Don’t Throw the Good Ideas Out With the Fads

I had a conversation yesterday with a person who feels that the use of social technology in organizations is a passing fad, much like other fads supporting the importance of “innovation” and “collaboration.”

It got me thinking about why good ideas (no reasonable person would argue that innovation, collaboration or the effective use of social technology are inherently bad ideas) can sometimes flame up as fads and then fizzle out.

I would like to suggest that except in rare cases, these fizzle-outs are usually not because the ideas themselves are defective, but rather that the ways that we think, talk, write about and implement them are.

I would like to further suggest that these defects can be traced back to the tendency to assume that effective “innovation” or “collaboration” or “use of social technology” (or anything else) should look the same in every group or organization, regardless of its context.

As a result of this assumption, we try to force a successful execution in one context into an entirely different context. “Want to be a collaborative organization? Here are the 5 steps that worked for Zappos. Want to innovate like Apple? Here’s how.” While following these steps may work for some organizations, it won’t for a lot of others, and eventually the landscape tends to get littered with either non-starts or outright failures, which are blamed either on the idea itself (e.g., “Innovation is a passing fad.”) or worse, on the specific company’s inabilities to live up to the ideal (e.g., “We tried to be like Apple, but just couldn’t get there.”).

Our ability to avoid these sometimes destructive fads in the future can be helped today with the fundamental assumption that, though the successful execution of these ideas may share some similarities across contexts, there may also be important differences. “Want to innovate as well as Apple does? Here are three paths that often lead to that level of innovation. There may be others too.” It will also include the follow-on assumption that cookie-cutter, me-too approaches should be approached with a high degree of skepticism.

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New Features, New Context, Lowered Digital Fluency

On friday we conducted our first live Google+ hangout to discuss Digital Fluency the book and digital fluency the concept with a very insightful, entertaining group of people. Here is the recording of the discussion:

An interesting, and delightfully ironic thing happened during the broadcast, which you may or may not be able to pick up from the discussion. I felt my digital fluency diminishing.  Allow me to explain.

I have used Google+ hangouts to hold private meetings at least once per week since the feature was introduced several months ago, so i am quite comfortable with the technology, and my level of fluency—my ability to get the outcomes i desire and expect in that context—is relatively high. The session we ran on Friday, though, was broadcast live, requiring me, as the one hosting the session, to think about many more things: Who might be watching the live broadcast? Am i leading the discussion well? Is the fact that my camera is blurry going to lessen the quality of the recorded broadcast? What does this new button on the interface do..and what about that one?

As a result, i found it more difficult than i had expected to focus on the conversation. I found my mind wandering to the additional interface elements on the screen, thinking about who might be watching the broadcast live, and wondering about the implications of my blurry camera for the recorded broadcast. All of these thoughts took away from my ability to concentrate on the discussion. Like a fluent English speaker who is suddenly thrust into a conversation where he is forced to use new acronyms or a performer who goes from a studio practice session to a live broadcast, i felt a little less-fluent, finding it more difficult to achieve the outcome i desired.  Fortunately for me our guests took over and made the discussion interesting, and as we do more of these i will become more comfortable with the features and the context.

But it was a great reminder of an important point that bears mentioning: Digital fluency is never static. Every new medium, every new context, will force people of any digital fluency level to have to expand their level to meet the new challenge.



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Losing a Heroine

I am of the opinion that every person and every organization should have at least one hero or heroine. For the SociaLens team, Elinor Ostrom is that person. She passed away this week in our home city of Bloomington, Indiana. A lot has been written about her groundbreaking work, her career, her passion and her warmth. If you have not before, do yourself a favor and learn a little about her here, here and here. I would also encourage you to read some of her own work, like this, this or this.

Though i feel that these words are hopelessly inadequate for the task, it seems appropriate to share some of the things that i have learned from Lin’s work, but more importantly from the way she (and her husband Vincent) approached their work. Their approach has helped to shape how i, and how SociaLens approach what we do, and also how we hope to approach what we do in the future.

  • No problem is too big to tackle
    Lin and Vincent Ostrom addressed huge problems like the governance of common pool resources around the world, with tenacity, vision, and with a willingness to do the team-building and broad collaboration it would take to address those problems.
  • Good solutions to complex human problems are neither panaceas nor completely particular
    Instead, good solutions live in the important space between the two extremes which requires us to search for general principles that can be adapted in specific situations.
  • Good solutions are always systemic, and cross disciplinary boundaries
    We cannot solve natural resource, government, organizational, social and technical problems separately. Rather, we must do our best to explore that ways that each of these improve the others as part of a system.
  • Giving is an art
    Lin Ostrom struck me as extremely unselfish and unpretentious (and i have heard many accounts from others in our community to support this). She gave credit and energy to others not only overtly, but also artfully through her expressions, and in her general demeanor.  Having participated in many sessions with Lin and the others from her Workshop over the course of the last year, i can say that the sense of  giving and goodwill in the room (fostered in large part by Lin over the years) has been palpably obvious.

Though i am sad to lose a heroine before i felt ready, i am forever thankful for what i as a person, we as SociaLens, and we as a global society have gained from Elinor. After our mourning subsides, may we all emerge challenged and inspired to continue what she so beautifully began.

(photo courtesy of Indiana University)

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The Bottom-Up Changes of “Social Business”

originally posted here on

There is a great deal of news, opinion, and discussion these days about the wave of social business which is generally thought to include a shift toward new ways of doing business largely through the use of social technologies like wikis, social networks, etc.

As people who are thinking about the implications of this shift to social business for our future careers, or as managers or a members of the c-suite who are thinking about the implications of this shift for the future of the organization, it seems to me we need to step back from the river of information and predictions for a moment, and ask ourselves a basic question:

How fundamental are these changes likely to be, really?

After a good deal of research into , and thinking on the matter, i have come to the conclusion that the answer is: quite fundamental.  To make my case, i won’t be relying on poll data, or industry stats, or historical analysis or case studies, but rather a series of simple logical propositions derived from decades of theory and research on organizations. As you follow along, check these against your own experience, and i think you will reach a similar conclusion. Ready? Let’s dive in.

Every institution (regular pattern of human interactions, i.e., open source software production, crowdsourcing, viral spreading, vendor relations management, group buying, etc.) or organization (a particular type of institution, i.e., WalMart, Zappos, IBM, Threadless, etc.) only exists because of a set of formal, informal, spoken, unspoken and textual agreements between people (a.k.a. attributions of function, rules, norms, institutional statements, in which two or more people “agree” that x counts for y in a given context, like “dollar bills count for purchasing power in a market” or “the title CEO counts for power in an organization”). No agreements, no institution or organization. Different agreements, different institution or organization.

Agreements are always constituted by social interactions like conversations, sharing of information, etc. No social interactions, no agreements. Different social interactions, different agreements.

Social interactions are completely reliant on symbolic communication. No symbolic communication, no social interactions. Different symbolic communication, different social interactions.

Symbolic communication is dependent on the medium that is available (broadly defined as something which expands the speed and scale of human events, like language, telephones, computers, etc.) and the way that the medium is used (speaking, writing, broadcast, social networking). No medium and use, no symbolic communication. Different medium and use, different symbolic communication.


At this point you may be asking yourself why you read this far. This all seems pretty obvious, right? Here’s where it gets interesting:

Working back up this logical chain, we can see that the increasing availability of new media forms, and the increasing use of these new media in very different ways, is making it possible to form new types of institutions and organizations. It is also making it more likely that people will form new types over time, largely because these new media and uses of those media are making new forms of symbolic communication possible and likely, which in turn makes new forms of social interactions possible and likely, which in turn makes new forms of agreements possible and likely.

When different types of institutions and organizations begin to be formed, whole ecosystems of institutions and organizations begin to change as these new forms (and the old ones) begin to interact with each other. Groupon interacts with box stores, Anonymous interacts with the FBI, Local Motors interacts with Crowdsourcing and General Motors, student bodies interact with teachers, teachers with school administrations, etc.

When these ecosystems change, some of the old types, and some of the new types of institutions and organizations survive and thrive, and others wane and disintegrate, sometimes from lack of continuity (waning use of the formal titles Ma’am and Sir or the lack of subscriptions for news corporations), and sometimes from formal disintegration (legal bans on the institution of hazing or the legal dissolution of a corporation).

With all of this in mind, now we can revisit our question: How fundamental are these changes, really?

Very. Because logically, the ways that social technologies are profoundly different technically, and differently used, than previous technologies are changing organizations not just by providing a new set of tools, but by fundamentally changing the nature of the agreements that constitute our institutions and organizations. Evidence of these shifting agreements show up in ongoing questions about whether hiding information still counts for power in all contexts, whether a unified company brand counts as more valuable than one co-created with consumers, whether a leader’s willingness to show faults counts as weakness in organizations, if owning source code counts as more valuable than sharing it widely, if paid content editors count as more qualified than groups of volunteers, whether playing World of Warcraft counts as quality social interaction or not, etc. etc.

We can see evidence of these shifting agreements when we look at new, powerful and sustained social business institutions and organizations like Wikipedia, Zappos, SalesForce, Anonymous, etc. which are only possible to form, and likely to be formed, because of the new technologies and their widespread new forms of use. We can also see evidence of this when we look at established, and surprisingly collapsing institutions and organizations like newspapers, encyclopedias, etc. whose agreements within their organizations, and with the public have shifted in an ecosystem of new media and new uses of those media.

Armed with a little deeper, more basic perspective, we can go back to the flood of news and opinions and predictions about the coming wave of social business with a more critical eye as we think about our future careers and our future organizations and institutions.


Here is an abbreviated list of sources you might want to read to further explore this topic:

  1. Searle, John. (2005). What is an institution?. Journal of Institutional Economics, 1 , pp 1-22.
  2. American, The, Political Science, and No Sep. “A Grammar of Institutions Sue E . S . Crawford ; Elinor Ostrom.” Political Science 89, no. 3 (2007): 582-600.
  3. Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press.
  4. Orlikowski, W.J. and Scott, S.V. (2008). Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization, The Academy of Management Annals 2: 433–474.
  5. Scott, W.R. (2008) Institutions and Organizations: Ideas and Interests, 3rd edn (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
  6. Zammuto, R.F., Griffith, T.L., Majchrzak, A., Dougherty, D.J., & Faraj, S. (2007). Information technology and the changing fabric of organization. Organization Science, 18(5), 749–762.
  7. Organization Design: An Information Processing View. Jay R. Galbraith Interfaces Vol. 4, No. 3 (May, 1974), pp. 28-36
  8. Beniger, JR.(1986). The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society. Harvard University Press.
  9. McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding Media, critical ed. Corte Madera: Gingko Press


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Questioning Best Practices

There is still a lot of talk about best practices for digital marketing, measuring social media ROI, constructing an online brand, etc. The implicit assumption is that there are actually best practices at all. Implicit in that assumption is a related assumption that one social media or digital marketing situation is enough like others that what worked in one will be generalizeable to the others, and that the same goes for ROI situations, branding situations, etc.

I would like to throw a little monkey wrench into these assumptions, and perhaps help us to move past the desire for best practices.

I was watching Charlie Rose tonight, who was interviewing former PGA golfer turned putting coach Dave Stockton.

Right around 17:00 in the interview he said something interesting about golf advice. “..everybody wants to give their best tip…their newest tip that worked for them. I don’t think it should be that complicated.” He went on to say that “..there’s not one way to teach golf..” and “..I think the routine is the key thing. I don’t care if you use a telephone pole. I just want you to have a good routine.”

Now in case you haven’t already jumped ahead of me, here’s the kicker: Putting is one of the least complex parts of one of the least complex sports in the world.* It includes a ball, a hole, a green, some wind, some grass and perhaps even a crowd. It is certainly far less complex than baseball, or football, or basketball, or soccer, which include opponents, team strategies, time clocks, buzzers, referees, coaches, cheerleaders, bands, and a host of other dynamics. It is also far less complex than business, which includes budgets, social dynamics, market forces, team strategies, power relations, etc.

And yet even for this least complex part of a least complex game, this seasoned player and coach is suggesting that there probably are no best practices, and that even if they exist, that they are probably not worth following. Rather, that the most important factor for success is the development of a routine that works for the player’s particular situation.

What does this suggest about the desire for best practices in business, social media, digital marketing, and other more complex things i wonder?


* Notice that i am using the word “simple” here and not “easy.” Hitting a good golf drive or a putt is one of the most difficult of tasks i can think of, but it is not, strictly speaking, complex. The same goes for hitting a baseball, shooting a basketball three-pointer, and hand-setting a volleyball.


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Moving Beyond Stability

Most of us are well aware of the speed and complexity in our world, and especially in the spaces in and around our organizations. Companies start up and dissolve at a dizzying pace. Stock prices rise and fall globally within hours. Information about everything spreads faster to more diverse communities than ever before. People who think about the future of organizations are aware of this speed and complexity too. In a recent study of 1,541 CEO’s complexity turned out to be their biggest challenge, and creativity, integrity and global thinking the three most important leadership qualities that they thought would be necessary to deal with the complexity.

We are all tempted to see creativity, integrity and global thinking as skills that will help us to wrangle our organizations and the environment back into a state or normalcy, where we can be comfortable again for a while. But i think we need to look at it differently.

There will not be normalcy the way we have thought of it in the past.

In his book Beyond the Stable State, written in 1971, Donald Schön makes the case that the widespread use of meta-technologies like computers and communication systems (he was writing this well before the widespread public use of the World Wide Web) have not only represented rapid change in and of themselves, but they have become platforms which have facilitated far more rapid innovation and diffusion of every other type of technological and social change as well.

In such a world, says Schön,

What is curious is not that we are forced at intervals to abandon some stable state, but that we manage to maintain belief in it in the first place.

So the task for us now, in this consistently unstable state, is to find equitable, efficient new ways for our organizations to create value for people (customers, partners and employees) and to better a world that is more obviously in a state of consistent change, rather than to bring back an old type of normalcy. I will have more to share about how to do this in the future, but a first step is for us all to acknowledge that, if the stable state was on its way out in 1971, it must surely be gone in 2011.

Thanks to Erik Stolterman, by the way, for reminding me of Schön’s excellent book.

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Kinship-Like Practices Are Important In Complex Times: Lessons from a Merchant of Venice

In the absence of sufficient ability to control [1] a complex situation, humans tend to fall back on personal kinship networks as a means of improving their chances. The jilted lover returns to his parents for comfort. The wounded professional returns to her home town. The prodigal child heads back home after losing her money.

Humans also tend to fall back on kinship-like practices in complex situations, which might explain why in the digital age, there is such an emphasis on word-of-mouth recommendations, norms of reciprocity and the sharing of personal details online. I have experienced many many “serious” business people looking down their noses at this sort of sharing (“Twitter is stupid. It’s all about what people had for lunch.”) especially in the context of business (“Why do my employees care if my daughter plays Soccer?”), thinking that it is just time-wasting and off-task. But folks who see it this way may be missing the point entirely. It may not be just free love or oversharing. It may be creating kinship-like relations that provide the most trustworthy means of living and succeeding (in business too) in an increasingly fast, complex digital world.

In chapter 4 of his excellent book The Control Revolution, James Beniger suggests that the persistence of “traditional” family kinship and honor-based business relationships well into the 19th century was more than just a resistance to change, but was rather a means of controlling [1] trans-oceanic commerce in the absence of effective telecommunications and international legal sanctions. In other words, if a person was running a trans-oceanic shipping company in the 1600’s, they were faced with a hugely uncertain situation, where they needed someone they could trust completely to sell their goods on the other side of the ocean. That person was usually kin; a family member. When these kinship networks were not available, though, merchants still conducted their business relations in kinship-like ways which look strange from the perspective of 20th-century “professional” perspective:

Even when the actual kinship did not exist, people tried to evoke these sorts of feelings. As Lane (1944, p. 99) notes of Andrea Barbarigo [a real merchant of Venice who lived from 1418-1449], ‘There were in his business letters more protestations of personal affection than can be taken seriously…Conventional references to a loving concern for the agent’s future honor and profit..’ [2]

So before you assume that the next employee Twitter message about how “You should visit that sandwich shop on the corner next lunch time.” is just a waste of time, you may want to consider that it might be part of a series of kinship-like, trust-building activities that will help sustain your organization in increasingly fast, complex times.

[1] I am using the word “control” to refer to any form of influence, from slight to total control, as is suggested in James Beniger’s book [2]
[2]  Beniger, J. The Control Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1986

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Great Managers are Digitally Fluent (Reason 2)

Reason 1: Understanding Employees
Reason 2: Decision Making

A C-Level person in the 1970’s who had never watched television, or a manager in the 1940’s who had not used a telephone, or a business leader in the 1990’s who had never purchased a product online would have a difficult time understanding how these technologies affected their business externally, or how they could be used to benefit their organizations. They would also be in danger of either ignoring the technologies altogether (“We don’t need telephones. Business is about face-to-face relationships!”) or they might be easily lured by a clever sales person into wasting money and time on less-than-useful efforts (like the people who spent huge amounts of money on expensive websites in the late 90’s when a simple web presence might have sufficed).

The same is true today. Great managers are digitally fluent (in case you are wondering, here is a post about what i mean by “digital fluency” and here is a book we wrote on the topic) enough to make smart, informed strategic, policy, cultural, staffing, IT or budgeting decisions in light of the changes occurring in the digital age. They aren’t easily misled by eager sales people, they understand the need for digitally fluent employees, and they are comfortable critically questioning any sort of hype either for or against the use of digital media in their organization. Importantly, their digital fluency, while bolstered by books on the topic, or advice from consultants or sales people, is best developed through active participation in digital culture and practices both inside and outside of the organization.


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Great Managers Are Digitally Fluent (Reason 1)

Reason 1: Understanding Employees

Most of your employees live in digital culture [1] outside of your organization that tends to lean toward the development and use of open source software, the use of massive collaboration, the viral spread of videos, the love of practical jokes, the rapid coordination of protest, the use of digitally-scheduled meet-ups, the crowdsourcing of media ratings, the fracturing of messaging, the formation of social networks, the proliferation of micro-messages and many other things that are probably different from the culture inside of your organization.

Your employees’ participation in this culture affects how they see themselves, your organization and their world, just like their participation in the so-called television culture, the telephone culture, the radio culture and the book culture. (these co-existed, of course, but you get the point)

Great managers understand the culture (and the world) of their employees. To do that, they must become fluent in that culture through active participation. Great managers today will only stay great if they find ways to actively participate in digital culture.

[1] We could split hairs about what that word means, but for now let’s assume that i’m referring to the set of values and practices that we can see occurring frequently.

Reason 2: Decision Making

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Lessen Xenophobia to Improve Digital Fluency

We talk a lot with our clients about the need for digital fluency, which is the ability to understand why to use digital technologies and when to use them to accomplish things. Before a person can start to build their fluency with anything (a language, a set of tools or practices), though, we have to overcome the human tendency to feel fear or prejudice toward people, technologies, or practices that we perceive as “foreign” or “other.” As it happens, this fear and prejudice has a name: Xenophobia.

If i want to become fluent enough in German to live and work in Germany, i first have to get over my xenophobic fear of German culture, or my feeling that their way of speaking, their way of living, is lesser than mine.

I will probably figure out later that there are some parts of the German language and culture which are to be feared (like the alpenhat in the picture above), or loved (like the real German preztels and weissbier) more than my own, but going in with that prejudice before i understand it will keep me from becoming fully fluent.

The same goes for my relationship with my students at Indiana University. If i want to become fluent enough in “student language” to live among and connect with them, i first have to get over my xenophobic fear of their ways of interacting, or the feeling that i am somehow better or smarter or wiser than they are.

To become digitally fluent enough to thrive in today’s world, i have to first overcome my xenophobic fear of people who live lives of always-on mobility, who share massive amounts of personal information, who use Internet slang, who love and share silly-seeming photos and videos, etc. (the list goes on). I also have to overcome the feeling that my preferred alternatives to these things, like face-to-face conversations, reasoned long-form discussions, non-slang language, etc. are automatically better.

Once my xenophobia is lessened or removed, i can then start my journey to digital fluency. Along the way i will adopt some of the new tools and practices (i have begun using Twitter quite regularly over the last several years to connect with other researchers, family and friends, and i have come to appreciate the art in many silly-seeming YouTube videos) and reject others (after trying out the game World of Warcraft for a bit, i did not find it enjoyable or useful, and i rarely break out a digital device in meetings or in social settings), but i can do this from a place of knowledge and reason, rather than from a place of fear and prejudice.

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