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The Human Revolution

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This chapter explains how looking at the world (and problems) through human terms can help better shape your organization.
This chapter is from the book
  • Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
  • —Morpheus, in The Matrix, 1999

The World We Live in Today

So how does this relate to you? Most of you reading this book are likely living in societies where oppressive controls are a thing of the past, right? Maybe a few centuries ago your brave ancestors rose up to throw off the shackles of an oppressive regime, but these days we don't particularly find ourselves struggling against oppression to regain our human dignity, do we? We can certainly relate to that story of The Matrix revolution in terms of our culture and history, but our everyday experiences, for the most part, would seem to have very little connection to a struggle to be fully human.

Or do they? Maybe you should think about that, the next time you are bored during a staff meeting. Or during that annual performance review, where once again you're reviewing issues with your direct report that haven't particularly been addressed in the last year. Or as you walk back to your office dejectedly after your boss has once again squashed your creative ideas because you didn't go through the proper channels. Or ask your colleague how she feels, after she complains to you that she has been crushed by the weight of layers of bureaucracy. Or talk to anyone who has seen opportunities pass his organization by because no one had the authority to act quickly or because the organization lacked any processes that would allow for deviance from the way things have always been done. Forget the science fiction of machines altering our brains to convince us that a virtual reality is actually happening. Take a look at our organizational lives, in which we routinely give up what is important to us, spending the overwhelming majority of our waking hours working in organizations that are more likely to inspire endless complaining and self-medication than truly fulfilling lives. We may not be locked in a literal struggle between life and death, but there is something disconcerting about the way so many of us plod forward in frustrating work environments. We tolerate a subpar existence, accepting that living a true and full human existence is actually a luxury, something we dream about, rather than a natural part of life to which we are entitled.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that we are here struggling to be more fully human within our organizational lives, because our organizations have for centuries been modeled after machines. Machines completely transformed our economy and our society. So it was only natural that we would look to them as we created the structures, processes, and behavioral expectations of our employees. We created organizations to be more productive, to grow as a society, so we wanted the same kind of efficiency and consistency that our machines provided for us. We organized into divisions, units, or components. We developed data-driven strategies. We reengineered our processes. We built companies with consistent brand messaging that measured outputs. We drive, direct, manage, order, measure, and process. There is no Matrix, but we certainly live in a machine world.

But over the last ten years, in an ironic twist of fate, a revolutionary breakthrough in technology—the Internet—has created a "glitch in the Matrix," so to speak. It is subtly (or not so subtly, depending on how much we're paying attention) shattering our perception of reality. As the Internet has become more central in our lives, we have begun to witness a revival of the importance of being human. Almost overnight, it seems, the world has become social, and the work world, too. Markets are conversations. Social media has enabled us to connect with individual people inside organizations and brands. We're leaping over corporate hurdles imposed by PR and marketing departments and the chain of command; customers are being heard in ways that ignore traditional channels. Content is being created that blurs the line between the "professionals" and the "amateurs." Rules are defied. People are demanding truth, honesty, transparency, and openness from the brands and organizations they deal with every day. The companies that are winning are those that are listening—and social media makes it easy to listen (though maybe not so easy to manage the work of listening and responding), so the rest have no excuse anymore. And why is all this so disruptive?

Because we like it. A lot.

We like being human. We like having the capacity to publish our own thoughts and to create things and share them with the people in our communities who actually matter to us. One of the reasons social media has grown so fast is that it taps into what we, as human beings, naturally love and need and want to do—create, share, connect, relate. So even though we don't know how these ever-changing technologies are going to play out or whether they will connect perfectly to our work world, we are diving right in and giving energy and attention to this new social world. We're watching as Twitter turns into a real-time news stream; we're amazed by the millions of people using Facebook every day; and we're trying to keep up with new social concepts like "engagement" and "influencers" and "gamification." But without knowing for sure what the business impact of these specific concepts will be, we're watching them unfold, we're personally excited by them, and we're ready to jump in and explore the newest social tool.

Our organizations, however, are not as enthusiastic. We see the potential that social media has for our organizations, because of the energy and attention social media attracts, but we are having a hard time trying to fit these new practices into our existing systems. We're drowning in tactics. We're arguing over who "owns" social media for our company. We mandate social media adoption, and then we're frustrated when our shiny new outposts on social media sites languish, unused and ignored. We're reading a lot of books about social media implementation, but the technology is moving faster than these books can be printed. The technologies we're trying to keep up with are not only developing faster, but they are also changing organically and unpredictably. What was the hottest site on the Web a year ago, with millions of people using it, just died almost overnight. A few individuals—bloggers, enthusiasts, and consultants—are just about able to keep up but not nearly enough to build the capacity we need for every organization to do the same. Ultimately, it's not (just) about writing better books about social media, or even printing them faster. There are some good books, and they hit the social media issues perfectly. What they do not address, however, is the deeper fabric of our organizations.

We are trying to force-fit social media technology—a technology that is unleashing a wave of creative energy that draws its strength by tapping into deeply human desires and aspirations—into organizations that have been built (and reinforced for decades) on an entirely mechanical model. We work in "systems," but we need to break down the doors and windows and let them become "ecosystems." We need to make human beings, not machine systems, into the core energy that drives growth. We are starting to realize that for our social media work to truly take off, we need more than smarter social media tactics and better social media implementation. The challenge here is not to do social media better. The challenge is to do our organizations better.

The challenge is to make our organizations more human.

This requires some different books (like this one), books that are not about tactics but about the deeper forces behind the disruptive changes we're seeing in a more social world. But more importantly, it requires more action. We need to unplug from how we traditionally have done things. We need to try new ways. We also need to stop doing other things at the same time. We have to take some chances. They can be calculated chances—we don't bet the farm, maybe—but we have to do things differently. That means giving up control. That means shifting authority. That means thinking about old issues from new perspectives, bringing in new voices. This is happening already around us, of course, because of the social web. People are finding ways to get things done without organizations, so this is actually the perfect opportunity to not do things like they have always been done. And we can talk about them and share what we are doing and learn from each other at a scale never seen before.

We need to follow the white rabbit, like in the movie. We need the red pill, the one that opens our eyes to the construct that is the world we live in, the one that unplugs us from the Matrix. (And yes, it might be gooey and messy when we do.)

We need to see the code to break it. This book will help.

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