‘Is your visit business or social?’ asked the iPad in front of me as i checked in to visit someone today. There was, sadly, no space for a free text answer, which was a challenge as the decision was far from binary.
Not business: we don’t work together, we are not contracted together, neither of us are trying to sell anything or buy anything, neither of us work for the same organisation. Arguably, i don’t even think i have a job. Whatever a job is. Whilst we have met before, we’ve connected far more often through devolved, democratised, free social collaborative technologies.
But not social either: we are having serious conversations, we are sharing stories, ideas, we are learning from each other, things that will directly affect our ability to contribute to discussions within our own organisations. Certainly we are catching up, we are asking about the things that friends would ask about, but we have purpose too: we are trying to help each other to do our jobs better. Or to perform better.
We are not talking about performance in the moment: our conversations relate to no particular project, no particular organisational initiative, no specific tasks or actions. But our conversation does touch on strategy, on performance, on leadership and change. Our conversation is undoubtedly about the future of organisations, the evolution of society, the ways that we can help organisations adapt to the Social Age.
Of course, i bring baggage to this conversation: is it a loaded question? If i answer ‘social’, am i using up some kind of credit that my friend (or social co-worker? Or ideas buddy? Or connection? or what?) has? Is he only allowed a set number of ‘social’ encounters? Am i using up his quota of friends, leaving him with an overdraft of ‘business conversations‘ which he needs to use up at the end of the month?
Or is my thinking a legacy of other organisations? Does his organisation not care? Do they not analyses or count these conversations? Do they ignore the data? In which case, why ask? Are they interested in intent, or outcome?
Could the questions instead read ‘will you learn or play?‘ Although that may rule out playing to learn. Which is bad, because play is all about learning, so it would be a sorry state if we opposed it to learning.
Could the questions read ‘Is your meeting worthy?’. I guess it’s a fair questions, to put it another way ‘are you going to waste time?’. Possibly: but what’s wasting time? Sure, we talked about wide ranging subjects, but often, as we constructed our story together, we ducked back and wove aspects of earlier conversation into it. Even the bits that seemed to be floating in the air at the time. Sometimes in our communal ‘sense making’, we made sense. Even if only accidentally, emergently, spontaneously. Accidentally maybe.
What if we started social, but ended up talking business? Would i have to leave and check in again? Or, worse, what if we thought we were talking business, but if you’d been listening in it sounded social. After all, neither of us wore a tie, so it couldn’t have been important could it?
Maybe the questions should read ‘Are you helping us, or just helping each other?’. Tricky: in the Social Age, where the Social Contract between organisation and individual is fractured, it may be both. By helping each other to think differently, to be curious, to question, we are indirectly helping the organisation, because we are learning and learning to share stories, some of which will persist beyond the building we are standing in today.
The question could not read ‘will you be in an office or a coffee shop’, because that implies that offices are places to work, when in fact they are often places to be bombarded with meetings and be victim to formal technologies that prevent us from working effectively. And anyway, in many of my clients, it’s hard to distinguish the coffee shop from the office. Or the playpen. Or the innovation lab. Or, indeed, the Board Room. If there is one, if they are not a collective or cooperative business, co-owned by the community.
So should the question be ‘Do you know each other or not?’. Harder than it seems: when i met my friend Jonathan in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, we both talked as friends, although we had never met before, never spoken before. At least, not with our voices or bodies in the same room. We had connected through text, through friends, through our community. So we knew each other, but had never met each other. Even Jonathan’s wife said ‘what is this, some kind of weird date?’, which was half right: weird that we knew each other, but only in digital form. But in the Social Age, where our communities persist across geographical and physical boundaries, this is increasingly the norm.
We could have tried the question ‘Are your intentions good?’, to ensure i was not a spy or competitor. But too often we collaborate whilst we compete. My friend today described a mutual acquaintance as a ‘frenemy’, because our attitude is contextual. Any anyway, intentions are one thing, aspirational and vague, whilst actions are entirely another. I can be well intentioned, but do something wrong, or just fail to achieve the right thing.
We could have played it safe and gone with the question ‘do you exist?’, although the point would be moot, because by standing in front of the machine, i clearly do. Cognito ergo sum. Existential doubt aside, i do exist. As does the computer tormenting me. Co-existing in fact in an imperfect world.
As the world has changed, we need to adapt, to get fit for the Social Age: it’s a time of constant change, where we spend much of our time in the grey spaces between formal and social systems, and indeed we are often most effective in those spaces.
All this week i’m writing and sharing #Aspects of Social Leadership as i write my way towards the 2nd Edition of the Social Leadership Handbook, #WorkingOutLoud as i go.
Notions power and control, mechanisms of conformity, the formal hierarchy of control, all are evolving, changing, to the point where the apparently simply becomes complex (but the hugely complex can be simply addressed through the power of communities.
In the absence of a box for a discussion of the topic, i opted for ‘social’, and claimed a permission to reflect on it tonight, in my semi formal, unguarded or guided reflective space. Here on the blog.
And if the organisation or someone within it has a response, we have a space to have that conversation, here, within that community.
Or maybe over a beer in the pub, in a fully social space, where we will studiously avoid any chance of accidentally working, accidentally solving problems or making the organisation better. Accidentally learning.