Monthly Archives: October 2010

Innovation through Conversation

For the ConnectingHR Unconference last week (though it seems ages away!), I led a discussion which I called “Innovation through Conversation”. I had prepared a mindmap, since I reckoned a little bit of preparation made sense (mindmaps are my favourite way of preparing for something like this – indeed, I prepared a couple of other topics, too, which will probably find their way into blogs because they were about things I think are important; but I didn’t want to spend the whole unconference talking!). One of the great things about the ConnectingHR was that, aside from the pecha kucha sessions, there weren’t any prepared presentations – it all felt more or less spontaneous, with no whizzy graphics, bullet point hell or hard sell.

Innovation through conversation described for me the kind of things that go on at Tuttle Club and, in particular, the process we used with Tuttle Consulting. The whole thing about Tuttle Club, for me, is the conversation: it is all about interesting conversations with interesting people. Or maybe the other way around… And out of the conversations, ideas form; and from that, products have been created. Which is innovation, to some extent.

Conversation is the product from Tuttle. But I think that can be a bit of a problem, because conversations are hard to sell. Pitching for a project, if one says to a CEO “we’ll help your people have conversations…”, we’d probably swiftly be shown the door: everyone has conversations the whole time – about what they did last night, what they’re doing for their holiday – sometimes even about work. How is what we do different, and why?

People, though, rarely have a chance to kick about new ideas in an open conversation, without preconceptions coming into play. I think this is what Tuttle Club does, and what we have recreated with clients, comes down to creating structures in which conversations can happen freely, openly, without judgement. Because those on the projects bring their experiences of making conversations in the Tuttle Club, a space based around conversation, we are quite happy having conversations with – well, complete strangers. By giving permission to people to have conversations, by opening up organisations to the power of deep conversation, those involved feel able to do so. Seeding conversations like this can cause them to spread through the organisation.

What happens in these conversations is a lot of improvisation and making connections between ideas – creating new meaning. Making it up as we go along. There is not necessarily a product, because the conversation itself is the product. The client takes a very active role – Tuttle might facilitate, but the conversations belong to the client.

That’s more or less what I scribbled down on my mindmap; but the discussion at ConnectingHR took it a lot wider as the other participants brought their own views and opinions, because ConnectingHR was all about the conversation, too.

Conversations can be very powerful. Introducing open conversations between different parts of an organisation allow new social – and product – connections to be made, across business silos. Bringing together new people and new ideas creates new thinking; it doesn’t stop with a single conversation, and can leave seeds, nuggets, waiting to develop. It leads to new learning, and a sharing of experiences and ideas; the outputs can be very rich.

Enabling people in organisations to talk to each other is engaging and empowering: it enables people to think in new and different ways. It can change organisations in permanent ways.

Someone emphasised the benefits of using appreciative enquiry, focussing on the positive aspects of processes and organisations – building on what works rather than trying to correct what doesn’t. I haven’t a lot of experience in appreciative enquiry, but it can be a powerful tool – very often, people in organisations use a lot of time and energy griping about what is wrong; using that time and energy to build on the positive aspects of what they do.

Social media – Twitter, Facebook, and so on – can also provide space for conversations. They give people permission to communicate and to connect. Someone at ConnectingHR said that when an office cleaner and the CEO connect through social media discussing (for instance!) the latest episode of Spooks, it’ll change the way they relate to each other.

I reckon that use of social media in organisations will have a flattening effect on organisation structure, opening up communications and free up people to have conversations. There are fears that with people spending time on social media at work, productivity will fall – apparently unwarranted, since someone pointed out that research had shown no decrease in productivity following the implementation of social media tools (I didn’t get a reference for this – if anyone can point me in the direction of this research, I’d be grateful!).

Someone else pointed out that people would use social media as they used to use cigarettes, and that instead of allowing people a “fag-break”, organisations could allow people “Twitter-breaks”, time between tasks when it’s ok to surf or tweet. Whether online or off, if organisations want people to talk, they need policies. I have been amused – and amazed – at hearing several times from different people in the last few weeks that internal communications departments are so worried about Twitter that some of them require anyone tweeting to have their tweets signed off. I think it was Bill Boorman who pointed out that it didn’t matter what the medium was – you need have a policy for communication, not for specific media.

I think organisations should free people to communicate with each other, whatever the medium – online and off. Because through conversation, people make new connections, spark off each other – and innovate.

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ConnectingHR – a most unconference unconference

Last week saw ConnectingHR’s unconference. I like unconferences – I’ve been to a few – they are more engaging than most conferences, and one learns more. What unconferences lose in expertise, they gain in energy: no more people standing at the front telling one the way it is. The unconference format means that the agenda is designed by participants on the day, and anyone can instigate a session. Most sessions are fully participative – a discussion rather than a pitch. And if one feels one isn’t getting anything from a session, you can move to another.

There is something creating an event on the fly – improvising the discussions: making it up as we go along. It is hard to be a free-rider at an unconference: the very idea is to get involved, and if you are not going to get involved, you probably aren’t going to be there anyway.

The only problem is the (very deliberate) lack of organisation means that interesting sessions clash; and so it was. One can’t get to everything.

In keeping with the improvised vibe, the unconference was held in a former factory – the Spring, in Vauxhall. (As well as being near Spring Gardens, it apparently used to be a bed factory. Geddit?) Aside from the cold, this was a great space, well suited to the use we put it to.

The focus of the day was very open, but since ConnectingHR had previously organised tweetups and done a lot of publicity through blogs and Twitter, one of the major topics was social media: most participants could be found on Twitter, and we covered ways in which social media could be used by organisations to communicate, both with customers and their workers. The implications for organisations could be very important.

There were twenty five slots, with five sessions being run simultaneously. I lead one session on “innovation through conversation”, which I think I will make a separate post.

The major theme for me from the rest of the day was that what organisations will be able to do with social media depends a lot on their culture – it is all about culture. As Sam Lizars tweeted on the day,

All conversations coming back to the same thing. Get the culture right – social media behaviour will follow

This might be because I went to the sessions which interested me, too – and I can get obsessive about organisation culture!

But social media represent just another way of communicating: if an organisation is good at communication, and uses lots of tools to communicate internally and externally, they’ll probably see how they can use social media. If they are rigid, bureaucratic and silo-based, they probably won’t – and if they tried, it would probably fail. Social media is just another tool: a blank sheet of paper. If you trust an organisation’s communications, if they are open and honest and engaged, their use of social media will probably work.

(An aside: I heard a great story the other day about an organisation which was developing its social media strategy. The internal communications team required that all employees had their tweets signed off before tweeting!)

The session led by Sharon Clews was all about this: “trust, organisation culture and social media”. There were lots of stories – how one firm going through a major change ignored comments by staff and former staff posted on a YouTube version of their big ad; another on how a media company had used social media evangelists to drive a culture change following a merger of two very different cultures.

The number of firms with restrictive social media always surprises me. As someone – I think it was Bill Boorman in an open session – pointed out, social media policy shouldn’t be any different to any other media policy: if an organisation wants to manage its communications, it shouldn’t matter if it is in a newspaper interview, a press release, a letter to a customer – or a comment on a blog.

I agree – up to a point. Someone else said that it is impossible to police the internet: you can’t control what people say in the pub, and you can’t control what they say on Twitter, Facebook or any other platform.

For organisations, social media should be all about the conversation – with staff, partners or customers. It will reflect the management style. Done well, it could greatly increase engagement, building the shared experience – and reinforcing the culture. Because social media can be a great way to connect people, it should also increase collaboration. (It is this aspect, centred around learning and communities of expertise, that I think could pay most rewards).

Gavin McGlyne gave a couple of great examples of using social media in learning – and collaboration and culture change – in his “pecha kucha” presentation on work he had done with TGI Fridays. OK, TGIF isn’t my bag – much too full on, frankly – but hearing how they used videos and blogs on a recruitment site – which any employee could contribute to – was fascinating. Employees posted links to the work site on Facebook. They posted pictures of the crappy bits of the job – which management were happy about, because they needed people to do those bits as well as hyper-party stuff. And it linked different TGIF outlets. The only time it didn’t work is when TGIF outlet managers tried to manage what their staff would post: when they treated it as a campaign. Then, it fell flat on its face: giving employees a voice means giving them a real voice, and trying to control it will probably back fire.

(By the way, pecha kucha? Sounds too much like pressure cooker to me!)

Ollie Gardener had travelled all the way from Norway to talk to us; I’m glad she did. She lead another discussion, based on her pecha kucha, on social media and learning and development. My bag, really. I agreed with much that Ollie said. Traditional L&D is about creating organisational clones: people who have done the same courses to rise through the hierarchy. (Indeed, to my mind, selecting people for jobs using competency-based interviews results in a monoculture, a very unhealthy place to be.) Ollie reckons organisations need individuals to succeed, and social media can enable people to access the learning to create that. Through connections – a personal learning network, perhaps (or just a bunch of like minded people) – one can map one’s own path: social media as an enabler. Tools such as Twitter (or its internal equivalents – Yammer got a lot of name checks), social bookmarking, wikis and blogs can help people find learning resources and record their progress (many people talked about their learning blogs – and I guess this is one). This is learning merging with knowledge management – but informal. If an organisation is to develop a learning culture, this would be the way to go.

There was a discussion about corporate social responsibility – and I am a sceptic – and how social media can facilitate broader social connections.

This was a very interesting day, possibly preaching to the converted – but there was some great experience shared. One of the best things were the open sessions for reflection which Jon and Gareth – the energetic organisers and MCs – had built into the day. Sharing learning was what it was all about.