cultural change cannot, I believe, come about through change programmes as they are currently conceived. There is little value in promoting ‘values’ and behaviours without addressing the deep structure of companies and the habits and culture this creates. We need to be more radical in asking how we would re-create companies today if we started from scratch, because I think we now have the social, cultural and technological platforms on which to do a much better job. In fast-growing markets, we see a lot more experimentation, loose structure and rapid change, because they are on a fast growth curve. Organisations often become institutions when they reach their peak and want to protect what they have, and optimise it to death, rather than continue innovating. This often works, but over the long term it is the most vulnerable position to take in the face of emerging threats, and I think many large corporates and institutions have never been so vulnerable.Cultural change cannot, I believe, come about through change programmes as they are currently conceived. There is little value in promoting ‘values’ and behaviours without addressing the deep structure of companies and the habits and culture this creates. - Lee Bryant
If our thesis about social technology and human business is correct, then we should be able to create better, more flexible and adaptive organisations that are more successful than the incumbents they challenge. But for existing large firms, I think a key challenge is how to create a protected space within which they can nurture new structures and new ways of working before their entire existence is challenged by fast-growing startups who are focused on value creation not preservation.
So, yes, cultural change is key, but there is a lot more to it than just change programmes or values (or indeed technology). It is about re-thinking how we orchestrate labour and other inputs to create entirely new models of the firm.
SB: I recently argued (see Metaphors matter: Talking about how we talk about organizations) that a good starting point for deep structural change in the organization is to reevaluate strategy and how closely it articulates with other activities. Basically, if a company is built around top-down, strategic planning instead of emergent, action- and experiment-oriented strategic learning, then working socially is stymied.
LB: Interesting piece, and I like the idea that we can choose our metaphors to suit the analytical need at the time - in a sense each of the organisational metaphors in that piece holds true to an extent. But I am not sure I agree with the idea that strategy is a good place to start for deep structural change. For me, a logical place to start is to work within the current strategic framework to show how people can organise better to get things done, partly because this is less disruptive than re-thinking the strategy, but also because it shows that the big change here is how business can be better and more professional for any given goal than if it proceeds as currently organised. When firms and managers are more comfortable with this new way of working, then I would move on to an emergent strategy development process, but even then I see a role for the experience and wisdom of true leaders to add value to emergent strategic ideas coming up from below. The big win here is how work happens and how value is created, rather than a new approach to setting strategic goals for the firm.
SB: I’ve been advocating the idea of deep culture extrinsic to any specific business, a new business culture based on social principles which subsume to some extent replace organizational culture. One of the effects of the new fast-and-loose work compact is that people are less connected to the business, and businesses are certainly less devoted to their employees. What are your thoughts on that?
LB: I think this is happening to an extent anyway. Talented people are far less loyal to organisations, because there is little these organisations can provide that modern workers need, except in highly specialised areas of the economy where it is not possible to work on cool stuff alone or even in small groups. Developers, for example, tend to have working practices and culture that is independent of any organisation, and to their credit they often try to maintain coding standards, documentation, use of repositories, etc, even when their current company does not care and simply wants to cut corners to ship product. They take pride because they are professionals, much in the same way lawyers and other professions used to.
There is nothing at all wrong or selfish about doing business to seek a profit. The act of real value creation is close to alchemy and should be highly prized. The problem, I think, is that too much corporate business is not in the least about value creation, but rather has short-term stock price or capital enhancement goals. If entrepreneurs, technologists, makers, etc., can all maintain their own values and standards and own a working culture that is more professional and focused on value-creation than the managers who populate large companies, then it is good for all of us.
SB: Yes, I agree. I believe we need to reënage with our own work, personally, and build a deep culture with other individuals committing to its principles, the new ethos of work: mastery, autonomy, and the regard of those you respect. I believe that this broad and deep culture will become more important than the shallow and narrow cultures of businesses.
LB: I think we are seeing signs of this already. Developers value the respect of other developers more than the approval of their bosses, and much of the discretionary extra work they put in is to satisfy a deeper sense of professionalism, rather than just fulfilling the brief. Mastery, autonomy and doing things that don’t scale are all ideas that I see more and more, and you only have to look at the consumer world to see that people value craft over mass-produced cheaper products, and craft requires a new culture of work, rather than the dominant Taylorist approach.
SB: As you may know, the central thesis of the Socialogy series is ‘How do you think a scientifically-grounded understanding of people as social beings will change business in the future and how?’ Can you give your take on that?
LB: There is so much we have learned over recent years about motivation, incentives, identity formation, group behaviour, shared cognition and a range of other cross-disciplinary topics that relate to human behaviour, but so little of it has translated into better business. We are way beyond any pretence that classical economics, supply and demand, rational actor theories, etc., have anything much to offer in understanding the world and better serving the needs of human progress. But we still live under the yoke of financial management ideas where the goal of business is just to incrementally increase shareholder capital, despite the fact this is leading us away from value-creating innovation and towards low-risk efficiency and optimisation plays. I really hope that as we understand ourselves and others better, and accept that finance is an input to business, not its master, that we will come up with so many new ways to make people’s lives slightly better, and create value in the process. You might say it is the next frontier of business, because in a sense this is what most current trends are about, from big data to behavioural economics and ‘everything as a service.’
SB: We have to break the stranglehold of false ideologies disguised as economics, and replace it with bioeconomics?
LB: I don’t know about bioeconomics specifically, but the world around us and our place within it sure has a lot to teach us in terms of everything from husbandry of resources through to adaptation, evolution and ecosystems. Economics is, as suggest an ideological worldview, not a scientific one, and that is a problem. There are other scientific (and social scientific) fields that are probably more relevant to the future of business than classical economics.
SB: Thanks, Lee. Great to talk.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
Moving a lot of posts from stoweboyd.com to underpaidgenius.com, so if you have a link that breaks you may want to look over there. Poetry, social criticism, politics, art, movie criticism, etc., is back there where it started out originally. So far I’ve reached 29 September 2013. I’ll do a month every week until I get back to the way things used to be, before I tried to post everything here at stoweboyd.com, which got to be too much, even for me.
Heitor Alvelos is a conceptual artist in Portugal who concocted Antifluffy as a project for Future Places, a digital media festival in Porto, Portugal.
Interview with Antifluffy by Sara Moreira
Global Voices (GV): Who are you, Antifluffy?
Antifluffy (AF): I am a mascot of a media lab in Porto. I am an icon, because I have an image and a catchy name. And I am an idea about how the world can be better a place.
GV: Do you mean the real world or the digital world?
AF: As Antifluffy I don’t really make a distinction, it’s all connected. Essentially what I try to convey is the thought that there is nothing really fundamentally different from new media if we don’t consider its repercussions on the existential level. There is a kind of underlying determinism about media – and even what people call post-media – that is this road to go towards the future without actually considering what it is doing to us and what kind of choices we really have.'Obliquity - the capacity that every human being has, intrinsically, to think outside-the-box, to innovate, to not just go with the flow, to not just let themselves be seduced by the mirror of everyday gadgets'
GV: Do you choose to be on social media?
AF: Yes, of course, I should say that I have many Facebook accounts and many Twitter accounts in the sense that being an idea, I am essentially something that is in everyone’s brains. Antifluffy is a way of describing a quality that every human being has that is called obliquity. It’s the capacity that every human being has, intrinsically, to think outside-the-box, to innovate, to not just go with the flow, to not just let themselves be seduced by the mirror of everyday gadgets right away.
Ultimately Antifluffy is the belief that people can get a better deal out of what media is offering them. One thing that strikes me is to realize that we all have incredibly powerful tools at our disposal right now and yet it seems that rather than working in our favor they are acting against us, making us more anxious, more deterministic, more alienated.
Where is the healing aspect of new media? I haven’t quite figured it out yet and I think we have a duty to find it and nurture it. Of course I am making a huge generalization, there are people doing something fundamentally right, but they are the exception rather than the rule…
GV: Who is the “We” of the “We are the fluff” performance that has just happened
AF: When I say “we” I mean ‘We human beings’, ‘We creatures that happen to be alive in this moment’. I am an invitation for people to develop the obliquity they have within themselves. To reconsider the parameters of their connection with contemporary culture…
Antifluffy was partially inspired by a TV commercial for a mobile phone company that in my opinion represents a syndrome. The ad shows an abridged story of the 20th century, including among other things, historical footage of soldiers on the battlefield. The fact that a mobile company uses images of human beings that very likely didn’t make it back home, and then says that the solution is to change your contract for a better deal, 4 cents a minute, is somehow going to do what? In terms of historical heritage, in terms of what our ancestors deserve?
Fluff is the kind of crap that says history can and should be revisited as a mechanism… for what? For fluff! It’s just stuff!
GV: Earlier today I saw a crowd on the street led by an orchestra. What initially looked like a spontaneous musical performance was actually a sponsored (and filmed) event with the logo of a mobile company everywhere…
AF: I am not against the fact that there are companies providing access to culture. I think that is absolutely fine, but what it seems to me right now is that it has all become a bit of a minefield. It used to be – or at least it seemed to be – easier to read the cultural and the social landscape, and at the moment it has all become very ambivalent. With those kind of experiences. You know, one little detail can suddenly shift the whole experience into a different territory, from the cultural to the commercial in this case. Not to say that bridges cannot be built, of course they can, but at what price?
GV: Would it be easier to get more people out to the streets in Porto every time there is an anti-austerity demonstration if the call for protest was sponsored by a brand?
AF: The 15th of September, 2012, was a key moment to the understanding of what is going on socially in Portugal. On that day we had what a lot people say it was the biggest demonstration since the revolution of 1974. Avenida dos Aliados [Porto’s main avenue, where the City Council is] was filled with hundreds of thousands of people protesting because the government was going to propose a nasty kind of tax. And the strange thing is that a mobile phone company was organizing an outdoor rave party that night.
Usually in my presentations I show two slides: one with the crowd filling out the Avenida dos Aliados at 3pm, and the next slide is the same crowd at Praça Filipa de Lencastre at 1am having beer and listening to some DJ. So what you are describing is actually what we already have. I am sure there was a connection between these two events that was planned.
But my concern is exactly this… what’s the word, it’s not polarization, but schizophrenia. Is this kind of schizophrenia in which you are either on party mode or on protest mode, and I don’t think this is healthy. It’s actually very damaging to our integrity as individuals.
It worries me that I don’t see that many people proposing new social geometries. The only time when people all come together is to say NO. But what I never see is that same huge group of people proclaiming an alternative together as a whole.
GV: Do you think that digital media can help bring people together to accomplish alternatives?
AF: I think the first condition for us to get out of this nasty situation is to rearrange the ways in which we connect… I mean how can we be healthy as individuals and as citizens if we keep being bombarded by all of these messages and images of a catastrophe and at the same time we get all this stuff which is all saying ‘Hey it’s all great and fine and fun’ you know? There has got to be a middle way, there must be a way to harmonize these two schizophrenic moments. We are hostages of this polarization and being bombarded with the idea that it is all going down hill and then up the next minute. After the TV presenter reads all the tragic news – let’s have a commercial break, and it’s all about fluff, and love and iPads, and it’s not healthy to listen to these messages.
GV: Are you fighting against these kind of alienating messages?
AF: Despite the ‘anti’ in my name, I like to think of Antifluffy more as an invitation first of all, to optimism. You know there are things that will never be taken from us, and one of them is affection. Let’s be generous with one another, let’s value one another, let’s not be afraid to say it. It’s about optimism, it’s about connecting, and it’s also about not insulting people’s intelligence. Antifluffy is a way of saying that some things take time to unravel, to be understood, they are complex. Let’s take it easy, it’s alright, you don’t have to understand everything right away, as opposed to the vertigo that is happening on social media and in old media.
I looked up obliquity and Mirriam-Webster defines it this way:
1: deviation from moral rectitude or sound thinking
2 a : deviation from parallelism or perpendicularity; also : the amount of such deviation
b : the angle between the planes of the earth’s equator and orbit having a value of about 23°27′ <obliquity of the ecliptic>
3 a : indirectness or deliberate obscurity of speech or conduct
b : an obscure or confusing statement
May be defined differently in Portuguese, after all. But I like Antifluffy’s reapplication, as deviation from groupthink, or the possibilities of breaking out from our cultural blinders. Antifluffy might have borrowed this from economist John Kay’s book, Obliquity, which I stumbled upon just now, through a Google search on the term, and which I am going to read as soon as possible.
That we have recently had serious trouble dealing with something as familiar as the flu should horrify us. A new vaccine has to be developed at least once a year to keep pace with the fast-mutating virus, but that process is now technically routine. In 2004, just three companies controlled most of the skill, and one of them got unlucky. The United States was left unable to provide even the seasonal flu shots needed by the elderly and health care workers — and would have been helpless against a pandemic had one materialized.
HIV and the flu virus exploit the simplest kind of biochemical complexity that can thwart magic-bullet antidotes. Washington, paralyzed by the fear that error is politically lethal, is rigid and slow; the new germs are flexible and fast. The whole edifice leans sharply toward the past. Germs are always future, always reinventing themselves in their ingeniously stupid way. They don’t have to be smarter than our scientists anymore, just faster than our lawyers.
Unable to afford the future, Washington’s paymasters are systematically biased in favor of the drug licensed decades ago. Their principal concern is who should pay how much for the new, patented drug, or whether the old, cheaper generic might do as well. To continue to advance and spread its benefits more widely and equitably, however, molecular medicine must mimic life in all its nimble, diverse, discriminatory, and changeable complexity.
In knowledge-based industries, as in life, constant change is the key to survival. Margins always collapse when yesterday’s technology matures, key patents expire, manufacturing processes get standardized, and the next-generation technology emerges. The digital economy discovered the Darwinian economic law years ago: innovate or die. The law applies to drugs, too: tomorrow’s profits always depend on taming the next shard of endlessly variable human chemistry, or beating nature’s next new pathogen.
Go read the whole thing.
Driving into the future with our foot on the brake, not the accelerator.