Under What Conditions Is “The Answer In The Room”? 2 : The First Part of an Answer—Who is here?

Following on from my last post, asking about the answer being in the room—or not—one obvious part of the answer may lie in WHO is in the room. This has several aspects which I’ll explore briefly now.

One of the mantras of the OS movement is that ‘whoever comes is (sic) the right people’. This implies that attendance at a given meeting, discussion or workshop is voluntary. No doubt that is an optimum state of affairs, especially for developing some Rousseau-ian village square democracy. In practice, however, my experience points to two main conditions under which this possibility is not met just in terms of the folk who turn up (or don’t).

The first of these is pretty obvious: many of the workshops that I run as part of my business are embedded in an organisational process funded and driven by the ‘management’ (exactly who that is depends on whether the organisation is public sector, private sector or voluntary/nong government). When the management are asking for a workshop to be run there is a compulsion for attendance that is well beyond ‘voluntary’. Indeed, at the extreme, working with military groups as I often do, it can be the case that folk are simply told that a workshop is on and that they are expected to be there. (Strictly speaking, this is not an ‘order’, which is a much more limited thing, but rather a strong expectation and typically results in very widespread compliance.)

At worst, this can lead to a fairly difficult experience. If there is a substantial group of ‘prisoners’ in the room who don’t want to be there and don’t want to play ball, getting genuine engagement can take a lot of time and effort and sometimes just fails. That failure can be evident at the time or may emerge later when things that seem to have been discussed and agreed turn out to be recontested soon after.

On the other hand, the fact that people are expected to attend does not rule out active participation and ‘voice’. In fact, I use numerous OS like techniques to promote these outcomes, with great success in most cases. Either way, the almost-mystical idea that the right people self-select and hence the right answer must be in the room, is not automatically met.

In practice, for many of the things I do I think the people there ARE the right people. For example, if the topic under discussions is (say) how the particular organisation or sub-unit can become more flexible and responsive to work demands, having everyone in the group present to construct a way forward seems entirely sensible for two reasons: first, along the lines of the old cliché, if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem; linked to that, if only some people are present any solution that emerges risks lack of buy-in from those who are absent. Indeed, in some workshops where attendance is more voluntary I have experience of a few key players staying away in the hope (I and others have inferred) that they can disrupt the outcomes later on the grounds that “I wasn’t there”.

Generally—but not always—the experience is that the processes work in spite of the fact that those assembled did not simply volunteer. Sometimes, however, although everyone is there there’s no ‘answer’. So, if everyone in a group IS there and yet still we have no ‘answer’, what’s going on? The short answer—which I’ll explore a bit more in the next post—is that there may be questions that lie beyond the scope of knowledge of those present. In such cases the danger is that there is an answer in the room but it is not a useful or reliable answer upon which to act.

A second limitation on the right people being present is more complex. Suppose that some sort of invitation is issued to a range of folk, only some of whom show up? The superficial response is that they are the right people because they have the interest and the energy to be there. I don’t buy that as a principle. On some topics, I’m more inclined to lean the opposite way and quote Yeats, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Health care discussions that get swamped by the anti-vaccination brigade can rapidly create ‘an answer in the room’. But the answer is still unscientific nonsense and a danger to us all.

Even in a watered down sense, the danger of squeaky wheels or over-confidence (both of which I’ve mentioned before https://skm410.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/missing-voices-and-squeaky-wheels-how-to-make-sure-everyone-is-heard/ ) suggests that replacing involuntary attendance with voluntary attendance is not a panacea.

No doubt, on issues that are less emotive and where more shared goodwill exists, the idea that who turns up are the right people can produce good outcomes. But the mantra that they are by definition the right people seems to me to be shaky.

Overall, who is ‘in the room’ seems part of the explanation of what works well and what doesn’t but there seems no simple principle or rule to govern this. It is neither true that an all-volunteer membership guarantees an outcome nor that an involuntary membership prevents it.

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Under What Conditions Is “The Answer In The Room” …Or Not? 1: The Problem

“I like Open Space Technology, but …”       This set of posts explains why I like it and also explores some ideas about limitations and (later) what to do about them.

I like Open Space Technology. I like Open Space (OS) both when used relatively directly (that is, following the prescription of the phases of generating groups, sending them off to discuss the ideas generated at the start, etc.) and I like the core idea that ‘the answer is in the room’. The latter allows powerful extensions of the narrower ‘method’ to cognate modes and to a generative, positive, appreciative inquiry (AI) mode.

In my new consultancy partnership with Pamela Kinnear (stand by for a new website etc. soon) we have been energetically discussing approaches and trying hard to identify what works and why. This discussion is a sub-set of that work, triggered by Pamela asking focused questions that touched on a few niggles I had started to feel.

OS is very popular. Search for the phrase “the answer is in the room” on Google and as of July 2015 you’ll get over 836,000 hits. On the other hand, search for “the answer is not in the room” and you get 6 and several of these are using the phrase differently—referring to the idea that reflection in one’s room without engagement with others is a weak idea. (The phrase “the answer isn’t in the room” is actually a GoogleWhack—only one hit! There is something interesting going on here.)

Intellectually, OS appeals because of the link to chaos and complexity theories. These are far and away more powerful for understanding human groups generally—and organisations in particular—than the common folk theories that abound in modernity which are inherently linear, rational and individualistic. These accounts, the inheritors of a Cartesian approach to consciousness, a Newtonian mechanistic view of causality and an individual liberalism that has flourished since the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions (to name but a few!) are deeply embedded in approaches that are as varied as economics, accounting, civil law and that brand of management theory that loves KPIs and such like devices. My point is not that these approaches offer nothing but rather that they are far too limited in their world view and ineffective if what is needed is real change, synergy and commitment.

At worst, the top-down, listen-to-my-message approach to change that grows out of such methods reminds me of the old joke about the Sergeant-Major, moustache bristling, swagger stick under the arm, eyes glinting, bellowing at a bunch of intimidated recruits, “On my command, you will become … SPONTANEOUS!”

Practically, my consultancy experiences bear out the relevance, applicability and effectiveness of using an OS/AI approach. People are encouraged when they can express ideas, have them taken seriously, hear others and experience real dialogue, etc. Several methods contribute to this with variations of the World Café and Fishbowl discussions being staples that I’ve often relied on. Combined with other methods as needed I have created “Workshops that Work”, a phrase I adapt from Adrian Segar (see his excellent site www.conferencesthatwork.com).

Nonetheless in recent times I have hit a few glitches around a central notion of OS, namely the idea that “the answer is in the room”.  What happens when the idea is not in the room, or if it is, it does not emerge?

Briefly, here are three recent instances where the answer in the room proved a weak assumption:

  1. A Citizen’s Jury innovation was used to explore some ideas around a social policy issue which I facilitated. Citizens, recruited via a randomised contact procedure using the electoral role, were invited to a day-long meeting. At that meeting, we divided them into small discussion groups of about five people (an ideal number for a conversation). A number of experts were present and we rotated them around table by table during the morning in a kind of (moderate) speed-geeking logic. Each table thus had a chance to hear each expert and talk in some depth with her/him. Then some strategies were used to generate key discussion ideas (along OS lines) which small (re-mixed) groups debated before brining all the ideas together at the end.

The model worked quite well overall, but in one city we hit a simple but challenging problem. In the group, we had one out-spoken and mildly domineering person who had some related experience as a minor government official, which no one else could match. Despite moving him within groups and some gentle interventions to get all voices heard, his views rapidly dominated the group, many of whom were apparently pleased to follow along relatively uncritically. In that city the output was like a Citizen Jury than a Citizens’ Jury.

  1. Working together, we ran a series of workshop commissioned to discuss a major relocation of separated elements of an internal, technical service group in a large organisation to a new, combined, purpose built office space. Because the group was scattered in a number of small sites around a large, sprawling complex a ‘silo’ mentality had developed with internal friction at some points. It was anticipated that problems might arise over ‘turf’ issues and norms of interaction in the new building.

Despite a number of techniques designed to spark conversation (for example, asking cage-rattling questions like, “How could you sabotage the move?” a question that did generate energy) it proved very difficult to get the groups to get beyond what we called the 3 metre radius. What happened around their desk area (noise, distraction, smells, rubbish, etc.) or in the shared meals area (people not cleaning up, etc.) appeared to exhaust the repertoire of most folk. Absent a more ‘sociological’ frame, most people were unable—even when the issues were raised directly at points—to engage with ideas about group norms, ‘turf’ issues, etc. In short, the answers seemed not to be in the room because there was no consciousness of the issues in the room.

  1. A large workshop (over 100 people) was convened to discuss the possibility of reforming some core elements of supplier/purchaser relations in an area where very large government purchases were being made, in many cases from large, international corporations. People present included users of the goods, procurers, suppliers and maintainers. Following oversight presentations on desired ways forward to a more cooperative and collegial way of doing business, we divided the group into to three broad theme rooms to explore possibilities for a new way: what would stop, what would begin that was new, what would be retained?

Each of these three rooms used a World Cafe logic, with table outputs being combined at the end into a single view. While these syntheses were being created by a working group, other OS related techniques (including an OS Fishbowl) were used with the bulk of participants to explore the idea of a ‘behavioural code’ that might sustain a new, more collegial more cooperative and less contested way of doing business.

Was the answer in the room? Well, there were several answers that the discussion showed were needed. Many were present. A few critical ones were not.  Overall, the group seemed to very clearly:

  • Identify problems with the existing model, both practically and behaviourally
  • Describe what a better future would look like
  • Identify numerous technical fixes that would help move forward.

They were, however, unable to engage in any depth with the underlying psycho-social issues that might be producing the problems nor did they have any real insight into what it might take to fix them.

Looking on, two frames could be used to identify their problem:

  1. Using (loosely) the idea of the ambidextrous organisation, we know that the dominant hand–doing what we already are familiar and hoping that honing those skills will be enough—easily takes over form the non-dominant hand of unfamiliar and challenging novelty. The room had many technical experts, so not surprisingly they leaned, whenever there was room to move, towards the technical fix.
  2. Heifetz and colleagues have talked of the difference between the technical and the adaptive challenge—crudely put what to do vs, how to be. In this context, it was very hard for people to identify or grapple with the adaptive challenge and they had relatively few ideas about who that might be done.

These three examples do not undermine using an OS / AI approach, but they do raise some important questions about blindly assuming that (for example) the answer IS in the room. This is important because, given the overwhelming enthusiasm for Open Space and the limited critique available, we risk just jumping on an untested bandwagon.

Instead, what would happen if we asked questions like:

  • What if there is no answer in this room?
  • What if there is an answer, but we cannot ‘get it out’?
  • What if there is an answer, but it’s nonsense?

I’ll look more at these soon.

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Why Walking Works

Thinking, talking, and walking are inextricably linked through history. It is only a recent idea that we meet around tables, seated in chairs.



1          BACKGROUND

Recently, sparked by a variety of inputs[1]—I have been using ‘walking and talking’ as a regular part of various change management / personal development workshops, as well as spruiking the idea to colleagues and friends. Based on this experience and the views of others, I have no doubt that this simple technique is an important addition to enhancing communication—useful both to people like me organising various workshop sessions and to managers and others for themselves.

As mentioned in the acknowledgements, late last year my wife Pamela Kinnear, started using ‘walk and talk’ as a method for infromal performance management conversations with her senior reports. Her view—and the reaction of colleagues—has been overwhelmingly that such conversations are easier, more engaged and more robust than similar conversations sitting in an office.

In this post I want to describe a couple of ways I have used this method and then try to offer a proper explanation (beyond common sense) of why I think it works.

Example 1: I have developed a reflection technique that includes important elements of self disclosure and colleague feedback as to increase self-awareness. As I explain below, adapting this to a walking mode has enhanced its efficacy.

Briefly, the idea is that each person in a workshop makes notes on a story they will tell about a period of conflict in interpersonal relations in the workplace. The idea is to cover off on events, motivations, feelings etc. I divide the groups into groups of 3. In each group a person tells their story to two colleagues who listen and, apart from clarifications, don’t say a great deal. In the original model, when the story is finished, the teller turns her back and listens to the two colleagues discuss and analyse what they heard, what they infer, etc.  At the end of the analysis the teller turns back, thanks her colleagues and the second person takes his turn. This process—which is an adaptation of Dave Snowden’s ‘ritual dissent’ method’—is powerful and effective.

Now (weather permitting) I send the groups walking, achieving the ‘back turning’ simply by the teller taking a couple of steps ahead and continuing the walk, able to hear the other two talk behind their back. The feedback I am receiving is again very positive. In particular, in one group I occasionally need to include the local group coordinator (SQNLDR Richard Wolf) to make the numbers work properly. Richard has participated in both the conventional sitting and talking and the newer walking and talking method and has no doubt to the extra value the latter brings.

Example 2: In a recent 2 day residential workshop in Sydney for 16 senior managers from across Australia and NZ, the purpose of which was to solve a commercial crisis in their joint enterprise, both mornings started with a ‘walking peleton’.   Each day groups of 8 set off to walk along the beautiful harbour side walk in a peleton model that rotated their pairings every 5 or 6 minutes.

The peleton idea I owe to Pamela Kinnear who asked how one could combine walking and talking with ‘speed dating’—another technique which is easily adapted to workshops. After some discussion, and drawing on her cycling experience, she suggested a peloton method: at regular intervals people swap positions in the parallel columns, hence talking in turn with many different partners.

Despite some prototype hiccups (a simple peloton runs into a repetition of partners before it exhausts all logically possible pairs) this was a remarkable success. It implicitly modelled what we were looking for–an innovative method in search of their innovative idea—and succeeded in building rapport, cooperation and methods for solving the joint problems.

No doubt, most people who have read thus far are not hugely surprised by this idea. Most of us have experienced good conversations while strolling or hiking with friends and colleagues. My question is exactly WHY this works because the better we understand the process the more we can hone the method and tweak it to various uses.



There has been a deal of interest in recent times about walking and its link to the workplace (etc.) and a variety of different goals have been suggested as to why we should walk more. Noting that the idea has a reputable pedigree that stretches back to (e.g.) Greeks like Aristotle who walked and talked with their students, a variety of explanations has been offered as to why it might work and what it might achieve.

First up, we need to see that one powerful force supporting this idea is bio-physical. An influential TED talk by Nilhofer Merchant makes this point succinctly. See http://www.ted.com/talks/nilofer_merchant_got_a_meeting_take_a_walk?language=en

If as Merchant pithily puts it “Sitting is the new smoking” because of its negative effects on health, getting out to walk is desirable because it allows meetings to occur free of the curse of sitting. This view tends to ignore, however, the possibility that there is something about the process of walking which not only improves health but also improves the talk itself. The suggestion is that talking in this way is better—more frank, more relaxed, more creative and so on. This is argued at the Feet First site and other places. For the impact on creativity (individual and joint) see: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/april/walking-vs-sitting-042414.html

Therefore, walking is good for us and we can have good conversations doing it. Thus, the purely physical exercise dimension may be helpful (oxygen levels in the brain, the beautiful outdoors etc., etc.) but clearly it is not a necessary condition.

The commonest explanation offered ad hoc seems to be that there is something about not being eyeball to eyeball and walking side by side that enhances rapport and thus is important.

So, I’ve; been puzzling over what exactly is at work here and now I’ll offer an explanation.


David Gurteen in his newsletter and a personal communication drew my attention to several important sources. The one I find most important is this piece by Daniel Goleman, a succinct summary of some key themes in his recent book Focus:

Researchers at Harvard have identified the three ingredients that can give a conversation, a presentation, even a negotiation, a personal touch. The three signs:

  • First, there’s full mutual attention. That sounds simple, but has become increasingly rare in this age of constant digital distraction. We are all plugged in to devices that pull our attention away from the person we’re with, and impose some other agenda on the moment. There was an article in the Harvard Business Review on the “human moment,” admonishing us to put down our smartphones, turn away from digital monitors, and pay full attention to our colleagues and friends.
  • Second, there’s physical synchrony. This seems to happen naturally once two people pay continuous attention. If you watched a video of two people with rapport talking, and turned off the sound to just observe how their bodies move, it would look as though they had been choreographed. This is not imitation, but rather a physical responsiveness: as one body moves this way, the other moves that way – at the right time and in a harmonious fashion. It’s a nonverbal conversation affirming simpatico.
  • The third sign: it feels good. Rapport’s emotional signs are pleasant emotions. Such rapport often occurs during routines people perform together at work, like joking baristas in a bustling coffee joint. Being in an upbeat mood, researchers find, indicates a brain state where you can work at your very best: energized, creative, ready for any challenge – in flow. The most obvious signal of good feeling: laughter. linkedin.com/pulse/20141016181050-117825785-the-chemistry-of-connection


It will be immediately obvious that walking together may facilitate these three aspects. Attention to each other is easier when walking (although I strongly advise my walkers not to take mobile phones to ensure this); synchrony in this case arises more from walking at the same pace than from observing and mimicking (intentionally or not) the other person’s body posture, etc.; while rapport seems enhanced in walking more than in a sitting conversation.

So one could stop the explanation at this point and say that walking facilitates attention, synchrony and rapport, that is why is ‘works’ and, since it confers a health benefit too, let’s stop there and just encourage it.



That, however, has not been a satisfying stop point for me. So, I have been puzzling away to see if I can say more. I think that a couple of things from cognitive science would help. Let me point to two. First, the work of Simon Garrod and colleagues:

 “…humans are designed for dialogue rather than monologue… Conversations succeed, not because of complex reasoning, but rather because of alignment at seemingly disparate linguistic levels. … the majority of routine social behaviour reflects the operation of … a ‘perception–behaviour expressway’ … we are ‘wired’ in such a way that there are direct links between perception and action across a wide range of social situations.

Simon Garrod and Martin J. Pickering (2004) ‘Why is conversation so easy?’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences,   Vol.8 No.1 January

This is a general point but, I think, an extremely important one. As I have argued elsewhere in this blog and in my SlideShare presentation on group size and dialogue, (http://www.slideshare.net/stephenkmugford/group-size-dialog-and-high-quality-participation ) conversation in the full sense does not occur in large groups. Moreover, commonly favoured methods of ‘communication’ such as the ubiquitous PPT slide deck with talking head singularly fail to be very effective. Let me then slip a thought in here: why do we think that a conversation in an office, facing one another over a table, is an optimum way to communicate? This is not to say this cannot work but it is to point to a caution.

Whatever else, it is clear that walking along in twos and threes is likely to generate dialogue in the Garrod sense. Without wanting to fall too much into an ‘evolutionary’ argument (too many of which seem to me to be Just So stories) it is not hard to suggest that much of human history centred on hunter-gathering and that context walking and talking together would be a dominant mode for which we have evolved considerable capacity.

Second, this expressway has a neural basis. In a study that is rapidly becoming a citation classic, popping up in footnotes in a myriad of sources, Stephens and his colleagues write:

 “…[a] speaker’s [brain] activity [pattern] is … coupled with the listener’s activity [pattern]. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.  Moreover, though on average the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. We connected the extent of neural coupling to a … measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding.” [emphasis added.]

Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication Greg J. Stephens et al (2010) Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences of the US. vol. 107, no. 32 p. 14425

I re-examined this study recently. A key element, which I had not fully appreciated at first, is this: the research was based on recorded speech. That is, the listener was not present with the talker and instead listened to recording of the speaker.

How does this matter?

There is a great deal of work around at present on rapport and ‘entrainment’. For example, in Focus Goleman explains a good deal of the mechanisms that build varied kinds of rapport. Cognitive rapport—‘do I get your story?—is different from emotional rapport—‘do I feel your pain?’—and a kind of empathic concern is different again.

In a specialised study of US Supreme Court hearing, Benus and colleagues (Benus, et al (in press) Knowledge Based Systems. “Entrainment, Dominance and Alliance in Supreme Court Hearings”) study the largely unconscious processes that indicate that Justices and counsel are becoming entrained in their thinking and reasoning—as indicated by speech patterns and markers.

So, my speculation with respect to walking is simply this: when people walk and talk they privilege the sound channel—the talk and metalinguistic clues—over the visual cues. In face to face contexts, visual cues come more to the fore and while this may or may not promote entrainment in the bodily sense (I mimic your gestures and posture and vice versa) perhaps it does NOT promote understanding. In Goleman’s terms, it may be that cognitive rapport in particular is enhanced by listening. Walking together seems peculiarly suited to this. As we walk, we scan the environment—pathway, trip hazards, traffic, etc.—in a relatively routine and unconscious way—largely  freeing our conscious processes for talking and listening.

Moreover, there is a distinct possibility that the presence of visual cues may have a negative effect not only in distracting from speech but also in blocking or diverting the speech patterns.

The myriad of books on how to have fierce, crucial, difficult or life changing conversations attest to the fact that such conversations are not easy. Yet in this literature there is little if any attention given to the precise communicative context and the way that non-verbal cues may shape the conversation for better or worse. Reflection, however, reminds us that making and breaking eye contact, noticing facial expressions and so on may all encourage or discourage certain lines of talk. Being side by side as we walk (or in the special case walking ahead) removes this and in so doing seems to offer more gain than loss.

The best-selling author Liane Moriarty puts this nicely in her recent novel Big Little Lies.  Describing conversation between protagonists Jane and Celeste she writes:

Recently, they’d both begun to tentatively open up.It was interesting how you could say things when you were walking that you might not otherwise have said with the pressure of eye contact across a table.

I suggest that this explains how it is that the walk leads to much more open, much more engaged and much ‘deeper’ conversations than we are likely to get sitting round on chairs in an office. (We might also note that the psychotherapeutic tradition with the patient on a couch while the therapist attempts the ‘talking cure’ is not so far removed from the idea here.)

Combine this major benefit with side benefits of exercise and an escape from distractions and I think we can see why this old, tried and trusted technique might be brought back into focus, and purposively deployed, as a major tool for improved communications.


Several people have described a very similar effect of good conversations when driving with a family member, friend or colleague in the car. The commonest example I have come across centres on parents reporting a good conversation with a teenager while driving, something they found both rewarding and unusual. Some added that the known time duration seemed to aid this—the knowledge that it would not “go on and on” encouraging the teenager to open up.

Absent the health benefits of walking, almost everything I have said above applies to a car trip.

Finally, this argument would not be complete without noting that the final bits of the puzzle were located and clicked into the picture in a side by side conversation with Pamela as we drove from Canberra to the coast. It lacked the healthy exercise component but in every other way fit the argument above—freed from any time constraints, sharing the view out of the windows and able to think aloud and let ideas go where they would was simply exhilarating.

[1]  Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Phil Langdon and colleagues working at the Australian Institute of Police Management who first got me thinking about walking with accounts of the reflective sessions they run in leadership development courses for senior managers. David Gurteen kindly sent me a post which I draw on below . I’m also indebted to my wife, Dr, Pamela Kinnear, who never tires of sharing sociological discussions on these topics and who has incorporated ‘walking meetings’ into her senior management role, especially for performance management purposes. And thanks also to a number of officers of the RAN and RAAF who have cooperated with me by undertaking walking discussions in various courses I run for Navy and Air Force on developing emotional intelligence.


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Talking the Walk 1

I’ve been silent on this blog for a long time, to my shame. Half way through a sequence on social media I got inundated with other work and hence interrupted in my writing. Some people can happily write in little interstices in their lives—I’m not one of them, I need bigger chunks of time. The longer I didn’t write, the harder it was to find the time to get back to where my head had been, which led to another delay and another twist in the downward spiral of not writing.
Recently, I realised that I may never finish that social media sequence and to agonise over it was unproductive. So, with a kind of generic apology to the universe for unfinished business, I am starting today to on a series of posts around walking and talking. Making the effort to get out and walk while we talk has become something of a trend recently and a Google search will quickly turn up articles in the ‘quality’ press (NY Times, Boston Globe, Guardian, etc.) and in the more reflective weekly or monthly magazines. Blogs are talking walking, too, though so far most of the ones I have dipped into are, in my opinion, recycling a few good ideas or articles with no great added value.
Perhaps the most influential single piece has been a TED talk by Nilhofer Merchant (see http://www.ted.com/talks/nilofer_merchant_got_a_meeting_take_a_walk?language=en ) whose idea of walking meetings has caught on with the Ted talk getting many hits and citations. However, even the quickest survey shows that when the idea of talking while walking is increasingly entering common discourse, especially as a thing managers should think about using in office workplaces, the rationale for doing so is often not well articulated.
Of course, walking has benefits, among which getting off one’s backside and doing exercise to improve health is high on the list. If this were the only benefit then walking meetings (as an example) are simply a worthy extension of new trends such as standing desks, treadmill desks, standing meetings and so on. But even that simple link is more complex than it seems. Standing at one’s desk is likely to improve one’s health, while standing meetings are argued to improve the quality and timeliness of the meeting itself rather than the health of participants. Indeed, simply typologising who walks, under what circumstances, with what intent and with what demonstrated effect—mechanical though that process may seem—is likely to help clarify why walking ‘works’, for whom and so on and will also allow us to separate different types of explanation, look for evidence etc.
So, my first substantive task in the next instalment will be to offer a start on the typology.

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Six Theses on Social Media II: More at Last

A couple of weeks have passed without my getting back to the blog. Probably a characteristic piece of procrastination, so apologies for anyone who was expecting more on the social media and connectivity sooner.

In my overview of this topic I prefigured that idea that we can see at least six themes in the way people write about the social media and the impact of greater connectivity through smartphones and other handheld devices, the internet, etc. These 6 aspects arise essentially by thinking about how the impact might revisit modalities of the past, affect the present or shape the future, in each case with a negative or a positive slant. I started with revisiting positive elements of the past so now I’ll look at negative ones.

If we think of social life in the moderately distant past—let us say three or four hundred years ago—it is hard not to notice that life then seems, to a modern gaze, ignorant and irrational. Many of the things we take for granted today ranging from a state model of centralised control, criminal justice and peace keeping through to medical knowledge used to promote health and the public good seem to be obvious ‘progress’ over witch trials or lynching on the one hand or bleeding or blistering on the other.

In part, such progress as these have brought (and my view is that there is progress, even if I don’t want to buy into the notion that all history is progress) has arisen because the power of central governments has been linked to a wide range of social institutions and knowledge systems. To take a few simple examples, governments have successfully claimed the monopoly of legitimate violence internally (police, courts, etc.) and externally (military) to their boundaries. They have funded and supported things like health systems while using their legal powers to support the centralisation of professions along with supporting mechanisms for setting standards—for better or worse, quacks and charlatans were steadily marginalised. Information about science was communicated both by government supported education systems and through mass media of communications that were often largely government funded and/or regulated. The BBC in the UK is a particularly good example of this—between the 1920s and the advent of commercial TV in the 1960s, the BBC offered a single authoritative voice which communicated to a great extent what the agreed truth of the day was seen to be.

The reasons why this has changed are many and complex. Increased connectivity and the rise of the social media are, in some senses, latecomers to the tide of change. Nonetheless, there is a clear sense—and an expressed concern—that these support a resurgence of elements of ignorance, prejudice and irrationalism that share much with the past. Let me briefly give four examples, all of which share the same underlying mechanism, which is the way that groups with views that challenge the rational, ‘scientific’ and legal orthodoxy can find like minded fellows with whom to share their ideas and act for mutual support and reinforcement. My four examples are:

  1. The rise of irrational counter theories around disease. As a striking example, consider the rise of the anti-immunisation groups[1].  With no reputable science to support these ideas, and the only ‘study’ that seemed to offer support utterly discredited, there is still a rising tide of people who are opposed to immunising their children against childhood diseases like the measles and whooping cough. Self-reinforcing ‘dialogues’ of collective paranoia are hardly new—the Salem witch trials provide evidence enough of that. But today these are sustained by the most modern of technologies which, let me be blunt, allow the crazies to talk to one another and insulate themselves from any sensible rebuttals. This is a truly serious issue because not only do they put their own children at risk but, as immunisation rates fall, they threaten the health of everyone else’s children too—below a certain level, contagion can build itself into epidemic proportions and no-one should imagine that these diseases are trivial[2].
  2. The support of religious fundamentalism.  This runs across a wide range of religions. Whether it is an Islamic extremist group who preach Jihad and ignore the advice of most of the clerics in their faith in preference to the firebrands or Christians peddling more (literal biblical readings) or less (intelligent (sic) design) theories of the world one may be sure that there is almost always another crazy out there who you can find to share and boost your views.
  3. Racism and Nazism. Do you want to tout racial supremacy or race hate? Would you like to extol the wonderful contributions of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen to the world? Shall we all sit around and explain why the Holocaust is a Jewish lie? Well, don’t worry—a quick squizz around with a search engine and the odd networking site will find you some folks to play with. And while none of this is remotely a creation of the internet or high levels of connectivity (we should give thanks that Goebbels was not on Facebook!) it is clear that these technologies catalyse these groups.
  4. Hue and cry: Let’s all get a lynch mob going.  Perhaps the most direct impact of new technologies in revisiting the past lies not in enhancing existing modalities (the KKK were well established before Facebook!) but in creating quite new ways of doing old things. I think especially of the way that, in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, a sort of mob response broke out across the internet. Among others, a missing Boston student, Sunil Tripathi was ‘identified’ as a suspect and his identity plastered across the globe, see http://ind.pn/12quxeU . As this report notes:

… it appears that speculation started on the social news site Reddit. Several of those in the US who claimed on the forum last Thursday evening local time that he was the man wanted by police, said his name had come up in conversations between officers on the police scanner.

One woman claimed she had gone to Radnor high school with Mr Tripathi and that images provided by police “looked like him” while Kevin Michael, a cameraman with a Hartford affiliate of the CBS television network said on Twitter: “BPD scanner has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.”

This story has a tragic end, though fortunately not because of this mis-identification: Tripathi’s body was later found floating in the river, likely as a result of depression-related suicide. It is, however, not hard to imagine that an equally tragic end might have arrived directly through this activity—a sort of public rather than private version of cyber-bullying[3].

Clearly, these examples—and one can find many more—point to the idea that, far from being a universal force for good, a highly connected world in which people selectively listen to and talk with only those who agree in a sort of echo chamber effect (see e.g. http://bit.ly/12qwKal ) can actually be counter-productive. While I would never make this case in order to argue against new technologies and new media it would be unwise not to pay attention to this.


[1] For example, New Scientist collectively reviewed three books on this topic in Jan. 2011: Seth Mnookin The Panic Virus: A true story of medicine, science, and fear, Simon & Schuster;  Paul Offit Deadly Choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all , Basic Books; Robert Goldberg Tabloid Medicine: How the internet is being used to hijack medical science for fear and profit, Kaplan

[2] Nearly 30 years ago, my elder daughter and her class mates went through the trauma of seeing a child slowly die from a measles related disease. Her mother, Gay Davidson, is remembered at http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/756064?c=people which includes this sentence: After the tragic death in 1984 of her second daughter, Kiri Davidson, at the age of 13 of sub-acute sclerosing panencephalitis she became a prominent public campaigner for immunization against measles.

[3] I will return to this in a later blog, because there is an argument that the type of activity that failed (searching via Reddit, etc.) actually has potential, done differently and better, to be a force for good rather than evil.

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Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media

Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media (CSM). Thesis #1


In a highly connected world with increasing use and penetration of social media we can see a re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are positive and to be encouraged.


To make sense of this thesis we need first to consider what is ‘modern’ and what is ‘pre-modern’ and then to look at how the latter might return in some ways. This will be an indirect route so I crave the reader’s patience as we detour to reach the point.

Modernity: A Thumbnail Sketch.  Western society—and following from it much of the rest of the world—went through a massive multi-stranded transition which started arguably in the late 15th century with the commencement of colonisation of other countries on a large scale, gathering pace from there. Spain and Portugal grabbed much of Latin America and the immense wealth of the ‘New World’ enriched their regimes, accelerating as the colonisation expanded into a slave trade and massive plantations (the sugar industry in Brazil was one of the most profitable enterprises in human history.) Other European countries were in direct competition for trade and conquest. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, argued that the conquest of India and the consequent ‘triangular trade’ (opium to China from India, tea from China to the UK, cheap goods from the UK to India) bankrolled the English Industrial Revolution. Another triangular trade (slaves, rum and sugar) along with the growth of tobacco consumption helped the otherwise struggling colonies on the Eastern seaboard of the (present day) US to grow its economy.

This change process—for a short hand we can call it the rise of modernity—brought a myriad of changes to the daily life of the people in those and the colonised countries. Urban living, factory work and wage labour (as opposed to corvée labour or serfdom) were all relatively new ways to organise economic and social life. The consequences were massive and most of them lie outside the scope of this brief discussion. A few, however, are germane. In particular, the sense of everyday life and social relations within it was transformed. Indeed, the rise of sociology as a discipline of study is derived in no small part from this shift. “Founding Fathers” of the discipline described and theorised this change: Tönnies argued it was a move from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft (loosely ‘community’ to ‘association’) while Durkheim saw it as a move from mechanical solidarity (a solidarity of similarity) to organic solidarity (a solidarity of interdependence based on a complex division of labour). Weber looked at the transition from traditional to legal-rational authority, described the rise of bureaucratic form and speculated about the role of religion, while Simmel wrote about money and the metropolis.

In their various ways, these and many writers since, described the character of modernity: it prized knowledge and education above traditional privilege; it organised time by centralised clocks and time zones, it separated life into different spheres, especially the private versus the public and work time versus leisure time. Ties of locality and community—ties that bound one to tradition were (in Karl Marx’s apocalyptic language) ‘burst asunder’ and people were set free in the city: free to be themselves  … or to starve under bridges ignored by their neighbours. Institutions of ‘discipline’—the school, the workhouse, the asylum, the prison, the factory—all flourished as modernity grew and the sensibilities that these generated became normal and taken-for-granted. Institutions like the school can be seen, at least in part, as producing people fit for wage labour: fit both rationally (they have skills such as literacy, etc.) and in habit (they understand clocks and time and adherence to ‘timetables’, etc.)

Mass production of goods made possible by factories was linked to mass consumption—with the good sold in large ‘stores’—and ‘handicraft’ production waned as did the idea of home production of goods. Who, today, spins their own wool or weaves cloth, who grows and grinds their own grain, who produces their own leather? Etc.

Along with mass production and consumption so came mass entertainment and mass media. As the latter entered the ‘electronic’ phase, so the dominant model of modernity was ‘the broadcast’ often linked with state control—the BBC in England, for example. The dominant mode of consuming the products was ‘sit back and be told’. Programs were broadcast at fixed times and the choice (until very recently) was to pay attention at the scheduled time or miss out.  Sit back and be told was (to a large extent is) also the underlying mode for school and university education (consider that much of university life still revolves around ‘lectures’.)

In the background to this process, forms of knowledge and reasoning that supported modernity unfolded. Science and technology developed apace in the Enlightenment, political philosophers developed theories about democracy and some—like Descartes—linked this to general theories of reason. Justice, for example, was seen to be delivered by systems that were written, universal, global and timeless in their content, displacing older methods like case based reasoning (casuistry).

Very well, you may say, but what on earth has this to do with social media? Be patient, dear reader, there really is a connection and we’re getting there.

Beyond modernity:  In recent decades there has been a good deal of talk about the re-emergence of pre-modern forms of social life. Quite a bit of this was found in post-modernism’, a school of thought that is renowned for its complex verbosity and pretension (and which now seems largely on the wane.) Mixed into the varied threads of post-modern thought was, so far one could decipher, an argument that the post-modern looked like the resurrection of the pre-modern.

Sometimes the point was simple, empirical and easy to follow. For example, in the complex changing patterns of family formation in recent years, open pre-marital cohabitation (or at very least an acknowledged sexual relationship) has become the norm. Frequently people have several such relationships before settling into one more major ‘marriage’, and increasingly commonly, formal marriage is disconnected from the (overt) commencement of sexual relations and linked instead to child bearing. Either a pregnancy, the arrival of a child or the clear commitment to start a family is seen to be the trigger for formalising a marriage (and, of course, ‘de facto’ relationships without marriage at any point are also rising.) This pattern is strongly reminiscent of village life in Europe in the centuries before modernity.

Other examples were most complex. For example, there is an argument that in the post-modern, identity is built less on production (that is on ‘class’) and more on consumption and leisure. With the sale of goods and services proliferating into numerous ‘niche’ markets, consumption can thus sustain a myriad of identities and possibilities. A lovely example was a study by the British author Jeremy Seabrook who spent time with some people from southern England who spent as much of their life as possible, dressed as and talking like ‘cowboys” (and ‘cowgirls’) from some imagined Wild West. At one point when ‘Belle’ married ‘Sundance’ the guests were mildly taken aback when their real names were used as they had only even know them as Belle and Sundance….

The argument here is that the modern tendency for a few, class based, urban identities occupied by large number of people with common life experiences and norms is replaced by a wide range of ‘niched’ identities more like a patch-work of village identities that might been seen in rural Europe circa 1500.

Furthermore, some writers have argued that a re-emergence of the pre-modern is desirable. For example, in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Stephen Toulmin (1990) argues strongly for casuistry and suggests s that the … “modern” focus on the written, the universal, the general and the timeless—which monopolized the modern work of most philosophers after 1630—is being broadened to include once again the oral, the particular, the local and the timely.”

So, at long last, dear reader here is the connection to CSM.

Web 2.0 and Pre-Modern Life

Some writers and some research now point to elements that reverse some of the trends and features of modernity. Looking at direct evidence, the example of mass media (of course there are many other spheres we could look at)  shows three trends that are evident and catalysed by CSM:

  1. First, there is a proliferation of many sources of information and entertainment brought in by the internet. Newspapers as conventionally understood are transforming and more and more are accessed as websites rather than—or in addition to—their paper version. TV and Radio stations are streamed as well as broadcast and both streamed and ‘live’ broadcasts can easily be recorded and time shifted.  Fewer and fewer programs are ‘watched’ at the time they are broadcast (news and sport being the main exceptions) and more often they are watched by replay at times that suit the viewer. Recently, a major online network released to its subscribers an entire mini-series at one time, explaining that this was not because people wanted it ‘all in one hit’ but so they could watch the episodes as and when it suited them. This ‘shifting’ process is also recognised and facilitated by online services (such as ABC iView in Australia) that allow people to replay material for up to two weeks after its original broadcast.

    Shifting to podcast technology is also very popular and serious commentaries exist, for example, on the idea of ‘radio beyond radio’—pointing to the different ways that ‘listeners’ engage when they are walking or jogging with ear-buds in as opposed to a sound track running in the background in the kitchen. It is claimed that one can ‘expect more’ of such listeners and consequently radio producers are changing their programs to take advantage of this difference.

    Moreover, there is an increasing range and sophistication of apps that will coordinate material in a personalised way. Apps like Feedly or Protopage allow a user to construct a home page that contains RSS feeds they wish to check out. Meanwhile, iTunes routinely saves a range of podcasts from radio sites over the English speaking world…

  2. Second, there is a shift in the level and type of activity that potential ‘audiences’ are engaged in. In particular, the data from Pew Research and others points to fewer hours of TV being consumed by young people and more time being devoted to a combination of alternatives—socialising through Facebook, making one’s own video material (see the spectacular rise of YouTube) and attending ‘events’ organised and communicated through social network connections. Linked to this, sites such as Pinterest or Storify actively encourage people to share tangible interests and hence encourage production (of things, images, ideas) as well as consumption.
  3. The credibility and utility of existing sources is being challenged by new media. For example, some research suggests that ‘news’ is increasingly being conveyed by Twitter and that following the trending topics often provides faster and more nuanced views than those that available through web based or broadcast  ‘news sites’. This trend belongs partly under other theses too but is also at least partly linked to the idea of the re-emergence of personal ‘gossip’ based communication as a primary source of knowledge.  

All of these changes are linked to what David Gauntlett, the UK based academic commentator, has called the move away from a ‘sit back and be told’ culture towards a ‘making and doing’ culture, which itself has strong echoes of an artisan mode that preceded the massification of the 19th and 20 centuries. Gauntlett explains this as enhanced by the move to Web 2.0:

In the first decade or so of the Web’s existence (from the 1990s to the early to mid 2000s), websites tended to be like separate gardens. So for example the NASA website was one garden, and my Theory.org.uk website was another garden, and a little-known poet had made her own poetry website, which was another garden. You could visit them, and each of them might be complex plots of creative and beautiful content, but basically they were separate, with a fence between each one. There’s nothing wrong with this model, as such; it works perfectly well as a platform for all kinds of individuals, groups, or organisations, big and small, to make stuff available online. But this model is what we might now call ‘Web 1.0’. By contrast, ‘Web 2.0’ is like a collective allotment. Instead of individuals tending their own gardens, they come together to work collaboratively in a shared space. (Emphasis added.)

David Gauntlett (2011) Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Polity Press


It is Gauntlett who coined the “sit back and be told” phrase I used above and he emphasises in his work how a Web 2.0 world moves beyond this. The view that people increasingly want to move beyond “sit back and be told” is echoed in many places. For example, the highly successful peer conferences organised by Adrian Segar are built very much on this assumption (see http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ ). At a common sense level, this fits too with the complaint that older folks often make about GenY—that they are well named because all they ask is “why?”—a clear violation of “sit back and be told”.

These examples only scratch the surface of a more complex topic which likely deserves a book. But the conclusion I draw seems warrantable: in some ways we do indeed see the re-emergence of older, positive ways of relating one to another that are either made possible—or constructively simulated—by CSM.  Theses 1 has some value.

In my next post, I’ll ask whether this has a darker side.

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Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media.

Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media. 1: The Overview


Introduction: In the next set of blog posts I shall explore six ‘theses’ about connectivity and the social media (hereafter CSM). Getting a handle on this area is important because in the last 20 years or so, there has been an explosion in ‘digital’ technologies in everyday life. In the West, in the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and many other—but not all—countries, ‘connectivity’ is a central feature of how people organise their lives. Modern communications hardware, software and platforms have come together in familiar assemblies. The ‘smartphone’, for example, is near ubiquitous: a small, versatile, easily accessed device which is decreasingly being used for its nominal purpose: ‘phoning’. Calling people (or receiving their calls) is a shrinking proportion of all use.

This trend is most strongly seen in the youngest generation of adults, sometimes called “Generation Next”. Pew Research Center, in their major report in 2010, MILLENNIALS: A PORTRAIT OF GENERATION NEXT, characterises these folk as ‘confident, connected and open to change’.

They are history’s first “always connected” generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part – for better and worse.   [Emphasis added.] More than eight-in-ten say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles. But sometimes convenience yields to temptation. Nearly two-thirds admit to texting while driving.

They embrace multiple modes of self-expression. Three-quarters have created a profile on a social networking site. One-in-five have posted a video of themselves online. http://bit.ly/17rPPqF

Further Pew research published in March indicates that:

Fully 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006. Yet, the nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically during that time — from stationary connections tied to desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day. In many ways, teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity, and the patterns of their technology use often signal future changes in the adult population. Teens are just as likely to have a cell phone as they are to have a desktop or laptop computer. And increasingly these phones are affording teens always-on, mobile access to the internet — in some cases, serving as their primary point of access. Smartphone ownership among teens has grown substantially since 2011; 37% of American youth ages 12-17 now have a smartphone, up from 23% in 2011. Tablets are also taking hold, as close to one in four teens say they have one of these devices. Taken together, teens have more ways than ever to stay connected throughout the day — and night.

Turning to social media, Pew (see both bit.ly/Y7lRFI and http://bit.ly/15SUPa0) gives a good sense of how social media usage is distributed in the US, reflected (or exceeded) in similar countries such as Australia (always a fast adopter of new technology). For example, Facebook remains way ahead of most of the other common sites and its use is highest—but not restricted to—the younger groups. In the 18-29 age group studied by Pew, 67& have a Facebook profile (with twitter a long way behind in second place at 16%.)

So, if this really is a mushrooming feature of our epoch, what should we make of it? People have no hesitation offering answers but many of those answers are one-dimensional. I think it is time to take stock and have a more comprehensive overview. So, let’s to look at the ‘six theses’.

Six Theses: a First Statement: As will become apparent below, the six theses emerge by combining two ‘dimensions. The first dimension is ‘time’: I’ll explore;

  • The Past: ways in which CSM might ‘take us back’ to ways of being and interacting that seem ‘pre-modern’’
  • The Present: how CSM impacts on routine activities and interactions which are part of the current epoch;
  • The Future: emerging trends related to CSM that appear to create new possibilities, new ways of being and new interactions.

A reasonable effort to read across commentaries on CSM indicates that all three of these threads can be found in various writers and studies. Between them, they point to a wide range of possibilities, issues and challenges.

At right angles to time, as it were, I will explore a second dimension of ‘desirability’. Of course, how desirable things are lies in the eye of the beholder but without being too precious about this, I’ll look at ideas that seem to indicate that CSM can be positive, helpful and constructive and contrast this with another set of ideas that are darker and more negative.  

Research literature in the social sciences, media studies, etc. as well as some of the more complex blogs, certainly indicates a wide variety of views on the impact of the internet and internet technologies on daily life and here the positive and negative versions abound. Doom laden accounts of internet users starving or collapsing into psychosis in dark and smelly bedrooms while they make last-gasp mouse moves on their game site are paralleled by arguments that we are being dumbed down into a mere froth of superficiality and appearance instead of real, authentic relationships. On the other hand, hyped up stories appear of a future of ‘pure relationships’ unfettered by corporeality, of instant communications, communities of interest and widespread democracy. Much is made, for example of the idea that the ‘Arab Spring’ was organised and catalysed by SMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc. ( a view that seems less popular now that the Spring seems to have delivered less change and liberation that it promised.)

This duality is far from unprecedented. Most major changes in communication modalities (etc.), from the advent of printing on (and perhaps even in Sumerian times when writing was developed!) have shown the same two themes—doom and gloom on the one hand, fervid images of nirvana on the other.

This duality, then, will offer us the second dimension. Since both positive and negative alternatives exist for each of the time frames, we can generate six theses:

In a highly connected world with increasing use and penetration of social media we can see:

  1. 1.     A re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are positive and to be encouraged;
  2. 2.     A re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these;
  3. 3.     An impact on how people already live their lives that is positive and to be encouraged;
  4. 4.     An impact on how people already live their lives that is negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these;
  5. 5.     The emergence of new possibilities, norms and routines that are positive and to be encouraged; and
  6. 6.     The emergence of new possibilities, norms and routines that are negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these.

In my next series of posts, therefore, I will look at each of these six theses in turn and say something about them before coming back to a synthesis.


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