Dear Wally, (if the name fits or even if it doesn’t…)
I need to speak to you on an important issue. For some time I have been watching a tsunami looming large on the horizon and it seems that the majority of corporate leaders I get to engage with remain oblivious to the impending danger. It seems that they continue to believe that the impressive sand castles they have been building on the beach will remain untouched by this looming threat. They won’t.
May I suggest that, regardless of whatever name you go by, that for now you consider ‘Wally’ to be the name that fits best – and I will do the same. Whilst I don’t regard myself as some sort of contemporary Paul Revere, his mission certainly comes to mind as I write to you. Thankfully my means of getting the message out is not dependent on a horse (in his case several horses), my riding skills and ability to navigate the route. Yet, with the same urgency and earnestness of Mr. Revere I write to warn you of an impending danger to the way you live your business. And like Paul Revere, I hope that this too might contribute to a tipping point of awareness that saves the day!
For some time, many have peddled the attraction and retention of ‘Talent’ as the most significant corporate strategic challenge. The ‘war for talent’, as originally framed by McKinsey’s, was as recently as last year verified as the number one challenge by a global survey and research project done by the Boston Consultancy Group. Of course, this agenda item has played out in different ways and forms depending on where exactly in the world Wally finds himself. This undoubtedly remains a significant strategic challenge and is fuelled by a generational demographic shift that needs to be understood if the threat is to be countered.
But it is not this challenge that I wish to warn you about, although the new threat is not entirely unrelated to the generational shift that is taking place.
The new threat… the looming tsunami? It is the emergence of Social Media and it’s impact on your working world. At one level it is a simple problem: the rules of the game are being rewritten by the technology that constitutes social media. The evidence is all around us and we need only to look at our own kids to know that this is so. Their dexterity of thumb with what we refer to as a ‘phone’ – but for them is never used as a phone – is proof enough of a revolution in both information and communication. Their preoccupation with their online profile and image through Facebook; their pleasure at being the mayor of some location through FourSquare and their citizenship in a world that makes little sense to us is really all the evidence we need to see that things are changing. Our strategy and tactics have to adapt accordingly if we are to be successful in the new way in which the game is played. What we know for certain Wally, is that when the rules of the game change, so too must the game plan.
Communication and how we relate to one another is undergoing the biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press but with the difference that this time round, it is faster and has a far wider reach. Armed with the advantage of hindsight, it is easy to recognise just how significantly the printing press changed things. However, what it less noted is the less than enthusiastic response by much of the authority of the day who fought this new technology that threatened their way of doing things and their accepted exercise of control. They understood that this new technology would forever change the way of doing things and this that made them uneasy. Sound familiar?
The revolution that Social Media is precipitating, is being transmitted like a virus by those for whom it is simply part of their DNA, namely, Generation X and Y. As these generations find their way into the workforce (Gen Y) and into decision-making realms within the workforce (Gen X), so they carry with them new ways of relating and communicating, ways which to them are as natural and appropriate as are the ways with which we’re familiar. Of course It goes beyond just new ways of relating and communicating – their ease with such technology unwittingly shapes the very way they see and understand the world… in much the same way that our worldview – ‘our normal’ if you like – has been shaped by the things which surrounded us as we grew up.
Wally, I know we think that ‘our world’ is ‘the’ world but I want to suggest that this is not so. The way in which we see the world is – well – our way of seeing things. ‘Seeing our seeing’ is demanding but necessary work if we are to adapt. We need to acknowledge that although we have been living in the same homes and working in the same offices, we have in fact been living in ‘different worlds’. If you are struggling with what I am saying here, then consider what constituted ‘normal’ for your parents… this might be the easiest way to understand the shift I am talking about. In his book Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges author Otto Scharmer suggests that, ‘seeing our seeing requires the intelligences of the open mind, the open heart, and the open will. When people living inside a shifting reality begin to see what was previously unseen and see their own part in maintaining the old and inhibiting or denying the new, the dam starts to break’.
But let me get to the essence of my motivation for this letter. This new normal is changing the rules at many levels and in multiple ways within our businesses. Areas to do with information, control (there are those words again that our ‘authority forefathers struggled with), marketing, PR, training, conferencing… in fact pretty much any area that links people to communication and information, is open prey to this revolution. The thing is, the Wally’s I know, for the most part, don’t get it. We really don’t understand how the dots connect within the realm of Social Media and our business environment. Our approach is, for the most part, all wrong. We insist on playing this new expansive game with the mindset and habits shaped and ingrained by the old rules. Our strategy and tactics are still those that brought success under the old rules.
I can understand this, as we were the ones who invented those old rules and then perfected how to play the game. But the truth is, Wally, we simply have to wise–up and do so quickly. The revolution is exponential and will wait for no Boomer.
I know we can wise-up because if nothing else, we are adaptable and smart when it comes to building successful businesses. We have to trust our instincts and know that much of what we have learnt has to be unlearnt and then re-learnt. Knowing what to keep, what to discard and what to create in this process will require a clear head, a steady hand and no small amount of determination and perseverance. We will have to accept that what got us here, won’t get us to where it is we need to be. We have to learn from the future and not the past and do so now!
Mainstream Boomers and the technology that drives Social Media has never been a comfortable fit. At best it has proved to be workable and at worse, well, it is just plain ugly. The problem here is that we are not simply talking about isolated aspects of technology that can be mastered – being on Facebook, accessing YouTube, MXit , having a LinkedIn profile or exchanging credit on 10Cents; rather we are talking about the bigger picture, the much bigger picture of how it all connects and fits together and in doing so, how it is changing the world of business.
If we are good at anything, we have been good at ‘getting the message’ and there is no need for further elaboration. What we also appreciate is a comprehensive list of ‘How To’s’ – a ‘bring me the answer’ type response: Practical advice that allows us speedy implementation (how else do we account for the consultants and books that proliferate?) and so this noted, let me not disappoint.
Here then, Wally, are some action items for your consideration:
- Call it as it is and ask for help. We don’t get it and it is OK to admit this and call in the cavalry… (maybe not a helpful analogy but you get what I mean).
- Get a book on the subject and have some conversations with anyone under 35.
- Ask your kids about the ‘why’ before trying to understand the ‘how’ and ‘what’ when it comes to their use of technology
- Get a Social Media Coach. Here let me make it easy for you: firstname.lastname@example.org Mike is based in Durban and I can highly recommend him. You can look at the work Mike does at http://www.mikesaunders.com
- Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and having your kids lol
- Get going and then make sure those around you follow suit
- Practice what you learn and start changing the way you do things around the office as a result.
- Understand that this isn’t something to be mastered. You will always be playing catch-up in what is a dynamically changing environment. This too is OK and if it is of any comfort to you…tomorrow’s kids will challenge today’s kids in much the same way!
- Don’t try to control this with ‘policy’. It doesn’t work that way and will require some very different approaches and thinking. For reasons that I won’t elaborate on here, keep in mind that your IT guy might not be the best go-to person in this matter.
Best of luck as you venture into this territory and know that the reality is, you and I both, simply don’t have the option not too.