The Covid Corridor has provided me with the opportunity to take stock, slow down and focus on some key learning areas that I believe are critical to help inform what the post-Covid world might look like. I will write about this in a later post, but one of the more formal educational programmes I did in 2020 was the Tavistock Institute Dynamics @ Board Level Certificate.
What follows is the assignment I submitted to complete this course.
We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons. We act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves. And this is what gives us the power and the obligation to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action. It is because we can share our wisdom that we have a special responsibility (Daniel Dennett 2021).
We are essentially marching naked into this digital century without the Charters or Rights, the legal frameworks, the regulatory paradigms, the institutional forms and the kind of leadership that we need to make the digital future compatible with democracy. (Shoshana Zuboff 2021)
On 11th March, 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared Covid-19 a Pandemic.
Over the past 12 months not only has this Pandemic touched every continent and nation but it has ushered in a step change in the way that humans individually and collectively have adopted, utilised and integrated digital information technologies into their everyday lives.
As we entered this interstice I determined that one of the most useful and productive things that I could do was to experience as many online Group Relations events as possible in order to learn from the breadth of experiences of how people were beginning to embrace a 21st Century digitally mediated existence.
This existence, which from the outset reminded me of E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops (Foster 1909), began decades, if not centuries, ago.
A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools, it happens when a society adopts new behaviours. (Shirky 2008)
The new behaviours we learn as we interact and engage with each other as groups, teams and systems mediated through digital communication technologies will both shape and inform how humanity embraces and faces the challenges of the 21st Century and the post-Covid world.
This paper seeks to consider my experience as a member of the Tavistock Institute’s 2020 Board Dynamics cohort, the first to be held fully online, and operating between continents, time-zones, cultures and mindsets during the most intense period of the Covid 19 Pandemic. As for us all this was just one group within the greater global system and, as such, the value is in extrapolating the learnings from this experience to more fully examine it and how it informed other interactions and engagements.
The Shift to Digital
When I first applied to participate in the Board Dynamics course the expectation was that it would be conducted as a hybrid with the first two modules held online, and the second two face to face. Those who more fully understand the nature of Pandemics would have realised from the outset the naïveté of such an expectation, but around the world the hope for a return to ‘some sort of normality’ by the Northern Hemisphere Summer was an important coping mechanism.
My interest in the course stemmed from both a curiosity about the direct application of Group Relations processes and academic research to the functioning of Boards as mechanisms of Governance, together with a desire to explore how this would operate in an online medium.
The Affordances of Digital Technologies
We have become digital on the last few years as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means (Doc Seals).
Life online is very different to life IRL (in real life). I have spent the past thirty years exploring this difference seeking to more fully understand how we humans interact with each other, and how the technologies interact with us. The core of my work may be termed Web Science – the Theory and Practice of Social Machines (SOCIAM), which is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how we are changing the Web, and the Web is changing us.
The World Wide Web was invented by physics researcher Tim Berners-Lee (see CERN) to try to solve the problem of information sharing between scientists, universities and institutes around the World. It was envisaged as an academic project, but, as so often happens,
we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run (Roy Amara).
All technologies and artefacts have what are called affordances, a word originally invented by psychologist J. J. Gibson to describe the actionable properties between the world and an actor (Gibson 1977). Donald J. Norman (Norman 1988, Norman 2018) expands upon this to state that affordances
- provide strong clues to the operations of things
- signal the perceived and actual properties of the thing
- are properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used
- when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed
I first became aware of the importance of affordances as they relate to digital media when I read the work of Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff 1988, Zuboff and Maxmin 2001). At the time I was working in the graphic arts, the first major industries to be disrupted by digitisation and digitalisation due to the development of desktop publishing and digital printing, undertaking research into the emerging Web and its impact on the workplace.
Zuboff’s work in this space is seminal and the table below clearly articulates some of the different characteristics of information in physical (analogue) and virtual (digital) form.
Table 1 – The Characteristics of Digital Technologies (adapted from Zuboff and Maxmin, 2002)
The more people started using the Web the more it developed an ecosystem of its own driven by the twin aspects of (1) negligible transaction costs (Coase 1937, Malone et al 1987) which enabled the freemium model of electronic commerce (see Zuboff 2019) and (2) the network effect (Castells 2000). By December 2019 just on 50% of the global population were connected to the Internet; by December 2020, largely due to the Covid Pandemic, this had increased to 62.4%.
I have heard it said that giving people an internet connection is like giving them a car to drive, without any instructions on the road rules or basic mechanics. That is pretty much the situation we currently face in terms of people’s understanding of the digital landscape largely due to the rapid digitisation of information and digitalisation of business processes and organisational systems and the paucity of digital literacy and digital fluency.
Digital literacy describes being how to use digital tools; Digital Fluency describes being able to understand why they should be used (Hopkins 2019).
We have evolved to operate in the physical / analogue environment and our senses enable us to interpret and function there and we have developed these through trusting these senses and the data we receive through them.
When it comes to the virtual / digital worlds we are only just beginning but as we increasingly interact online we are venturing into new environments where we cannot necessarily predict or trust the outcomes.
Figure 1: Rowland-Campbell – Literacy Model of Information Technologies
Technology, Transparency and Trust
When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details. (US Secretary of State George Shultz quoted in Bhalla et al, 2021)
Trust is essential to human relationships and at the core these are usually messy, inefficient and take time and brain power to develop and maintain (Machin 2019). Maintaining key relationships is at the core of our learning (Fonagy 2015) and a key element of this is what Rachel Botsman calls trust friction.
Here emerges one of the most important digital affordances. The designs built into most of our digital technologies, driven by the values and imperatives of the designers, are to remove friction, to make our lives easier and to more seamlessly integrate these technologies calmly into our lives (Weiser 1986 – 1989). One of the reasons why digital devices have become so ubiquitous is precisely due to this affordance built into the user-interface design.
Many young people don’t realise that everything you see on the computer screen is a construct that was invented by someone. (Ted Nelson)
This is a perfect example of Schein’s model of organisational culture (Schein 1994) where the values and assumptions of the technologists manifest in the artifacts.
Figure 2: Schein’s model of Organisational Culture, (Schein 1992)
Through the Looking Glass
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
The Knight looked surprised at the question. ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be?” he said. “My mind goes on working all the same.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
When it comes to how we experience these new digitally mediated screen interactions we need to continuously remind ourselves that we are engaging in a space between presence and absence, being somewhere that is both on and off where our bodies and minds can often be disconnected.
Interacting online and interacting IRL differ in a number of important ways:
- Notions of Time – the online world synchronises time, we are all in the same temporal space even though we may be living in different geographies with different time zones, and therefore different body clocks. Our notions of time seem to have changed during this period of the pandemic – in some ways speeding up, in others slowing down – and different for each and every person.
- Notions of Space – in group settings we are no longer in the same physical environment, but inhabiting different physical spaces (for us) which present to others through the same sized screen window. One result of this is what we are now calling Zoom Fatigue (Bailensen 2020). The information we currently receive through online channels is heavily dependent on aural and visual information but the somatic, which connects us to our physical presence, can feel disconnected until we experience the aches and pains of too little movement and the tiredness in our eyes (Microsoft is working on an interesting solution to this).
Figure 3: Rowland-Campbell – Information Channels as we interact online
- Management of Boundaries – in the physical world we have the opportunity and time to change our mental states as we transition through physical space and time, to clear our thoughts from previous encounters and prepare and focus on what it is to come. In the virtual world unless we consciously create this interstice between one meeting and another the transition is through a few clicks of a button taking a matter of seconds. In the digital space we are either on or off, it is very difficult to be anywhere in between which means that how we show up, how we are present (or absent), how we view ourselves, and how we leave can be very abrupt. In addition the boundaries are porous and it is difficult to seal out the outside world which continually intrudes.
There is one other element which sits between presence and absence (Scharmer 2007), that of transparency.
- The digital world gives us the ability to easily record, edit, broadcast and replay our online interactions. This leads to far greater levels of potential transparency but can also create a persistent unease in the knowledge that we are continuously on show, on the camera and the stage. Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage can merge giving little respite in between (Goffman 1959, Sternheimer 2020).
Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes and expectations; between materiality and functionality of technologies; between the intentions and perceptions of designers (Nagy & Neff 2015).
All of these affordances have been designed into the systems we use which become a part of our experience and how we experience others.
Group Dynamics Online
Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self (Castells 2000).
Eric Miller states that Freud’s great insight was to shift the focus from the individual to the interaction between patient and analyst, the notions of Transference and Countertransference which Bion then shifted to that of the group and the processes of socialisation. (Miller 1998).
What we think of ourselves is born in what we were thought about, we scrutinise the minds of others and we try to find ourselves within, to guess at our own feelings and thoughts (Fonagy 2015).
So how do we see each other as we show up on the screen? How do we feel in these spaces and how does this impact our emotional responses?
The work of Solms (Solms 2021), Damasio and others suggests that our emotions stem from our feelings.
Our choices are grounded in a value system. Feelings provide the value system which enables choice in unpredicted, novel situations (Solms 2021).
Given the lack of somatic information, which is often the primary source for our feelings, how is this impacting our engagements in the virtual space? One way to consider this is how we react to the physical presence of others versus how we sense them online through their windows; another is how the back-channels (i.e., the chat function) can be used for side conversations, which is similar to passing notes in the back row. Both of these elicit feelings and therefore emotions. Finally, when there may be uncomfortable feelings in the virtual space instead of having to sit with them in a physical space where the ability to leave takes some time, in the virtual space once every participant has the option to turn off their camera and sit behind it, or completely leave the room.
There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole. (Wertheimer 1924)
Every element of this impacts the virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (Sonnenfeld 2002) which is at the heart of how governance and corporate responsibility needs to operate.
The Modern Board
The concept of a corporate board
is a reflection of widespread political practices and ideas in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages which reflect both social norms and cultural values as they pertained to business governance, political and cultural ideas, together with assumptions about wealth-maximizing efficiencies (Gevurtz 2004).
For those of us who live in Western cultures these ideas constitute what is normal, but it is necessary to put these ideas in context.
The work of Henrich (Henrich 2010, Henrich 2020) shows that the Western mindset has emerged from the geo-political history of Western Europe (see also Marshall 2016 and Goldin 2020).
Henrich classifies Western people as being
hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was, and still is, enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put (Henrich 2020).
We Westerners are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (see also Stasavage 2020). Henrich argues that this is one of the reasons that Capitalism emerged in the West driven by the rise of the individual (see Morris 1972, Nashef 2018, Curtis 2002 BBC).
The Discovery of the Individual is an eccentricity among cultures (Morris 1972).
This WEIRD mindset has created a positive environment for humans to flourish (Harari 2015, Pinker 2018, Roser 2021) but is also based on the assumption that humans need to be controlled, for our own good (Bregman 2020).
The limits and boundaries of Agency Theory (Simon 1957) are determined by its model of man. (Davis et al 1997, Keay 2017)
If we consider governance, particularly as it is beginning to manifest online, from a more naturalistic and biological perspective (Bandura 2017) then the concept of the Social Machine as a symbiotic human-machine ecosystem becomes much more useful (Neff 2021). This leads to a broader perspective where it is assumed that humans are driven by larger collectivist, pro-organisational goals (Argyris 1973, McGregor 1980, Maslow 1970) which is precisely what the online environment was designed to achieve from the outset (Levine et al 1999, Kelly 2010).
Changing Global Mindsets
The link between communication and character is complex, but unbreakable. We cannot transform all our media of communication and expect to remain unchanged as people. A revolution in the media must mean a revolution in the psyche (Toffler 1980).
Former InfoSys Founder, CEO and Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan (Gopalakrishnan 2021) believes that the 21st Century will change as a result of the impact of information technologies.
- Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives;
- The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
- There will be a global shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
As we continue to reach out globally we are creating societies online and
each society chooses which thoughts and feelings shall be permitted to arrive and which must be kept hidden (Eric Fromm as quoted by Susan Long, March 2021).
An Antipodean Perspective
Our people have been entrusted by the Creator Spirit with the care of the land and the associated ceremonies. In most parts of Australia, they are unable to care for their land and ensure its continued fruitfulness because it has been taken over by the immigrants. The spiritual line of succession, from the time of creation through countless generations, has now been broken. And deep inside, our people live with guilt and hopelessness (Archie et al 2007).
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are (Turkle 2011).
I was born and grew up in a sunburnt country riven by guilt and sadness. This duality underpins everything about Australia (and many other colonialised cultures) and as we move in to the 21st Century our greatest global challenge is to move away from the dominance of the WEIRD, and largely industrialised, thinking and embrace the power of more organic Dreamtime mindsets (such as those which harness Social Dreaming, Lawrence 2000) in order to better govern our social systems.
This is especially important as we become more embedded in the Technosphere which has become all too obvious as we all move our lives online. As I have reflected on my own online experiences in groups there is one word that repeatedly comes to mind, and that is the word stewardship.
Stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours (Davis 1997).
Stewardship addresses the illusion of being able to manage and control up front (Long 2021) by being more inclusive, taking a longer-term view and understanding the symbiosis of humans and the systems, both natural and technological, that we inhabit.
My own work is based on the philosophy of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002, Spears 1998) combined with a practical application through the principles of Sustainability where we seek to create an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations. (Avery 2006, Avery & Bergsteiner 2010, Rowland-Campbell 2021)
As I sat in the various modules and groups of the Tavistock Board Dynamics course I felt very keenly the Tyranny of Distance (Blainey 1966) and the mythic structure of Bion’s Groups (Bion 1961, Shambaugh 1985) as they ebbed and flowed through each module.
I felt alienated by the dominance of WEIRD values, not only in the predominantly European makeup of the Group, but in the very design and interface of the technologies themselves.
We each played our part in this, but the success of these events was largely due to the stewardship of our consultants, who did not lead but sought to serve each of us by providing the space to reflect and learn.
Corporations and Industrial Capitalism have driven the development of humanity over the past few hundred years and the associated governance and management systems which have underpinned them must be seen as a part its success. But we are now questioning what success looks like? As our environmental systems react to what is now being talked of as the crime of Ecocide it is imperative that we evolve how we manage and govern ourselves harnessing the smart machines we have invented but more importantly drawing on all of the smart people.
We are now on the threshold of a global opportunity, one that can take advantage of being in the unfrozen state between the old world and the new (Lewin 1947) that is to come. As such
We have the opportunity now to not just do what we did yesterday. We have permission to change things. Everything is now up for grabs. (Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns 2021)
A part of that change is to adopt a more natural and Eastern philosophy towards our corporate systems as part of a global ecosystem embedded in the natural world and inclusive of all humanity because the challenges we face affect us all.
This is the Stewardship Challenge for the 21st Century which should be the main guiding premise.
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Fonagy, P. (2015). What is Mentalisation? Interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ, viewed 10th March, 2021.
Gopalakrishnan, K. (2021). Interview with the Author. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGENc3VYWro, held via Zoom as part of Brave Conversations Bangalore 2021, February 2021.
Long, Susan (2021), Unconscious – The Evolution of an Idea, https://www.nioda.org.au/the-unconscious-the-evolution-of-an-idea/, Zoom event held live 24th March, 2021
Pinker, Steven (2018). How the world is getting better, not worse. Interview with Paul Solman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvEiiYfVXnk, PBS NewsHour
Solms, Mark (2021). The Source of Consciousness. The Royal Institution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmuYrnOVmfk viewed 7th March, 2021.