Here Be Dragons: The Ecosystem of the Social Age

The world has changed: everyone can feel it, but it’s not always clear what to do about it. There’s a sense of restlessness: hierarchies of power and control are being edged out by more collaborative, competitive, evolutionary and relevant business models. Everywhere, from how we work to how we manage our money, how we shop, get healthcare or entertain ourselves, everything is changing. And it’s constant.

Ecosystem of the Social Age 2015

I call it the Social Age: a time when change is constant and only the agile can survive and thrive. It’s a challenge for organisations and individuals to adapt, and this is my map to help them find a way.

The Social Age sees change on every front, and it’s only through a holistic pattern of adaptation and agility that we can hope to surf the wave.

Let’s start with the ‘Nature of Work‘. You used to enter a contract with the employer: a legal and ethical one. The organisation gave you a job: a defined role, the hardware and software to do it, an office, maybe a car, mobile phone, laptop, access to fax machine and a secretary. In return, you got a salary, health insurance and security, a development pathway and a sense of purpose.

That was the Social Contract.

But it’s broken: i no longer need an office, because if i’m not working from home, i can work in a coffee shop or a co-working space, which is not only more fun, but serves better cake too. A laptop? It used to be a differentiator, but now the technology is cheap and accessible. It’s not longer adding huge value and, indeed, it’s likely to be limiting because it’s heavy, slow and comes with a troublesome set of IT policies and a HelpDesk which is more of a hindrance.

More importantly though, the security and development pathways have gone: you used to join at the bottom of the ladder and slowly climb your way up, but today, the ladder has gone, fallen by the wayside as everyone over the age of thirty has been made redundant or fears for their job. Nothing is permanent, your contract especially so. The impact?

When the social contract is fractured, we won’t engage in the same way: sure, people are nice, they are willing and they are able, but they are not emotionally invested to the same extent they once were. Simply saying ‘this is our change journey and we need this from you‘ is of no use unless it’s also accompanied by the sentence, ‘and we recognise you may not come out of it with a job at the end, but we will do this for you instead…‘. The flexibility afforded by a flexible attitude to employment from the organisational perspective has driven the evolution of an independent and flexible attitude by us, the employees. We operate as a unit of one: the only constant you will have through your career is your own company and the community that surround you.

But our ‘unit of one‘ is not alone: we are connected through our communities, communities that empower, challenge and support us. These communities are facilitated by social collaborative technology: the technology that support our conversations. This is typically both synchronous and social, meaning that it falls outside the reach or control of the organisation. This is important when we are considering engagement. When organisations want to support communities, they are best informed to do this through offering resources and permissions, not by owning the technology. Anything that you own yourself, as the organisation, inherently falls into the formal space, and can feel like a throwback to the older social contract.

Social Collaborative Technology

We need the right mindset around the technology: it’s about experience, curation, sharing and the co-creation of meaning.

We don’t need infrastructure: we have infrastructure coming out of our ears, so the organisation is unlikely to be able to keep up with either the pace or fluidity of the wider ecosystem. Instead, help learners to use it better.

A real change in the Social Age is the full democratisation of publishing: the means by which any device of consumption is a device of broadcast too. I can write this, on my iPad, sat anywhere in the world and, at the touch of a button, broadcast it. I am connected through multiple channels to the same community, as well as through multiple channels to multiple communities. It’s a spiders web of connection, but my reputation is forged and my amplification achieved through my ability to create content and share it wisely. Our ecosystem today allows for this.

Social technology democratises publishing and, by implication, subverts formal hierarchy. When anyone can broadcast and anyone can be amplified, David can take on Goliath and put the ensuing victory on YouTube, almost instantly. This levelling effect is highly significant and ties into the ways that your brand is now almost entirely owned by the community.

Brand is co-created by the community dependent on your organisations actions: so we can be in the conversation about what the brand means, but we no longer own and shape it, broadcasting it to dumb recipients. It’s a far more dynamic relationship where we are influencers, but not owners.

As the marketing and brand functions become less relevant, the role of devolved creativity and uninhibited curiosity become more so. It’s the ability to question everything, then question it again tomorrow, and it’s this curiosity, the devolved creativity, facilitated by technology and hosted within community that gives us agility. That was a long sentence for a short purpose: we are made agile by asking questions.

Creativity and Innovation

All of this happens in a globalised environment: organisations trade globally, but we, as individuals, are able to build and maintain much wider, looser, social communities, giving us access to expertise, thinking, support and experience at a whole new level. The badge of globalised no longer belongs to big business: it’s more a mindset. But not one without it’s challenges. I’m increasingly interested in the ways that this globalisation brings together people across legal, ethical, moral and geographical boundaries. Which creates a host of tension and challenge, not to mention safeguarding issues. In the globally connected space, who’s views prevail?

There’s a greater need (and desire, on the whole) for organisations to be socially responsible, but understanding what that means in practice requires some wholehearted navel gazing. How to be fair, responsible and equal. For me, this drives everything: you cannot be agile as an organisation without being both fair and inclusive. The equality and diversity debate therefore becomes one of competitive advantage as simply doing what is clearly right.

So much of the Social Age happens within communities and outside of formal hierarchies, that i’ve left three of the biggest elements to last: the ways we learn, the ways we lead and the ways we gain authority and influence.

Social Learning is about combining elements of both formal and social approaches, wrapped up in an overall narrative. It’s typically spread out over time and is more relevant and applied than simple workshops or an hour of eLearning. It requires an appropriate methodology and approach to be effective, something that many organisations are struggling to realise. And once we are within these communities, we need Social Leadership: non hierarchical, reputation based leadership, built on engagement and adding value, with humility, into our communities.

The NET Model - two layers

The NET Model of Social Leadership in full, showing the three Dimensions and nine Components

I’ve been using the NET Model for this, which charts the nine components of Social Leadership that take us from ‘curation‘, where we take a stance, through ‘storytelling‘ and onto ‘reputation‘ and ‘social authority‘. Reputation, social reputation, is not bestowed by the organisation, but rather is earned through our actions within communities.

You’ll see ‘co-creation‘ and ‘co-ownership‘ grouped together as they sit at the centre of the model of organisational change that i see as most relevant in the Social Age. It’s about framing a narrative and then having the conversation, more about stories being created in tandem with the community than in the organisation owning the story. And co-owned because change is driven at every level.

Amplification is the process that powers ‘social‘, it’s the ability of messages to be picked up and disproportionately be spread at speed by tying into the nodes within communities who are both well respected and well connected.

The ecosystem of the Social Age is evolving, but one thing is for sure: it’s a foreign land. Everything has changed. The ways we work and play, the ways we connect, the ways we create meaning and become effective.

Which is why agility is key: it’s not a case of adapting to the new world, but rather a case of building the skills to keep adapting. It’s not change from the status quo to a new place of stability, but rather a new world where change is constant and fast, unforgiving and democratised.

You’d spot the dragon on the bottom right. Why? Because medieval map makers used to take more creative license than we are used to today, with our satellite imagery and laser printers. They added monsters and dragons: the phrase ‘here be dragons’ refers to the unknown, the evolving understanding of our new ecosystem and our place within it.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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97 Responses to Here Be Dragons: The Ecosystem of the Social Age

  1. benoitdavid says:

    This would make a great board game… 🙂

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