Monthly Archives: March 2011

The most colossal mother of all change programs ever

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from Kuala Lumpur

I have just finished watching the most thought provoking documentary I’ve ever seen: Zeitgeist – A Way Forward.  If you haven’t heard already, it’s a lengthy film that presents an irrefutable train of logic to show that our economic systems are at the root of the world’s poverty, hunger, health, crime and environmental crises.  It was as if bell had rung in my head when I realized, while watching the film that connecting these world issues to money as a root perpetuator, was of course a simple truth.   Somehow I had just not seen it like that before.

Like being given a terminal illness diagnosis, the conclusion is that our future is definitely not going to get better.  But what could be possibly suggested as the solution?  Surely we would all know about a way out of this by now, if there was one…

The film illustrates how computer-based global resource management, the abolition of money and ownership, and new way of life for all could achieve a central worldwide goal: efficient use of resources for the sustainability of life.  New cities, designed from scratch, would incorporate infrastructures of intelligent systems to dispose of waste, supply water, transport people and goods, as well as grow local food produce. All goods would be designed to last and most would be built by automated machinery – all of this drastically reducing the need for labor.  People would live as equals in standard, efficiently designed homes with naturally sourced power.

What would this give us?  It would make free healthcare, housing and education available to every single person on the planet and it would eliminate crime, poverty and unnecessary harm to our environment.  It would give us all an attractive future.  Wow…  And there is nothing preventing us from taking this course of action – except ourselves.  If it went to a vote of the world’s population, we would have a majority ‘yes!’ and we’d be on the case tomorrow.  But for many reasons, there are millions of people who wouldn’t be able to comprehend participating in such a radically changed world such as this.

As a communicator, I felt a whole aspect of this vision was missing from the film.  Assuming that somehow, every country did agree to adopt the Zeitgeist way, how would we actually manage the change?  Imagine 2050 as being the year assigned to the ‘cut off point’: the collapse of all monetary systems and legislative ownership.  How would people behave in the years leading up to that deadline?  Would it be an all out show of indulgence and hoarding, of doing all the things we will never be able to do again? Or would extravaganza seem pointless?  How long would it take to arrive at our new physical world after 2050?  Maybe it would take 250 years to demolish, design, rebuild, and re-landscape high-spec living provisions…for 6 billion people?!

Then what about human nature?  Could we be happy in a global society like this?  What about our need to keep busy discovering, differentiating, rebelling and satisfying our vanity and egos?  Would the arts and education keep these wants at bay?   The film was clever to show that human behaviours are learned, not genetically predetermined.  Behaviours are contextually triggered – or not, so perhaps just the first one or two generations in this new world will have the most behavioural challenges – before it becomes normal not to be greedy, ambitious and competitive.

The ‘old world’ will seem like immature history and the decision to manage resources together, quite commonsensical.  The mind boggles.  I hope we take this direction – it seems like the best possible future we could carve out for ourselves and I’m in.  And I’d also like to be involved in implementing the most colossal mother of all change programs ever.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Colorado

Read this in Colorado and just landed in London, which gave me some time to think about this on the plane.   I think this is a topic that most of us ponder pretty regularly – and wiser heads than mine from Hegel to Milne and many others have philosophised about human beings and their nature.

One part of me, the cynical side, says “No way.” The adage that “If you can’t change your people, change your people” might play in a company of 10,000 or 100,000 people, but is such change scalable? Has it ever been attempted? (Al Gore has had a pretty good run at it I suppose). And of those 6 million folks who might want to drive (and benefit from) such change, how many of them will really be able to buy into this vision – whether due to their government, their access to information, their education, their literacy…  The accumulation of wealth and therefore power has been relentlessly moving in the opposite direction for some time now.

One part of me, the idealistic side, says, “Well, maybe.”  Social communication has been enabled by technology on a scale never seen before, so it is hard to predict its longer-term impact – but events in Egpyt, Libya, Bahrain etc. demonstrate that movements can gain momentum once they hit a tipping point.  The real question is sustainability – in both its narrower and broader sense.

My conclusion?  Everyone probably thinks this is a good idea in theory, but in practice will believe that everyone else should change (the tragedy of the commons).  Until an economic model that works with 0% growth that is 100% sustainable, we’re kind of screwed.

Mike Klein – Commscrumming from Zeitgeist (er…Denmark)

The distinction between quantity and quality of life is a big one.  Systems that are designed to be “fair” usually end up degenerating into repression, be it of the active brutality of the Stasi in East Germany or the passive brutality of Scandinavia’s “Law of Jante” or the Dutch admonition to “just be normal, that’s crazy enough.”

Aside from the fallacy that “fairness” can work as a viable social model, it’s also worth questioning the basic definition of “sustainability” at play.  Indeed, all discussion of “sustainability” internally or externally warrants giving the inferred definition a good kicking.  “Zero environmental impact” vs “continuing the business for another 100 years” are two entirely different sustainability ball games.  Indeed, alarmist propaganda like Zeitgeist can actually detract from more sustainable sustainability approaches, while hardening internal opposition to world-friendlier ways of doing business.

Dan Gray – banging his sustainability drum in London

Hmmm… How to contribute without descending into a major polemic (you have, after all, strayed into my pet area)? I think the best answer is probably just to provide a couple of links…

Firstly, speaking to Mike’s point on definitions, I humbly direct you to the ‘executive summary’ of my own position on what it means to be truly sustainable here – A better way to bigger profits. In addition, I’d point you to Umair Haque’s brilliant HBR blog for a customarily provocative portrayal of the battle ground – what he frames as The Capitalist’s Paradox.

I will allow myself one additional parting shot…

KK, it’s not about growth or no growth, but what do you want to grow?

Mike’s right about the distinction between quantity and quality of life (at least if I’ve understood him correctly).

It’s long been my view that what the economic orthodoxy has yet to grasp is that their kind of growth has not done one jot to actually make people *happier*, largely because they’ve similarly failed to grasp that wealth is not an absolute concept but a *relative* one.

Thus, whilst in absolute terms, economic growth may well have lifted people out of poverty, in *relative* terms they have actually become worse off, since the proceeds of growth flow so disproportionately – as most perversely illustrated by the extortionate bonuses being paid once more to the bankers, while Mr and Mrs John Q. Taxpayer are still carrying the can for their thirst for the quick buck.

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Lessons in the Jasmine?

Mike Klein – Commscrumming from København

Having talked about “revolutions” over the last year or so, I find myself oddly flat-footed when it comes to discussing the wave of revolution sweeping the Arab World.  In some measure, this is because my severe pro-Israel bias makes me skeptical about how this will all turn out.

I also find I have little to add beyond what my friend in Boulder, CO, Rachel Berry has to say (http://ow.ly/480xm).  While I think corporate executives often can think in dictatorial terms, today’s workplaces are generally more democratic than the violent Arab dictatorships that are being overthrown and that we ought to use caution when drawing deeper parallels.

One exception I will make is that of speed.  While corporations like to think of themselves as “big”, a company with 200,0oo employees has fewer people than the third ranked cities in Egypt or Libya or Iran (or Arizona for that matter).  In the time it takes to mobilise a flashmob in Alexandria, smartphones and a good sense of an organisation’s social landscape can send a rumour or pronouncement around “the company world” in seconds.

Contrast this to days-long and even months-long approval processes for even routine documents.  These are a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, today’s communication speeds can punish errors swiftly and seriously.  On the other, official communication can and does increasingly find itself behind observable facts and the spread of rumor.  The speed of socially fuelled revolutions should serve as a caution to those who dither about what and when to communicate.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard in The Netherlands

Agree: the pot of unrest in the Arab world has been brewing for decades.  You could say that the speed of social communication is directly proportionate to the mass will behind / significance of the desired new outcome.  Either that or social communication is just about some inconsequential ‘interesting’ gossip.  Conversely, ‘official’ communication to reactionary events has less momentum – an automatic disadvantage.

Kevin Keohane – London

In the foggy mists of my education I recall something called “stability delay analysis” which was all about the phenomenon that building in deliberate delays in financial transactions, legal actions, engineering, etc., are sometime built in to ensure “flash in the pan” decisions don’t create serious breaches, distortions, accidents or errors.  It could be argued that this is a critical role that bureaucracy plays in government and business.  In this world of instant gratification and any form of delay being seen as “administrative b.s.” – I want it all, I want it now, I want it fast – it could be that the rapidity we see in expectations of the “consumer experience” are being translated into expectations about bigger social change.  A guy on the street with a smartphone isn’t making academic distinctions necessarily … but I ramble.  Raises some questions:  How fast can revolutionary change happen without destabilisation?  Too big for my brain … Berlin Wall, Velvet Revolution vs. the overthrow of Ceasucescu (probably spelled that wrong).  Is it possible to stem the tide of a revolution to help ensure its success?

Dan Gray – screwing in his studs in London

Mike, I’m probably going off on a wild tangent here, but when it comes to assessing the malaise of ‘traditional’ communication approaches, framing the lessons to be learned from these events purely in terms of speed is, IMHO, to ignore something much more profound.

If only it were as simple as addressing the tendency of organisations to dither about what and when to communicate.

As tempting as it may be to believe that ‘If we could just do things a bit faster, loosen the reins a bit, rid ourselves of some of the treacle of bureaucracy etc.’ then everything would be peachy, the reality is much more complex than that.

It’s not just traditional, hierarchical, centrally controlled models of communication that are ill suited to a world of rapid change; it’s the whole system – the business and organisational ecology – that spawned them.

Reshaping communication and reshaping the organisational orthodoxy go hand in hand; otherwise all we’re doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and the use of social media (however effective) just ends up being a ‘sustaining innovation’ solution to a much more ‘disruptive innovation’ problem.