With its roots in 1546, the wisdom underlying the John Heywood proverb ‘enough is enough‘ has been recognised by many. But when is enough truly enough? The churning over the recessionary pressures – real or otherwise – have, more so in recent months, led many to question the economic models we have used for so long. Unsurprising really, as they are models which, as I have mentioned here before, were created for another space and time.
The question is not what we will do next – emergent models are under experimentation as I write. The big questions I believe we need to address include how will we handle the changes, how quickly can we adapt and can we be extricated from the profit model to a social model where we collectively agree to accept that ‘enough is, indeed, enough’. The other significant question – and why I am ‘thinking aloud’ here – is that once the social model is operational what will the role of the practitioner be in making it work?
The first hurdle surrounds the concept of profit. Profit (or surplus for the public sector) is needed to reinvest, grow the organisation and provide some security for my working community. Coming from a background that has always placed emphasis on the need for trusting and mutually beneficial relationships within the workforce, I am entirely conscious of the need to ensure the organisation is financially sustainable, so I am not advocating we abandon generating income, just that we determine what level of profit is ‘enough’.
Profit can be a sustainable driver, not simply something that laces my pockets and those of my shareholders with excess fat. Chasing profits stemmed (in some economic models at least) from chasing equality. Aristocracy in various guises held sway over goods, chattels and people for centuries. The industrial revolution provided the opportunity for the common man – and latterly woman – to enter these hallowed halls of privilege by virtue of their newly generated wealth. In order to attain perceived parity with their erstwhile masters, huge amounts of wealth had to be generated in order to buy the titles, houses and other material trappings that would elevate them to the level of society they desired. Profit was a driver to status, political power, social influence, three square meals a day and as much companionship as a man could cope with after a long day empire building.
So is it possible to change this attitude today? Influence is still largely determined by purse strings. Politicians are frequently bought and sold into power thanks to their affluent backers. In today’s society, slightly less hierarchical, slightly more democratic depending on where you are in the world, does ‘the company’ have to make excess profits? Do we really need the jet to get to Washington? The bonus or the remote hideaway? Can an organisation simply look at what it requires to sustain its working family’s needs and in doing so, leave room for life-blood investment, rather than bloody excess? Ensure process is sustainable and resources drawn from communities that remain unharmed as a result? Surely we can do better than we have done to date?
Last week I got a taxi from the airport, my single reckless disregard for my carbon footprint as I can’t cope with the shuttle bus taking longer than the flight to get me home. My taxi was a Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle, and, chatting to the driver our conversation turned inevitably to the recession. He advised he bought the car as a way to cut costs and do his bit for the environment. He said that he thought his petrol bill would reduce a little, but was more concerned with the environmental benefits. What he hadn’t anticipated was the $40 a day he was saving in petrol. We talked about various technologies available, how bonkers it is that Auckland is probably one of the only major cities in the world not to have a rail link from the airport to downtown and we agreed that although it is more expensive to start on the road to ‘enough is enough’, the long-term benefits are considerable and often unexpected; for him, his business is better, the city suffers fewer emissions and I am slightly less guilty about my cab ride.
Many years ago, I adopted the ‘enough is enough’ rule, earning enough to keep me and enough to allow me to provide help for free for those who need it, hopefully sustaining an income and improving the chances of others to do the same. It isn’t necessarily conventional and I have often been dubbed mildly nuts, but it does work – and I believe similar approaches will become more workable more quickly than you might think.
Just over the horizon we have the next stage of the social network moving on from the crowd-pulling Facebook to the homophilious web, where communities and networks structure their online business, play and social interaction with likeminded others, roosting comfortably together as birds of a feather in nodes and networks of their own making. The recent advent of OnLive , a gaming system that does away with hardware consoles (this is not the tangent it might seem), will, I am sure, be replicated across all activity, allowing us to switch on any device, from phone to TV – heck, even the car, and connect. Which means I can do away with the cab ride as I won’t be on the plane in the first place. So far, we have created multiple identities and accounts in order to connect – this too has begun to streamline with OpenID, Facebook Connect, FriendFeed and the like. Rapid prototyping of next-wave technologies means that, so long as the power stays on, we are changing the way we work and produce (so woe betide the companies currently banning social networking and interaction in the workplace. Lose the myopia or be that dinosaur).
But can this model work for ‘big business’? For the corporates fat on the residue of nineteenth century business and accounting systems? I suspect it could, but not merely by teaching or allowing people to use the technologies. It will be about behaviour change. Helping others to learn to rethink and restructure the organisation – probably into something much smaller. Helping them to be sufficiently courageous to discover the ‘new possible ‘ – like casting their communications out into network groups rather than retaining a ‘command and control’ centralised approach. Scariest for many would include restructuring balance sheets and examining the nature of ‘value’ as well as finally overturning the mythology of ‘brand’ and reintroducing the reality of providing necessities for people, rather than product or ‘things’. Tax, governance and the concept of power would also face overhaul, so we were all working towards ‘enough is enough’. In a world were resources are increasingly scarce, sustainability has to be put to work, rather than discussed ad nauseum. People are using the ‘new possible’ to force action. Look at Moldova or the Saucepan Revolution in Iceland this January that culminated in last weekend’s elections.
If you are still with me here, I can almost hear you murmuring ‘she’s completely lost the plot’. Possibly, but probably not. Consider this. I create a social network for like-minded people. We share a value system and our technographic profile is pretty well matched. These similarities do not mean our skills are duplicated so I can source my livelihood, social interaction, goods and services from within this group. I am working in an environment of trust and dependability. My values of sustainability, equality and empowerment are shared so I will invest my time and money. Put simply, when I need a new bed, I will ‘buy-pass’ the big brand store. Instead, I ask the network to work for me, either producing said bed or getting them to cross networks to a trusted source of theirs to find it for me. No amount of Google advertising will change my mind as my influences are predetermined by trust, source, mutuality and contribution. If, over time, I find the network becomes constrained, or groupthink starts to creep in, I may, in the search for innovation and diversity, join some heterophilious networks instead. I am still likely to keep things small, buy-passing ‘traditional’ sources of product and service in favour of my community. Influence and status won’t be afforded by material wealth – a new currency of identity will replace old benchmarks. Value will be determined by who you are, who you know and what you do – actions always speaking louder than words – with connections an addition to the existing reputational scale of who you are, what you do and what others say about you. Sell me a duff bed and your currency is down, not just in our community but elsewhere, when it is broadcast to others.
Which brings me (finally, sorry), to the role of the practitioner in all this. I have been looking at the competency requirements for a public relations practitioner in recent months and, to be frank, I feel the whole thing needs to be urgently turned on its head. I don’t think the frameworks that exist or which we are looking to create are going to equip us for the task ahead.
The fundamental function of public relations being concerned with building and sustaining relationships will not change, but its application will. I believe in the months – not years – ahead, the practitioner must increasingly be someone who understands the relationship between the networks as they enter the next phase. Someone who can understand the technographic, psychographic and homophilious nature of the interaction and is able to determine relevance, facilitate linkage and/or encourage the diversity necessary for innovation. One of the dangers of my net-work/net-worth model is that if people descend into groupthink, this in itself can have serious implications for society. The practitioner will therefore have the absolute responsibility for internal advocacy so the network resists descent into a closed system, because as we all know, closed systems don’t work. We will have to heat up the wax at the bottom of the lava lamp so communities remain nebulous, stay afloat and mingle for mutual benefit. Which makes me wonder if part of a future role could involve some sort of social policing? Moderation? Who knows. One certainty is that every practitioner will have to declare themselves and be themselves. Their own identity, reputation and involvement will form the basis on which those on whose behalf they advocate will be judged. The personal influence model with a twist of lemming?
In these early days, it is inevitable that evolutionary mistakes will be made. My hope is that practitioners don’t try to use old-school approaches in this new environment otherwise they will face the same criticisms that are often faced now. Network participants will forge their own relationships without the need for practitioners, in much the same way as the citizen no longer needs mainstream media to publish news and information. Redundancy beckons – unless the fundamental operation of net-work relationships and the role of the mediator-advocate is understood, developed and has demonstrable value. There is a need to reinvent our particular wheel, not just for the sake of it and not so that it does something else, more so that it carries a new type of load,more effectively and with greater social and public benefit than before. Interesting times indeed. And probably more than enough thinking out loud for today.