Knowledge Listening

Setting Redcats among the chickens

We’re sitting in the foyer of the ICA, the UK’s home of avant garde culture, but somehow Benjamin Ellis and I are talking about chickens.

Benjamin has six bantams and they don’t want to go outside now that the first frosts of winter have arrived. Also, they’ve stopped laying eggs. Of course, the bottom line solution would be to gently put the bantams out of their misery, and have a nice chicken curry for dinner. But would this be ethical? Probably not.

The chickens are providing more than just eggs, they are providing company (of sorts) and entertainment for Benjamin’s children. They represent six little lives. The fact that they’re no longer laying doesn’t directly mean that Benjamin’s children are going hungry. In fact, I imagine there more than enough slack in the Ellis family budget to provide for the six bantams under their new ‘pet’ status.

I’m interested in chickens because my country-dwelling sister keeps them, and it’s great for Lila (my two year old) to get an actual demonstration of where eggs come from.

The only reason I know Benjamin keeps chickens is because he’s been Twittering about them. I swear I wouldn’t have brought chickens up, otherwise.

Social media tools are great in delivering exactly that sort of arbitrary information that you wouldn’t necessarily ask for – but once you know the information is there, you can exploit it.

As Benjamin says (once we get our mutual interest in chickens out of the way):

“A lot of creativity comes from randomness but it’s hard to construct randomness in an effective way. That’s what social media does. It puts the answer in the cloud.”

And how does this work in business?

“Most of the information assets of an enterprise are placed carefully out of reach. If you’re really progressive you use an intranet or Sharepoint. But in many cases information has simply gone from an information pocket to an information enclave.

“The reality is that there’s no meta-data – information about information… bookmarking, tagging and wikis make up a kind of semantic wrapper around information that can really help identify stuff – if these are used properly they can make the biggest fundamental difference to business.”

A former marketing executive at Cisco, Juniper and other leading IT companies, Benjamin now uses his expertise to focus on the communication problems within organisations. Last September he set up Redcatco “to ensure better information flows inside companies”.

“The biggest challenge in any organisation is the asymmetrical nature of information,” says Benjamin. “You have information, I need that information – but the actual problem is knowing who has what, and how to find it when you need it.”

One of the stumbling blocks Benjamin has come across is the natural tendency to hoard information by the people who work within companies:

“Where there’s an information vacuum people exercise their power – so there’s cultural interest in developing that vacuum.”

If getting people to share is hard, getting people to tag and bookmark is even more difficult, but when this is done properly, the rewards are many:

“The critical information is always on the margins. The information that propagates is always the mean. For example, look at the long tail of the exiting customers. Find out their reasons for leaving and you’ll find the interesting, unexpected stuff.

“There’s a risk management analyst in the States [Nassim Nicholas Taleb] who talks about ‘Black Swans’: he asked, what’s the point of building risk analysis on previous problems, when all those problems were unforeseen? It’s the small probability events, the little voices, the unusual conversations that are important. If you wait until something’s become ‘late majority’, you’ll be too late.”

(This argument resonates strongly with Stowe Boyd’s focus on ‘edglings’. And there’s Hugh McCleod on the same subject here.)

“It’s all about resource discovery – discovering the people who are valuable to you, knowing where your experts are…those random things. You may find you suddenly need a snowboarder who can use a camcorder – social profiles can help you find this person. It’s all possible technically…but culturally? We’ve still a way to go.

“A lot of these collaboration tools are cat-herding tools. The traditional business environment tries to herd and ends up with only the sheep. Red cats are the really distinguished ones (which is why we chose that name for our company). You want to create and nurture outstanding individuals. If you’re using social media in a really inductive way, you’ll attract those red cats.”

When Quentin Tarantino got John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson to talk about hamburgers on the way to commit another violent crime in Pulp Fiction, he was heralded as a master of unconventional story-telling. But that non-linear, broken narrative is probably the best representation of how we all experience life.

If social media at work can capture conversations, linear and non-linear, and enable us to later make connections where we wouldn’t have otherwise, then that has to be enriching at least – and, overall, value-adding.

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