Stewardship

I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

iPad for Breakfast

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

This morning (April 26, 2010), as part of the Social Media Breakfast series organized by Bryan Person and Maura Thomas, I led a discussion about the iPad. I don’t actually have an iPad myself, but I was eager to hear what the diverse SMB crowd would have to say about the impact and future of the device. Several who came had already bought iPads; we distributed them among the breakout sessions.

I framed the discussion by talking about the devices apparent strengths (light, mobile, easy to use) and limitations (hard to print, hard to interface with other systems, doesn’t have a built-in phone or camera). Then we had breakouts to discuss the iPad from various perspectives: what makes the iPad compelling; what is its impact on productivity, lifestyled, marketing, publishing, and social media; what can we expect from a world where we have connectivity like water – always on, everywhere. What had a great turnout, almost sixty people, and they were smart and vocal – so we had great conversations.

What were the conclusions? People felt that the iPad is more for lifestyle and entertainment, though there’s a potential for it to become a productivity tool. We heard that some hospitals are already incorporating it into their workflow, for instance.

One group felt that the “what the hell is that thing” confusion was part of what made the iPad compelling – people are drawn to it to try to figure it out.

They also felt that the iPad is driving a shift to new standards – platforms that start instantly, are light and mobile, incorporate touch technology, and are accessible and easy to use.

The iPad is not exactly great for productivity, though it can have an impact on efficiency. In business, it’s a great sales tool and communication tool, but it’s not a laptop or PC replacement. However it will allow sales professionals to demo anywhere, and gather information on the spot.

Where marketing is concerned, the iPad integrates both push and pull technologies and is a promising platform for ad-based content and services. There are already effective news apps. It’s also a great tool for engagement – many apps that run on the iPad and iPhone are social technologies.

The group that discussed social media was split regarding the impact of the iPad. They felt the biggest impact of the iPad would be in bringing in new social media adopters and spreading awareness of social media. Because it’s easy, it might help older people who are not digital natives adopt social media. It’s also great for multitasking. (We didn’t get into the discussion whether multitasking is evil.)

In publishing, there’s a split between specialized apps and browser-based experiences; the iPad facilitates both. The iPad might evolve as a textbook replacement. It will have an impact on organizing and editing information. The group agreed that information is more important than the platform for its delivery. There were questions about the future of print media as it becomes digital. The move from legacy to digital environments has meant lower revenues.

The iPad can be great for mobile professionals – physicians, for example, who will find the iPad even more useful as more health data is digitized and accessible in electronic health records.

The various limitations of the platform. – printing limitations, connectivity limitations, lack of USB, display interaces, cameras, and the lack of tethering were all limitations of the iPad, but none of them insurmountable. The iPad just wasn’t built to do everything. And it’s evolving.

Social semantics

Much semantic confusion around the new world of ubiquitous omindirectional communication, especially in the business/marketing world where it’s critical to understand how to capture attention and make effective, productive connections. I happened onto a post by Venessa Miemis that explores confusion about reputation (or whuffie) vs social capital.

Parenthetical: Flashing back to a meeting David Armistead and I had with a supposedly savvy social business entrepreneur where we used the term “social capital,” and she informed us that we were confused about the term, and proceeded to define it in the “social entrepreneur” sense – that social capital is microfinance, the sort of thing Muhammad Yunus is into. We realized she was confused and decided she was less than credible, but with a kind of “gold rush” around social-whatever, as we have today, Babelian weirdness is inherently part of the scene.

Okay, end paren. I was excited about Miemis’ post, quite a bit because of it’s clarity (vs the post by Brian Solis that it dissects, which is somewhat opaque). Also because it resolves a confusion of labels and contexts: reputation is not the same a social capital, and social capital is more complex than some who invoke it might allow.

I like the thinking in this paragraph:

If we decide that reputation is the new “currency” of the social economy, and decide to attach a number to it, I’m going to suggest that that would undermine the entire premise itself, instead resulting in commodity fetishism. (Neither Solis nor [Tara] Hunt directly suggests attaching a number to it, but I’m just pointing out that if we talk about this using economic words, people will be led to develop it accordingly.) I’m just trying to think ahead here. What Hunt is trying to promote is a return to human-centric practices in business and leading from underlying human values. (One of the tweets she sent me was a link to this post of hers, which indicates as much) I think that’s what we’re all trying to do – I’m just cautioning that people may abuse this premise if its meaning is cloaked in economic metaphor.

I’m not sure it’s a “return to human-centric practices,” i.e. I don’t know that we were ever especially human-centric in business, depending how that’s defined, but I’m pretty sure that markets were conversations before they were mediated by broadcast technology and became more abstract – I said as much in the early 90s, when I proposed FringeWare, Inc. as a “street market in cyberspace.” I suppose I was thinking then, too, that markets had been more “human-centric” in the past, but we have to be careful not to view the past – or the future, for that matter – with rose colored glasses. Neither the past nor the future exists, only hazy memory and hazy speculation.

What we do know is that mass media fragmented via the Internet, and mindshare in general is more focused on the personal and the conversational. We may still watch some things on television, but there’s so much more texting, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking. The business challenge is to get into that space and get a word in edgewise. Especially hard if you spent your life pushing and controlling messages that were transmitted over a limited number of channels by the few to the many.

In this context reputation is important – trust is crucial – and social capital is inherent, if not well-understood. It’s good to see writers and thinkers and even merchants trying to get their heads around all this.

Finding the forks in the road

Joel Makower considers four studies that explore the impact on business of climate change and related issues – the need for water management, and uncertainty about energy sources. Says Joel, “our world these days seems to be a succession of forks in the road, points at which decisions need to be made about which pathway we collectively must take.” This reminds me of something Rod Bell used to say, repeatedly: “To solve big problems, you have to go through big confusion.” [Link]