Heartbeat of the Social Age

With a degree of trepidation i found myself on the roof of the old rum distillery: maybe five floors up and clutching the ladder with white knuckles. It’s not that the ground i stood on was particularly precarious (indeed, it was a well maintained flat rooftop the size of a squash court), but rather the cumulative effects of the route up there and the lack of fence around the edge. Clearly i’m conditioned to react to such things. Vertigo for me is always a matter of stubbornness. I made it to the roof of St Pauls Cathedral once, although it admittedly took me an hour, clinging to the walls like a limpet as Japanese tourists waltzed past.

Heartbeat of the Social Age

The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing, all the more so when life takes you round the world and into strange communities. Except that Derek Hoffend, my kind host, wasn’t exactly a stranger. We were connected through a social web: friends of a mutual friend. Friends once step removed, connected purely through our communities, forged over shared interests and values.

A few weeks ago i was in Boston: Scott read that on LinkedIn and linked me to Derek, who extended an invitation to a stranger, based on the suggestion of a friend. Social connectivity and testament to communities formed on shared interests: you will doubtless have something to talk about, even if we don’t yet know what it is, was Scott’s implicit message. And he was right.

My first visit to Boston was as an explorer: alone, walking, wandering, reflecting, so it was with some delight that my second visit was to meet with a friend who i did not yet know. My second experience of Boston was less about the environment, more about the community. Less about the spaces, more about the performance.

Derek is an artist in sound and metal, wood and space: his sculpture is multi layered, not just physical, but rather aural and somewhat visceral.

And so it was that i found myself in his loft studio, after the tour of the rooftop. We sat in a box that he had a great name for, but to me was clearly a womb: opposite each other, grasping a sensor in two hands that measured our heartbeats. My heartbeat was reflected back to me in a pulsing blue light, the entire roof of the box. Also, in a deeply reverberating bass beat that resonated through my back and body. Derek, holding a similar device, was generating red flashes of light and a similar, although different tempo beat. When our heartbeats synchronised, the light flashed purple and the resonating sounds grew louder.

I loved the idea: as an artist, he had created a physical space, but the ‘creativity‘ was co-created by two people in a shared experience, through multiple media. Dynamic, co-creative, adaptive, expressive.

Derek’s building itself is adapted: repurposed from a distillery to house a series of workspaces and residential units: art, life, people, sculpture, all coexisting. A creative space: creative because of the community, not because creativity is inherent in the space itself.

These notions are important: we talk about creating both spaces and permission for conversation. The physical space is part of it, the building itself, but it’s the permission that is key. And if we don’t grant it, it will be claimed, possibly out of earshot.

Derek and i talked about art, about music, about the ways we communicate and create. Next day i’m at a conference in Vegas on cross cultural decision making. Talking to people from the military, government, industry. About largely the same things. The environment is different. The people are more formal. But the concepts are the same, probably because we are all thinking about the same thing: how do we communicate, how do we share a reality, how do we create the space and permission to engage.

This is what i love about the Social Age: it’s the time of communities, the rise of Social Authority that transcends barriers of distance and rank, erodes formal hierarchies. We go where the conversation is most interesting, most relevant, most timely. We go where we can debate and create, share stories and ideas, and #WorkOutLoud as we do so.

Connected to ideas through our networks: challenged to move ourselves from our established views by experiencing (in this case literally) the realities of others, of new ideas, new experience, new thinking.

So my return to Boston was exploration of a different thought: exploration of ideas, provocation to think, space to reflect, in the best of company.

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The Loci of Engagement

I’ve talked to Cath about this before: does she describe herself as a musician, or something else? She doesn’t really earn her living from it, although it’s what her life is all about. Do i describe myself as a writer? Do you describe yourself as an employee, a leader, or something else? Where’s your primary location of loyalty? Where’s your heart at? And what are you selling? In the Social Age, our identities, the location of our purpose is far less defined. I could be a writer by day, a mentor by night and a parent the rest of the time. None of these activities are particularly defined by time or place, by rank or hierarchy.

The loci of engagement

Does it matter? Of course, consider this: in the historic model, we paid for people’s time and loyalty, we contracted with them in return for their best efforts. But what if their best efforts are elsewhere? We might think that it doesn’t matter much, just consider what we are missing: the ability to help people be effective and the ability to utilise all of this excellence.

In the Social Age, much of our value falls to the ways we engage in our communities: to share, to learn, to co-create meaning, to tackle problems, to bring new ideas and to be encouraged to throw out the old one.

Social organisations understand this: if you stick to formal methods, you will only access formal engagement. But if you use and encourage more Social approaches, to everything from learning to leadership, to change and innovation, you can unlock the power of these communities. And in the process you can help people be both more effective and more fulfilled.

So what should we do? We should engineer our organisations to be more agile: more open to Social approaches. We need to develop Social Leadership skills, to grow leaders who can identify, nurture and deploy communities, who can build Social Capital in themselves and others. We need to build trust and goodwill into our communities. And we need to recognise when to step back and leave those communities to be fully Social.

Organisations often fret about people being in Social spaces, presumably because they worry that they are wasting time: and that’s an ok concept, if you’ve kidded yourself that time is what matters. It isn’t. What matters is trust, engagement, and effectiveness. And if the price for having an agile organisation is that people sometimes book their holidays at their desk, well so be it. It’s probably not a high price to pay.

But it goes beyond that: people are booking holidays whether you see it or not. But if you don’t treat them fairly, they will shift ever more of their energy to the external focus, to their communities and passions. Remember: you can only force people to spend time with you: no amount of rules or controls will pull their loyalty, their dedication or their community towards you.

In the Social Age, great organisations will be ones that are Social through and through: they treat people fairly and create spaces for people to bring their social behaviours into the workplace. A great organisation will recognise that their role is to create a space for people to perform, not to micro manage that performance. And that’s about mindset more than it’s about technology, recruitment or training. If you can get your organisational mindset into a space of valuing people, then you have a foundation for engagement and loyalty. Then maybe people will be proud of where they choose to spend some of their valuable time: a number of hours in a day that offer multiple loci of engagement.

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When you wake up to the sun coming through the window, clear blue skies, the warmth of it on your skin, it’s a good start to the day. Sunlight is good: we talk about the sun coming out from behind the clouds as redemption, as a sign of clarity and illumination (both literal and figurative). When our view is clouded, we lack perspective or any kind of distance vision. Clouds obscure, bring the rain, darken our mood, whilst the light burns it away, gives insight.


We call someone ‘sunshine‘ if they are happy. The light on the trees as i ride the train home tonight makes the trees glow green. It brings an intensity of colour and a sharply delineated shadow. Light: good. Sunshine: good.

There are certain metaphors around learning that i tend to repeat: i talk about learning as a journey, use geographical concepts for navigation, talk about ‘discovery‘. It’s an ancient notion of turning over the stone to see what lies beneath (an early version of todays ‘clickbait‘: if you don’t turn them all, you’ll never know which celebrity dated whom). We like to discover, the shine the light, to banish the shadows.

I’m reflecting on learning: both the external aspects of discovery, the journey itself, as measured in miles and time, and the internal one. The internal journey is the ‘sense making‘, the reflection, the consideration of how ‘what you tell me‘ impacts on ‘what i already know to be true‘.

Funny that: even i write that phrase, i think back to when i first used it a few years ago in a book about learning. Even for something as apparently simple as ‘how we learn, my understanding continues to evolve as i travel further and think more deeply (or maybe think in wider and wiser company).

That was learning in itself: sometimes you learn by shining the light, but sometimes someone else shines it for you. We can live experience ourselves, or hear about it vicariously through stories.

Stories: Handle With Care

Sunlight suffuses the forest: deep shadows exist as i rattle past as speed, but shafts of sunlight penetrate through, lancing down to the forest floor itself. The light abides.

Sometimes the more we learn, the less we know. As i find myself reflecting on, writing about and exploring ever more facets of the Social Age, it’s not lost on me the irony of how interconnected it all is. I see tantalising glimpses of understanding: how culture is co-created by people, how it changes, how we learn to change it, how it’s facilitated by technology, how we need fairness and equality to gain traction, how we use stories to amplify our intent and to invest ourselves in learning.

Whilst the sensible thing may be to focus a laser sharp light into one tiny corner, the temptation is to see how wide our view can be. Can you be satisfied with one tiny point of clarity, or do you crave for the panorama? Is your journey linear or rambling. For me, it’s about the journey, about the emergent views along the way.

If we restrict our thinking (or if restriction is imposed upon us) then the light is limited. The ignorance that lurks in the shadows crowds in. It’s not that seeing the light gives us all our answers: as Terry Pratchett once said, it may simply elevate our ignorance to a higher level, a new false summit in view. But it’s not always about the summit: sometimes it’s the journey that counts, the view as we travel.

That’s what drives me, and what gives the permission to explore where my feet take me: it’s not a weakness, but rather an uninhibited curiosity.

And from the journey we learn: the whole notions of Scaffolded Social Learning and co-creation of meaning come out of that reflective process. You can’t just travel to see the view, you have to reflect to understand what the light has illuminated.

Medieval monks used to ‘illuminatemanuscripts: filling them with beautiful, stylised letters and images, in red and gold, the colours of the sun. Illuminating knowledge.

The processes of learning, of change, of writing and reflection, of sharing and collaborating, these are processes of illumination, of ourselves and others.

And from it we can learn to structure the journey: to learn how to be more effective, to do things better, to shine the light.

If we have a permission to think differently, we will achieve differently. If we give just a chink of space, the light will get through: this is why we find co-creative spaces are so dynamic if we give them just enough provocation, just enough support. You don’t have to light everything up yourself, just open the curtains a crack and let the light flood in.

And sometimes sit back and bask in the warmth of it, taking time to reflect on the journey so far.

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Want to Meet?

Instinctively we feel that meeting up in person is somehow better than just engaging in virtual spaces: we sense that the virtual is somehow a shadow of the real thing. This drives us to get people together when we join, when things start, then often resort to phone and email as we continue.

Want to Meet?

I hear it often: that for important things there is no substitute for getting in a room together around the table, to look each other in the eye and build trust and cohesion shoulder to shoulder.

But what if it’s not better: what if it’s just different?

We know that we behave differently online: we are more fluid in our identity, we project different images of ourselves, we are prone to misunderstanding and outbursts. But we are also more free to explore, to act without consequence, or to experience different notions of consequence. And, increasingly, we are constantly connected in this way.

So what if it’s just different, and what if we could quantify that? Is it better to build relationships in real life then transition them to virtual, or to build them virtually and then meet in real life? Would it make a difference, and what would that difference look like?

I experience this often: meeting someone face to face who i have only known from their curated, shaped presence online. And sometimes we carry on conversations, share jokes, or just start out with an imbued level of trust and understanding.

In the Social Age, it may be less of an option anyway: as we work globally, in distributed teams, this may be a new skill. To become high functioning and productive when we never meet.

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate what ‘normal‘ means. To simply recognise that, whilst face to face is definitely different, it may not be better anymore.

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Tall Tales in the Woods: Tempo of Storytelling

Huddled around the fire pit, a crowd of around fifty people sat silently, motionless in the dark. In front of us a storyteller was mid tale: a tale of a Bear King, with castles, golden scissors and a wicked Hag. There were mountains and rivers, endless lost woodlands, of course, and a journey. A journey of discovery.


Her voice was lilting: a special storytelling tempo and rhythm, which she periodically reinforced by tapping gently on a tabor. On occasion, her lilting speech gave into full song. And we sat for an hour as the story unfolded, captivated not by images and effects, music or animation, but rather by the spirit of the story itself.

I understand the neurology: the rhythmic lilting tone is a mechanism of memory, our brains seek routine and structure and, by accommodating this in the story, we can recite long passages by heart. But even if the recital is not verbatim, the story just need a structure, a core narrative. You can fill in the rest. The castle was described as having ‘many rooms’ and ramparts: no mention of turrets, but my mind filled in the details. Our stories can tie into existing knowledge and our understanding of the ritual.

We understand the various stylised roles of storytellers: perched on a log in the woods, sat on the couch of Breakfast TV, stood up to tell us the weather, sat in front of a class of children. Each styles presages a particular story type: news, fiction, challenge or support.

This tale had a moral, as so many do. Stories are ways that society finds agreement, and then shares it: we remove consequence by positioning the learning in a fictional space, but make no mistake that the messages are sent to us directly. Stories of Kings and Princesses, Witches and stolen children warn us of the danger of straying away, of the power of unity, of our place in the social structure and of what ‘right‘ means and how it differs from ‘wrong‘.

Stories are not unstructured: they often tie into conventions and patterns, as do poetry, song and even art. The power of three is well understood in writing (i consciously use it myself, often, and am constantly surprised by how satisfying it is). Three sisters, three days till a wedding, three golden gifts, three daughters. By falling into these structures, we are constrained, but also carry the benefit of familiarity and preconception, which can ease the process and help in delivery. Your story can be challenging, but still delivered within established styles (although you can, of course, gain power by challenging that style: fractured poems or non linear stories that play with the rules of physics that are supposed to constrain them).

There’s an unwritten understanding that the storyteller is not simply recounting facts: rather they are painting an aural soundscape to let us visualise the story as it unfolds. I could have read this story in a couple of pages, it didn’t need an hour, but that would not have been the same, would strangely not have been so rich, not because the storyteller gave me more information, but rather because, over the sweep of time, my consciousness was able to fill in rich detail.

Stories are complex, but powerful. Whilst this story was performed in the middle of the night in a woodland in Southern England, the format and sense of togetherness could have been from anywhere around the world. I think that by reflecting on how stories work (and indeed how they are adapting to new media and methods of communicating) is valuable in understanding how they find their power and permanence.

Storytelling styles

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All of it: not just the tasty bits.

For an organisation to be effective in the Social Age requires broad swathes of change: a recognition of the new ways we work, the ways we collaborate, the impacts of social collaborative technology, the need for evolved leadership models and the co-creation and co-ownership of change. A focus on fairness and equality, superb choreography and engagement with their community, both internally and in the wider world. A recognition of the values of sharing and the need to value people. The drive to agility.

Aspects of the Social Age

But overall, it’s about mindset, about removing the blinkers that blind us to the need for change. To be fit for the Social Age won’t come about through one or two high profile and tasty projects. It’s a strategic shift from old and outdated systems and processes to more agile and relevant ones.

Incidentally, this doesn’t mean expensive and complex: it means considered and committed. Any organisation can get fit for the Social Age, if it’s willing to listen. And how will we spot the organisations that fail to adapt? Quite easily: they will be the ones we pass, fallen by the wayside.

The world we live in favours the asymmetric competitor: who, through good fortune or ignorance, spots the opportunity to subvert existing models, to challenge the status quo and win. Size alone will not protect us. Age and a sense of permanence that’s grounded in history and bricks will be of little use: indeed, it may be what holds us back. All the consistency and uniformity that’s driven by scalability may make us inert, ineffective. Unable to welcome risk and uncertainty, change and evolution.

So ask the question: who owns the future of the organisation? Is it the leadership alone, or is it in our own hands? How can you be part of the change, part of the provocation to change? Because it’s in our own self interest to poke the dinosaur, to ensure we have a set in the new world.

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The Leadership We Need

What got us to this point may not get us to the next: leadership in the Social Age will be different from that of the Knowledge one. Key facets of the Social Leader are humility, fairness, collaboration, an understanding of how communities work, a strong reputation, the ability to create compelling narratives, the ability to co-create meaning, the ability to change, constantly, and share the learning as they do so.

The Leadership We Need

The leadership we need may not be the leadership we get: hierarchies are good for clarity and control, but may stifle the uninhibited curiosity we need to be truly agile. In the Social Age, the change we feel is constant and our ability to surf on the waves counts, but it’s easier to do that in coherent communities with shared values, communities that may have no formal leadership.

The leadership we need may not come from Leaders, with a capital L and an office to prove their qualifications: it may come instead from our tribes, our communities, our colleagues. It may be contextual and consensual, as circumstance demands.

The leadership we need may be what we see in other organisations or individuals and hope to learn from ourselves. The leadership we get may that which is imposed upon us

My point is this: there is no guarantee that the leadership we have or will have imposed is right for the evolved reality in which we live: we need to be part of the conversation. As leaders with formal authority (as Leaders who start with a capital ‘L’), we need to listen to the wider wisdom of our communities and teams. As leaders who lack formal status or authority, we need permission and freedom to question, to explore, to be part of the sense making process.

If we get it right, we will unite behind co-created and co-owned models of change. If we get it wrong, we will be pushing from the top: pushing against water as we lack the engagement, disturbance or momentum to effect true change.

The leadership we get will be the leadership we deserve if we aren’t part of the exploration, questioning and curiosity that shapes it and give it authority.

The Social Leadership Handbook Introduction Page

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