Writing a novel


A few days ago I saw a blog post where someone was expressing their dissatisfaction with the business networking site LinkedIn.

I’ve come to one conclusion – LinkedIn is worthless to me.

Alright, so blunt cynicism aside, I’ve not found very many benefits from the site. It seems like you connect with people who barely know you and in turn, barely want to help. The most I’ve received is, “I’ll keep my eye out for you.” This is the same type of help I can get from a stranger sitting next to me on the bus.

The problem, it struck me, was the “people who barely know you” bit. And then I was reminded of an old saying that I’ve known for years (originally attributed to the relationship between Microsoft Project and the art of Project Management): social networks are to the art of networking what Microsoft Word is to the art of writing a novel.

We have all of these incredible tools available to us, but unless you are using them in the context of some sort of strategy you’re not managing, feeding and nurturing a network of people – you’re just collecting names on a web page. You might as well be trading football stickers or stamps.

I’ve of no doubt that social networks enable us to sustain networks far greater than the limits of our own cognitive ability. I’m certain that they enable us to connect and engage with people in ways previously unimaginable, finding people of like mind or of diverse interest.

But what social networks can’t do is feed and tend that network, helping it to grow so that you can give to it and receive from it. The tools might act as a conduit on occasion, but they won’t do it for you. They’re no replacement for hard work, empathy and paying forward.

They’re just a tool.

Don’t expect magic from them.

Four stages of digital disruption


I’ve been thinking about the ways in which media industries (and others) have been disrupted by the world of digital, and am playing around with the idea of four key stages:


The world where things existed in analogue and physical form. Think record shops and vinyl and cassettes. Think bookshops and libraries. Think news agents and newspapers.

Digital transactions

When the world of the physical became intermediated by websites. Think Amazon in its early days. It’s a place where a lot of the public library system in the UK current sits.

Digital fulfilment

When both the purchasing and delivery of the content become completely delivered across the internet. Think iTunes in music. Think Kindle in the world of books.

Digital transformation

Once the link between transaction and fulfilment has been totally digitized, there’s then the opportunity to rethink business models. In media, most obviously, this has been in the breaking down of the pay-per-item nature of music or film consumption through subscription models offered through the likes of Spotify or Netflix.

Non-media business can be seen to go through similar stages, although there are certain business types where it’s hard to imagine a completely digital delivery – take what Uber and others are doing to the world of taxi travel, for example.

Step changes generally happen with outsiders taking the lead (see: Amazon, Apple, Spotify…), and sometimes happen at the boundary of legality (Napster a great example in the world of music).

Thoughts welcomed.

Weeknote 217: Hung Over


Things I have learned this week:

- some industries and professions seem to live up to all of the stereotypes
– but assumptions on basis of age are risky
– facilitating is harder to justify than delivering (the challenge of owning outcomes)
– it takes 12 months + to build up momentum as a free agent
– social networks are to a networking what Microsoft Word is to writing

Next week: a two-presentations in one evening happening. One of which is http://www.meetup.com/The-Social-C-Suite-London/events/198151342/

Employer engagement


Employee engagement is big business. Entire consulting industries are devoted to measuring and tracking the levels of engagement that are displayed by a company’s staff, and implementing programmes of work to try to nudge the scores upwards. An engaged workforce is a productive workforce, so the correlations tell us.

But correlations and causality are two very separate things, something that is often overlooked in these Big Data times. Is the engaged employee that way so because they’re being productive?

It’s been occurring to me over the past few days as I’ve started my investigations into the future of careers that the concept of employee engagement also demonstrates the patriarchal culture that is still so strong in our large organisations – borne of a time when the social contract was of a job for life. The corporation offers security, the employee engagement and loyalty in return. Those days are long gone, but the corporate expectations of the employee remain.

I spend some of my time needing to engage audiences. Whilst I can tell the signs of engagement (people looking at me, nodding, occasionally laughing at my sense of humour), and of disengagement (doing email, snoring, leaving the room), if there is assessment at the end of the event then it’s not the audiences engagement that is being measured – it’s how engaging I have been. Because, ultimately, it’s up to me to be engaging.

Why does the corporate world spend it’s time only measuring the employees side of the equation? Why are there no measures of employer engagement?

This might sound like a merely semantic point, and to an extent it is. But semantics are important. An employer can’t control employee engagement, but it can change how engaging it is being to its employees. Too often, though, focusing on the employee reaction is by definition reactive. Employee engagement is something that you try to fix, not something that you feeds into business decisions in the first place.

Take for example the trends amongst most organisations in the past 20 years moving away from defined benefit pension schemes. How much was “employer engagement” seen as a factor in removing these obvious indications of long-term commitment from employer to employee away?

In a world of radical transparency, measures of employer engagement will arise – to an extent, services like Glassdoor are doing it in a way already. Maybe employers need to start measuring their actions, not just the outcomes of their actions, if they are serious about becoming a more engaging place to work?

Millennial state of mind


In a few conversations in recent days I’ve been noticing how there is often an assumptive merging of two (for me) distinct concepts – millennials and digital natives.

I see myself as a digital native. Although I can kind of remember a time without computers around me, I struggle to. I taught myself to program on a BBC Model B in my teens. Moreover I was using dial-up bulletin boards to swap files and share stories at about the same time and was involved in online communities when the Web was still a bunch of static pages. Facebook and their ilk feel familiar to me in many ways bar the mass adoption and fancy user interfaces. I was doing Internet on my phone before there was any point in doing Internet on my phone.

Being born in 1970 I’m certainly not a millennial.

But assuming that people who have been born into a world where digital technology is ubiquitous inherently understand its importance is a risky game. Whilst Gen Z and Millennials might be happily using social networks, they don’t necessarily understand the importance of having a network.

My grandparents weren’t born into a world of ubiquitous motoring. Their relationships with their cars were very different from mine with mine. Were they better drivers than me? Well their generation had little impact on that – my maternal grandfather was a reasonable driver, my abiding memory of being in a car with my paternal grandfather was the smell of burning clutch.

But did they understand the value of easy travel, and did they make more of it as a result? Possibly.

Do kids coming into the workforce today and in the next few years inherently understand the value and importance of developing and nurturing a professional network because they spend their time on SnapChat? That’s a dangerous, and quite frankly wrong, assumption.

What’s stopping you?


Work with one of my clients at the moment is focused on the use and adoption of collaborative tools – social networks within the organisation. This is a path down which I have travelled a number of times over the years, but I’m realising this time around that something is now fundamentally different. Before, questions would be around “What are you trying to do?” to try to elicit needs to specify an approach that would be appropriate.

Today, with the near ubiquity of the Internet, and powerful devices nestling in most people’s pockets, the better question is “What’s stopping you?”.

Tools to be able to collaborate are two a penny on the Internet. Actually, they’re often cheaper than that. Whether it’s the “Facebook for business” services like Yammer, collaborative workspaces like Trello, or new emerging services (and there’s a new one every minute it seems), people are spoilt for choice.

What may be stopping them? Well, there might be technical reasons getting in the way – whether down to bandwidth, security configurations or browser versions. A smartphone can jump most of those hurdles, but then there might be reticence to blur the boundaries of work and not-work (interestingly it seems as prevalent amongst the Gen-Z and Millennials entering the workforce as within older age groups).

There might be organisational issues at play – particularly around policies of technology use at work which (in turn) can be reinforced through technology constraints. Almost all of the above can also be circumvented by the age-old method of “forwarding to a Hotmail account”.

The final set of reasons, however, are much more fundamental. “I can’t”, “I don’t want to”, “I’m not allowed to” – the cultural and attitudinal stuff that means that people don’t go down routes to find out how technology and behaviour change might work hand-in-hand to deliver new ways of working. None of this stuff is magic – but years of computing being portrayed as near witchcraft haven’t helped the majority to feel empowered in their ability to choose which technologies to use.

In turn, and patriarchal approach by business IT (“We know best. Here’s what you should use.”) has further emasculated some people into thinking that they don’t have the necessary skills or expertise to make decisions about technology. It’s something that happens to them.

There’s another element here, though, which is just mild disinterest. Want to get a group of people working together, and doing so via technology? Beware the 90/9/1 rule of thumb – that in any social or collaborative environment, 1% of people will be really active, 9% will occasionally contribute, and the vast majority will sign up, occasionally glance, but mostly do nothing. Encouraging greater participation isn’t a matter of new or better tools – it’s a matter of engaging people to see why working better together is important, and why they should engage. And that might well be something best done outside of the realms of a business social network.

The future of career paths

SLippery SLope

I’ve been asked by a client to pull together a session looking at the future of career paths and career planning towards the end of the year. It’s an interesting assignment, and a theme in which I’ve made fairly significant experimental investments in the past few years (often to my wife’s considerable consternation).

Undoubtedly “working out loud” is one of the themes that I’ll be thinking about; building one’s network another. It made sense, then, to kick off the work by asking my network for their views rather than focusing merely on my own preoccupations.

What are the major trends that are impacting how we should plan our careers? There were some interesting points of view.

Environmental themes were the first to emerge.  @ChrisWeston pointed to the Low Carbon economy, and how that would be the biggest trend to impact the nature of work in the years ahead (and hence our careers). Cycling nut @mchillingworth got much more specific saying he’d never contemplate work that involved having to commute by car (having done that myself on and off over the past decade, I get where he is coming from – even in the era of the podcast, driving is dead, unproductive time.

@MarkWilsonIT also banged on the cycling drum, and tied it in to other issues of work/life balance in the concept of “downshifting” (at least I’m assuming that’s what he meant, rather than some complex cycling term!). @SoulSailor also picked up on the flexibility of work patterns identifying part time versus full time employment and balancing between one or many organisation with whom one works at any given time.

Entrepreneur @MMaryMcKenna took more of an employer’s view, and commented that even when bringing in junior people she’s looking for folk who can bring a network with them, taking precedent over merely fitting a CV to a role specification. @BenFletch noted that if you only bring in people who already have the right experience, it’s always going to be a sideways move (and by definition are you therefore opting out of employing ambitious people?).

The final macro economic trend that was highlighted was the changing (and ageing) demographic in the UK. @MilicaGay noted that an older, longer working population would have more opportunity to make career changes, and that with more access to information these days we can be more informed about what our options might be. I’ve had flashbacks to careers guidance in the 1980s at school from that comment, and it’s scary how uninformed I was when I was starting out. @JoiningDots saw the demographic changes leading to new opportunities, and @DamianCorbet wondered if GenZ and Millennials would have an impact on the world of work because of their different expectations (although a few folk, including @IndaloGenesis contested whether it was an age thing or a mindset thing).

The final thread of conversation was whether the idea of career “plans” itself was now redundant… a question posed by @AustenHunter in light of the “age of complexity”. As @AranRees put it, “plan is perhaps the wrong word now. In a complex system a methodology enabling rapid learning and change is key.”

Some of the topics that came up were bouncing around my head – others were directions that I just hadn’t considered. That’s the great thing about being able to call on one’s network! You can see the full threads here and here, and I’ll be coming back to this theme in the next few weeks. Thanks to Chris, Mark, Mary, Ant, Ben, Milica, Sharon, Damian, Richard, Austen, and Aran for sharing their thoughts.

Matt Ballantine's thoughts about technology, marketing, management and other stuff…


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