We’re used to organisation’s websites having FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions. Given that most organisations answer some questions so frequently, that’s a fairly sensible approach. But surely, internally, most organisations have what we might call FURs too: Frequently Uttered Responses. From my own experience – and from anecdotal conversations with friends and colleagues – one of the most common of these is “Oh, didn’t anyone tell you?”. It’s kind of the flipside of that equally well-known rhetorical question: “Did I not get that memo, then?”. Depending on the urgency or importance of the issue at hand, that’s a phrase I’ve heard uttered in tones that range from exasperation to sarcasm. When uttered by those who’ve found themselves saying it more often than they’d like, a hollow-eyed cynicism can creep in too. Either way, it’s hard to think of it as a symptom of organisational health.

We’ve previously published an article here about phatic communication – the small talk that oils the wheels of communication, opens channels and provides low-level social glue – and its relationship to recent developments in social networking. But my impression is that its biggest impact has not been at work – where team working matters more than ever, where there seems to be an increasing importance to ‘need to know’ in order to understand what’s going on around you, and where understanding the current context enables you to make the most effective contribution – but in our personal lives. It’s very possible that you have a better idea about how life is going for your old acquaintance in Los Angeles than about key events and changes in the organisation – probably no less scattered, but with rather more pressing reason to be connected – whose monitor and keyboard you’re sat in front of.

In some organisations, or parts of them – hopefully a declining number, but the determining factor is often the style or preferences of individual line managers – knowledge or information is still thought of in terms of ‘a need to know basis’. In other words, the default is not to tell people anything. In terms of information sharing and knowledge management, this is a ‘command control’ model – what can be isolated can be managed, as if information is some kind of virus that may have terrible consequences if it is not dragooned with military accuracy. Counter-intuitively, it seems the military aren’t part of that declining number, and are drawing on the social networking skills of a younger generation to assist not just with military efforts but with building bonds in the field. Consider the following extract from a recent New York Times article:

As a teenager, Jamie Christopher would tap instant messages to make plans with friends, and later she became a Facebook regular. Now a freckle-faced 25, a first lieutenant and an intelligence officer here, she is using her social networking skills to hunt insurgents and save American lives in Afghanistan.

Hunched over monitors streaming live video from a drone, Lieutenant Christopher and a team of analysts recently popped in and out of several military chatrooms, reaching out more than 7,000 miles to warn Marines about roadside bombs and to track Taliban gunfire.”

For all the modern proselytising about its health-giving benefits, the water cooler isn’t a physical point where we gather at work anymore (in Britain, it was probably always the kettle anyway). But beyond literal hydration, it’s benefits– people keeping each other up to date and up to speed – are no less important than they used to be. (It continues to surprise me, and not in a good way, that smokers are often among the better informed, as they occasionally spend three or four minutes having the opportunity to update each other. So why does the concept of encouraging all the non-smokers to spend a few minutes together in the car park four or five times a day seem so bizarre? There’s a lesson there somewhere for organisational health policy makers.)

The phrases that get used in Knowledge Management circles for this low level on-going mutual updating are ambient awareness (picking up on what’s going on without having to make an extraordinary effort to do so, or without having to make a case for needing to know) and status sharing (letting other people know what you’re up to). Back in 2008, Clive Thompson wrote an article for the New York Times called The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy (you can still read it online), but some of the responses to the piece were – in a work context – more telling than the original article. Fittingly, given the theme of sharing and networking, the waters that flowed told us more than the opening of the floodgate, so to speak.

Consider the responses of Alex Bowyer writing at human2.0:

First let’s remind ourselves why status sharing is useful. The idea has been heavily criticized in the media of late – especially Twitter, which many have dismissed as pointless babble. It’s important to realise that social software is actually a lot more useful for work than it is in our personal lives. I may not care that a schoolfriend has “had a cracking night out”, but it’s very useful at work to know Fred has “just put together presentation for XYZCo”, especially if I know XYZCo will love the new feature I’m working on and Fred hasn’t seen it yet. It’s even more useful to find out that someone is working on something that directly benefits my own work.”

Or of Laura Fitton:

We know it’s important [to] share ideas and to surround yourself with successful, inspiring people. We know that substantial business goes on at receptions, dinners and the golf course. We know that harnessing the power of loose ties leads to better opportunities and problem-solving.

Ironically, the contrived nature of this “ambient intimacy” powerfully mimics the natural human process of acquaintance. Dan Bricklin pointed out close parallels to The Little Prince chapter where the Fox asks to be tamed via non-confrontational, non-transactional presence. Proximity, time and repetition of this presence are what leads to connection, aka taming, aka… love.”

As ever, the human relationship with technology is a subtle and complex thing. In terms of its ability to provide that valuable ambient awareness (a less alarming phrase to some managers than ‘digital intimacy, I suspect: you can almost imagine the panicky phonecall to IT …), it also becomes embroiled in the thing it also has the potential to benefit – the human interface with work.

Like many organisation’s human assets, IT also frequently falls under the arena of ‘a need to know basis’ as the tendency to control, shepherd and restrain kicks in. (It strikes me that these verbs are all, in different ways, synonyms of ‘manage’, which only serves to remind me that managing and leading really aren’t the same thing.) Viewed from this angle, information and knowledge become things to be indexed, catalogued, collected and stored – and to which access must be regimented, sliced to a granular level and tightly controlled.

This is a point that’s been picked up on by JohnTropea writing in the context of the advent of social media but casting a backward glance at our earlier approaches to harnessing technology to the task of keeping everyone better informed:

Whether it’s real-time or not; connection, context and ambient awareness is what the concept of KM was about (or should have been about), but it failed as it took a library science approach; it lacked behavioural characteristics that encourage engagement; it lacked these new social tools back in the day; and it was all managed by a centralised, incentivised and predictable “plan and outcome” management approach…more connection and less collection.”

But we now live in an era of a conscious effort to increase engagement, where the best leadership is recognised as being that which encompasses dialogue with teams to build rapport, identify individual motivations and personal strengths so that we can create opportunities to not just build these strengths but find constructive outlets for them by aligning them with the bigger business picture.

Does your team – and other colleagues – know how best to play their part if you keep your own counsel, or if you engage with them? Silence might or might not be golden, but that’s not the pressing point about it: does it speak volumes, or does it merely spread ignorance and a lack of awareness. And if the elephant in the room isn’t on your radar, how are you planning on avoiding flying into it?

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