This post is the result of a collaborative conversation. Jon Husband and I were catching up on Skype discussing where KM / HR /  enterprise learning / web2.o themes are going. I captured some of our thoughts in rough notes and  then tried to grow them. I passed back my draft to Jon who edited and added some clarity. Today blogging this my first question is too soft. It is not just looking for new conversations, what I care about is whether or not you will embrace change and have a real conversation around it. That’s something we are both effective at helping people with.

The New Conversation – Exponential Flows

Are you looking for the new conversation? The conversation you are supposed to be having or perhaps aiming to turn into gold?

How we enter into conversations is fundamentally changing. So is our role in holding them and using them. You sort of know it and yet you want the proof points too, because as often as not the “conversations” you and others may be having on the Web (the Web2.0 conversation) are too ad-hoc.

We might say it’s broken. It’s too focused on collaboration as the new work while organizations are just bogged down in meetings. Is your organization truly agile? Flexible? Connected? How are you addressing the change in processes required to succeed?

Consider these general trends:

  • more information is available “in the flow”
  • it can be easily searched and retention may not be the key
  • change when networked effectively is not linear rather exponential
  • we talk about “learning faster”, and “failing faster” in order to learn better and more quickly
  • developer communities are much more agile than the enterprises they support
  • we live in the flow in an activity stream and control or have access to more data personally

Enterprise conversations are at an inflection point – or closing in on one. Whereas previously “info was power” increasingly the outsourcing, the API’s, “standards” mean reduced leverage from internal information silos. Competitive advantage now comes from harnessing the value of community info. IE how connected is the organization. More importantly … how connected is each employee both internally and externally.

Each day we own … and are associated with … more of the information around us. As our lives become more digital that “search” about us (Example Specify) demonstrates the augmented power of the individual to be both part of and apart from a conversation. Today it is harder and harder to push things at me; I pull all the good stuff and some of the best stuff I may share or pass on. And while those “things” may seem without context the emerging people aggregators can make sense out of it.

Many employees are sharing stuff outside of the workplace all the time. For the most part the organization has no way to judge if this learning is relevant or even how it can use it. Why ? Because our lives are not really part of the organizations and we separate our behavior for our jobs. Do you have a life that is outside your job? In a more transparent work world we must increasingly be prepared to connect our personal world and our work world. I think we’ll benefit and so will the communities in which we work.

This boundary and managing the “what we do”  is the key reason the enterprise is stuck in thinking about information assets, and silos rather than how does the organization learn and help people prosper. For example, people such as those in developer communities are adapting more rapidly to change and are more agile in their actions. We can only expect this trend to accelerate. Another example is the way traffic monitoring systems are changing, or being changed. Today we have proof that a few mobile phones can actually process the location of traffic jams more accurately than the traditional helicopter in the sky, or more recently the webcam on the pole. Yet few organizations go would let go to this extent.

The answer is to let go and embrace the employees, and the community and encourage them to bring more in.

There’s plenty of good example of organizations that really get the purpose of the “suggestions” box. Yet if the box has a definition around it… eg boxed then how many suggestions are being missed. That’s the downside of restricting the flow of information into the organization. That’s the downside for not turning the organization outwards. Organizations are so focused on “push” that they fail to work the “pull” effectively.

Concurrently organizations must think less about “flow” and more about “acceleration”. Being in the flow isn’t enough. An organization’s effectiveness and ability to survive will be embedded in exponential escalation and network effects.  Knowledge has always flowed between individuals and within groups. However, for the most part individuals have no interest in hoarding that information. Neither do small businesses. They were never able to spend the money or capture the information to leverage “information and data” to make money. However, they built relationships better than their large compatriots. They thought about the conversations they had, and they listened. That’s something that most major enterprises don’t know how to do.

The Microsoft Kin debacle is a great example of how not to listen. If you ask me the research must have sucked, the business model re pricing didn’t hold up etc. The biggest failure was not listening, and a culture that seemingly was incapable of asking sensible questions. Microsoft had ever chance in the world not to miss this opportunity and blew it. Microsoft is also structured around old principles.

Conversation brings questions. Plenty of organizations know how to talk or is that strut their mumbo jumbo. They have PR and marketing experts now falling over themselves to provide that “social” connection and leverage. If it happens at a personal level it may work.

The crux is the information is increasingly moving to being outside the organization. Many organizations are going to be hollowed out by this effect. Just think about an organization that has no information assets, but still makes or provides something. What does it need? It certainly needs suppliers. It needs a way to estimate demand or make to order. It also needs to pay the employees. Does it need a huge marketing department in a world which can aggregate profile and demand with a simple / complex search? What will sales look like? Will it be a developer community? Or is that a user community?

In a restaurant where people go to dine (for example) the Chef has recipes. Most recipes, and how to execute them, are contained in their head. Yet perhaps tomorrow the menu should be based on who’s coming to dinner. So if you are a restaurant competing for business perhaps Yelp is going to help you with your menu?

So if you are the “new” organization looking to start a “new” conversation that will take you forward – where to start?

Don’t start with systems, and processes. Reject the idea that you are going to roll in new collaborative software. Start instead with a message. Start by listening… listening harder. In fact, that may be the first social step to getting beyond the structural impediments that lie in your way. When you listen really hard you open yourself up to new conversations. Those tend to be the ones that create real value. They are also the equivalent to learning on the job, and increasingly learning in real-time becomes the core of the work.

Think exponential. We tend to think straight line. In fact the accounting and budget departments don’t like the hockey stick estimates. Marketers always want to go viral too. That’s the same sort of exponential thinking. Yet that’s what we need. Good ideas, like a great story, are infectious, shareable, and seeded with a passion.

Empower people. Think about values and principles. It’s better to run on those than to run an organization on rules. Strengthen core values and look to build the conversation around them. Build conversations that revolve around flow, acceleration, agility, and change.

Only then will you be on the way to a new conversation. For Enterprise2.0 is stuck today in “social business”, web2.0, and resorting to outside suppliers and vendors with solutions for yesterdays problem.

When work moves beyond the boundary it becomes more social. When the organizational values are more broadly adopted by a community then engaging becomes more compelling. We’ve seen this in traditional brands and no matter how hard they try we will never see it effectively done by companies that are protected by regulation (example AT&T, Verizon, Comcast).

Companies like FedEx and UPS have harnessed information that helps delivery and tracking. They facilitate relationships between buyers and sellers. I’d suggest that more companies should think like that.

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