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Grumpy OD Men

Steven Phillips
Steven Phillips

It is hard to know which opinions are a reactionary consequence of ageing and which are just an accurate evaluation of current fads as complete and utter nonsense.

And so it was with joy and relief that I happened upon two bits of research in the last few weeks that debunk common and current obsessions in learning, development and communications.

The first one[1] explained how the idea of “…making things go viral on the internet” was about as reliable as betting on Brazil in the World Cup. There are two main reasons for this. The first one is that the chances of something going viral on the internet are literally one in one million. One million is the number of things you might have to post online before one of them became noticeably enough popular to be said to “…have gone viral”.  The definition of viral-ness being the degree to which content is sent on to further parties from one who has viewed it.

The second reason for this, that fits perfectly with the first, is that no-one knows what makes something that popular online, even when it does “go viral”. There are no identifiable common characteristics. It is completely unpredictable and therefore completely uncontrollable.

The second piece of research[2] that made my heart sing was that the “millenials” and “digital natives”, i.e. that species of primate loosely related to the rest of us but with more of a social life and a predisposition to lie on my sofa asking what there is to eat[3], are REALLY NO DIFFERENT TO EVERYONE ELSE when it comes to the workplace.

This fabulously useful bit of research looked at a serious number of studies of the aspirations, ambitions, preferences, career choices, attitudes, behaviours and piercings of young people. The conclusion it came to was that they were not looking for anything significantly different from employment or an employer than any generation that had come before. They aren’t looking for more meaning in their work. They aren’t looking for an organisation of exceptionally positive global impact. They don’t want to dedicate themselves to work of a charitable or humanitarian mission any more (or less) than you or I do or did. It is a myth.

What is it that I find satisfying about all this? Well my bias/prejudice/irritation/moan/ grumpiness is that we are hooked on novelty in organisations. And this is a collusion between consultancies and clients to pretend that our collective relevance is to do with our ability to surf the latest fad or identify what is next, rather than the timelessness of our practices and our insights – assuming that is, that we have good practices and useful insights.

It is a sort of professional “being down with the kids” that makes us want to sound like we know which digital platform to Kick-Starter so we can maximise the click-throughs to a digitally augmented user-generated crowd-sourced cloud-sized virtual learning domain. I did actually have one of those, but it kept deflating so I put it in a neighbour’s skip.

And it smacks to me of  insecurity. In order to transact business, I need to have a value to you that others don’t have. It is too intangible that I might do this ‘better’ than someone else or we might work better together because the quality or our relationship is better than between others, so my proposition has to be a tangible solution. To sell you a new solution, i.e. one that others don’t offer you, I need you to have a new problem. In order for you to have a new problem, something needs to be the case now that didn’t use to be the case. And so new gaps have to be opened up, gaps between what you used to know how to do and what is now required.

I’d argue that when we connect most truthfully, most fundamentally, most intimately, it is about what has always been true.

What are those things that have always been true? Well my stab at them in relation to getting things to “…go viral” in your organisation or how you appeal to a supposedly different generation are:

Go where people are.  This means that it doesn’t matter what technology, what language or what medium the people you want to reach are connecting in. What matters is that you know where they are if you want to go talk with them. And you then need to know what the etiquette is in that environment.

Be relevant. In the workplace this feels increasingly binary – you are or you aren’t. There is little middle-ground.

Understand me as an individual – not as a stereotype. My 88 year old Auntie-in-Law runs her life from her iPad and knows which local coffee shops have the best free WiFi. Whereas my 21-year old daughter only reads books made out of paper and said that she “…can’t believe how much time the younger people spend on their phones and electronic stuff”.

Listen first if you want to understand – a lot of organisational development and communications people grew up in a world where media was for broadcasting in one direction. Even back in those distant times, ‘telling’ was great for compliance but little use for any pursuit requiring discretionary effort. A conversation in which you were open to hearing and understanding has always been a good idea,

You cannot control what happens – I know we are approaching heresy here, but the idea that you have ever been in control of what people hear, how many of them hear it, what they make of it and then what happens as a consequence has always been a bit of a fallacy. I love the quote (for which I am indebted to Sue Robbie of Microsoft) that a “communications offensive” is normally the latter and rarely the former.

Don’t worry, Lucy or Waqar will be back here soon with something uplifting and positive about how flocking wonderful and full of infinite possibilities human beings are.

[1] The Structure of Online Diffusion Networks: Goel S., Watts DJ, Goldstein DJ, Yahoo & Microsoft. Proceedings of the 13th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce (EC 2012).

[2] Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing: Twenge J, Journal of Management 2010

[3] I have two Digital Natives, who, despite every attempt to entice them into the wild to live amongst their own kind, are still on the sofa.