As this is a writing week, i’m focussed on long form writing, so not writing much new just for the blog (which i count as my ‘first reflective space‘, my daily musings). Instead, i’m #WorkingOutLoud and sharing elements of the longer writing. Having been sharing images and illustrations all week, today, it’s an abstract for a paper i’m working up around ‘Black Swan‘ (disruptive unknowns) and the ways that they disrupt formal power. This is part of a series of articles i’ve written in this space, relating to resilience, new types of power, and wider impacts of the Social Age. So, with that in mind, bear in mind that this will work into a more academic paper, and it’s early stage thinking. This is how it starts:
“Against a backdrop of disruptive change, it’s tempting to try to categorise and spot patterns early: we have seen a recasting of politics, the upset of established systems, the dialogue of truth and post truth, the demonising of established media and emergence of new media, challenge to traditional models of learning and an evolution in the nature of knowledge itself. The rampant march of technology masks part of the true nature of this change. It’s easy to see the trappings of power, but what really counts is the nature of power itself, and i would argue that in the Social Age we are seeing a fundamental evolution in types of power which will disrupt much of what came before.
The Social Age is a broad term to encompass the world we live in today: it’s characterised by effects of collectivisation within communities, both formal and visible, social and hidden, and by the democratisation of much that was previously the exclusive domain of those with power and control of infrastructure. Whilst technology is the visible manifestation of change, it’s the underlying sociology, the cohesion of communities, and the evolving forms of power behind them, which really count.
Black Swans are disruptive events, unpredictable and indeed disruptive of formal systems. If the nature of Black Swan events is known, then it is the ecosystem in which they occur which is of key interest: as the ecosystem changes, so too does the nature of disruption, the speed with which it occurs, the groups with the power to cause it, and the inability of formal systems to predict or cope with the results.
Resilience is a term used to describe the strength of a system and its ability to deal with disruptive change: my premise is that resilience, which historically sat in infrastructure, assets, systems, processes, formal hierarchies, command and control, kinetic action, and formal knowledge, today sits substantially in other areas. Whilst formal systems may cope with formal disruption, it is likely to be social systems that can counter disruptive and networked forms of power.
If we understand formal systems well, a lack of knowledge about social systems is also obvious: as described, formal systems are those which are visible, owned, and controlled, systems which are fully within our ability to change through formal means. Social systems, by contrast, are networks of trust and reputation, relationship and ideology. They are communities of ideas and brand. They are neither respectful of formal boundaries, nor constrained by them. Formal systems are visible and controllable: social systems are often invisible and fluid.
These two systems do not sit alongside each other: the social system runs through and around the formal, fully suffused throughout it. The formal system can never fully control the social, but the social has the power to fully subvert the formal. And all of this against a background ecosystem where the power of formal systems is increasingly constrained and eroded by effects of collaborative technology, democratised creativity, and networked power.
There is a dynamic tension that sits between these two systems, and the aim of this work is to understand the nature of this dynamic tension: not with a view to destroying it, but rather in maintaining and gaining benefit from it. It is a tension of power and control: the formal hierarchy is the codification of formal power, but as we have seen with effects of strategic compression, the formal hierarchy may have its limits, and never more so when dealing with disruptive Black Swan type events. The social system is not unaccountable, but is rather accountable to itself through forces of reputation and trust.
All systems are governed by the types of power at play, the formal, the social, and the interplay between the two. This impacts on leadership and learning, performance and resilience, and against the background of the Social Age, with its connective and democratised effects, no one type of power will be enough, and indeed, neglecting our understanding or utilisation of different types of power may cause our failure.
There is a difference between an aberration within a system, and the disruption of the system itself: an interesting feature of failure is the social and psychological effects, even within highly coherent communities, that cause us to ignore or dismiss the hints and signs of its imminent arrival.