Social is the plural of personal: Part 3

[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.

To evolve.

Comments? Views? Part 4 to follow in a day or two.


10 thoughts on “Social is the plural of personal: Part 3”

  1. This kind of “personal” is why I love living in Switzerland. I once left my reading glasses in the Stauffacher bookstore in Zurich (2.5 hours away from where I live). After one email, in my lousy German, I received my glasses by first class post a few days later. [In return, I sent the staff the best box of Swiss chocolates I could find.] This kind of thing is normal here in everyday life. If I have no money on me when buying lunch locally, the bakery servers always say “No biggie!” and let me pay next time. Sadly, this trust relationship is far from common in the corporate workplace – and the bigger and more multinational the company, the more likely you are to be treated like a replaceable spare part. (But I recognize that a lot depends on the culture of the people at the top of the organization.)

  2. Indeed JP, it is a socialised form of business which is given opportunity in the Information Age and prompts the question – What is social enterprise?

    “The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

    So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.

    The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.”

  3. On scale by aggregation-without-integration.Nike has over 500 suppliers in Asia. Designers in Beaverton Oregon need detailed material information from the suppliers to next seasons design shoes. Questions, like will the material hold the season colors, how to get the answer, these need personal connections. Then saved and made social for scale. Little of this information runs thru Nike’s SAP instance, this social information runs on email, or in point solutions and after translation into SAP term often comes across as hierarchical arrogance to people who care about relationships. I’d posit the architectural patterns actually underpinning enterprise software has not been thought thru from the ground-up for the social enterprise and is largely bereft social, or accidentally meandering to social.

  4. Nice note. First time poster.
    The term satisficing is famous, from a guy called Herbert Simon in 1958 I think. Building on that, amos tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s 1974 article about “heuristics and biases” (perhaps you know it) described how decision makers substituted easy questions for difficult ones and based their decision on them instead. This was done through search and stopping rules based on a persons subjective experience rather than objective reasoning as described later by Gerd Gigerenzer among others. Their implication of the term Satisficer related to a decision maker who makes “good enough” decisions rather than objectively correct ones.
    When you speak about the relationships that you enjoy with these stores, maybe it would be another avenue to ask others what are the “search and stopping rules / heuristics” that they see as “good enough”. The results may be surprisingly different to yours or mine. Apologies if this post is inappropriate or beside the point. Best of luck.

  5. JP,

    This is astounding!. The crux of the whole post lies in your following statements.

    “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”.

    “So before “personal” can be made to scale, the environment that encouraged people to care has to be restored”

    I would be glued to your next part on how do we address the following:

    1. What is that businesses need to think differently?
    2. What needs to be restored in the environment to make sure people do care (again)?


Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.