Back in Amsterdam: from the window i see smoke curling up from the chimney on the houseboat. It drifts lazily in the morning breeze, barely visible in the grey light. I wonder idly about life on a barge: many of the canal houseboats are magnificent, triumphs of aquatic engineering, with whole floors sunk under the surface or projecting into the air. Some are converted skiffs or barges, hundred year old hulls now peppered with windows and awnings. A few retain a subversive feel: defiantly unkept, welded and buttressed with scaffolding and plastic sheets. The poor cousins in this million dollar playground. The original squatters.
There’s a fine tradition of squatting in the Netherlands, reflected in the positioning of the boats: some life three deep, codified in moorings that they once stopped at, now tied into mains sewers with their own postal address. You couldn’t get away with it these days: just parking your boat in a prime piece of the river, but the old parking spots remain. Fossilised.
There are layers of culture here: formal, smart, sanctioned, through to the outliers, the temporary, the unwanted, the claimed. Within the boat population you see it all: the priceless designed through to the self built. The glass and laminated plywood to the plastic and corrugated steel. A friend maintains his boat in deliberately poor keep: asserting his right to squat, to claim space, to desecrate the waterline (although still pays his annual licence fee to avoid being towed!).
Other layers exist: the tourist spots. Transient, plastic, beer fuelled. Not ‘real‘ Amsterdam. Then the subtexts to the city: the graffiti that spreads like ink through water. Everywhere.
Two types: the artistic and the territorial. The art ranges from Bortusk’s posters through to semi official hoardings around building sites. Sanctioned. The territorial consists of the tags on walls and doors, claiming and fighting over spaces. Ill defined and ill tempered.
The cultural spaces: museums and galleries, always somewhat abstract. Areas set aside for culture. The dusty memories of society, too precious to throw away.
There are layers of culture everywhere: formal to social, purposeful to subversive. Social approaches to learning, to leadership, to change, these tie into multiple layers. Social is a mindset as much as a channel, certainly a mindset more than just technology.
Social Leadership is that which we express within and alongside our communities: communities that cross formal hierarchies. Because of the inherently informal nature of these communities, our formal power counts for little. Instead we have to develop social authority: the authority of consensus and permission.
In the Age of Knowledge, we concentrated power and authority in a few. We geolocated expertise and knowledge. In the Social Age, it’s distributed. Boats along the river. Spread out as the canals penetrate and permeate every part of the city. Power lies instead in understanding the route map. Engaging with formal and social communities. Engaging widely and understanding the different requirements of each group.
Cross community authority: social power.
And to understand the culture is to be able to affect effective change: co-created and co-owned. Permissive. Pulling from the middle, not pushing from the top.
Do you understand the layers of culture within your own organisation? Can you see the graffiti? Can you differentiate between formal and social spaces and does your voice carry to them all?
It’s about understanding the foundations of reputation, about the importance of tone of voice, stance and permission. Understanding that, in the Social Age, we operate in differentiated cultures, layers of complexity, right in front of our noses. Only the agile, only those able to understand and navigate this space can thrive. It’s out responsibility to help organisations adapt, to help people engage, to ensure nobody is left behind. This is not an abstract observation: this is now. Welcome to the Social Age.