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Why Social Really, Really Matters

Like
many of the posts I write, this one wasn’t in the plan. I thought I had
said all I wanted to about the current fad for social business. If ever
there was a tautology then this is it. So I thought I might start
blogging about the experience of developing the Smart Work Company’s
new, shortly-to-be-launched learning communities.

And then I heard Gary Hamel talking on Big Think.com. I had to replay the video clip several times because I could not believe what I was hearing. He says:

“Back in the traditional economy when success was simply a
matter of diligence, focus and discipline. it really didn’t matter that
people were being treated like or behaving like automatons. There was
not much of a price to be paid for that.”

I hardly know where to start with that one. So the traditional
economy was not built on skills and knowledge in which people had
enormous pride? And since when were people compliant? What they do, and
have always done, is direct their considerable intelligence into
resistance. While I was thinking about what to write in this article, I
found myself thinking about Jimmy Reid’s rallying speech to the Upper Clyde shipbuilders  in 1971 and 1972. Reid died last year and was widely lauded as a hero-figure.

Alienation

Now I am not a fan of the unions – or rather I am in principle. I
perceive some union leaders as being largely subject to the same desire
for personal power that distorts some management. Because of my
antipathy to the unions, I had not given any attention to Reid. I did a
search for his speeches and found his Glasgow University rectorial address. It is an absolute blinder. He says:

“Let me right at the outset define what I mean by
alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of
blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of
ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The
feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with
justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their
own destinies.”

Not much of a price?

In an article entitled ‘Health In An Unequal World’, Professor
Marmot says that the risk of dying early deaths is “intimately linked”
to where people sit within a social hierarchy. This is true within wider
societies at country level and also within the workplace. Low status
and ill-health are linked. He compares death rates for different parts
of London and then says that the gap is even bigger in Glasgow:

“The
difference in life expectancy between the most deprived and least
deprived areas was 6·9 years in 1981–85; 20 years later this rate
had increased to almost 12 years.”

My
dad died age 45 of a heart attack. Of the men in my mother’s life after
that, three died early deaths (in their late 50s and early 60s) and all
alcohol-related. As you might imagine, Professor Marmot’s work has my
complete attention. He concludes his article by saying:

As
physicians we need to be the natural attorneys of the disadvantaged.
The Commission on Social Determinants of Health was launched in Chile.
It seemed appropriate, then and now, to quote Chile’s Pablo Neruda and
invite you to: “rise up with me…against the organisation of misery.”

Rising up against the organisation of misery

Self-organisation,
self-determination, having a say in decisions that affect us,
participating in shaping our own destinies, empowerment – both Marmot
and Reid agree that this is what prevents alienation and sets the
conditions for healthy lives. This is why I spent years studying what
empowerment meant in lean, quality and agile manufacturing methods. I
came to the conclusion that approaches changed the balance of power on
shop floors. No shop floor participation in problem-solving and
innovation? No lean, no transformation of performance and no business
benefits. How then did businesses creates performance environments where
people could participate, innovate, learn and find meaning in their
work?

I
do what I do for my dad. I also do it for my family and friends. And I
do it because I am incensed that people suffer needlessly because of
social dynamics.

Back
to Gary Hamel. He says that initiative, creativity and passion at work
are crucial if businesses are to be viable in the knowledge economy.  He
also says they are voluntary and cannot be gifted.  That is and always
has been true.

Social really, really matters

I
have a deep conviction that people do not have to be prisoners of their
work environments. Social technologies connect us to peers and
information outside the organisation that can help people to influence
and shape their own work environments.

Reid said:

“To
unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them
responsibility. The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing
compared to the untapped resources of our people … the flowering of each
individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for
everyone’s development.”

Social
technologies really do provide us with opportunities for
self-determined action. We have no-one to blame but ourselves if we do
not grab the opportunity. The ‘why’ is clear. The ‘how’ requires courage
and action. Now it really is high time I got on with developing the
learning communities.

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