Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts about the Social Enterprise and the Big Shift. The first post provided an introduction and overall context; the second looked specifically at collaboration, working together; the third looked at optimising performance, enjoying work, working more effectively. The fourth, Doing By Learning, looked at how work gets done in the enterprise, and provided the context in which such flows should be seen. The fifth delved into the subject of flows in detail, and introduced the concept of enterprise social objects. The sixth looked more specifically at the role of trust in the social enterprise, and raised the possibility of using social objects as catalysts for building tacit trust. This [hitherto unplanned] post continues with that theme. The last three posts (in the series of ten) will then look at curation, filtering, innovation, motivation and radical transformation.]
I wasn’t planning to write this post. But it appears that my last one, on trust in the social enterprise, struck a chord with many of you, and I wanted to share the conversations that erupted with all of you. Conversations that took place here within the comments, on Facebook and in Google+; there was further fragmentation as people pinged me by e-mail (not a medium I care for, but one that doesn’t appear to know when to depart the scene gracefully). Some people even preferred face-to-face engagement. Incidentally, I’m currently temporarily sidelined, recovering from an operation. As a result face-to-face interactions are limited. It’s during times like these that I see just how much of a blessing online communities can be. Of course face to face is desirable; of course eye contact and voice are wonderful; of course synchronous conversation is compelling and beautiful; but when we rail against online communities and “social networks” let’s also try and think about those who are actually more enfranchised as a result, overcoming physical, emotional, technical, social, economic or political barriers via such networks
Virtual Communities and Trust
There should be a law against using the phrase Virtual Communities without invoking the name of Howard Rheingold, the doyen on that subject, the onlie begetter of that phrase. [Howard, I hope you're well. Sorry to have missed you this time around in SF. September?] In his seminal book The Virtual Community, an absolute must-read, Howard makes the following observation early on:
Social psychologists, sociologists, and historians have developed useful tools for asking questions about human group interaction. Different communities of interpretation, from anthropology to economics, have different criteria for studying whether a group of people is a community. In trying to apply traditional analysis of community behavior to the kinds of interactions emerging from the Net, I have adopted a schema proposed by Marc Smith, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has been doing his fieldwork in the WELL and the Net. Smith focuses on the concept of “collective goods.” Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community.
The three kinds of collective goodsthat Smith proposes as the social glue that binds the WELL into something resembling a community are social network capital, knowledge capital, and communion. Social network capital is what happened when I found a ready-made community in Tokyo, even though I had never been there in the flesh. Knowledge capital is what I found in the WELL when I asked questions of the community as an online brain trust representing a highly varied accumulation of expertise. And communion is what we found in the Parenting conference, when Phil’s and Jay’s children were sick, and the rest of us used our words to support them.
That was written over twenty years ago. For me two sentences stood out, and stood out enough for me to want to repeat them here:
Every cooperative group of people exists in the face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community.
Nearly a decade later, Amy-Jo Kim, another regular WELLBeing, wrote Community Building On The Web. And smitten as I was in Howard’s work and in the workings of the WELL, I found Amy-Jo’s book fascinating. Another must-read. [Over the years I have lost count of the number of copies I've given away of these two books, The Virtual Community and Community Building On The Web. Buy them, read them, you won't regret it.] [Disclosure: I know Howard well, I've met Amy-Jo a few times; I am not a shareholder in anything they do and have no financial interest in your purchasing the books].
Early on in the book, Amy-Jo says:
Communities come to life when they fulfil an ongoing need in people’s lives. To create a successful community, you’ll need to first understand why you’re building it and who you’re building it for; and then express your vision in the design, technology and policies of your community.
She then goes on to say:
A community can begin to take root wherever people gather for a shared purpose and start talking amongst themselves.
Incidentally, a dozen years ago, Amy-Jo described her nine design strategies as “timeless”. Time has proved her right.
The importance of shared values and shared purposes
A good deal of my learning takes place through reading; it’s the simplest way I can find out what someone thinks and for that matter how someone thinks. With the advent of video, I’ve been able to watch people share their ideas, particularly with the assistance of communities like TED. [I've even been able to share my own ideas that way. Having the chance to speak at TED@SXSW this year, and at a TED Salon in 2010, was incredible. If you're interested, here's a link to my TED talk at Austin. ]
Despite all this, most of my learning takes place the old-fashioned way. Asking people questions and then listening to their answers. One of the people I have the privilege of knowing is Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Having been to a number of Forum events over the years, particularly in Davos, Dalian and Tianjin, I’ve always marvelled at the nature of the community that he’s built. When I wanted to understand more about the role of music in reaching across borders, I could go listen to Lang Lang, Gabriela Montero and Zarin Mehta share their thoughts and learnings. When I wanted to understand the implications of Wikileaks, I could go listen to Daniel Domscheit-Berg and then follow that up with a quiet lunch with Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis. Now I realise the incredible privilege I’ve enjoyed in having roles and responsibilities that give me access to such people and places; but none of it would happen unless people had visions for the communities they wanted to build.
With this in mind, and with a strong belief that the Forum represented so much more than people could see on the surface and in the media, I had a conversation with Professor Schwab about the role of trust in the social enterprise. His answer was very instructive:
In order to create a real community you have to first bind people together by a shared interest, then you have to bond them together through interaction and then you have to build/engage them into joint action.
This philosophy of binding-bonding-building is a basic principle for all that we are doing.
He then went further and pointed me towards the work of Howard V Perlmutter, enriching my journey of learning. So I’ve ordered a book by him, along with a treatise going all the way back to the mid 1960s. My thanks to Professor Schwab.
For a community to succeed it must have a shared purpose and shared values. Everyone agrees about that. But for some reason when we start talking about social commitments in business, things get less clear. For some reason people conflate for-profit with “bad” or “evil”, and non-profit as “good”. Over the years I’ve seen extremely well-run and socially-conscious for-profit firms, and extremely poorly run non-profits, and vice versa. It’s not the for-profit or non-profit tag that makes the difference, it’s the quality of the shared values and the leadership to embed those shared values into the everyday operations of the enterprise. That’s why I joined Salesforce.com, with its unique integrated corporate philanthropy model. The values inherent in that model permeate everything we do; every day I receive communications from Foundation employees sharing opportunities for me to get involved in social action; the people who work for the Foundation work amongst the rest of us; at the annual Dreamforce, coming up in September, customers and partners work closely with staff as they share the experience of committing time to Foundation activities; these values pervade everything we do; Marc Benioff has written more books on corporate philanthropy than he has on the cloud.
What your comments have taught me
Your comments covered a lot of ground. James Dellow chimed in reminding us of the term “social capital” and its importance in this context, something that resonates with the “collective goods” that Howard Rheingold referred to in his original Marc Smith schema. Francine Hardaway pointed out the intrinsic ability for digital infrastructures to extend trust networks, while warning us of the risk of being gamed by people who are not what they seem. As the sayings go: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog/on the internet everyone knows you’re a dog. No one. Everyone. At the same time. Christopher Rollyson brought in Robin Dunbar’s work, and also reemphasised the impact of the Big Shift in increasing uncertainty and the consequent need for a greater dimension of trust. Chris Conder and Peter Van Den Auwera remarked on the “magic” that comes from being able to trust, with its inherent vulnerability and risk-taking. John Hagel and later Brooks Jordan underlined the need for a holistic approach [Brooks, incidentally, I'm a big fan of Christopher Alexander, have signed copies of A Pattern Language and The Nature of Order. I think everyone involved with building information systems should read Alexander as well as Jane Jacobs]. Tom Guarriello correctly identifies that my focus on trust was to quite an extent catalysed by my having to entrust my well-being to a group of strangers in a foreign land, while in hospital in San Francisco. David Chassels emphasised the role of object thinking in this context. Heather Gold took pains to ensure that I wasn’t suggesting that social objects act as mediators for trust, underlining the importance of vulnerability in personal interactions as a basis for growing trust. There have been more comments, but most of them have endorsed what I’ve already covered here.
So what did I learn?
Communities are meaningless unless they can do something together that they could not have done in isolation. The willingness and ability to take action is what matters. Trust is the glue that allows communities to act. During times of relative stability and certainty, there is a tendency to systematise and automate the building and verification of trust; that is dangerous. It becomes exposed in times of uncertainty, when credentials will no longer do. That’s when shared values and ethics and purpose come to the fore: without them the problem is one of morals, not systems. Identity is going to become more and more important, but it’s nothing more than “credentials”. What really matters is in the interactions between people in a community, the vulnerability embedded in those interactions, the risk taken within those interactions, the learnings, sometimes painful, that come from those interactions.
Trust is earned, often with the scars of learning. But trusting is important, more than important, it is imperative. Imperative because we need to come together in multicultural multidisciplinary multistakeholder ways, ways we’ve never come together before. Ways that require us to be willing to take risk, to make ourselves vulnerable, to trust.
We need to do this because mankind faces challenges that cannot be solved using the tools of prior paradigms, challenges that are genuinely global in nature, challenges that affect the well-being of our children, their children, their children’s children.
The Social Enterprise is nothing more than an enabling mechanism for helping us connect meaningfully with each other; and social objects are nothing more than catalysts in helping us experiment with trust.
In the end it’s about people. Us. The values and purposes we share. The values and purposes that can bring us together in community. Us. Our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to each other, to be open with each other, to trust each other.
No man is an iland intire of it selfe.