Spaces, Places and Community

A place may be a space, but it’s not always a community. A community may be a place, but doesn’t have to occupy a particular space. A space may lack community and therefore fail to be a place at all. Or at least a place worth visiting. Semantics are never a good thing when jet lagged.

Spaces, places and community

Organisations are obsessed with spaces: creating space, occupying space, making spaces secret or social, trying to make people act in certain ways in certain spaces, and not to act in certain ways in others. Organisations often partition the world by space.

Places we remember: the place we grew up in, the place we had our first date, the place we are happiest. Places are spaces, overlaid with context. Places are special, spaces are two a penny.

Community is about conversations: it’s independent of both place and space. You can build a space, but unless it’s an appealing place, we won’t get community.

The conversations where community resides are mobile, fluid, adaptable: try to own the technology and the conversation moves. Try to control the conversation and it ebbs around your fingers, flowing into new and possibly secret spaces.

Community decides if a space is a place: it’s the community who has the final say. Sure, we can make people come together, but we can’t make them be a coherent community. We can impose purpose, but never values.

So maybe organisations need to focus less on spaces and more on community, because if we build our communities to be high functioning, they will make a place that they value to inhabit. And if we are lucky, we’ll be invited to visit.

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The Careful Application of Common Sense

A joy of travel is meeting people: in this case, a taxi driver in London. “So what do you do?” he asked. I gave some rambling answer about ‘writing‘, and ‘learning‘, ‘social knowledge‘ etc and he nodded politely.

Knowing: Knowledge

Then he said this: “I used to be a Drayman, delivering beer to pubs, all around the UK. Every morning i’d turn up and pick up my lorry. They’d load it up with the kegs of beer on the right hand side and the soft drinks on the left. Then i’d drive around the country and, at every pub, i’d pull up on the left hand side of the road. I’d unload the soft drinks, that were light, then have to drag the kegs across the lorry before unloading them. Every keg, every time. So some guy at head office in a suit who’d never lifted a keg built a system that loads every lorry with the beer on the right. And every Drayman knows that it should be on the left. Is that what you mean?


Formal knowledge, tribal wisdom: if we can unite them, we’re winning.

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Story Flow

I’ve outlined the three levels narrative that we can consider within organisations: personal, co-created and organisational. They are three lenses on the world around us, each from a different perspective and serving a different purpose. Today, i want to consider how they flow, one to the other, each informing and shaping those around it, constantly iterating and evolving as our understanding develops.

The 3 levels of narrative

These stories are Social Age stories: published then written, not bound in bookends and static on a shelf. They are co-created and dynamic, responsive and changeable. They reflect our understanding today, whilst today keeps changing.

Personal stories are our own stories of learning and change over time: a modern day diary, recording not wistful victorian love stories, but rather our reflections, challenges, determination and fear, as we feel it, first hand. It’s about setting down a marker today. And today. And today, as each today passes. It’s about putting lines in the sand and stakes in the ground: this is what i think is true today, and what i will question tomorrow.

Learning is not something done to us, but rather something we choose to take on: we hear or read or experience new things and go through a cognitive process of filtering, acceptance, rehearsal, testing and adoption. Or rejection. Some things that i believe to be true today i will reject tomorrow. Some things that i know, i am prepared to be proven true, but are currently in quarantine. Some things i know are not perfect, but they are the best framework that i have, so i continue to use them until a better alternative comes along.

3 Levels of Narrative - personal narrative

This is how we survive: not in a state of perfect knowing, but through a series of conceptual frameworks and beliefs, wrapped up in a personal schema of how the world works and our place within it. A schema that is remarkably plastic: deformed and reshaped according to experience and need.

So experience, both formal learning and simply engagement in our life, informs our personal story: if we are wise, we find spaces to capture it, to record our thinking over time. We capture the story to see how much it changes.

The 3 levels of narrative - co-created stories

As we come into our communities, we carry out sense making conversations: each of which is informed and shaped by our personal narrative. The things we believe to be true, the things we know, the experience we have, all shape the conversation. If we are stubborn, we argue: if we are wise, we debate and construct dialogues that allow us to explore and prototype, rehearse and learn. Then, either through the formal intervention of a storyteller, or through our collaborative storytelling efforts, we capture that co-created narrative. The story of what our community thinks, over time.

Scaffolding and Storytelling

This is neither my view nor yours, but rather it’s ours. It’s not consensus, but rather debate and dialogue.

Personal narrative informs the co-created group narrative, and, in return, is shaped by the conversation. So in simultaneous birth we create a new personal narrative and a new co-created one, reflecting both sides of our evolved understanding.

This is true learning: not done to us, but done by us. Done with each other.

3 Levels of storytelling - organisational stories

And, over it all, the organisational narrative: a meta narrative written out of our personal and co-created group stories. This is the hardest thing for an organisation to achieve: to relinquish enough control to permit us to truly shape the story.

In the old world, learning was crafted by the organisation and done to people: in the Social Age, learning is framed by the organisation, scaffolded, but done within community. Co-created stories that we adopt, adapt or accept, informing our personal story and contributing to the next co-created iteration.

In the old world, we wrote a course and recycled it for five years: in the Social Age, we scaffold a course and co-create the meaning, within that framework, but contextualised by the people enrolled, every time. So the story is refreshed anew every time. Iterating it’s way to relevance and remaining both contemporary and grounded in our everyday reality.

It’s a circular path: personal stories inform co-created dialogue. The dialogue informs the organisational story. If a Dynamic organisation listens, it creates new opportunity and learning, which in turn informs and forms the backdrop to the evolved personal narrative. And round we go.

Crucially, this happens anyway: even if the organisations is not socially enabled and permissive, people still form personal stories and co-create narratives. They just do so to protect themselves from the organisation, which isn’t listening, rather than to evolve the organisation. So the only true loser if we restrict or quash nascent social communities is the organisation itself.

In the Social Age, only the agile organisation can hope to survive, can hope to thrive. And to be agile, we need to be able to co-create meaning, to find the story, at every level. And we need to continue to evolve that story to be relevant to us in the moment. A flow of stories that never end.

The end.

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The 3 Levels of Narrative: The Organisational Story

We’ve arrived at the top level of narrative: the Organisational story. I’ve been sharing a framework for storytelling that can be used in the design of Social Learning or across other aspects of the Social Age, such as Change, or nurturing Social Leadership. It’s a framework that considers three levels of storytelling: personal, co-created and organisational. The personal narrative is a story of individual change and learning over time. The co-created narrative is the sense making conversation of the community, shared out to the wider organisation, granting access to this tacit wisdom. The organisational narrative should be a meta narrative built upon each of the previous two.

3 Levels of storytelling - organisational stories

In old organisations, the Organisational narrative is written at the top and ‘done’ to people: it’s a traditional model of training, for example, where the organisation creates the syllabus and people complete it, being signed off as ‘competent’ when they pass an assessment. Under a co-created model, the organisation has a say in the story, but the true story is co-owned and co-written by the community in partnership with the organisation. The Organisational story is then an analysis of all of this.

Relinquish Control

I often say to people that the biggest challenge to organisations that want to be more ‘social’ in their approach is that they need to relinquish control: to step back from owning the story, to be more willing to co-create it. Why? Because it’s a fiction that the organisation every truly knew best: what happened was, people complete formal learning, then go and figure out how to do it in real life, within and alongside their communities. As we are doing under a Social approach is getting a permission to hear the conversation. It’s not that we are giving people a space to be non compliant: they are already non compliant, we just have a chance to consider what ‘compliant’ means and whether we should evolve it to learn from what people are really doing to solve our problems.

Facets of Co-Creation

Co-Creation is something we do in communities: it’s a core skill of the Social Age

Social Learning is about ‘sense making’, it’s about how communities take formal knowledge, formal systems, facilitating technologies and then figure out how to make it all work in practice. With the right feedback loops in place, with the right permissions and channels, we get to hear this wisdom, the unheard wisdom that sits within our communities. The communities of people, incidentally, that we employed to do the job in the first place.

Unheard Wisdom

So under a Social Model, the organisational narrative is written last, not first, and it reflects the sense making conversations that we have carried out: it is more about reporting on the true that aspiring to some unrealistic ideal that never truly comes to be.

In this model, the Organisational story, as indeed the personal and co-created stories, are more iterative and evolutionary: this is not one story for all time, but rather interpretation and reinterpretation according to circumstance and situation. Changing stories over time, each one written according to the latest view on the ground.

The 3 levels of narrative

You’ll start to see that this is a very different model of organisational working: less about creating collateral with long shelf lives, more about easy frameworks for updating collateral that reflects best ideas we have this week. It’s co-created in the moment to reflect our current rendition of the truth.

This is how co-created knowledge works: it’s like Wikipedia, updated constantly, moderated by the community, relevant in the moment.

Organisations use stories in many ways: to set a vision for the future, to share what is happening and what they want to happen, to show and teach people how to do things, to ask them to do things differently, to communicate with clients and potential clients, as a layer of branding over the whole organisation, to thank people and to attract new people.

All of these stories tend to be formal: all could be made more co-creative, more authentic, more highly valid and more linked in to the tacit wisdom of the community.

Tacit and tribal knowledge

Social Leaders use stories to take what the organisation wants and to make it relevant to individuals, and to take what the community talks about and make it visible to the organisation. It’s a two way street, which is how co-creation works. No one side forces the story.

When undergoing change, organisations use stories to show a vision of the future, but that vision is often abstract, so highly aspirational that i cannot see my place within it. An agile organisation will take a Dynamic approach to change: creating spaces and communities where individuals can shape the story and claim their place within it. Instead of fighting for survival, fighting to be part of the change, to own and deliver against it. The organisation needs to tell a different kind of story in this environment: co written with the team within a framework set by the organisation.

This is not about losing control, it’s about finding a shared voice.

The ways that organisations write the Organisational story are important: it can be a story told by formal leaders, it can be told by a storyteller, or co-written by the community. It could be in a Wiki or blog, or through formal materials. It can be moved around between different people over time. But crucially, it’s never nailed to the wall: the Organisational story is always co-created and should be a meta narrative that shows the organisation is listening to the stories told by communities and individuals at every level.

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The 3 Levels of Narrative: Co-Created Stories

We use stories in many ways: to share our thinking, to shape new thinking, to build consensus, to explore new ideas, to establish commonality of value and purpose. Stories written within our communities, products of debate and discussion, co-created stories that are more than the sum of their parts. I’ve been exploring the 3 Levels of Narrative over the last week or so: a framework for using stories in organisations to lead, to learn, to drive change.

The 3 levels of narrative - co-created stories

The model recognises three levels of narrative: personal, co-created and organisational. Personal stories are our narrative of learning and change over time: they are iterative and evolutionary, but form the foundation of much true learning. Co-created stories, which we will explore further today, are the ones we write in our communities: they are built out of our personal narratives, combined and filtered through the community. Organisational narrative should be a meta narrative, build upon the personal and co-created elements.

The 3 levels of narrative

The purpose of the co-created narrative is not to drive consensus: rather it’s a record of difference and dissent. It’s a news story written by the community, or by looking into and listening to the community, which reflects what is considered important at this time.

In common with all co-created and community moderated narratives (such as Wikipedia), it’s only valid in the moment: it’s not a definitive story that will last for ever, but rather todays version of an evolutionary story. One that will continue to evolve as the different co-creators learn and change. Much as the news is renewed every day, reflecting our current interests and priorities. Co-created stories are not facts: they are interpretations of reality written anew everytime. The trick is to realise that organisational stories are not fact either, even if they pass themselves off as such.

There are many ways to capture the co-created narrative of the community: we can ask them to write it, we can ask other communities to write it, we can capture it for them, or facilitate someone else to do so. We can change the stance, the language, the location, the tone of voice and the perspective of the story. These are the tools and approaches at our disposal, each one resulting in a different type of story, a different kind of narrative, but all with one thing in common.

Change Curve - Dynamic Change - Narrative and Stories

Co-created narratives are owned by the community themselves: in Social Learning terms, the organisation has permission to be in the conversation, but it cannot own the story. This has all sorts of implications: for how we set the conversations up, to where we have them, to what happens with the story once it’s written. The rule of thumb is this: if it’s a co-created story, you’re only half in control. You can frame it, but you can’t own it. The benefit? You get to hear the voices you couldn’t hear before, speaking with an honest truth. The downside? You might not like everything they say.

I was talking to someone yesterday about a co-creative approach to training customer service: in their model, they have a process for dealing with awkward conversations, and the thrust of the training is to train you in and accredit you on that process. Success is in repetition and mastery.

In an approach using co-created stores, we would still follow the formal approach, but talk about the implementation, share other ideas, prototype and rehearse new behaviours and write our shared story about what to do. And that story may differ between groups. It will still be framed by what the organisation wants, but it will include what the community says. So you end up with variety in behaviours, in thinking and in action, but within a set of parameters that keep it safe, or safe enough.

The person i was speaking to liked the idea, but was worried that people may not ultimately follow the process: and they are dead right. They may not. The trick is to realise that they don’t follow it now anyway. Because process never gave excellence, and just because we can’t hear what they are doing, doesn’t mean they are doing what we want. In essence, people are already deviating, we just don’’t have the benefit of hearing how and why. That’s why, under a Social approach, using co-created narrative, we win: we get to hear the stories that go unheard, the wisdom on the community. We may still not like it, but we do at least have a foundation.

We can either rewrite the organisational story to reflect the truth on the ground, or we can work with the group to rehearse, prototype and adopt new behaviours, but crucially we do it together. So no one side gets to own the whole story.

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The Story

I’ve been writing the last few days around the Levels of Narrative: how we can use personal, co-created and organisational narratives in learning design, leadership and organisational change. Today, i heard about a great project using aspects of this in education: a media literacy project in the Netherlands that uses cross media elements, a unifying narrative, multiple dialogue feeds and community contribution to create a week long story where students learn about media.

Elements of a story

The core story is communicated in video, but key characters have Twitter feeds (monitored, with a set script, but able to interact), and are supplemented by other media (a newspaper, website etc). There’s also a game where you can ‘solve’ parts of the story and answer questions. The narrative is linear, but gives the appearance that your interaction is contributing to the direction.

I love the experimental nature of it, the way it crosses live and recorded action with the co-created narrative from the community. In terms of a Learning Methodology, it’s about space for exploration, and space for reflection. In terms of storytelling, it’s a formal story with co-created elements.

Bold and creative: a lot of organisations could usefully prototype this approach.

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Unheard Wisdom

If we just listen in the spaces that we know, we will just hear what we’ve always heard: is your organisation brave enough to listen to the unheard wisdom?

Unheard Wisdom

Often organisations are obsessed with how to control the conversation, to own the story, but the cost of that can be that they never get to hear what’s truly being said. Think about the heard voices, voices that come through formal channels: permitted voices of consensus and agreement, often saying what we want to hear or allow them to say. Voices which operate under our control, sanctioned to say what it’s safe to hear.

Then think about unheard wisdom: voices with no permission, voices that are silenced through formal repression and moderation. Think about the tacit knowledge within the community that truly knows what it’s talking about, and whether we are in the right conversations to hear it. The claimed voices where there is no permission: voices of protest, or conscience. What do we miss if we fail to even listen to them? Voices that may carry great authenticity.

There are so many voices, it’s naive to think that only our formal ones have value, command respect. For the Social Leader, we need access to all these conversations, to listen with respect and form our own opinion. Preventing people hearing the story does not make it any less true.

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