I’m writing in the apartment in Amsterdam today, up on the fourth floor, looking out over the city. It’s a bright day, clear views. This morning i’ve been communicating with colleagues in the UK, the US, Germany, Ireland and Asia. I’ve been using emails, Twitter and Facebook, Highrise and Yammer: different channels for different reasons. But across the square, there’s a building, the same as mine. There’s a guy who works over there, everyday sat at his desk. His balcony faces mine. He’s older, maybe fifty, working away. In my mind, he’s an architect, creating fantastical structures, inspired by the light and the shapes around him. Sometimes he stares out, as if searching for ideas. Sometimes i do the same. Sometimes we catch sight of each other, thinking, and wave. But beyond that, we never communicate.
There’s a debate running in my Yammer community at the moment about the point of meeting people. In a global business, opportunities are limited, but when they come about, priceless. Or at least, we think they are. I’ve certainly relished the chances to sit with colleagues and friends, putting faces to names, building those bonds that carry you through difficult projects, let you build trust and understanding, help the world work smoothly. But we connect in so many ways, can we actually quantify the value of ‘face to face’ for communication?
Social learning is built on the premise of meeting in virtual spaces, online communities that transcend geography. These communities, like all communities, are founded on common values and common purpose, they maintain standards and, if people fall foul of those standards, they may be kicked out. Amsterdam is a liberal city, founded upon commerce, united in it’s values. People here are generally very tolerant, but stand up for what they feel is right: just yesterday there was a peaceful protest as Russian president Vladimir Putin visited, protesting the introduction of laws in Russia deemed hostile to the lesbian, gay and transgender community. Communities allow for different views, some to greater extents than others, but the protest was an expression of permissible dissent, a formal communication within the community.
The city is filled with less formal voices, people who feel they cannot communicate as freely: the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Graffiti is often the chosen language for these groups, and i’ve been spending some time charting how these messages proliferate, trying to identify the ways that these sub communities emerge, the languages they use to communicate, the ways that they form and create structure. Understanding formal and informal layers of communication within any society can give us insights into social learning and formal learning dynamics: communities need to have a range of voices to be healthy. Messaging in social learning is not owned by the organisation, it’s created by the community, so it’s only natural that there will be a range of meanings created, that there will be voices of dissent.
Within formal communications, formal learning spaces, the organisation owns the messages, it owns the story, but in social spaces the meaning is created by the group: often different meaning to the official line, but that’s ok. Some of that is the legitimate voice of reason, some is the voice of protest and some is the graffiti: all are legitimate voices, legitimate channels of communication.
Community doesn’t just have one voice: it’s a crowd, where different messages assume primacy at different times. That’s the whole strength of it, and whether that conversation takes place in person, in the street, online or on the phone is largely irrelevant: it’s the conversation that counts.
For organisations, the challenge is to create spaces for conversation, but to recognise that not all communication will be in line with official views, and that there will be graffiti. We have to have a range of voices.
But what about the waves across the street? How do we allow for informal, chance conversation: how do we allow for the unplanned moments of spontaneous chatter, the chance meeting, the moment when people share experience with no purpose, but find common ground and build understanding. These are the roots of communication: establishing commonality, building shared views, friendships, purpose. It’s something that we can plan for, but it’s also emergent whenever two people catch each others eye.
Maybe that’s why it’s important to ensure that not all organisational social learning spaces are focussed around ‘work’. It’s ok to have a group discuss gardening, to discuss holidays, to talk about, well, whatever they want to talk about. If people are interested enough to form sub groups, if there is a desire to communicate, whatever the subject, we should let them, even if it’s just the graffiti on the street. It’s still legitimate communication and you never know what will form out of it. After all, her in Amsterdam the works of Van Gogh are only separated from the graffiti on the wall down the street by a single door and ticket booth. The fact that one voice is art and the other graffiti is largely one of social convention. It’s all artwork: it’s all designed to communicate something.
So whilst we create the technology of organisational social learning, whilst we create the spaces, we should be prepared to welcome and foster a range of voices. Better to live in a liberal society than an oppressive one, and we should be prepared to accept graffiti. Indeed, when it emerges, we should study it, because our assumption that it’s cluttering the city may be a false one: it may be that the graffiti carries the most important messages that the society can be reading. The ones that people are prepared to break the law to communicate.
So there is value in formal communication, value in spontaneous conversation, value in graffiti scrawled on walls and value in the wave between two strangers. Communication is about establishing commonality, about sharing ideas, about building bonds of trust and friendship in service of a common purpose. It’s about inspiration, so thank you Window Guy for making me think about it. You never know where it will lead.