[Note: This is the third in a series of posts I'm going to be writing on how "social" represents "personal" at scale. Right now I have no idea how many posts I'll write, or when. It all depends on where you take the conversation. If you want to read the prior posts, they are the two immediately preceding this one].
In a previous post I described myself as a satisficer rather than a maximiser, terms I learnt from a Barry Schwartz book nearly a decade ago. The way I interpreted him, a maximiser shops around, must check every possible nook and cranny before making a buying decision, and often spends the post-buying time worrying about having missed a bargain. A satisficer, on the other hand, has a price and quality level in mind for the product or service sought, looks for that product or service, and stops looking once there is a reasonable match. [I accept that I have tended to load the terms by describing them that way: I am a satisficer, after all].
As a satisficer, I find it easy to be a creature of habit. I like going to places where everybody knows your name.
So I invest time and effort in my business relationships, helping create and reinforce trust. Once I choose a product or service provider I stay loyal, as long as the trust relationship is sustained. The people I engage with know who I am, where I come from, what I do, where I live, what I like, what I dislike. And how those likes and dislikes change. For decades I went to the same pub, the Stag and Hounds. It was a “regulars” pub, a proper local, not much in passing trade. It’s no more now, I think they’re building flats there. And the landlady has moved on, she runs a different pub now, with her husband. Their new pub is ten miles away. I’ve known them for over 25 years through three pubs. Now, if I go and see her, she knows what I drink. Water, diet sodas. Not the G&Ts of the 80s, not the Kronenbourgs of the 90s. It’s nearly a decade since I had a drink. People who have a relationship with me will tend to know that.
“Personal” begins when people are in relationship, know each other, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses: they know what makes each other tick. These things are necessary but not sufficient. For sufficience you need people who care.
In a traditional bricks-and-mortar high-touch low-volume business people find it easy to care, the environment is right. But, as I explained in my second post, as businesses tried to scale up, too often the environment that enabled caring was dismantled brick by brick. The people who held the relationships were either “downsized” out of their jobs or moved around; the people at the coalface had their discretion stripped away and were made to resemble machines; and the focus was on standardising and dehumanising the customer, the individual. It wasn’t just in business, you could see similar developments in healthcare and education.
So before “personal” can be made to scale, the environment that encouraged people to care has to be restored.
This is easy in analogue terms, and where scale is unimportant. All the action is local, the volume is low, and everyone is happy.
It is also easy when scale is obtained by joining together small pieces in a sort-of fractal way, with each piece continuing to have its own identity and relationships and empowerment, with each piece allowed to sustain its circle of trust. And that’s why the Etsys and the Abebooks succeed at scale. Theirs is scale by aggregation-without-integration. That’s why Kickstarter succeeds, personal at scale. Once you protect the trust (which is established as a result of the protected identity, the relationships and the empowerment) then scale is possible.
When I shop at Abebooks, when I go to a shop I used to go to before the Amazon takeover, I don’t see any change. My relationship with the shop itself is sustained. I am dealing with the same person or people. And even the way I engage with them is the same. Trust has been protected.
The Abebooks and Etsy and Discogs people, while working within umbrellas of trust, continue to add their personal touch to business engagements. Often, the goods arrive with signed thank you notes, sometimes even with a smile emoticon or a heart sign. Signed by a person. The same person who you had the email conversation with, the same person who never said “I’m sorry, I can’t do that, it’s against the rules” when you ask for something simple but non-standard. Like when they say “Does not ship internationally” and you ask them if they would. Usually all it takes is a trusted relationship and a basis for agreeing delivery charges, and a way to transfer the charge. I remember many years ago, when Amazon had z-Shops, someone actually arranged a private auction for me where I was the only bidder and the Take-it price represented the postage. The seller found that it was easier to do that than to change his status from “Does Not Ship Internationally”. He sent me the custom URL in minutes. And we had a deal.
Machines operate in contract, they know no better. If it’s not within the rules laid out in code it doesn’t happen. [Or at least it shouldn't happen. But code is rarely perfect].
Humans, unlike machines, can operate in covenant.
A contract relationship is one where the two sides negotiate recourse in the event of breach. So when something goes wrong, the question to answer is “Who pays and how much?” A classic example of a contract is a pre-nuptial agreement.
A covenant relationship is one where the two sides are committed to each other in an environment of trust. So when something goes wrong, the question to answer is “How shall we fix it?” A classic example of a covenant is that between parent and child.
For personal to scale, trust and covenant must be protected and sustained. Even enhanced.
Which is where social comes in.
Let me try and explain. By now regular readers would have been aware that I’m a big fan of The Big Shift, the Shift Index and the Power of Pull, all part of the oeuvre of John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison over at the Center for the Edge. Until I delved into their work, until I’d spoken to them at length, there was something missing in my view of what’s happening.
I was comfortable with the idea that having covenant relationships in business was the right way to go: that was consistent with my upbringing, my attitudes and beliefs, consistent with my satisficer status. I was comfortable with the idea that the advent and evolution of digital infrastructure, and the likelihood that it would become both affordable as well as ubiquitous, these things meant that “scaling” trust and covenant relationships was going to be possible. Similarly, I was comfortable with the idea that the problems of the 21st century, covering climate change, energy, water, nutrition, mineral resources, education, wellbeing, healthcare, poverty…. these had all evolved into new forms and shapes…. none of these problems was going to be solved using the tools of the old command/control hierarchy-based paradigms… new tools, related to covenant relationships based on deep-seated trust and requiring mutual respect and collaboration across multiple and complex cultures and disciplines.
All this I was comfortable with. And the Sixties-Child-technology-tinged optimism that I inherited made it all the more likely that I would hope and expect that the internet would help make this world a better place.
But balanced against this was a pragmatic expectation that life, the universe and everything would carry on as before, with Fear and Greed being the primary drivers. That companies would continue to concentrate on maximising profit, that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. That people like me would fade into retirement listening to the same old protest songs and wondering about what might have been.
Then came my aha moment, as I dug deep into what John, JSB and Lang were saying. They weren’t just saying that there was a better way. They were saying that that better way was the only way. The only way for companies to succeed in a world where digital infrastructures and liberal public policies had created the Big Shift. Now they had my attention. [This is something I've written about quite a lot, so if you're interested please search for "Social Enterprise" occurrences here at confusedofcalcutta.]
I began to see that “social” was not just a way for personal relationships to be sustained in trust and covenant, but that it was a way to improve the lot of everyone involved. Customers. Businesses. Partners. Even products and services.
It all begins with sharing.
Being able to share who I am, what I’m interested in, what I’m like, so that the first part of the analogue relationship can be transferred to the digital. And, as in the analogue world, this view of who I am has to be built in an environment of trust. Which means informed consent. Consent to collect information about me, obtained once I’d been educated and informed about how that information is to be used, particularly when that information is not part of what I have shared voluntarily in the public domain.
With whom would I share this information? With people I trust. People I have personal relationships with. When those people work for companies, that domain of trust is extended to those companies. A company’s employees are all frontline ambassadors of that company’s values and ethics and brand. You trust the people, soon you will trust the brand. Over time, this has a more powerful effect: since I trust the brand, I will now trust the people associated with that brand; I will begin to have relationships with people I don’t know, because they work with people I know. One degree of separation becoming zero degrees of separation over time.
So the first thing that gets shared is what gets called a “profile”. This is nothing new, it happens all the time everywhere. When my wife and I are talking, and one of us is trying to describe someone we’ve met for the first time to the other, we create profiles. Profiles that persist in our memory, descriptive of the person, his/her likes and dislikes, history, and so on.
When profiles are shared between people in an environment of trust, identification becomes easier, and the inherited investment in the relationship means that personalisation and customisation become easier. But that alone is not enough.
The second thing that needs to be shared is communication. Ideas. Feelings. Wants. Needs. Hopes and aspirations. Worries and concerns. Feedback loops. People in relationship tend to share these things. So too in a digital world. To protect and sustain trust, this has to be done with everyone being equal, everyone being a node on the network as it were. Networked not hierarchical. With communications taking place in trusted pairs and groups. With informed consent as to what is being shared and for what purpose.
Profiles and networks are by themselves not enough, unless the person-to-person dialogue is taking place between empowered people. Which requires businesses to think differently, behave differently. Institutional innovation.
This then leads to the network-related collaboration curves that the Power of Pull speaks of, where focus is on the flows of learning rather than the stocks of experience, and where marginal returns are on an increasing curve. Network effects.
Then the stage is set for the payoff. Creation spaces. Where value is created communally. As people coming from different cultures and experiences and skills can share their learning and continue to learn together, creating ways of reducing waste and building value. At home. At work. In society. In the world at large.
Creation spaces are enabled and facilitated by the common profiles, the networked communications and the institutional innovation that ensures that the edge is empowered. It’s where social acts as ambassador, as recommender, as warning, as filter. It’s where the power of bringing together people from different environments and cultures and genders and ages and skills and beliefs starts showing.
All the while protecting the trust and the covenant of the original relationship, as a result of the empowerment, the transparency, the informed consent, the feedback loops.
And the willingness to adapt, to modify, to change.
Comments? Views? Part 4 to follow in a day or two.