I travelled to Bristol yesterday, an old port with a long and glorious history. Still bustling, the signs of past glory are everywhere to be seen: on the dockside, lurking iron mooring posts that could anchor a moon and the crumbling facades of warehouses. Great churches and civic buildings, painted black by the deposited pollution of an industrial heritage. Interspersed amongst the old, the new: glass and steel office blocks and student halls, expensive penthouses perched on weathered stone and trendy cafes with flagstone floors, worn from a century of handcarts and goods from around the world. The city adapts, grows, learns and changes.I’ve been having an active discussion this week with a few close collaborators about culture and history: is a 300 year history of trustworthiness and high brand value within an organisation deterministic of ethical behaviour in the future? Of course not: the value is created in present day behaviours, even if they’re painted against a historical canvas. A careless restoration or reuse project can ruin an old building.
Agility is a core skill for both organisations and individuals in the Social Age: the ability to change, to keep the best of what we have an innovate the rest. But our ability to innovate is hindered by the present: we easily become lethargic, weighed down by the legacy of our own history (be that our mindset or physical environment). When i work with large organisations, be it the NHS or a global Bank, to help change the culture, the inertia can be overwhelming. A certain amount of inertia is good: it prevents us being rash, but too much will stifle us.
The ecosystem of the Social Age differs widely from that of the manufacturing or industrial ages: our fundamental relationship with knowledge has shifted, our communities have broadened and deepened and the world of work is unrecognisable. The infrastructure that suited Bristol in the age of shipping is little suited to the new economies of web design and computer games. Adapt of lose relevance.
The Social Age is upon us: facilitated by technology and driven by communities, we need to ensure we don’t end up as relics, lying in the ruins as parties of schoolchildren come past, wondering at our faded glory.