To be really productive, we need to make friends not appointments

Although we read incessantly that social networks and anytime media are bringing sharing to the top of the agenda and people closer together, our experience doesn’t always chime in tune with the assertion. So it was interesting that three people here at ASK independently stumbled upon an article by Alexander Fliaster at People Management last week, and were interested enough to present each other printouts of it as ‘something I wondered if you’d seen’. (And yes, we do know we could email each other: I think we hit the print button and used some shoe leather as we were genuinely interested rather than wanting to pay it the digital passing glance of a ‘Like’ button or its ilk– an aspect of social media that Evgeny Morozov commented on in The Net Delusion, reviewed here recently.)

It probably also says a lot that we all recognised each other as people who would – as individuals – be particularly interested in the article, and in Fliaster’s comments. We’re not a project team, and there’s no pressing current project that is focused primarily on creativity: but we do have a culture that means we chat openly and widely, and understand what each other might be particularly interested in (or are curious about what a particular person’s reaction to something might be).

Our reaction to the article proved, in one way, part of its author’s point that:

The real engine of creativity and organisational success is to be found in internal networks of friendship and collaboration.”

Fliaster makes an argument about creativity – a key to competitive advantage and organisational sustainability – that is reminiscent of Matthew Syed’s argument about talent: that we collectively hold to a myth that it’s a natural attribute of a select chosen few. (You can read our review of Syed’s Bounce.) On the contrary, Fliaster argues, creativity is a collaborative, social process where people can share ideas, give pointers, make introductions to not just new information or concepts but to other people whose ideas may be interestingly related.

Nor is this necessarily a 21st-Century FaceInTweetBook thing:

In terms of knowledge, informal networks go far beyond current technological trends. Collaborative contacts help identify or solve problems through the division of labour. They also validate ideas and courses of action, offer critical perspective, and create new entrepreneurial opportunities. Moreover, learning from creative people can sharpen one’s own intellectual abilities.”

Informal creative networks are about more than ‘Like’ buttons, watercoolers, or collaboration pods (The Independent’s scorn was discernible and understandable): they are about making that valued workplace friend who provides a mental springboard, about exploring ideas in real depth or from new and refreshing angles, – and about discovering a sense of belonging (albeit to a sub-set of the organisation) that chimes with real personal interests.

Fliaster argues that informal social ties are the key that enable organisations to capitalise on the creative spirit, and that ‘structural holes’ that can be exploited by those able and keen to make these ties are part of the key. While his article was welcome, I can’t help but think that this argument also belongs in the ‘but haven’t we always known this?’ category. Most of us can observe that the cubicle farm building where departments are segregated from one another (except possibly at managerial level) don’t feel like – and often aren’t – hotbeds of creativity, even in the limited sense of ‘problem solving’.

(As a creative, I confess to having a personal bugbear about that use of the word ‘creative’: why can’t creativity happen when there isn’t a problem? I’m not sure Picasso, Miles Davis or Harold Pinter set out to solve something.)

As with so many aspects of modern life in general, and modern work in particular, there are clear attempts to address ‘the issue’ with technology. The plethora of social networks – and this blog is ultimately only another example – attempt to put the people sat at all those machines in contact with each other, and to create network value. (The argument being that each new node adds to the value of the whole, although our capacity to meaningfully engage with enough nodes to fill the Albert Hall must be emphatically questionable.) My reading of Fliaster’s article is that he harbours doubts about the real impact of technology here, particularly when it comes to its application in Knowledge Management (something, we should note, now considered sufficiently important to merit Capital Letters At All Times):

To solve non-­trivial, difficult technical problems, knowledge workers cannot just download a ready solution from the corporate intranet. They rely not just on one ad hoc piece of advice but on repeated interactive discussions. Reliable networks, therefore, become vital for problem-solving and work performance.”

Those networks in the final sentence there, I’m pretty sure, are human ones connected by social interaction, rather than by broadband cables and servers. As Fliaster points out, friends in the old-fashioned sense don’t just manage constructive critical feedback better than friends in the ‘click here to be one’ sense, they collaborate and share more: the emotional and social bond encourages the professional bond. The added value of friendship is that the feedback, the suggestions and the advice are honest and genuine – they are not given with one ear listening to how the advice makes its giver look or sound, but through a genuine belief that it might help the recipient. They are also given from a position of greater understanding: we can give better advice or feedback to our friends because we understand them so much more fully than we understand those we think of just as ‘colleagues’.

Indeed, relying too strongly on the power of technology may undo our hopes of a more creative workforce. The level of investment in KM strongly implies that organisations value knowledge: why else spend large sums on extracting, storing and disseminating it? But the development and implementation of IT – and especially of knowledge management systems – has also impacted on the ‘value’ of people. 30 years ago, for example, a tax advisor was expected to learn and recite all the tax rates and rules and calculate liabilities quickly in their heads: this was a core skill, which their salary or charges reflected. Now a junior employee needs only to enter some key client data into the computer to arrive at the same calculation.

But other types of knowledge are not so easily automated. Is our wisdom and our final value as individuals in the workplace ultimately one of those abstract human qualities that lie enigmatically beyond the scope of IT or of quantifying? (It occurs to me that many of the blockbusting sci-fi films that have grabbed our collective attention are technological dystopias: AI; 2001; Terminator; I, Robot – much as we hope technology will solve all our issues, some element of human essence cannot be captured within it. There’s a critical difference between crunching data and interpreting it.) It’s hard to tell whether this acknowledgement that individual human capability may elude our ‘bottling skills’ is an admission of the current frontiers of applied IT, or that current employment practice – that employees no more expect a ‘job for life’ than organisations anticipate offering one – must accept that ‘knowledge’ will move on. Organisations capture what they can before the target moves on. (Our human response to this bottling process and its impact on our relationships with each other raises a whole new host of issues too, as Mark Gould points out in this and many other blog postings.)

A school child once innocently responded in an examination to the question “What is the best way to keep milk fresh?” with the guileless but logical answer “By leaving it in the cow?” This could be a great example of that old English saying ‘out of the mouths of babes …’ Or it could be a hint to place slightly higher value on the cows.

There seems to be a bigger point underlying Fliaster’s article, which calls on HRM to find ways of encouraging social interaction as a means of sparking the informal creative networks – or what I tend to simplistically call ‘friendships. That point seems to be about creating organisations and cultures that allow things rather than trying to either force or prevent others.

The recognition of informal, interpersonal, human creativity is the start for the development of new ways of thinking. We could call it “strategically encouraging informality”. Friendship, mutual emotional closeness and sympathy can, of course, hardly be ordered. But the good news is that it can be supported. The organisational climate that is free from politicking, infighting, antagonistic norms, destructive opposition to new ideas, and a “knowledge-hoarding” mentality creates a solid foundation for collaboration and friendship.”

In a much more down-to-earth way, I think we said the same a few months ago when we published New Year’s Resolutions? Burn the spreadsheets and buy tea bags and a hammer – inspired by reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (also previously reviewed). Mark Gould’s thoughts about the human responses behind knowledge hoarding remain valid, however, and I’m sure Fliaster is wise and adult enough to realise the “strategically encouraging informality” is the kind of language that would make most people find a structural hole and tunnel out through it as fast as their teaspoon can carry them.

But there is, it occurs to me, one potential application of technology that might help. Rather than using an intranet to capture the contents of employees’ heads, let it hold something closer to their hearts – let them build personal profile of their individual interests and skills, write personal blogs or use forums to discuss ideas. It requires a non-censoring cultural mindset, but it can work – in one university I’ve worked for, it lead to significant changes in online learning practice and process, and in the mentoring of students. Like IBM’s 15% rule, it means allowing people time to invest in it, but a culture (and tool) that encourages employees to reveal rather than conceal interests, skills and passion must be a step in the right direction?

I’ve experienced too many organisations where collaboration outside an employee’s native silo was seen as time-wasting and triggering criticism, where socialisation was interpreted as a lack of focus, where an office that took a few minutes to chat was rebuked for not getting on with the task. Perhaps, but allowing us to lift our noses an inch or two from the grindstone might have given us a glimpse of the train entering the other end of a tunnel of mangled metaphors.

These were organisations where managing was a verb concerned with controlling rather than facilitating or encouraging, where ideas could be taken upwards (where they took their turn to be trodden back down again) rather than sideways to people who might offer insight, guidance, feedback or even encouragement. (To mangle another metaphor, if you want to know the time, do you ask a policeman or the man who does the book-keeping for the police station?) It would be fascinating to bug a sample of offices and record the percentages of occasions on which managers a) forbid, ban, discourage, prevent or curtail activity, and b) encourage or allow it – what are the percentages of ‘Don’t do that’ vs. ‘Feel free to’ that most employees hear in their typical working days? The reliably readable HR Bartender recognised this point a couple of years ago, in a typically strong post, The Book of No. Have we reached the point in human history where our managers and HR functions can function in 17 languages and not say ‘Yes’ in any of them?

They were also organisations where any structural hole was seen as a gap, rather than as a conduit (go back to our earlier posts, where we touch on the links between not just organisational but office space design and the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Posed as bluntly as “should the people be organised around the needs of the building or the building organised round the needs of the people who work in?”, the answer is obvious, yet even ostensibly sensible organisations can publish – if only to later retract – mutli-chapter volumes about dress code. There are strong elements of organisational design as well as culture involved in these issues (a topic explored in another post by Mark Gould, The nature of the firm, and why it matters, which also raises the issues of organisational flexibility, productivity and longevity – none of them entirely unrelated.)

As a group of conversing colleagues at ASK, we did take issue with one assertion from Fliaster’s article: that we interact with those most similar to ourselves. Our perception is that, certainly in terms of creative working relationships, similarity is neither a pre-requisite nor an initial attraction – ‘opposites attract’ isn’t a cliché for nothing. Diversity, in all its senses, is what brings new things to any metaphorical table, and encouraging line managers and team assemblers to understand it – not least through team psychometric activities – could be a valuable contribution to any organisation. While ‘friendships’ and ‘high-performing teams’ may have a chicken and egg relationship, it also struck us that the two are largely inseparable: the interpersonal nature of this also makes this an area where HRM in itself cannot deliver hands-on results – its input needs to be through those at the interpersonal coalface.

As we explored some months ago in conversation with writer and consultant Peter Cook, organisations need to balance creativity and structure in ways that lend themselves to musical analogies – orchestra vs. jazz band. Structure needs to be sufficiently present to provide direction, a degree of focus and a guard against descent into chaos: an hour’s free jazz is enough for most people. But then again, an orchestra gives only a performance – however skilful – of something from a repertoire of old scores. And as Adam Ant once sang:

So unplug the jukebox
and do us all a favour
that music’s lost its taste
so try another flavour

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