I just got back in from a fantastic dinner conversation with anthropologist, information architect, user experience expert and all-around genius Dennis Schleicher (@dennisschleiche). We worked together years back, but not closely. How we came together for dinner tonight, ideated together at a level that would boggle outsiders (and quite frankly, our wives) is a testament to the power Twitter as a medium holds for building trust; there’s a lesson here that I hope makes its ways to leaders in organizations around the country/world.
First, a little background. When I was just the content specialist for ADL back in 2003-2006, Dennis worked for the same firm on completely different projects. We got along, but it’s fair to say we weren’t close. We had very little professional contact and I lacked some maturity, perspective and exposure that comes with experience. Our families got together, but we didn’t bond much.
Now over the past year or so, Dennis has popped up on my radar through LinkedIn and Twitter. Specifically through Twitter’s lens, we’ve noticed something interesting in what each other is into. Through the relationships forged over the past couple of years with usability honchos like Brian Dusablon (@briandusablon) and anthropologists like Mark Oehlert (@moehlert), my appreciation for all the pieces of the puzzle I haven’t worked with myself has opened up. As my understanding of what I don’t know grows, I appreciate Dennis’ gifts for user experience and intepretation more.
But still… it’s not like we hang out much. So Dennis, being in-town, meets me for dinner. It could be a cordial affair among acquaintances, but that’s not how it goes down. He starts out the conversation with a simple enough question: “what are you up to?” and I start to describe BAQON — which he instantly gets. He’s clued in by some professional experiences in similar circles that help him bridge the gaps in my flow of tweets. Sprinkle that with some in-person delivery of information, giving him additional context and voila. He gets what I’m doing.
But more importantly, after about an hour of riffing ideas off each other in a frenzied rush of cerebral adrenaline, we finish our appetizers and drinks and he asks me, “So how did we get here?” What he continues to ask me is how did we establish this level of very close, very personal exchange of ideas? Because we’re going deep, readers. He’s got me thinking about ontologies and you know from reading this blog that’s not a road I go down on my own normally. But yet we’re in a very concentrated state of some serious idea flow. And let me just say, for the record, that if you’re going to ideate with Dennis, you need to have your A-game, because he’s a master.
So I respond to Dennis and simply state that I can connect with him at this level because I know he’s been paying attention to what I’m doing. I know he’s doing some pretty interesting things in other places I don’t know much about, but aren’t completely unrelated. I haven’t had time to follow his blog, but because he’s tweeting about his blog I have some idea about what he’s blogging about and as I can, I catch up. I haven’t had time this week to catch up with everything, but I’ve been following his thread about bodystorming, because I can see its potential in helping me to express my ideas in ways that others might understand more fully.
He jumped at the chance to debrief me from the Innovations in E-Learning conference. He’s been witness to my change, even from a distance; even at 140 characters at a time.
And that’s when it visibly hit Dennis: Twitter is a “Trust Ladder.” To follow a blog takes time to read, time to absorb — but a tweet? That’s a very easy morsel to digest, and you can digest a lot of them. So even though he probably doesn’t read every blog post of mine (and I, his) we have a way of knowing through the preponderance of messages what each other are doing — because we elect to pay attention to each other’s tweets. And that… that is what builds the trust.
That must be what Chris Brogan talks about in “Trust Agents.”
So the lesson for leaders of organizations is this: stop fearing social networks. Embrace them. The people in your company networks who share openly — I mean, those are the people you want on every project, on every team. They are the people who are connecting your organizational silos together. They’re the conduit that keeps the current of information and knowledge circulating in the body of your organization. You want all the flow you can get if you care about revenue, profit, reducing expenses, innovation, agility, etc. You don’t turn on the social networking pipes for the entire organization to share information — awesome if they’ll do it, but they won’t. Most people are afraid of change: multiply that fear by technology and you get… well, Dennis and I couldn’t come up with that answer of what you get, but I think you get laggards on Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations curve.
You don’t turn on the social networking pipes for everyone: you do it for the 1% of the organization that is connecting all your disparate pieces together, and potentially the 10% of the organization that is paying attention to what that 1% is doing.
If you want to break down walls that divide people, individually or as groups, just let people talk to each other, and engineer it in a way so that you have influencers talking with other influencers who have slightly different experiences — the gaps they’ll fill in will lead to the change and growth. When the parties can identify the gap in their understanding of a shared concept, that’s the opportunity for both to create a new alignment. That’s not something you can mandate top-down, and it’s far more powerful than anything you’d try to push that way.
So the bottom line is this: I came home with my head spinning with incredibly rich ideas that expand my knowledge in new ways. Could a total stranger have the same conversation with me? No. Could a best friend have that effect on me? Maybe, but people who fit the “best friend” camp are probably so aligned with you anyway that there’s little sunlight between your divergent ideas. No… if you want to think new thoughts, you need to find people you can trust to bring out the best in your thinking who you know don’t look at things the way you do.
I find those people on Twitter — even, sometimes, if I already knew them.
P.S.: What’s with Dennis and Mark both from Baltimore? Is that some anthropologist hideout?
P.P.S: I’m sure I swiped a blogging idea from Dennis, but no doubt he can riff off this one and beat it silly with something much more awesome. That’s not a challenge to call him out. I’m citing he’s got some really good mental tools to write with.