Context of the Social Age

I’m editing ‘The Change Handbook’ today, and decided to rewrite the whole chapter on ‘The Social Age’. In this post, i share the new version, with the original content after it. This is part of #WorkingOutLoud, and i’m glad i did it. The old version was around 2.5k words, and felt bolted in, whilst the new version is exactly 1,000 words, and feels more like it should do: a context, not a big description.

Guide to the Social Age 2018

My own work is contextualised in the Social Age, a term i use to describe our evolved reality, our new ecosystem. Whilst technology is a very visible manifestation of change, it’s really the ways that it moves our underlying sociology that fascinate me the most.

The Social Age provides the context for both the pressure that is faced by our Organisations today (the reason for change), and the way that they can actually change (the ways to change). And change they must: if you subscribe, as i do, to a model of biological evolutionary biology, then we learn that as the ecosystem shifts around us, we must either adapt, or face extinction. The change happens through mutation, which is a good place to start: understand the things that are moving, and build out from that to an understanding of the evolved context of work, and change.

Each year, i sketch out a map of the Social Age, to try and capture some of the most intriguing aspects. Here’s a summary of some of the change that i have been exploring over the last few years. Long as this list is, we have barely scratched the surface yet:

Connectivity out the System: we used to be connected predominantly locally, or organisationally within formal systems. Today we are connected in many different ways, almost all of which operate outside the ownership, oversight, or control, of any formal body or power.

The Democratisation of Technology: technology used to be both complex and expensive, now it is not. Access to it, and performance support when using it, are held individually, or within reputation based communities. Hence, prototyping, creativity, engineering etc are democratised too.

The Democratisation of Communication: communication used to be reasonably asynchronous, located, and slow, and now it’s synchronous, multi channel, and geolocated. Our community travels with us.

The Collapse of Distance: things that used to be far away used to be very very far away. Now, to all intents and purposes, everything is close. Distance has collapsed. And with the rise of social networks, it’s no longer an issue for connectivity either, expanding our network of strong social ties, and influence.

The Redundancy in Connectivity: I used to have an address book, which i tried not to lose, but now, i’m connected in many different ways, with overlap, so there is high redundancy in my network. Not only am i connected, but you can’t stop me being connected anymore. It’s a resilient system, even if i’m fired.

The Rise of Community: social community has emerged as the parallel power, at scale, to both nation, and Organisation. It holds real, evolved, networked power, and can impost consequence onto formal systems.

The Erosion of Brand: it used to be shaped by the brand team, and projected into the world. Now, brand value is imposed upon us, dependent upon our fairness and connection to community. It’s beyond organisational control.

The Emergence of Trans-Nationals: this is one of the most fascinating dimensions of my current work, the emergence of transnationals, existing beyond national frameworks. We are becoming Citizens of Apple, in the State of Lego. Emergent systems of infrastructure and culture that exist beyond geography. Subscription cultures. It’s incredible, and once the transnationals reground their power in the real world, transformative, globally.

The Fragmentation of Bedrock: the foundations of many businesses are fracturing. As technology, and social desire, erodes older domains that were only ever convenient, not truly organising principles. E.g. ‘publishing’ was never a natural order, it related to ownership of technology and distribution, both of which are now democratised. Next to fall? Financial Services, Healthcare, possibly our existing models of government.

The Shift in Power: hierarchy held formal power, but community holds the social. Increasingly, formal power is eroded, held to account by reputation based social authority. And we are also seeing a general shift to oppositional, as opposed to consensus, power. This is hugely significant and disruptive.

The Death of Career: we used to have one, now we have many, or none at all. The only structure is that we we create ourselves, held in the arms of our community.

The Evolution of Knowledge: away from codified, centralised, and owned, towards co-created, distributed, and democratised. With parallel challenges around validity, and perspective, for sure. Knowledge is set free, but increasingly complex.

The Fractured Social Contract: organisations used to own us, or at least own our career, but many of them squandered our trust, by treating us like things, so we reacted by building new structures to hold us safe. Communities, and, increasingly, third spaces, where we find our development, our fulfilment, and our engagement. Organisations must earn back our trust.

The Rise of the Robots: yes, they are coming, and yes, they will change everything. And when they get soft, they will catch us as we fall.

Augmentation and Machine Learning: yes, this is coming too. In fact, it’s substantially here, and it will change everything, all over again. Make no mistake, whilst HR teams and pundits wring their hands over ethics and social change, the true revolution will be driven by somebody, somewhere, making an obscene amount of money, and pulling the carpet out from under our feet.

Domain Specificity to Generalism: being able to connect things up may be just as important as knowing stuff. Possibly more so. This may impact structures of power, as well as education systems.

The Internet of Things: we are heading towards 50 billion connected devices. Yes. That’s everything, and then some. Data, more data, privacy, even notions of ownership, and identity. Expect all of that to fracture and change.

I could go on, indeed, i think i could write a whole book around any of these things. But the point is this: systemic change. We will require a new mindset, and a new type of organisation, to survive in this space.

And it had better be good at change, because the space is barely defined yet.

The Original Chapter:

All of my work is contextualised in the ‘Social Age’, a term i use to describe our new ecosystem. If you have read the ‘Social Leadership Handbook’, or if you are more widely familiar with my work, you may wish to skip this overview chapter.

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.

The change: it’s everything. From the ways we work, to the ways we manage our money, the ways we shop (and rate the goods and services we shop for) to the ways we engage with healthcare systems (a move from ‘reactive in crisis’, to ‘proactive and monitoring’), find hotels (or the places that we sleep ‘beyond hotels’) or entertain ourselves. The ways we are governed (and the systems of social organisation that may emerge beyond ‘nations’) and the accountability of those who govern us. Everything is changing, everything is in flux. Constant change.

Should we batten down the hatches and sit the change out, or grab a paddle and surf along on the waves?

Those who resist or deny change are the ones who will be swept away. And those who grab a paddle? Well, it’s easy to talk about sailing, but sailing is both an art and a science. It’s easier to talk about it than to master it, and it’s in the execution that it’s easy to sink. The theory is the easy part. As we will see, when we come to talk about the ‘Constrained organisation’, it takes more than ‘willingness’ and ‘intent’ to achieve transformation.

Technology is facilitating much of the change that we see, but it’s the underlying sociology that is evolving. To be successful, we must be connected to, empowered by, and accountable to, our social communities.

I call this time the Social Age.

Because the changes we face are continuous, not episodic, we must demonstrate an agility to survive and thrive: It’s a significant challenge both for Organisations, and individuals, to adapt, which is why we may need to sketch some maps.

The Social Age sees change on every front and will require a holistic pattern of adaptation. First, a recognition of just how much has changed. Next, the ability to prototype, learn, and adapt.

Consider 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, 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. They even let you take holiday and, occasionally, to leave early to go to the dentist.

That was the Social Contract: play the game, reap the rewards.

But the contract is broken: i can work from home, or a coffee shop, or dedicated 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 no 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 Help Desk which is often more of a hindrance. And going to the dentist? I can do it when I like, because I’m old enough to figure out how to fit work around it. And, anyway, I can work from the waiting room.

The security the Organisation offered, and the development pathways we could follow over time, have gone: you used to join at the bottom and slowly climb your way up, but today, the ladder has collapsed, 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. There is an expectation of transience, an embedded uncertainty and fragility.

The impact?

With a fractured Social Contract we won’t engage in the same way: sure, people are nice, willing, and able, but they are not emotionally invested to the 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, ‘how can we do this fairly, what do you need from us?’.

Organisations have enjoyed a flexible attitude to employment for a long time, but that flexibility has driven the emergence of an independent and flexible attitude by us, the employees. We operate as a unit of one, in a community of many: these are our only constants in the fiction of career.

Our communities empower, challenge and support us. They are facilitated by social collaborative technology: technology that supports our conversations, which is democratised, synchronous, and social. It falls outside the reach or control of any formal power.

This is important for engagement: Organisations would do better to offer resource and permission, rather than relying on owning technology itself. Anything that you own yourself, as the organisation, inherently falls into the formal space, and people trust it less.

In the Social Age, as a backdrop to change, we have fewer levers of power over the individual (but greater opportunity to engage openly in a wider number of spaces, socially).

Consider ‘infrastructure’, which used to be expensive, and complex: we needed access in order to perform. But today, as individuals within an ecosystem adapted for Social, we don’t need formal infrastructure: we have infrastructure coming out of our ears! Organisations are unlikely to be able to keep up with either the pace, or fluidity, of the wider, democratised, and ‘on demand’ ecosystem.

Instead of trying to own everything, Organisations should focus on helping people perform better. Even if that means losing a certain amount of control over how they do so.

A highly significant change in the Social Age is the democratisation of creativity and publishing: whereby storytelling is open to all, and the means by which, as Clay Shirky reminds us, any device of consumption is a device of broadcast as well.

Social Collaborative Technology provides me with a spiders web of connections that range from the highly visible, and almost formal, through to the fragmented, anonymised and almost hidden. My reputation is forged, and amplification achieved, through my ability to craft authentic stories, and share them wisely. Social Leadership becomes key.

It’s interesting to note the extent to which Social technology, with it’s democratisation of storytelling and publishing, challenges and subverts one of the mainstays of formal hierarchical control: 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.

We can no longer control the story, so we can no longer hope to control or shape change solely through formal channels. You cannot write the future alone, but must hope and seek permission to co-create it with the community. One of the skills of Social Leadership is to learn how to do this: how to take organisational stories, which are inherently grounded in hierarchy, and to tell and retell them to be relevant to your team. Bad storytelling starts “They’ve told us to…”, where the story becomes simply instruction: abstract and robbed of authenticity. Dynamic organisations co-create and co-own the future state with their community.

The story of the organisation is not simply told internally though: in the Social Age, the brand itself is co-created by the community dependent on Organisational actions and engagement over time: so we can be in the conversation about what the brand means, but we no longer own it, broadcasting it to dumb recipients. It’s a far more reciprocal relationship where we are influencers at best. If the organisation speaks in one voice, but acts in another, it will be found out.

In this context, as the marketing and brand functions struggle to retain control and justify their spending, they become less relevant: the role of devolved creativity and uninhibited curiosity take over as primary determiners of an organisations perceived brand. 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 and sharing our thinking as we do so.

All of this change 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 challenges. I’m increasingly interested in the ways that, in the Social Age, this globalisation brings people together across legal, ethical, moral and geographical boundaries. We are connected in ways that we were never connected before, which creates a host of tension and challenge, not to mention safeguarding issues. In the globally connected space, whose views prevail? Where does the global view of ‘fair’ sit?

We operate across many definitions of ‘right’ and ‘fair’, not just legally defined ones. We can deny the reality of this, but the reality will come to bite us in the end. We cannot find unity through legal or hierarchical control, but rather through engagement and respect. Leadership with humility: navigating an imperfect humanity.

This takes us to the heart of the Social Age: the challenges we face are not simply logistical and financial. They are themselves social. When technology brings us ever closer together, our culture and behaviours may drive us apart.

There’s a greater need (and desire) 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, globally.

For me, this drives everything: you cannot be agile as an organisation without being both fair and inclusive. The equality and diversity debate becomes as much one of competitive advantage as it is of simply doing what is clearly right.

As we travel around our map of the Social Age, so much of what we talk about happens within communities, outside formal hierarchies. And 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.

Learning itself is changing: increasingly geolocated, co-creative, adaptive, and evolutionary. Formal learning, defined by time and place, is always and irrevocably abstract from our everyday reality. Whilst we can create strong formal learning experiences, they always have to bridge the gap back to our real world. By contrast, Social Learning is inherently and always within our real world: that’s not to say that it’s without it’s challenges, but those challenges are different.

Done well, it’s a sense making activity that links formal and tribal knowledge, providing the ’sense making’ space for us to figure out what to do with it.

Social Learning combines elements of formal, and tacit, knowledge, wrapped in an overall narrative. It’s typically spread out over time, more relevant and applied than simple workshops or eLearning. It requires a new set of skills to design, and facilitate, something that many Organisations are just starting to realise.

We need different types of leadership too: Social Leadership is that style of leadership exerted within these communities. A reputation based authority, built on engagement and adding value, with humility, into our communities. It’s not an alternative to formal leadership, but rather it compliments it. Whilst few people have hierarchical and positional power, it’s free for anyone to develop Social Leadership. That’s why Social Authority can always subvert formal power.

The Social Leader, as a storytelling leader, masters the co-creation of narratives, they write stories created in tandem with the community, which is vital for co-owned change.

The ecosystem of the Social Age is evolving, but one thing is for sure: it’s a foreign land. Everything has changed.

This book is about change: how Organisations change, how they respond to change, how they adapt or become constrained and die. The Dynamic organisation is one which is truly agile, fully Socially Dynamic: not simply adapting to the new world, but rather building the skills and adopting a mindset 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.

On the map of the Social Age, you can see a dragon. Why? Because medieval map makers used to take more creative license than we are used to today, with our satellite imagery and Google Maps. 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. Because this is a constant journey of discovery and reinvention as the waves of change carry us forward.

What you need to know:
1. The Social Age describes a broad pattern of constant change, impacting on our whole lives
2. Much of it is about democratisation, co-creation and social accountability
3. It’s a new ecosystem and evolutionary pressures apply: adapt or fail

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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9 Responses to Context of the Social Age

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