Last week at work was, perhaps, one of the most excruciating, rather annoying and frustrating weeks that I can remember in my 16 years of work with my current employer and it was not because of the sheer madness, rather hectic and busy work schedules, you know, those are business as usual and quite good fun still (Already having crossed through the second month on the new job!), but more because for the first time in a long while I got to experience what I think is the Achilles Heel for Knowledge (Web) workers in this digital age. Specially, for those of us who are working remotely, away from the traditional office. Yes, indeed, last week I experienced, in full force, what it would be like having an intermittent connection to internal networks, through VPN, as well as the Internet in general, through my ISP. And I tell you, it wasn’t pretty. At all.
Indeed, like I mentioned above, it was one of those dreadful experiences that clearly reminds us all how fragile remote knowledge (Web) workers are in terms of the dependencies on the availability of a good, reliable and accessible VPN and Internet connections. Most folks out there know by now how, thanks to the “Life Without eMail” movement I started over 5 years ago, I have now been successful in having moved over 98% of my daily work to the Web, whether on the Intranet or the Internet. Yet, last week was perhaps one of the quietest times I have gone through that I can remember. Why? Because I was offline for the vast majority of it. Both my VPN connection as well as my local ISP were having continuous issues helping me remain connected and eventually ended up in me putting a bunch of extra hours at work just trying to catch up with things when they would become more stable. And some times they did, and some others, they didn’t.
But right there I realised how when you are working from the traditional office space things are relatively good in terms of connectivity. You know, everyone working along through the same pipes, so to speak, and if the Internet or the Intranet goes down, that’s just fine, it’s down for everyone, so you are in equal terms for that matter and might as well enjoying a coffee or two while the system goes up to support back again several hundreds of office knowledge workers. However, when you are a remote knowledge worker, who depends on the Web for the majority of your work, things are much different.
As a starting point, you are alone. You are, typically, in the middle of nowhere (my closest IBM office is about 1,200 KM away from where I live / work), trying to get connected to the rest of the world that flies passed by you at a lightning speed, and that you hope to jump into the bandwagon which is the Internet, so that you can catch up. Well, last week, my train never showed up, helping me understand the challenges of what it would be like if, all of a sudden, remote knowledge (Web) workers, get to suffer from intermittent (Or permanent, for that matter!) connectivity issues in order to carry out their digital work.
It just won’t happen. And, you know, work won’t stop. It never does. It will just keep carrying on and piling up, which means that, as a remote employee or knowledge worker, your dependency on a good VPN and ISP connectivity are going to be critical. Otherwise, it’s just like one of those dead tentacles you can just chop off and no-one will notice. And while I can see how that may well not be too worrying for companies and businesses, since it’s just an isolated case or two, perhaps a few hundred (tops), the reality is that for you it’s like the whole world just collapsed and decided to stop spinning around.
Yes, I know, I realise I am putting a little bit of extra drama on the huge impact of network connectivity for remote employees, but is it really that much of an exaggeration? Because, somehow I feel it’s not, specially, if you consider how, unless you live in a rather large urban place, you, as a remote worker depending on the Web to get your work done, are doomed and big time. And, most probably, no-one would even notice.
And, let’s face it. We are entering the stage where broadband penetration, at least, in (Western) Europe, is pretty much a good myth, specially, if you don’t live in big cities. If you live in relatively small towns, or rural / remote areas, that pervasive connectivity is non-existent, which comes to fight the argument that the Web keeps us all hyperconnected and networked no matter what. Well, it matters, connectivity, at least, in Europe, is not as pervasive as what most folks feel, and if you have been reading my recent business trips across several European countries, it’s more of a wider issue than anything else, not necessarily related to a specific country or local region.
It bugs me. I tell you, it bugs me quite a lot, actually, because, last week, I realised how I was no longer capable of accessing the most precious thing that makes the Internet a wonderful thing: free information. And I don’t mean free as in you don’t have to pay for it. I mean it from the perspective of no longer being capable of accessing free flows of information to allow me to get my work done in an effective and efficient manner. Never mind the good amount of conversations I could no longer have in terms of nurturing and continuing to build my personal business relationships, including blogging away over here, which I couldn’t, as some of you have well observed through offline interactions.
Ugly. Very ugly state of things, if we have to keep depending on that reliability of connectivity for that major shift of the knowledge workforce that’s already well underway, where more and more people are becoming remote employees, or even no longer attached to companies but doing freelance work, and still needing to have that connection to the Web. That shift is not going to change, nor disappear, but to accelerate greatly over the next couple of years and seeing how urban places are starting to become more jammed and overpopulated, it’s going to be a huge issue if those remote workers from small, rural places can’t keep connected in a reliable manner. Or if, all of a sudden, ISPs decide to sacrifice their quality service to reduce costs or companies decide that good, robust VPN solutions are not worth the investment anymore, therefore forcing their remote employees to trash off the flexibility they once had and return back to the traditional office, no matter at what costs.
Of course, we have got email to fix that problem. I am sure you all have been thinking about that very same thought all along while reading this article, and, to be frank, no, we don’t. Email will not solve the problem, because, yes, you can work offline through your mailbox and everything, but you still need the connectivity to send those emails across and when exchanging large rich media files, or presentations, proposals, status project reports and what not; you are going to have a need for a rather fast and robust network connection. We are no longer in the mid-90s where a regular analogue line could get you through the daily email in a matter of minutes. Plus, I am not sure I would want to venture to state that email is safe in the current workplace just because we don’t have enough broadband capacity or a rather robust VPN set of solutions. It would be just totally wrong and for a good number of reasons.
We need to step up, we need to level up the game and start embracing the fact that over the course of time, the vast majority of your companies’ work is going to be executed, done and dealt with by people who are not working at the traditional office anymore, and, as such, we would need to ensure they are reliably connected to the Web to get their work done. As more and more of us progress further away from firewalls and internal protected networks into the Open Social Web, I guess we would be saying good-bye to VPNs, but then again, if you have been watching the news over the course of the last few months, and, lately, in the last week or so, you would know how some conversations would still need to take place in a secure, private, protected space, although still open and accessible to everyone concerned (i.e. employees, customers and business partners, for that matter).
So the need for ISPs to understand how freelancers work remotely and how much they rely on that network connection for a whole lot more than just sending an email, also correlates to the need from businesses to understand how critical good, reliable VPN connections are to allow those employees to stay connected in a world that’s become more virtual, distributed and remote than ever. Upping the game will get us all there, eventually. Not doing anything, though, thinking things will be all right, after all, will help us go into a Dark Age I doubt we’d ever be able to recover from accordingly. All of us.
Now, imagine if all ISPs, while they are going to become more under pressure over time, decide to take us through on to those dark ages … for good. Imagine, if, all of a sudden, after seeing last few weeks’ global events all over the place (Take your pick as there are a lot of those to choose from!) things just collapse. Just like that. Well, don’t imagine it. Let’s just work really hard on not making it happen any time soon, because somehow the trend keeps showing how we are heading towards that collapse, without remedy. I know, I know, I don’t plan to finish off this article with a negative thought of what might happen. Instead, I would want to finish it off with a rather outrageous, optimistic and heretic trend of thought on what’s at stake at this point in time, so please do allow me to leave you with this absolutely stunning, rather inspiring and incredibly thought-provoking presentation from one of my favourite thinkers of the 21st century that I just can’t have enough of in terms of showing the way of where we are heading, not only in the business world, but in our society. Check out Manuel Castells‘ recent RSA speech on “Networks of Outrage and Hope“, which will also confirm, for that matter, why social networking is here to stay and for a good few years, not only as matter of expressing yourself, but perhaps altogether as a matter of finding a new purpose, a new focus and a new meaning altogether: a better world for all of us.
Social Analytics. Don’t you just love it? Oh, metrics, what would we do without you in the business world, right? They are the main reason, apparently, of our mere existence in a corporate environment. And, lately, attempting to measure the Return On Investment of Social / Open Business has been grabbing most of attention in the last 3 to 5 years, but perhaps for all of the wrong reasons altogether, since time and time again we just seem to keep focusing on “measuring what’s easy as opposed to what’s important“.
Just like with technology, we seem to have developed, over the course of the last few decades, a fetish for trying to measure everything, and I mean everything, that happens around us, specially, in a business context, because, apparently, that’s the main only criteria we are using in order to improve the thing we are measuring in the first place. And it’s been rather interesting to see how over the course of that time, and more vehemently as of late, we seem to have dropped the whole topic altogether on measuring the ROI of social technologies, which is quite intriguing on its own, since it seems to confirm it’s been pretty much useless all along, since it is no longer possible to revert back on our Adaptation to Open Business practices. They are here to stay and it’s just a matter of when, not anymore about how, what or why.
Yes, I know, change is inevitable, after all, and the only thing we can do, eventually, is delay it. That’s probably the main reason as to why very few people are continuing to question the value of social networking for business. It seems like everyone has finally come to terms with the fact that, whether we like it or not, Social / Open is here to stay. But things weren’t always like that in the past. In fact, there have been numerous different articles, insightful blog posts, inspiring dissertations and what not, that have attempted to come up with a good, smart way of hinting how we may eventually measure the effective use of Social / Open Business. Pretty much like we did with Knowledge Management over 18 years ago and that we still haven’t managed to get it right, after all of that time. Somehow, I keep making the connection that perhaps we have attempted to measure what we shouldn’t have in the first place and instead we should have put our efforts in helping out, plenty more, with that adaptation to Open Business.
As usual, Seth Godin, in perhaps one of the top blog posts from 2013 (Yes, I know, that’s how good it is), pretty much nailed the whole argument around what has been the current state of affairs in terms of measurements within the business world. To quote:
“As an organization grows and industrializes, it’s tempting to simplify things for the troops. Find a goal, make it a number and measure it until it gets better. In most organizations, the thing you measure is the thing that will improve.“
Not much that I can share across after such brilliant reflection, other than perhaps add further up one other key element that seems to describe, pretty well, what may drive that kind of industrialised mentality: inertia. As in why change what has worked in the last few decades, right? Well, wrong. That’s the problem, it hasn’t worked out all right, because more than anything else what’s happened is that we have diverted our attention away from the real thing and just decided to muse on what’s easy, i.e. the low hanging fruit, what we can quantify in an effortless manner iteration after iteration. But Seth states it much more beautifully with this brilliant conclusion that I half referenced above already. To quote again:
“Measurement is fabulous. Unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important.”
So, what can you do then? What’s important? Well, lately, to me, for a good number of months, it’s been down to two things: Results and Relationships. As you may have noticed, none of those really focus on measuring the use of the digital tools at our disposal, which seems to be what most social analytics efforts focus on at the moment. Somehow I suspect we need to perhaps level up the game and start focusing on what kinds of measures, if any, at all, we would need in order to quantify the effectiveness of not just using social tools, i.e. the low hanging fruit, but the bigger challenge: the modelling of new behaviours. That adaptation to new ways of smarter work I have been mentioning for a little while now and which I think would be much more relevant.
That’s exactly what I am focusing on at the moment, at work. Not necessarily on measuring the easy bits, in terms of adaptation and enablement, but more on trying to identify how the power of storytelling could help us provide a much more meaningful and empowering method to quantify and measure those results and relationships. How? Through sharing of stories, of insightful anecdotal evidence of how knowledge workers have been capable of transforming the way they work by addressing business problems and fixing them adapting to new social / open gestures while getting their day to day work done in an effective, productive manner.
The fascinating thing about this shift is that over the course of the last few months I have started to notice how business storytelling is starting to make (big) waves into the corporate world in terms of how it’s helping organisations understand what an effective method it is not only to facilitate knowledge transfer or innovation, or to give meaning, or to improve employee engagement, or to progress further, but also to capture such knowledge in a much more noteworthy manner that could help out everyone make sense of it all in much more profound ways through a key element that I am incredibly excited about seeing it emerge time and time again lately: Narrative.
Every single business out there needs one. And perhaps if there is anything good that Open Business is facilitating at this stage it’s that huge opportunity to help inspire the creation of that narrative that employees cannot only identify with, but breathe it, as part of their new fabric, their DNA on how they work, eventually, something that I am 100% sure doesn’t just happen with the low hanging fruit metrics. Why? Because we can’t relate to numbers and figures out of context. We can relate though to people sharing their stories, connecting, collaborating, sharing their knowledge openly with one another, to eventually produce better business outcomes by working together smarter, not necessarily harder.
Networked and hyperconnected.
Oh, and if you are interested in the whole topic around Narrative, please do allow me to point you to one of the First Thinkers on the topic who, just recently, put together, a series of 3 blog posts that I can certainly recommend everyone to go and spend some time reading, and reflecting further along, on the huge potential impact of narrative in the business world. Neither of those three posts would leave you indifferent, I can tell you that. Here you have them Aspects of Narrative Work: Part I, Part II and Part III by the one and only: Dave Snowden.
[Thanks ever so much, Dave, for generously sharing them along with us!]
It looks like this is the year of Transformation, of Change, of Thinking Forward -out of the box- in terms of what may well be awaiting us in the next 5 to 10 years, within the corporate world, trying to figure out what next. Or, better said, where to next. You would remember how at the beginning of the year I decided, for myself, to start making the move away from Social Business into Open Business, and how, just recently, I also decided to move further along from driving adoption of Social Business into facilitating the adaptation to Open Business. Exciting journeys so far, for sure, more specifically, from the perspective of how both concepts (Although not necessarily rather new) are already starting to catch people’s attention in terms of how organisations could as well be provoking their own business transformation just like it is happening in our very own societies, all around a single key concept: The Era of Open.
Indeed, it is undeniable how the whole mantra of being open, specially, in a business context, is starting to catch up plenty of steam and a whole lot of attention , more than anything else, perhaps, as a reflection of what’s happening out there with a good number of global (or local, for that matter!) events, where more and more knowledge workers (AND citizens) are demanding a whole lot more openness and transparency in terms of how organisations across sectors and industries actually function around their day to day business operations. It’s been fascinating to witness how the current financial econoclypse, the social unrest, the massive workforce shift and those very same global events I referenced above are leaving a profound mark in terms of how it may well be about a good time now for the corporate world at large to re-gain back that social responsibility towards society through becoming more open and transparent in how they operate as well as how they communicate.
Open vs. Closed. That’s it, really. That’s what it is all about. “Connected, messy, loose and open“, as my good friend, Harold Jarche, wrote about brilliantly a couple of months back. It’s essentially what the Open Social Web is helping provoke on a scale that’s going to be rather tough to stop, but also to ignore, or neglect, specially, seeing the huge impact those open collaboration platforms will have over the next couple of years, if not already. And I am sure that, at this point in time, you may be pondering about going a couple of steps even further and start thinking about Radical Transparency. Or Radical Openness for that matter.
I can imagine how a good number of people out there may have just gone, a little bit, into panic mode when reading above about radical transparency. The thing is that we don’t know (yet) whether it might help out the business world to come back in good shape aiming as sustainable growth, or to help re-define a whole bunch of the business operating models (and processes) carried on from the 20th century that would help us address a good bunch of the business problems we still face today. Take, for instance, employee engagement: still the number #1 business problem in today’s corporate world.
The thing is that Radical Transparency can be really good for employee engagement, as David Zinger wrote nicely about earlier on this year, picking up from a piece from HBR under the rather enticing and suggestive heading of “Why Radical Transparency Is Good Business“. The challenge, as I have written about a couple of times already, and I am sure most folks out there would be thinking along these terms, too, by now, is How Open Is Too Open?
Ahhh, the limits and the limitations. They always have to be with us, don’t they? The constraints that little by little keep regulating and overruling our lives, whether at work or on a personal level. Those constraints that once they start being part of our own comfort zone(s) it’s almost impossible to get rid of them in order to keep evolving along. That’s what’s stopping us at the moment from progressing further into exploring that whole new Era of Open. Jacob Morgan pretty much nailed it when he recently blogged about it and what it would mean. To quote:
“We talk about openness, transparency, and sharing, but how far would we be willing to go with it? Would you feel comfortable working in an all glass building where people can see everything you do and every move you make? I do believe that organizations need to be much more open and transparent but there’s a balance that needs to be struck here“
Yes, indeed, there may well be a need for a balance at some point, in terms of how open and transparent you would want to become over the course of time. The thing though is that I have always believed that people should not be transparent. It’s organisations the ones that need to be transparent. And the more radical they are in that approach, the more each and everyone of us would benefit from it. This is essentially all about how much you would want to protect and hoard your own knowledge as an organisation understanding that what may have worked relatively well in the 20th century does not guarantee it will work the same in the 21st century. In fact, it won’t. That’s why we need to provoke that mindset shift from sharing knowledge on a “need to know” basis into “default to open” or, basically, sharing publicly everything by default unless you have been told otherwise.
That being told otherwise pretty much refers to what I think is the only one use case scenario for which organisations may still want to hoard and protect their knowledge. That is, when that piece of content truly is confidential and of a rather sensitive nature. Mind you, you should still challenge it a great deal, if you feel that what may have been flagged as confidential in the past, may not necessarily mean it needs to be in the present or near future. Remember, the more that you may be able to share out in the open, the more visibility, the more re-findability, the more reuse your content will go through. And that’s a good thing.
That’s essentially why I am such a huge fan of both mantras “narrate your work” and “working out loud“, without forgetting for that matter “Observable Work“. In my new job role, the rate of confidential, rather sensitive information I am exposed to on a daily basis has increased quite a bit from my former role, yet, time and time again, I keep challenging my own assumptions and those of others in terms of opening up and what it would mean for our overall efforts if we do. Vast majority of times I have discovered how the reason why people may not want to share their knowledge and information is not necessarily because they may not want to, but more because of inertia taking over with mutual agreements along the lines of “Yes, that’s how we have been doing business over here for a while and we never thought about questioning or challenging its status quo, because we thought it was all right. It was working“. Well, obviously, it’s not. Because if it were, I could guarantee you that we would not be having the good number of the business problems, challenges and what not we keep facing day in day out.
Jacob, later on in the article, quoted: “Being open and transparent is a scary yet interesting thing but as with everything else there needs to be a balance” and I keep thinking that perhaps that balance needs to be a bit unbalanced after all. Yes, of course, it’s going to be scary. After all, it’s new ground, within the business world, that we are trying to cover over here, right? I mean, when was the last time you heard of an organisation, the larger, the better, whose main mantras were to become more porous enough to permeate throughout on both openness and transparency? I haven’t heard of many so far, when trying to strike that balance. Yet the potential for that unbalance is massive, and here I am thinking that perhaps one of the things we could do is to get started with it and aim for radical openness instead. The one Jason Silva shares across in this absolutely exhilarating, inspiring, refreshing and thrilling short video clip:
What do you think? Ready for some yet?