I had a thoughtful day at the Meaning 2012 conference in Brighton, courtesy of my friends at IBF. They asked me to write some blog posts about what would be relevant to the Intranet and Digital Workplace crowd.
Accidentally falling into the world of co-working and social business while being a member of the Hub, first at Kings Cross and then at Westminster I used to think that the corporate world and social-business-for-good were separate worlds. Now I’m not so sure. Everything is deeply inter-twingled.
Anyway, over on IBForum you can read my write up of Luis Suarez’ presentation. The IBMer that gave up email: Breaking the chain – death to email
Lots of intriguing thoughts from a grab bag of thought nuggets. Has it led me to hope for the future of business? Sort of. I see and end to unrealistic hope that anything in business can ever be perfect. More on that soon.
We used to live in a time of boring Sunday afternoons. Information was sparse. It was pored over intently. Its meaning was mulled. Its context was bolted down.
A book would retain our attention. A novel would be finished. A reference work would be retrieved many times. A letter would be cherished, re-read and kept possibly forever.
Those Sunday afternoons have been replaced by a constant Friday evening in Piccadilly Circus. Information arrives in volume. Some people call this information overload, although we always had more information than we could cope with in the library, or even a well stocked newsagent. What has changed is our attention, for it is attention that is limited. It is attention, within organisations in particular, that is at breaking point. We have spent the last 30 years using tools that allow us advances in productivity and creativity, by allowing data and information to be shunted around at great speeds. It is my conjecture that if we want to progress any further we must deal with organisational attention as a communal resource.
The tragedy of the commons
The tragedy of the commons is a well known economic principle. If we consider the premise of common land, where the community grazes their livestock, everyone has the incentive to graze their flock beyond the capacity of the land to cope. Solutions to this puzzle include some form of management that provides disincentives for this behaviour, either by placing rents on the farmers, or some other form of regulation that might promise some other disbenefit onto the cheats (let’s say a good kicking for starters).
Let’s begin to consider attention within an organisation to be a commons. Anyone can use the collective attention pool to get-work-done. The distribution of power to use the attention-pool is not necessarily equal: The CEO and the Internal Communications department have the means to use more of the attention-pool, but even Joe Bloggs can call a meeting, send an email or otherwise demand attention from his colleagues.
But the attention-pool is finite.
Where does attention come from
Let’s consider what attention is and where it comes from. When you are unexpectedly handed a hot plate, it immediately has your attention. Understanding doesn’t even come into it, the conscious mind isn’t even trusted to be able to take action quickly enough – you have a reflex action as part of your lower nervous system to drop the plate.
Many other things that we learn to do don’t even need your attention. I’m typing this on a keyboard – I acquired the ability to type well over a decade ago so it doesn’t really have my attention. Many processes within organisations become very clear about what should happen next (the phone rings, you pick it up; the boss asks you to print the presentation, you press CTRL+P; you need to do your expenses, you do your expenses). These things become work and doing them are what we are all paid for. These are things at work that are unequivocal – you don’t need to think about what to do next. They don’t consume attention, only time.
Then comes the main body of our concern – the equivocal, the ambiguous, the uncertain. Organisations are chock-full of stuff that we need time to work out what to do with. The information needs to be parsed, read, understood, given context, explored and then either it has something that must be done (an action or task), or something that we might need to know later (filed).
Whatever is left after we have done the easy stuff, the collective process of understanding what to do next, is what I define as the attention-pool, and at the moment we are drowning in it.
What’s killing attention?
I believe there are three main sources of noise that are choking the collective attention within organisations.
The largest by some margin are demands from others. Someone needs something. A boss needs something, a peer needs something. The first problem is volume, which is typically immense and this has been notable for years. But it is the nature of these requests that are not easy to interpret, because they are typically not communicated well. It is difficult to be able to extract an action out of a 1000 word email, or out of a long rambling meeting.
The second largest is the world of FYI and CYA, the periphery of CC: emails. Things that might be damned useful to know, if only we look for long enough, amid the impenetrable clouds of people insuring themselves from future criticism in cultures of mistrust. My good friends, the twin brothers of knowledge management and internal social media, are also in this group, manfully trying to calm everyone down by shouting loudly.
The smallest of these three, and the most professionalised are the demands of change that typically come from Internal Communications departments. The organisation would like us to behave differently, know something new or more ephemerally would like us to feel differently. This is the world of employee engagement, comms plans, news articles on the intranet and slickly managed management events.
So all of this is thrown at the tender mercies of employees’ attention within large organisations. People say they don’t have the time, or they are drowning in email, or they don’t have the bandwidth right now.
Firstly I would say that I don’t think this is specific to any particular tool. Tools come and go, and how we use them changes over time, but this comes down to how people behave — both in how they wish to use other people’s attention, and how they personally extract what they need from the attention-pool.
I have always believed that information systems are dynamic systems — that is they change over time. If you look at one you are only seeing a snapshot.
Take email. Employees weren’t able to deal with all of this on the desktop alone, confusing time for attention. Email went mobile, but that didn’t solve it. Feeling that email is a lost cause there is the move to new and exciting social tools. Like capitalism, attention doesn’t solve its crises. It’s like the old gag: “That place? No one goes there anymore it’s too busy.” As email becomes intolerable, the malcontents become early adopters and move to a new platform such as Yammer, where they meet like-minded refugees. For a brief moment all is clear, but then everyone one else comes along and ruins it for the chosen few.
Do the cool kids move on again? Probably, but unless organisations and their employees begin to deal with the commons of attention nothing will really change.
Enough of my mewling, how can this be solved? Firstly does it need to be solved. Perhaps we shall shortly hit the limit of personal productivity? I don’t think so, we all see muda everywhere in fluffed interpersonal communications, rubbish meetings and failed initiatives, and we all know what it feels like to have a golden week when stuff flies off the to-do list.
For employees as individuals there are behavioural changes on both transmit and receive. People need the skills, frameworks and tools that allow them to focus on the relevant, and harvest the personally actionable. This is where Clay Shirkey’s supposed filter-failure lays on the provision of tools that allow the crap to be filtered out. I have hope that AI will help us here but that may be forlorn, either as another abrogation of personal responsibility, or as something we never really learn to trust.
There is plenty of help available in organising oneself productively with skills encapsulated in various methodologies such as (my preference) David Allen’s Getting Things Done. There are also the social mores in news ways of holding meetings, and how collective decisions can be made.
The main point for change in that of how we engage with other people’s attention and how we can do that far more responsibly. They say a true artist is one who can, but chooses not to. Before we put something out there, perhaps we will begin to be much more circumspect in doing so. But remember this is a commons. If you choose not to email everyone on the project, you may be at a disadvantage to the person that does. Your responsible action has made space for someone else’s irresponsible action. They have cheated, you have suffered. There needs to be an incentive to not communicate, or a disbenefit for doing so. Meeting tokens have been mooted, putting a value on shared resources. Many organisations now strictly regulate broadcast email, ensuring it is used only in crisis-communications with everything else collected into a weekly digest newsletter. Employees should be encouraged to block out time in their diaries, and advertise times when they can be contacted, or to explicitly control their attention with checking email and social for only limited times, and controlling their availability to others with status on instant messaging. The source of much of internal email is people copying each other in to cover their arses and many commentators have pointed to increasing trust within organisations for employees to get on with their jobs (and this is where social tools in the enterprise can really rock).
Crewing is another answer and games company Valve are the darlings of this. There are no managers and people work on what has their attention — things that do not have their attention die. This is not democracy, this is a market — it is essentially Darwinian. [It gets my goat when people confuse democracy for egalitarianism as one is about rule and the other is about treatment. Even if your voice is heard, there is nothing to say that your plan gets done in a democratic system.]
Do management care about the commons of attention. Broadly no, because I suspect that they are keen to grow the amount of time they have available by providing incentives to make their employees work longer hours. The management attention-pool is of course the most stressed of all and it is inherent to the nature of the job. If you think you are stressed just think for a moment about poor Antonio Horta-Osorio the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who in 2011 went into abject mental and physical meltdown — in short the poor fellow couldn’t switch off his attention.
So organisationally we might consider to making things unfair and I would like you, dear reader, to entertain this thought and not discount it out-of-hand:
Relationships are not symmetrical; we do not have equal voices; we do not all have the ability to be equally heard.
This goes against the grain of the high priests of some of these new tools that were ripped from the womb of Californian Internet Utopianism. Enforced flatness is encouraged as silo-busting as existing management structures are considered stifling and “uncollaborative”. Silos exist and people within organisations can be unhelpful, but that said a project manager has more rights to a project team member’s attention than anyone else. A line manager similarly has more rights to a direct report. I heard a zany tale once, and as I recall it, Volvo (it was definitely Scandinavian) once created an electronic mail system that didn’t allow you to email anyone superior to you except your boss. The fact that business rules aren’t applied to systems of communication doesn’t mean that they can’t be. An email from your boss should figuratively be the size of a flip chart. An email from someone demanding something from you outside of your responsibility should be the size of a Post-It note. The power of restricting access to groups to increase trust and improve stability has been noted by many, including Clay Shirkey and David Snowden. The point is that the design of these systems is not locked-in, we can tinker with them if we have the will. What could we make more difficult?
This is problem that I feel I have largely solved by becoming a freelancer – I am no longer overwhelmed with any form of communication [cue jokes: ask my accountant.] Asking me to do something usually costs money, therefore I tend to get asked to do things formally, and the bulk of work that I do follows an easily communicated pattern. My remaining capacity for attention is my own (that doesn’t mean I use it wisely, I am usually thinking about photography or writing this sort of thing).
Employees don’t have this luxury, and broadly both their time and attention is a commons, loosely bounded by job descriptions, cost centres and (sometimes) project codes to book their time. Not everyone can ask them to do work, but anyone can ask for their attention. When you are next making a decision about how to organise the organisation, perhaps consider how the attention-pool will be affected.
So there was a discussion on DWG’s internal Yammer board about the rise of flexible working on the Guardian: Banks and financial firms dominate list of most flexible employers. This was all good news inside DWG/IBF as a) many of the companies listed were members or former members, b) We love flexible working and the digital workplace and c) Many of us have chosen the freelancing lifestyle so that we can work flexibly to ease the care of our families. Others of course just do it for the money, the chicks or to be able to live in remote areas.
Front and centre of the Guardian article was a stock photo that is becoming a sort of race memory. I have seen its type many times before:
Between lazy journalism, incredibly lazy photo-editing and hackneyed stock photography, we have the narrative told again. Whatever the realities of flexible working, the photo always attempts to mash children, parenthood and work into a single image. Above we have a toddler playing with a desk phone while we assume Dad is in the background wearing a tie. If he’s working from home, why the hell is he in a tie. If he’s got work to-do after hours why isn’t he getting it done quickly and effectively upstairs in the study in an ergonomically approved chair so he can then be truly present for his family. If both Mum and Dad are working from home why the hell isn’t the child in child-care.
Of course we know that having a kid around the shop when you are trying to work is pretty much a non-starter. My wife who shares our home-office 1.5 days per week was even asked explicitly by her employer what our childcare arrangements would be. This is the reality of doing this well. We know that, the Guardian journo know that too. But the picture plays on some weird ghost of a thought.
Let’s review the evidence and look at some other examples.
Here we are again, with twins this time. A sippy-cup is in the foreground. I’ve tried having our kids on my knee at the computer. Guess what? They try and bash the keyboard and are generally irritating and kill productivity and professionalism. They kill it dead:
But don’t they grow fast? Here’s another example from the Graun and the cutie-pie is now talking back. This wouldn’t work in our house because number one son would be issuing a lecture on the relative merits of Star Wars characters in Lego form. Incessantly. For hours. When I work around and abouts the place in noisy locations I usually wear headphones, but I think he would take umbrage if I tried it at home. Remember this article is about benefits packages, not how to avoid discussions about Star Wars Lego:
It’s not just the mums of course, let’s hear it for the dads. This article is about employers being reluctant to offer working from home. Well so would I if I thought you had a three month old either asleep or puking on your shoulder:
Another one with the baby present, but this time Dad’s got it covered. He clearly got in early with the Medised. The Telegraph gets in on the act:
Is teleworking driving us crazy? Well you shouldn’t be allowed a laptop computer if you put it, yourself in a suit, a baby and a bowl of cereal together. The BBC fares a little better in general but their Thinkstock licence is used to egregious effect here:
Again I wonder why employers worry about ergonomics and employees working in inappropriate situations when they allow working from home:
OK, finally no children present, but there are toys in the background, we are suddenly in the garden and posture is shot to shit again:
The photographer here wasn’t able procure a child model for the shoot so picked up some toys at the pound shop. This is more realistic, but if my life is anything to go by, the background would be far more untidy than this (and about 35% Lego):
Let’s get out of the domestic environment entirely, and lets go to the beach. No, actually lets talk about the legal right to have access to flexible working. But here’s a picture of mum and toddler at the beach. SLACKERS!
Finally in the parenthood section featuring a Motorola brick from 1995, we see Mum has in fact taken the kids and the laptop to the beach. Hang on, those kids are probably in the workforce now.
So if you have got this far, and you are not yet a parent let’s look at some stock that has been used when just talking about working from home, because you know maybe, it isn’t just a practice used to ease parenthood. Here’s a Guardian Olympic story. I could hold this pose and smile for about 58 seconds before the bad-back/ hot knee/ rictus grin combo became fatal:
And if you have decided that children are not for you and pets will satisfy that need for companionship and love, without the need for childcare, or university fees, here’s an example for the dog lovers. Note that she’s in the KITCHEN in a rubbish chair, surrounded by dishcloths. Presumably she won’t be able to start the day until 9:15 because of a heavy washing-up workload and she’ll need to walk the dog three times:
So what have we learned about flexible working and journalism. These are the visions of people who don’t share the actual lifestyle that flexible working is trying to maintain. The photographers are trying to earn a crust and they can earn it by slamming a few concepts together with some strobes and a wide-angle lens. They get used by lazy picture editors who are trying to make stories more engaging.
These fictions get me riled because they play on the childish fears of managers and co-workers who believe that flexible working and working from home are somehow threatening. In general what is going on in these pictures is the opposite of what the articles were about – the media appears to be broadly behind flexible working and the digital workplace. In reality working with a baby on one’s knee just doesn’t happen to any degree that I’m aware of. Children are at school, nursery or with a child-minder. We have the opportunity to radically change our relationship with work using technology and dramatically improve our quality of life by reducing commuting time. That is the time that goes to our children (or dogs) instead. Not every article I came across in 30 minutes looking followed this pictorial formula, but none had a picture of a rubbish meeting, or a bored commuter.
That though is only the first step towards organisations not really needing to give a fig about where we are, and leaving the choice to us: because we are adults, and adults that they trust to run and maintain their businesses. It is so easy for large corporates to fence in flexible working as just-a-parent thing, and these pictures subtly and implicitly perpetuate this tired narrative.
The part two on my bring-your-own-device mental model series is up on the DWF blog. This time I look at what the motivations for BYOD are for the digital workplace managers.
So before you, as a manager of the digital workplace in your organization, say let them eat BYOD, consider your own motivations. Are there better reasons? Maybe this is the end of IT and telecoms as we know it, but you’d better be sure before the rules are changed. Personally I find it disconcerting that organizations, in this time of abject revolution, might hang their hopes of enterprise mobility on the whims of their employees. BYOD is a useful tool to sate the geeks and as a test bed for novel technology, but if you want a truly mobile workforce with the information and tools they need, wherever they are: Pay up.
Digital Workplace Manager is a mythical beast that may or may not exist, but as this all gets munged together over the next few years I think the world will inexorably slide towards the idea of Digital Workplace as a concept rather than IT as we know it today. Consumer technology is now the driver as IT settles back to broadly deal with legacy and risk. And they used to bring us magic.
Over at DWF there’s a blog wot-I-wrote about Bring-Your-Own-Device with the viewpoint of employee’s motivation to do so: “What’s my motivation? A mental model for BYOD”
I’ve been meaning to start using mental models in the DW space for a while now, and the opportunity presented itself. The digital workplace world is rather wrapped up, well, the IT-of-it-all. Everything seems to be reduced to matters of security, cost or risk, so it’s a nice kung-fu move to the collective head to start thinking in terms of individual’s desires. Mother’s milk to the web and user experience crowd, hopefully refreshingly crisp a level up. I once said to a senior IT guy when discussing this sort of thing: “I think you’re missing the small picture.”
I also reflect on the fact that bring-your-own-tech ain’t new:
“Firstly this isn’t a new practice. There have always been those who would prefer a certain type of pen, or a certain notebook rather than taking what was available in the stationery cupboard. In 1996, I used to bring in headphones so I could listen to CDs using my CD-ROM drive. In 1998 I used to get a lift into the office from a friend-of-a-friend. I looked in the back seat and there was a huge tower PC in the back seat. My ride was bringing his personal computer into where he worked to crunch numbers in a spreadsheet because his work computer couldn’t cope.”
Big ups to Al, wherever he ended up (I hope it wasn’t Aztec West), and I hope his PC now copes.
On totally non-intranet and digital workplace matters I also refreshed my photo site and instituted another blog for me to ignore over at Tubbfoto. Please feel free to come in and browse. No cost to look.
“The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. The softminded man always wants to freeze the moment and hold life in the gripping yoke of sameness.”