Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Sun, the Cave, Enterprise 2.0 and the "A-HA" Moment

I'll confess. The content I read in the social media twitoblogomavensphere strikes me as both amusing and wretched. Do we "really" think we've uncovered something new? Or are we today just in the early stages of bringing an element of balance back into our professional sphere?

That people matter is kind of old news. Aristotle in "Politics" clued in that because humans had the gift of language, they were naturally suited to living in a community. And from that household grew the polis, the city, the state.

Business has always occurred in the context of community: guilds, apprenticeships, Chambers of Commerce, volunteer groups, country clubs, union halls, alumni associations... This social aspect of the workplace and the marketplace is not new, but perhaps forgotten? Automation, process engineering, the send, approve, reject buttons, auto-reply, auto-forward, press 1 for technical support and 2 for sales.... no wonder we've forgotten that we're people doing business with people.

Somewhere along the way, we've accepted that this sterile work world is OK. Last fall I was sitting with a group of colleagues at a conference. Two of us were excitedly chatting away about our personal and professional use of social networking tools. Twitter and Yammer and Facebook and Communities of Practice and Livelink Real Time and Second Life and Blip.. and.. and .. and...

One of the group finally put her hands up and said "I don't get it!" "Why on earth would anyone care that I've been working on the same PowerPoint for the last 3 days?" "If I don't have time for this how could anyone else"

So I said, "But... you work in a company full of ECM experts. You can't tell me that someone hasn't already created content on that topic by now... if search isn't turning up what you need, why don't you use your status line as a shout for help and see if someone sends you what you need?".

"Oh", she said. "Never thought of that".


And then she looked at the two of us and shook her head and wondered why we'd bothered trying to change her mind. I looked at her and said, "It's because we're Draggers. We get the value of building a social angle into our professional relationships. Because we know it makes a difference. And we want to drag you kicking and screaming into the light".


"Did you ever study Plato's Allegory of the Cave in school?...."

Behold! Human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets...
Walk through most office buildings today and look around. Cubicle or office walls - the veal-fattening pens we joked about in the '90s haven't changed all that much. Wires and cables and cords keeping our heads focused in one direction - the flickering, glowing monitor screen.

...and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?...And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow? ...To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
The in-box is the task master. The email, the workflows, the action items pushed by process and systems and scripts and triggers. Success means reducing the un-read list, clicking a button before the deadline, keeping things moving. Somewhere, anywhere, just not on my plate. The end goal, the objective, the customer or colleague waiting at the end of the line isn't real, but the blinking light or now-red follow up flag is.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply?
I'd like to just pick up the phone, or sit down over a coffee and come to an agreement, but I don't have time. I have too many emails to read to sit down and chat with my team. I need to finish filling out this spreadsheet by 2pm so no, I can't come to the new-guy welcome lunch. I'd love to join the customer user group meeting, but I need to update and circulate the forecast templates for to all my direct reports and cc: the regional management teams. It would be great to attend that conference on the key trends on my industry, but I need to finish formatting my roadmap Powerpoint for next week.

And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -- will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? ..And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
What if I stood up and walked over to the guy waiting, and sat down to ask about what he needs? What if I picked up a phone, or directly messaged him, or asked to join him for lunch? What if we figured things out on the back of a scratch pad, or napkin in the cafeteria? What if we did it sitting with 10 other people, so they knew what was going on too?

...And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

...He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

...Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. ...He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
What if I stuck my head outside the cubicle, and asked my colleagues and customers what they really thought? What if we listened to people about what was important? What if we pooled our best ideas? What if we skipped the inbox and just started working?

...And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

...And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

But what if I get fired for speaking up? What if I call B.S. on the process? What if people think I'm just wasting my time? If they can't count my read-items or completed workflow tasks, I might not get a good review...

... the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire,

...But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

What if we decide people are more important than processes? What if we decide that the brains we employ are more important than the buildings we put them in, or the computers we give them to stare at? What if indeed.

Full Text of Plato's Allegory of the Cave here

YouTube 7:17 min version of The Allegory of the Cave

Same thing, in 2 minutes...


  1. Brilliant Cheryl, just brilliant. Though I confess, I got tired halfway through trying to decipher Plato's text, so I jumped to the end and watched the 2 minute much to do you know ;)

    It's funny, with the old rules of PR slowly dying, the command and control structures crumbling, and the desparate need for passionate people again to drive companies, it's as if we're all waking up from a very bad dream, where we were all living in this Dilbertesk society, and now the chains are finally slipping off.

    Nicely done, very thought provoking indeed.

  2. Agree with Darren, this is brilliant. Cheryl, who knew you could write like this?! I wish my 14-yr-old son, who's about to have a close encounter with Plato, knew how to write a tenth as well as this.

    BTW, unlike Darren, I skipped the videos and stayed with the text...

  3. Cheryl - looks like you have not forgotten the art of writing MORE than 140 characters, eh?

    Wow, very nicely done. And a jump back to Plato instead of Malcolm Gladwell (ala Tipping Point) or the Cluetrain Manifesto. Way to buck the trend!

    I'll throw another relevant quote from BSG (BattleStar Galactica) "This has all happened before, and it will all happen again."

    Or, as I (more often) say - lather, rinse, repeat.

    Connections and loops - some of the relationships in content, people, processes, etc. are hidden, some are obvious, but tying them together and putting them to use? Well, that's the challenge.

    Very nicely done.


  4. Excellent post Cheryl - I knew you had this sort of thing in you the moment I met you and saw your wild and insightful sense of humor.

    All around us the command and control paradigm is crumbling in favor of sustainable relationship based collaboration. Funny, I think that's what the "gatherers" were doing eons ago. Once again we have an opportunity to come to the forefront of the process and inspire others to join us.

    Meanwhile, its always nice to meet another of the tribe. The fact that I got to meet you IRL via a Tweetup is proof that the connective tissue that truly runs the Universe is still in play, even though its using different tools to create connections. God love quantum mechanics.

    Keep it up!

  5. Thanks to all for very kind words. Maybe I've finally found the right niche in this crazy world of ECM so that when I tell people I see hyperlinks in my head they don't think I'm nuts.