Monthly Archives: February 2010

Improvising on a Theme: trying out different ways of working

I’ve written before about some of the work Tuttle did with Counterpoint, but I haven’t really talked about how we did it.

This is remiss of me, because the most interesting thing for me was the opportunity to try a new way of working.

At last month’s discussion on social media in enterprises, there was a lot of talk of new, flatter organsiation forms – virtual firms – mediated through, perhaps, social media; for decades, Charles Handy has been going on about portfolio workers and the shamrock organisation (I’ve always been dubious about that last, having experienced too many sham organisations…). I can remember discussing different levels of worker engagement in organisations, full-time through part-time to freelance associates, twenty years ago (before I was the least bit interested in it).

There has been lots of talk and lots of theory, then; but I hadn’t really seen any evidence of it.

This was a shame, because it sounded to me like a great way to work: lots of variety, lots of flexibility, little security: kind of “freelance-plus”, if you like.

I was therefore very interested when Lloyd first floated the idea of “Tuttle Consulting”, a bunch of freelancers who met through Tuttle Club working on projects together. I thought of it as a loose affiliation of associates – definitely the realm of a virtual organisation.

Here were nine or ten of us in all working on different aspects of five projects for Counterpooint and the British Council, and it was the first time that any of us had worked together before.

It was very much a learning experience, and there is a lot I think we could have done better – with hindsight. Because we were all working in a new fashion, the working relationships needed to be negotiated between us – and that is a hefty number of relationships to negotiate straight up. We naturally enough each had a different set of expectations (as well as wants and needs).

From its inception it was a very loose arrangement; the client wanted us to be as creative as possible, and so they set a very broad brief. This meant we were also negotiating around their expectations, wants and needs, too. We were nearly as empowered as any team I have worked on before, which was energising but created some new issues, too.

Not being in any formal contractual arrangement, there was no formal power relationship – no one could tell anyone else what to do. In some ways this was a delight, since it meant a concensus view had to be strived for, but it also meant that when decisions needed ot be made there was increased uncertainty.

I think the main lessons for me were about communication – which doesn’t surprise me at all: I think most management issues involve communication at one level or another. One of the reasons that flatter organisation structures are seen to be the structure of the future is that up-and-down communication will be greatly simplified; and people coming together in project teams for the first time need more communication.

To start, I think we could have had more effective, in depth induction. To be fair, we knew this at the time – not all of us could make the briefing session. Taking the time to really explore what we each expected from the project – and from each other – would have made sense; indeed, having this session mediated by someone outside the team would have been beneficial, too. (Thing is, we could all do facilitation, so it didn’t seem worth it at the time…!)

Similarly, I think having more whole team sessions as the projects progressed would have been beneficial, too. Each of the four main projects stood very much alone: there wasn’t a great deal of cross-linkage between them. I believe that there could have been more, creating a fully fledged suite of projects. I think the benefits – not least through mutual understanding and support within the team – would have left us more engaged in the whole rather than our own individual projects. It would have helped us in the multiple negotiations we undoubtedly undertook.

There were lots of things that worked very well, of course: basically, it was exciting to be working in what felt to be a very different way. We were improvising – making it up as we went along, and that felt good. The flexibility and empowerment that came along with that felt very healthy, too; but perhaps the lack of a fixed framework – the rigid scaffolding of some organisations, for instance – made it harder at times, too.

I think it was a great experience: definitely the start of a model which we can learn from, and I certainly hope that we will continue to work together in one form of relationship or another. It felt good to be trying something new.

Very like a whale: Charles Leadbeater on “Cloud Culture”

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ Mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet, scene ii

Last Monday saw the launch by Counterpoint of Charles Leadbeater‘s pamphlet (manifesto? declaration?) on “Cloud Culture”. I was meaning to blog about the launch – there was an interesting panel discussion – but I’ve now read the pamphlet, too, and it seemed to make morre sense to blog about that first.

The pamphlet is very interesting; but it is frustrating, too. Leadbetter’s view of the cloud is pretty – well, nebulous. It is lost in a fog of multiple meanings, an incessant drizzle of data [Enough meteorological metaphors… Ed]. And I think that is really part of the problem: I think Leadbetter is in love with his metaphor, the all-encompassing cloud. This confuses rather than clarifies, since Leadbetter’s cloud is many different things: a camel, a weasel, a whale…

To most people, in the context of the internet, the cloud comprises

huge data centres housing vast storage systems and hundreds of thousands of servers, the powerful machines that dish up data over the internet. Web-based e-mail, social networking and online games are all examples of what are increasingly called cloud services, and are accessible through browsers, smart-phones or other “client” devices.

(the Economist, 15 October 2009).

Or, as Wikipedia puts it,

The term cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the cloud drawing used to depict the Internet in computer network diagrams as an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it represents. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online which are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers.

For most people, the cloud IS the internet: it is all those interactive services that we access through web browsers – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, iTunes, Flickr, our blogs… – It is “web 2.0” (apologies – I hate that phrase, too). It is where we exist online.

It is these things for Leadbetter, too; but it is so much more.

It is

  • a dense cloud of information (p21)
  • clouds of cultural activity… a mushroom cloud of culture (p23)
  • a digital cloud hanging above us (p28)
  • a cloud of … free software programs (p29)
  • clouds of scientific data and global collaboration (p31)

I could go on (and on… and on!), but I’d just get myself more irritated.

In this mixing of metaphors – a heady cocktail – Leadbetter’s clouds obscure some important points. The new and evolving tools we can access through the internet do facilititate collaboration, allowing easy access to shared product; but this isn’t necessarily enabled by the cloud: closed servers somewhere might do the trick just as well. This is where the strenght, the value, comes from: not the cloud itslef.

Ownership of stored digital artefacts is another key issue. Who really owns my photographs which are stored on a server somewhere and can be accessed through flickr? Flickr’s terms and conditions are pretty clear about it – I do – and that is why I use that service; but other services are not so open: Facebook‘s T&C used to state that they had the right to use any content I placed on their servers, which is one reason why I have very limited content (and only a single photograph) on the site. (They may have changed their T&Cs; I haven’t checked. Very few people read T&Cs, and I now doubt a change in their policy would lead to a change in my behaviour.) Who owns a document I access and co-create on Google docs? Or some hypothetical service in the future.

Leadbetter is an advocate of open source collaboration – I saw him talk about open source issues before. He champions projects such as Wikipedia in which large communities of collaborators combine to create a public resource. (The book and blog Wikinomics explores this collaborative economy in fascinating depth.) He is in favour of sharing cultural artefacts and enabling others to create something new from them – the culture of the mashup. True to his word, Cloud Culture is published under a creative commons licence.

But mashups are nothing new. Many of Shakespeare's plays were based on – or stolen from – others' work. The four gospels of the New Testament were fanfic. As the recent exhibition in London “Turner and the Masters” demonstrated, artists have created new work from old and more, they have been taught to do so; human culture has survived by learning – copying – from others.

(By the way, when Leadbeater writes

a Korean boy playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the electric guitar in his bedroom has garnered more than 65 million hits on YouTube, providing the starting point for a global community of guitar-playing boys

[p 19], he is really, REALLY stretching the definition of “community” way, way past its breaking limit. That is not a community: it’s people doing the same thing. Or maybe copying each other. There are no shared beliefs, values or any of the other things which seem to embody “community”.)

The main message I take away from Cloud Culture is the need for vigilence. There may be money to be made through cloud computing; Google, Amazon, Apple and many more are probably hoping that there may be a lot of money to be made. The cloud capitalists, as Leadbeater dubs them, may not be the people to trust with our data – our creations and our identities.

Perhaps more importantly, the cloud capitalists and the culture they are creating comes from the western, rich world. Do we need to guarantee access to the poorer nations? What happens when the dominant culture on the internet is Asian – with different core beliefs and values? The Chinese government, with whom Google cooperated in censoring search results, could afford to buy or create its own providers of web services, which might have a very different view of data protection. Leadbeater assume that western cloud capitalists are the bad guys here – I think it could be much, much more complicated than that.

Leadbeater’s answer to these issues – these “storm clouds” on the horizon – is for multi-governmental public funding of social platforms to counter the corporate developments. The freemarketeer in me doesn’t agree with this; the public management of technology infrastructure doesn’t have a good record in the UK, and I cannot believe that it is any better in the USA, France, Germany – or China.

Leadbeater advocates mobile devices enabling access to the internet in poorer countries – leapfrogging the infrastructure that western nations have built up over many decades. But as Brian Condon pointed out to me after the launch, mobile devices puts a lot of power in the hands of the service provider – the phone company – as well as the user. These corporations can limit and manipulate access as much as other cloud capitalists, and cannot guarantee free access.

There are many issues Leadbeater is right to raise – the future of copyright; the danger of surrendering control of our cultural artefacts to cloud capitalists such as Google, whose Google Books threatens to become the monopoly provider of copyright books in electronic form; the dominance of western culture; and so on.

But his solutions don’t work for me; and in the economic straits we find ourselves in, I can’t see many governments willing to support the web in ways Leadbetter suggests. Except, perhaps, those with an eye on control of the internet…

One more thought on “Social Media in Enterprises”

I’ve just realised that there was something else I meant to say about yesterday’s discussions on Social Media in Enterprises: not one person said that social media are already in enterprises!

They may not be there productively; they may not even be there legitimately; but they are there.

The people who work in enterprises – people like me and you – are active on social networks. They are on Facebook and Twitter; they look at their favourite bands’ pages on MySpace.

They know their way around the internet, and they are used to performing transactions online: they buy CDs on Amazon, they search for free music downloads, they catch up on TV programmes on iPlayer…

They have social and management skills learnt through gaming.

And they carry the world around in their pocket – because most of them have their mobile sitting in their pocket.

They will be using social media whether their employers want them to or not: they’ll be looking at their friends’ Facebook pages in down time, they’ll be tweeting as they sip their coffee and natter to their colleagues.

The organisations they work for aren’t using their skills; they are not leveraging the knowledge and behaviours their staff have exercised by playing around on the internet.

But like it or not, social media are already in enterprises, and organisations that realise this, and can work out how to put all the knowledge, skills and behaviour to work will have an advantage.

Social Media in Enterprises: my take on a broadbased discussion

There was a fascinating event this week, Social Media in Enterprises – the Elephant in the Ecosystem. The organisers – Alan Patrick and David Terrar (and apologies to others who must have also been involved!) – reckoned that there wasn’t much about the use and adoption of social media by enterprises in social media week, and they decided to rectify that.

In the space of a week or so, they got together a series of eight speakers (it was meant to be ten, I think, but a couple couldn’t make it), who were each given ten minutes to talk about – well, social media in enterprise.

They had lots of different things to say, but there was a lot of agreement, too. The strict time limit meant that there wasn’t too much detail (useful in an area that could potentially get quite technical) but there were lots of ideas and experience. I would love to write about what each speaker said in detail, but that wouldn’t really add anything. In summary, though, here’s what I heard them say:

  • Alan Patrick talked about the challenges in implementing social media in businesses, and where the value could come from
  • Sue Black discussed the use of Twitter in the campaign to save Bletchley Park
  • Benjamin Ellis covered practicalities of social media in organisations, and the effect of, and on, organisation culture (amongst all sorts of other stuff!)
  • Umair Haque looked at some fairly fundamental assumptions about how organisations work, and how we ask the wrong questions about them; he reckoned the current organisation structures are doomed
  • Adriana Lukas explained why she thought any attempts the successfully implement social media in businesses are probably doomed
  • Mat Morrison looked at the structures of the networks in organisations he’d successfully implemented
  • Euan Semple spoke freeform – without slides – about the disruptive nature of social media and the need to model new behaviours and ways of working
  • David Terrar summed up with a couple of cases studies – his own work with Swiss Re, John Chambers and his work at Cisco [YouTube] and Pete Fields at Wachovia

That’s what they talked about; what I took away was possibly different: the common links for me were all about corporate culture and the way people work – the way they share, collaborate and behave; the way they create and utilise communities. There was a discussion at last year’s Edinburgh BarCamp on the same topic. Are there some organisations which will take to new ways of collaborative working using social media tools better than others?

Perhaps there are some parts of organisations that will do so – that are more open, flexible and able to adapt to these tools. Adriana talked about the need to work below the radar – to try to work outside the prevalent culture and outside the usual organisation processes – in order to achieve a beachhead from which broaden an implementation. I have been in a similar situation, where using blogs and wikis in a large corporation had to be hosted externally and the whole process felt so counter-cultural to be revolutionary. The tools didn’t stick, either.

Adriana reckoned the main pitfall was the behaviour of middle managers; Euan reminded us that people in organisations get rewarded for their knowledge, so they will be wary of giving it away. To change the culture and behaviour in organisations, we need to look at all aspects of working – including the processes and the reward structure. If we don’t tackle these aspects of organisation life, we will have little success: people will work to the outcome they are rewarded for and by which they are managed.

The move to flatter, less hierarchical organisations – even, perhaps, the fabled “virtual” organisations where almost all aspects of business are outsourced – may be the most fertile ground for social media in enterprises: they can be nimble, and they rely on effective communication to function properly. Here, use of social media could provide a real business advantage – and maybe this is where the real value of social media in business will be found.

(You can read David’s take on the evening here.)