If we build it, they will come

Otto Scharmer during our Skype chat

Originally uploaded by Jemima G

Since 1999, Dr Otto Scharmer has been running workshops on Presencing and Theory U – concepts he’s developed as a tool kit for stimulating “conscious evolution” and change in business leadership.

Dr.Scharmer is a senior lecturer in management at MIT in Boston, USA. His extensive private client list includes national governments, international institutions and multinational companies such as Daimler, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Fujitsu, and Google.

This week, Dr.Scharmer is in Munich, Germany. But he’s found half an hour to chat to me on Skpe. It’s half three in the afternoon, Dr.Scharmer’s just flown in from the US, and I imagine he’s pretty tired, but all that comes across in the call is great positivity and boundless enthusiasm.

Dr.Scharmer is part of the new hippie mainstream. The roots of his work can be traced back to the mid sixties. Dr.Scharmer believes that, since around 1965, through the last third of the 20th century, there has been “a new impluse going around the world, which really had to do with a profound [social] renewal and that came in a variety of different movements.”

These movements or “streams”, he says, appeared in three different ways: firstly in the environmental movement, secondly in the movements for social change (such as the Women’s and Peace Movements) and, thirdly, in “a deeper process that has to do with shifting our level of awareness from where we operate [now] to a higher level of consciousness.”

In the late 20th century, believes Dr.Scharmer, these three streams diverged and headed off in very distinct directions; now, however, they are re-converging:

“What I see happening now is that, almost on an underground level, we see these three streams coming more and more together and being reintegrated. That’s what’s beginning to happen in many places. That’s what we see [emerging] as a conscious consumer movement, that’s what we see [emerging] as a conscious investing movement. We see [this] in many different forms.”

Dr.Scharmer sees two forces at play: on an external level, concerns about the environment, about the ineffectiveness of established institutions and about individual careers and livelihoods falling apart. But on an internal level too, through close observation of behaviour in his workshops, Dr.Scharmer claims to have witnessed a “deeper longing” – particularly amongst younger participants – for “engaging with each other in different relationships and engaging with oneself in a different relationship”.

“This inner opening, this kind of inner predisposition to access a deeper level of self knowing, that is the other source: [the desire to] wake up to another level of awareness, of consciousness, as an individual – but also as a community.”

I think Dr.Scharmer’s vision sounds great but possibly a wee bit Utopian? What would he say to someone unable to sense the presence of any “deeper longing”?

“Certainly you could tell a different story that would make everyone depressed, right? I can tell that story as well and then you and I can both be depressed…but we [must work] with mindsets and attitudes that empower us, rather than making us more depressed.”

I like his point. Like motherhood and apple pie, it’s a tough one to argue with.

Dr.Scharmer may be full of positivity about humankind, but his mood grows darker when I ask about the web – and social media in particular. His view is that our current technologies have great potential, but we must be wary:

“There has always been the belief that technology transforms social relationships and that that will set people free. [But] that is not what happens. What happened in history was that technology became the tool for even better control, new forms of control – and [these were] used by the establishment to establish a more firm grip on the social structure, rather than transforming the social structure and empowering the marginalised groups to shape and create their future…we should be mindful of that.”

“[The web] has a great promise but [positive changes] won’t happen automatically. It will be a very co-creative process and I think, in our age, the new media, the new technologies, the new web technologies, need to be complemented with a new social technology. And it’s the social technology that allows us as groups, as collective entities across organisational boundaries, to shift our quality of attention from downloading, which is just doing more of the same, to co-creating together, which is really kind of accessing the collective creativity that we could utilise.”

We know it’s up to us to make the change. Technology alone can’t make the breakthrough. It’s up to us to put in the leg work and ensure we build something worthwhile. Time for anyone who’s good at motivating others to take the initiative.


For he’s a jolly good Fellow?

Centralised or distributed?

“We’re at A, we’d like to be at C.”

Laura Bunt, Networks Co-ordinator at the RSA, is standing in front of a large projection of a diagram illustrating three different networks: the first, marked ‘A’, shows a number of lines radiating from a single point; the second, ‘B’, shows a handful of smaller clusters, simplified versions of ‘A’; the third, ‘C’ is a block of diamond shapes – a fishnet of connected nodes.

The RSA or rather, to give it its proper title, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, is one of the UK’s oldest and most respected membership organizations.

The Society was founded in a Covent Garden coffee shop in 1754 by William Shipley, an artist and teacher. Shipley’s co-founders included the leading progressive thinkers of the time: Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth,. The aim of the Society they set up was to award premiums to innovative liberal arts and science projects, and “to stimulate enterprise for the common good”.

Today, the RSA has a global “Fellowship” of around 27,000 members and a civic remit “to develop and promote new ways of thinking about human fulfilment and social progress”.

This afternoon, we’re in a meeting room at The University of Westminster for an open workshop intended to explore the practicalities of creating a truly networked RSA. Twenty-five people, Fellows and non-Fellows, are sitting around four tables. In the middle of each table a pile of cling-wrapped plasticine and bags of Lego hint at the fun to come.

Since November 2007, the RSA Networks project (backed by NESTA) has been looking at new ways to engage and empower Fellows. The first year was intended to be one of “chaos” – a period of experimentation and innovation – followed by a year in which ideas would “coalesce”, allowing a clear roadmap for a third phase, “leadership”, to emerge.

We’re half way into the second year and possibly still at the “chaos” stage.

The ambition of the RSA Fellowship team, says Laura, is very much to build a strong distributed network. She likes to think that the Society’s internal office team of ten is there to support and be fully integrated with RSA Networks. She admits that the realization that a distributed network was needed and how that network might interact with or even “become” the RSA was not a firm idea at the onset but one that has developed organically over the past 18 months.

Another Laura, Laura Billings, who’s the RSA’s Senior Fellowship Researcher, starts to talk about practical developments. Two clear ideas have come out of the Networks project so far:

  • To create a Fellows Charter which will define expectations and responsibilities of Fellows (written and ratified by the Fellows)
  • To develop a taxonomy, a tagging system, written by Fellows (sounds a great idea but I’m not at all clear how this second will work in practice).

It all sounds good – but there’s a lot of anger in the room. The Fellows are restless.

First up, Paul Springer, who argues that the lack of accessibility at the RSA’s London headquarters (the rooms of this vast building that Fellows are allowed into amount to “the library and a tiny airless room in the basement”) is indicative of the attitude to fellows; although he adds that: “The fact you want to go from A to C is wonderful. That wasn’t even being said a year ago”

Laura and Laura listen with the worn patience of parents who are watching their children throw food over the kitchen as they try to feed themselves. It’s an ugly, messy thing, this feedback process. But once you’ve started on this particular road, it’s difficult to turn back.

But Paul’s comments are just the tip of an iceberg. There are others in the room who are also angry but can’t seem to be bothered to comment. Is it possible they might be giving up on the whole project?

RSA council member Malcolm Forbes stands up to give a brief presentation about the social media tools that have been introduced since the Networks project kicked off. There’s a wiki on Wikispaces, a news stream on Twitter, plus Google and Facebook groups. The Facebook group grew quite quickly to 600 members, but then plateaued. The wiki has been relatively inactive since early 2008.

The RSA is dealing with the same problems faced by many businesses today: What does ‘networked’ actually mean to us? Just how networked do we need to be, and why? How do we become more ‘networked’? How do we manage a networked organization? Do we need designated ‘leaders’ or just ‘co-ordinators’?

When I speak to people during the breaks, frustration is a key word. And also a growing sense that the workshops, seminars and ‘tasks’ (from setting up a Facebook group to building a model with plasticine that represents “the RSA you want to see”) are now simply a diversion from the real goal of getting this 250 year old organization to actually open up.

I get an image of RSA CEO Matthew Taylor with a pack of more or less amiable but hungry dogs. He keeps throwing out balls for us dogs to chase, but what we really want is a bone.

The Fellows I speak to seem to agree that the problem rests largely on Matthew’s shoulders. One points out that Matthew’s background as a Chief Advisor on Strategy to Tony Blair means that he is used to operating in a political, rigidly hierarchical world, seeing things very much in ‘top down’ terms.

There’s no denying that Matthew is intelligent, charming and has impeccable left-leaning credentials, but its completely possible that he feels uncomfortable with any full abdication of responsibility, and the idea of truly letting the “natives” run riot.

From where I’m standing, it seems that The RSA has flourished under Matthew Taylor: The Society has a stimulating programme of thought-provoking events, and a reasonably high profile in the media. But ninety per cent of this is Matthew-led. It’s Matthew who capably chairs virtually all the discussions, and gives interviews on behalf of the RSA across press, TV, radio and web.

When you go to the RSA website and read the blog, all the entries are by Matthew (in fact, it’s called “Matthew’s blog“). If you click on “Who we are”, you get a three minute video of Matthew. Meanwhile, over on the “Fellowship” page, you are given the opportunity to “Meet a Fellow” : this is a four minute video of one (1) Fellow – not very representative of the 27,000 who make up the RSA.

Of course, this is by no means all Matthew’s fault. I’m sure it was his marketing team who encouraged him to write the blog. And the blog’s wonderfully un-ironic tagline “Politics, brains, social action and the day to day life of the RSA’s chief executive” must have been written by someone in PR.

A few days after the workshop, there are signs that a message of some sort may be getting through: a new thread on membership has started up on Matthew Taylor’s blog, one to which comments are invited – and, for the first time, the RSA’s Chief Executive is responding.

Maybe there is hope for change after all?


A cultural revolution

Had a great time at the London Twestival last Thursday but – like most others – strangely didn’t spend the night blogging, tweeting or texting about it (though I did manage to take some pics).

Luckily The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss recorded some voxpops so even if you weren’t there, you can get a flavour of the evening.

My fave quote has to be from Alex Hoye, CEO of digital agency, Latitude, talking about getting used to using Twitter:

“One of the first struggles I had was that my work persona, my home persona and my family persona all had to be one and the same and initially that meant some filtering – and there is some filtering in there – but on the other hand it means that you’re actually more natural in all three now which is a real cultural revolution in some ways.”

Social convergence in action – love it!


The slow boat to China

It’s 1873 and the Reverend Henry Parkes is in Canton, China, writing a letter to his boss, the General Secretary of a Methodist missionary society, in London.

“By next spring I shall have been resident ten years […] My objective in writing by this mail is to request permission to return home […] For myself, and more especially for my wife and family, I feel it’s necessary, soon, to have a change. In this view my medical advisor concurs.”

Henry is a Wesleyan Methodist minister and one of a small group of priests who have been asked to take Christianity to China following China’s defeat by the British in the second Opium War of 1856-60.

Henry and his new wife, Annie, and their children live on the eastern side of Canton Province (now known as Guangzhou), an area where smallpox, cholera typhoid and bubonic plague are endemic. Hundreds of thousands will die in the region over the next few years. With four children under the age of six, Henry is understandably concerned for the health and safety of his family.

Henry has now been in Canton Province for ten years, having arrived in China in August 1862, after a five month voyage from Southampton. As a missionary, his job is not only to preach, but also to help establish schools, hospitals and orphanages. Apart from the Parkes and a few other missionary families, there are no other Europeans in the region.

In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, there is little love lost between the Chinese and the British. Henry and his family live under threat of attack. Mandarin Chinese is not an easy language to learn and the lack of communication with the people around them, in addition to getting used to the local food, manners and customs, means that life is extremely difficult.

Henry studied to become a Methodist missionary at Richmond College, London, but although well-versed in theology, he received no practical training in the life skills needed for coping with this new environment. As a result, the Parkes family are incredibly isolated.

Henry would have expected a response to his letter to take around six months to arrive by ship. From the wording of a second letter, written seven months later, it’s evident that no response has been received. In the meantime, two of Henry’s children have tragically died. Over the next ten years, Henry writes a number of letters to the General Secretary; in each, he requests permission to come home. In 1882, nearly twenty years after arriving in Canton Province, the Parkes are finally allowed to return to England.

I watched celebrity chef Rick Stein tell this story on BBC1 on Monday as episode three of the latest series of “Who Do you Think You Are?”. Henry Parkes was Rick’s maternal great grandfather, and Rick traveled to Hong Kong to find out more about his life. The scene in which Rick reads the letters written by Henry is incredibly moving.

It’s an sad story – and all the more shocking in the context of today’s hyper-connected world. For us, the idea of being stranded on one side of the planet while your boss, manager or CEO chooses to ignore you on the other is unthinkable. Today, it would only take a handful of well-written blog posts, a campaign organized by your friends on Twitter or Facebook and/or a few hundred signatures via an e-petition before your employer was forced to address your needs – and relocate you.

It’s true, employers don’t always behave as they should (the same goes for employees, of course). But at least now we have the means to ensure all voices, however troublesome or inconvenient, are heard.

The funny thing is, in some instances, particularly in established organizations where there is a legacy of doing things a certain way, it seems some managers still behave as if that slow boat to China was the main method of communication. A friend of a friend who works for the UK civil service sums it up:

“Two hundred years ago, people wrote letters and it would take four weeks to get a reply, so you could basically go ahead and do what you wanted without waiting for permission to be given – or denied. People still run their own fiefdoms like this! Even if you’re a child of this generation and you get posted to Tonga for 25 years, you might have to ask, what are you going to learn [about the UK technology sector] in Tonga?”

To borrow a phrase from George Orwell, it seems all people are networked, but some are more networked than others. There’s no prize for guessing which type of person has the edge.

One last point: it’s interesting to read on Wonkette that one of US presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign advisors, Mike Murphy, is now, literally, on a slow boat to China. As one of McCain’s more savvy advisors, he’ll no doubt appreciate the irony more than anyone.


“We don’t need help. We are not invalids.”

I’ve been doing a bit more digging around and come up with some more ‘interesting’ facts about the social media presence at this year’s Davos:

  • For the second year running, there was a YouTube Corner. Heads of state, CEOs of multinational corporations and various world dignitaries and could stop by to give their response to questions posted on the video sharing network. Kofi Annan, Ed Milliband, Paolo Coelho, The President of Rwanda and The Chairman of Intel Craig Barrett all shared their views.
  • Prior to Davos, both YouTube and MySpace ran competitions for one lucky subscriber to get all expenses paid press accreditation at Davos. Pablo Camacho (YouTube) and Rebecca McQuigg (MySpace) became “Citizen Reporters” – interviewing everyone from Bill Gates to the president of Columbia between them.
  • Facebook ran live online polls during 12 of the key sessions. During one session, Advice to the US President on Competitiveness, Facebook users were asked if Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus package was on target. According to Techcrunch, 120,000 responses were recorded in twenty minutes: 59 per cent said “no” and 15 per cent said “yes”. These results were played out directly over the heads of the panelists (including Rupert Murdoch, CEO News Corp, and Ellen Kullman, CEO DuPont) who only minutes beforehand had generally backed the package. Nonetheless, World Economic Forum officials were apparently “delighted” with the polls.
  • While 2007 appeared to be the year the bloggers first arrived ‘en masse’ at Davos, 2009 saw plenty more faces from the social media/tech scene: journalists Michael Arrington (Techcrunch), Robert Scoble (Fast Company TV), Jeff Jarvis (Buzz Machine) are becoming veterans, alongside Web 2.0 entrepreneurs such as Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly Media), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Chad Hurley (YouTube) and Tariq Krim (Netvibes).
  • For anyone in any doubt that Davos is social media savvy, the World Economic Forum now has a Twitter feed, a fan page and group on Facebook, and a dedicated photostream on Flickr.

My final point isn’t about social media specifically, but about the importance of accommodating diverse viewpoints – especially important if you prefer not to be humiliated in public: illustrated in the story of the exchange between poor old Dell CEO, Michael Dell, and the pithy Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

As if any further proof was needed of fading Western dominance – Putin’s put-down of Dell’s founder summed up the new world order. Peter Gumbel of Fortune magazine reports how Michael Dell was first up to ask a question after Putin’s 40 minute speech:

“[Dell] praised Russia’s technical and scientific prowess, and then asked: “How can we help” you to expand IT in Russia. Big mistake. Russia has been allergic to offers of aid from the West ever since hundreds of overpaid consultants arrived in Moscow after the collapse of Communism, in 1991, and proceeded to hand out an array of advice that proved, at times, useless or dangerous. Putin’s withering reply to Dell: “We don’t need help. We are not invalids. We don’t have limited mental capacity. The slapdown took many of the people in the audience by surprise.”

Putin’s remarks are good to bear in mind as we think about our (definitely subjective, probably patronising) attitudes to other cultures in shaping the “economic forums” – and corporate boardrooms – of the future.

As Davos is no doubt learning, it’s great to use social media to gather diverse viewpoints, but it’s our reaction to these views, and our accommodation of them, that we need to really think about.


Reflected glory

It’s late on a Sunday night in October 1996. In a crowded basement on Hoxton Square, East London, around 300 people have crammed together to dance, drink, smoke (because we could back then) and listen to DJ and Metalheadz co-founder Goldie spin his trademark jungle drum and bass.

Apart from the flashing visuals, there’s not much colour in the room, the crowd, made up of students, artists and anyone else who doesn’t have to get up on Monday morning, is a heaving sea of sweaty faces, dark jackets, dark t-shirts.

The music keeps playing, the volume louder if anything, but in the corner of the room, there’s a ripple through the crowd, and the dancing is momentarily more subdued. Heads turn. For a minute or two, all eyes rest on the beautiful, pale face, the cheekbones dusted with glitter, the beautiful slanted eyes, fringed with jet black hair.

Bjork is only in the Blue Note for a short time but, in her unexpected presence, everything changes. For a moment, a sweaty local venue becomes a celebrity hangout and a routine Sunday night turns into a lifelong memory.

You don’t need to be a Brit Award winning, internationally-acclaimed popstar to make this sort of entrance, but it probably helps.

Drama queens and kings

Tudor Pickard, who writes about leadership on his blog, picks up on a story told by Meryl Streep in the LA Times; the actress remembers her days at Yale Drama School, when the students were asked how they would go about playing a king:

“And everybody said, ‘Oh you are assertive,’ and people would say, ‘Oh you speak in a slightly deeper voice.’ And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.’ The atmosphere changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king. I thought that was really powerful information.”

Tudor asks, are drama and leadership really that far apart?

Certainly trade unionist Keith Grint, in “The Arts of Leadership”, believes that a key part of leadership is the ‘performance art’ – persuading others to follow you through the strength of your actions.

Chances are, we’ve all had a boss who makes us cringe when he/she walks into the room, or a gorgeous work colleague who makes our hearts leap. The emotional impact other people have on us, and vice versa, is the driving force behind mainstream psychotherapy as well as less-scientific practices such as NLP.

The charismatic leader whose entrance causes a roomful of people to quieten, whose very presence sparks a current of excitement through a crowd, is the type of leader we’re conditioned to cry out for. As Cass Business School’s David Sims has said on this blog, their existence feeds a deep need within us.

This need generates the sort of mild hysteria that has people saying Barack Obama is the new Messiah (if you search for Barack Obama + Jesus on Google you’ll get over 6m results) or that Gordon Brown is saving the world (Gordon Brown + saving world = 396,000 results).

Like Tudor, I agree with the idea of a highly reciprocal, co-dependent relationship between leaders and followers, but rather than build up great leaders, we should ask ourselves where we can help them lead. In other words, as one of the world’s more charismatic leaders would have it, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (John F Kennedy, 1961). Meanwhile, leaders themselves can start thinking about how to empower others.

The end of the office ‘celebrity’

Actions speak louder than words and I agree that all the best leaders should and do lead by example. But, in the book, I’m interested in toning down the ‘’performing’ side of things. In my view, any performance should be so subtle as to go virtually unnoticed.

In “The Starfish & The Spider”, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom quote the ancient Chinese philospher Lao-tzu, “a leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him”. (p115)

We want to feel our leaders have our best interests at heart. There’s nothing more irritating than a leader who simply shouts about how great he/she is. Often, when those types of people are in management positions, they’re doing anything but ‘leading’.

What’s the true key to motivating and driving others? This is the heart of the ‘passion’ element I’m exploring. Leaders like Richard Sambrooke, Craig Newmark, Jason Fried, Gina Poole, Lloyd Davis and Andy Bell all seem to get it right.


The connectedness of things

Bee on a flower by elvis_payne

12 February is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the BBC’s Darwin Season is now in full swing. If you didn’t catch Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time four-parter last week, episode four, where Darwin’s pottering around in his greenhouse, is the one worth listening to.

In the latter half of Darwin’s life, the kitchen garden at Down House in Kent became the centre of his biological research, the place he called his “experimental bed”.

Here he experimented with orchids, primroses, cowslips, honey-bees and – less romantically – pigeons and worms.

One discovery was that pollination of flowers by insects ensures the variability that’s the lynchpin of evolution through natural selection. Constantly self-fertilizing plants simply don’t evolve in the same way.

And Darwin also found out that, for successful pollination, a whole number of variables were necessary – primroses, for example, don’t simply have male and female flowers, they also have “long-styled” and “short-styled” structures.

His belief in the importance of diversity (ironically enough, he was married to his cousin, but we’ll gloss over that) appears to have been just one element of Darwin’s “leader 2.0” approach.

Despite it being a good 100 years before the world’s first computer network was established, Darwin practiced an early form of crowdsourcing in order to carry out his research.

As Melvyn Bragg puts it, “Down House was a retreat for Darwin, but he was also open to the world”. Darwin claimed to write eight to ten letters a day (no less than 7,000 of these survive and are held in an archive at Cambridge University).

These letters were used to co-ordinate international research, exploring human orgins for “The Ascent of Man”. Darwin wrote to his network of existing friends around the world – diplomats, missionaries and fellow scientists – and asked them to tap into their own networks.

This research covered all countries in the British Empire (approaching its peak in the mid nineteenth century) as well as the Americas. For example, the Brazilian-based botanist, Fritz Muller, sent Darwin exotic seeds, which he would then send on to contacts in other parts of the world for comparison and comment.

Bizarre objects would frequently be attached to the letters – one in the archive in Cambridge University Library comes from New Zealand; it still has squashed bees taped to the paper.

Thus correspondence (the social media of its day) was immensely important to Darwin’s scientific discoveries. And Darwin was impressed by the quality of the information that his contacts gathered and delivered to him, motivated not by financial reward, but simply for the sake of reciprocation and communal discovery (sound familiar?).

As Darwin wrote to his friend, John Jenner Weir in 1868: “If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow men, he ought to do what I’m doing, pester them with letters.”

Darwin’s biographer, Jim Moore, notes that he was very good at getting people to do what he wanted by being extremely appreciative of the help they offered him.

Darwin was also very serendipitous in his sources of information. Whenever a baby was born to a couple in the Darwin’s circle of friends, unusually it would be Darwin (not his wife, Emma) who’d send the card of congratulations – a questionnaire contained within it. This questionnaire would ask about facial emotions, which Darwin would then relate back not only to the origins of racial differences but also to expressions of sorrow and fear in young animals.

Based at home, Darwin’s life and work were completely intertwined and his family were involved with all his projects. Darwin and his wife had ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. His wife, and his eldest surviving daughter, Henrietta, helped him with his correspondence.

“Science obsesses itself with trifles” observes geneticist Steve Jones, who points out that Darwin’s central theme was another property echoed in web 2.0: “the enormous power of small means”. (cf: network effects?)

According to Jim Moore, Darwin’s vision of nature was of “a struggling progressive cosmos in which all life is related”. This vision is now universally accepted (if not always remembered).

“If we had Darwin’s humanity that accompanied that vision, his love of life and his hatred of cruelty, it would be the completion of his work,” adds Moore.

So, how did Darwin’s life work conclude? Well, his last book was about earthworms.

“The last book he published wasn’t some grandiose world view, some old testament from the top of an intellectual mountain, it was a book about earthworms”, says Melvyn Bragg, who then goes on to cite Darwin’s humility and his realisation of the connectedness of things as hallmarks of his greatness.

It seems there’s a lot some of today’s leaders could learn from this man who died 127 years ago.


Whose direct reporting line is it, anyway?

For the past six months, Mat Morrison, Global Head of Digital Planning at Porter Novelli has been developing a network analysis tool called Rufus.

Rufus aims to map online “influencers”. This means that a client can, for example, see who’s talking to who in about a certain product – and, more importantly, who’s listening. What the tool has been great at, says Mat, is in demonstrating how peripheral a company’s influence can be, particularly where its own products or services are concerned.

Rufus works by processing information freely available on the web. Starting with a keyword (eg, diabetes), Rufus acts like a smaller version of Google, using a spider to go through the search results looking at links, and reciprocal links. From this, it can see who the key stakeholders in a conversation are, and who’s listening to who.

This is the first time I’ve started thinking about social network analysis tools. Matt tells me that the free app, Netdraw, is probably as good at visualising Twitter relationships as Rufus. There are no doubt dozens of other apps out there I’ve yet to get familiar with.

I’m wondering how this type of mapping can help organisations learn more about their own internal communications. Any corporate org chart can show who reports to and who oversees who, but the real power (ie: influence) can often lie outside these lines. Tracking relationships on social networks could be one way of learning about these informal structures.

Years ago, when I worked at BSkyB, I remember the Facilities Manager had a tremendous amount of control. Partly because she had a gatekeeping role, but also because she had been with Sky Television since the day one, had watched everyone else come in, and was acutely aware of who talked to who and what else was happening in the company. If Facebook (or an internal version) had existed then, Mandy would no doubt have had the most friends.

Mat cites the example of the only bi-lingual guy on the production line in a US factory employing a large number of Spanish-speaking workers – if this one person goes off sick, productivity inevitably falls.

In her book, “The Stone Age Company”, organisational behaviourist Sally Bibb calls it “the network versus the hierarchy”.

In “The Starfish & The Spider”, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom even go so far as to question the whole idea of the pre-eminence of hierarchy compared to informal networks, saying that it’s the strength of the one-to-one personal networks that actually define a company’s success.

Understand these informal patterns, know who these people are, and you’ve got a great map to start knowing how to really get things done in your organisation.

I’m wondering what different organisational maps might look like. Two of Mat’s Rufus maps caught my eye. One showed the conversation flow between educational policy makers, the other showed conversations around research into diabetes. Each data set generated a very different graphic. Without bringing up the titles, can you guess which is which?

These Rufus maps remind me a bit of that great French book introduced to me by Cliff Prior, Notre continent intérieur: L’atlas imaginaire (The Atlas of Experience), by Jean Klare and Louise van Swaaij which shows imagined relationships between thoughts, emotions and feelings. How about a mash-up between the two?!

But now I’m stepping into that realm that Arie de Geus currently inhabits, with his quest for more research into the way decision-making processes at work actually make us feel.

Mat tells me that back in “the days of Enron”, before email (and Enron) became much-maligned, he used to refer to a a study of Enron’s inter-office email flows carried out by Jeffrey Heer at Stanford University as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s investigation into Enron. This study found that a “healthy” organisation benefited from the communications through informal relationships and weak ties.

One of the first things Mat did when he arrived at Porter Novelli was send around an email with a surveymonkey survey to find out who’d been talking to who about digital in the previous two months. This helped him map out the influencers and get a sense of the network he needed to connect with.

I’m going to try and pick out some more tools in the coming weeks to see which work best in mapping – and thereby better understanding – internal corporate communications.

Any suggestions appreciated!

Metanoia Openness

Things can only get louder!

NESTA’s shiny glass and chrome offices on the edge of the City of London are rather swanky. It’s a bit like finding yourself in an uber-stylish wedding, one of Anouska Hempel’s boutique hotels or, possibly, the latest series of Battlestar Galactica.

Black Arne Jacobsen chairs are set off by white walls, white drapes and white orchids. Plush grey carpets muffle your feet (although no need as everyone’s in trainers). You can almost hear the doors swish as you step out of the lifts. The meeting rooms for break-outs have round walls and are known as ‘pods’.

Needless to say, the 160 guests who’ve just arrived seem to take to this 21st century environment like proverbial ducks to water. The auditorium is a sea of gently humming i-phones, laptops and digital cameras as people blog, tweet, message and record each other with all the earnestness of a roomful of children writing notes for Santa.

We’re here for Amplified08, the brainchild of Toby Moores and Mike Atherton. Bouyed up by the confidence around social media in London, and un-deterred (in fact, positively spurred on) all the talk of credit crunch Christmas and looming recession, Toby and Mike have decided we’re in a ‘perfect storm’ for change.

Toby estimates that around 2,000 people in London, maybe 10,000 across the UK believe that social media has the potential to create a positive difference in people’s lives. Amplified08 aims to harness that conviction by holding a series of ‘unconferences’ across the country – visiting a different UK city every three months, and culminating in a massive event in Summer 2010.

As Toby says: “If we, quarter by quarter, region by region, build it, we’re going to be able to change the way things are done.”

Most of the delegates seem to enjoy the spirit of evangelical optimism, others mumble about “hippy rubbish”. It’s possible we’ve become part of a cult, but then no-one has parted with a large amount of money or disowned their family…yet.

The way unconferences work is that it’s up to the audience to decide the agenda and put on the sessions (which works great if you’re not paying, not so well if you are). Half the fun is outside of the sessions where you’re meant to network like crazy, preferably with people you don’t know (difficult in social media settings as its always the same hard core who show up).

Amplified08 has the additional twist in that we’re urged to go to sessions we wouldn’t normally go to. I start off with #15: Dynamic practice interfaces for local government (business case), followed by #23 Young People and Social Media and #06 Bretton Woods II (okay I admit that last one excites me, but it’s getting late).

In the boardroom, @stephendale is talking about knowledge management in local government. His take on existing KM systems? “Knowledge being captured in a web repository is where knowledge goes to die”. Steve’s efforts to build a workable wiki for best practice across the UK’s 400 odd local councils are admirable. As always with these things, the real issue will be not so much the technology per se but getting people to actually interact fruitfully with the thing once it’s up and running. Calling it an ‘efficiency library’ (though I like the term) may not be the way forward.

Over in the Faraday pod, chairing the session on youth, @digitalmaverick (aka Drew Buddie) tells us he’s recently had “an epiphany” through using Twitter. Drew teaches ICT at a comprehensive in Hertfordshire and has nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter. Making contact with hundreds of people across the world, whether it’s to discuss technology or share recipes, seems to re-affirm his belief in the general good of human nature.

Inspired by Dave Eggers’ legendary TEDtalk, Drew wants to do something for children using social media that really engages them and produces positive results. All around the room, there are general gripes and moans about the way the education system (in the UK at least) doesn’t address social media properly or, indeed, seem to take it seriously.

Drew mentions that, despite the stereotype of young people revealing everything about themselves online, sometimes anonymity is preferred. He produced a collaborative play where pupils of all ages contributed lines and characters. When he offered to throw a party so all the cast could meet each other in person, the pupils refused – they liked the fact that a grade 11 was working alongside a grade 6 but completely unaware of the fact – that anonymity actually enhanced the creative process because there were no pre-conceptions about what each party was capable of.

@simonperry is concerned about children growing up online and being unaware of the “digital shadow” they leave. I’ve never heard this term before but google it and find out it was coined in an EMC report earlier this year and refers to the data you unintentionally leave about yourself as you browse, make purchases or are filmed on security cameras. The shadow makes up a part of your digital footprint – the mass of digital information there is about you, including email, social-networking, blog posts etc.

@antoniogould points out that personal information you actively leave eg in social networks can be just as damaging as unintentional information. He recalls the story told by Danah Boyd of a young black man who passed the Oxbridge entrance exams but was rejected because of the derogatory anguage he used on his MySpace profile.

@philoakley thinks it’s ridiculous that Microsoft’s hold on schools (as the main supplier of software) means that issues such as open source simply don’t get taught or discussed. Why are kids being taught to use pc-based Word and Excel, he asks, when open source and cloud computing is more important to the future of the web?

Another contributor whose name I failed to get refers to the web as “the eternal memory of our indiscretions”, which turns out to be a nice term used by academics Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross (Carnegie Mellon University) to describe the nature of social networks.

The final session on Bretton Woods is the liveliest. Taking his cue from World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s suggestion that we need “a Facebook for multilateral economic diplomacy“, @paulmassey wants to know if any of us have a new perspective on solving the global financial crisis.

Comments veer from the indignant (“Governments are pushing immense amounts of money into these very ill patients…the market is saying ‘this is dead!’) through the reflective (“The idea of a social stock exchange is interesting…”) to the blatantly optimistic (“If we had a few top notch developers and a few lawyers we could develop something great and hand it to the UN!).

No firm conclusions are reached but everyone agrees the conversation is worth continuing – the hashtag #bw2 is born.

With that, we all break for wine and olives. It feels a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

Randomness, connectivity, serendipity…these are all themes of Amplified08. I met a lot of good people and learnt interesting things. The sharing and openness is great (although yes, that could all change once big money is involved), but for now the momentum seems positive. Roll on Amplified09!

Leadership 2.0

Eyes wide shut

As Lloyd Davis, Janet Parkinson, Maria Sipka and any number of my friends might tell you, I’ve a bit of a problem with my eyesight.

Now this isn’t down to rubbish opticians and/or glasses that should have been changed ten years ago, nor is it down to the fact I’ve downed too many double vodkas before lunch-time, it’s simply a legacy of no-one actually realising I was shortsighted until I was seven (well, why would I have said anything? I thought the world was meant to be hazy and full of sudden collisions), plus another four years or so of my being too vain to actually put the glasses on.

As a result, not only was I inevitably left until last in any kind of sports team selection at school (possibly this happened once a week but in my pained childhood memory, the process seemed to come round more frequently – life became easier once I discovered bunking off to shop in High Street Ken), I also developed a way of ignoring or not fully believing what I actually did see.

Now in adult life I frequently fail to register blindingly obvious physical entities (like balls coming at me – ask any of my previous team captains).

Anyway, this all comes to mind while I’m sitting in the Royal Thames Yacht Club Knightsbridge with Arie de Geus. We’re eating Dover Sole, polished off with some nice Viognier, and looking out over a sunny Hyde Park, where people are riding horses, sedately, along Rotten Row, and frost still sparkles on the grass.

Arie is telling me about Francisco Varela’s research into ‘cognitive objects’. Varela (1946-2001) was a Chilean biologist and neuroscientist who argued that we need to ‘recognise’ something neurologically before we can process it properly; if we have no previous experience of an object (or idea), then we don’t tend to pick it up.

Leading on from this, Arie argues that the main problems in business stem from the fact that we either (i) fail to see something because we don’t understand it or (ii) reject something we do see because the object triggers a recollection of something painful or unpleasant which we would rather forget.

These ideas tie in nicely with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan Theory (thanks again to Benjamin Ellis for mentioning that) – we’re so busy analysing stuff that’s familiar, we fail to prepare ourselves for perceived (and unperceived) impossibilities.

Arie is keen for neurologists and management experts to work more closely together to explore the links between neuroscience and the way people behave at work. From what I understand, the Tavistock Institute and MIT have already done some research into this area, but it’s still relatively unexplored.

I hope we see this research happen. Neuroscience could go a long way to explaining why, despite years of expounding the case for enabling, enlightened leadership, we humans still tend to revert to primitive, command and control-type methods when it suits us.