Social Leverage Points

Oct 3, 2008 21:03 · 685 words · 4 minute read

[Cross-posted from the Headshift blog]

One of the advantages of working somewhere surrounded by really smart people is that you get to hear about what they think are really cool ideas.

Tom Taylor’s personal blog led me to a paper by Donella Meadows, late of the Sustainability Institute on “Leverage Points: Places To Intervene In A System”. It’s an explanation - crystal clear, and from the point of view of systems theory - about what leverage points are, and how they can be used to influence systems. And it’s a paper that should be compulsory reading for anyone in any kind of a position of power - and preferably tattooed on the inside of politicians’ eyelids.

Reading through it, I got to wondering about which of the 12 leverage points described social media would fall into. The basic concept is that small shifts in one thing can produce big changes in everything - and we often use the terminology of small, incremental changes in behaviour when talking about social media.

According to Donella Meadows, there are 12 broad categories of leverage points with increasing levels of effectiveness. Ninth of twelve is the length of delays relative to the rate of system change, which is something that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever wrestled with a shower thermostat. The longer the water temperature takes to respond to the control, the more likely the chance of alternately boiling and freezing.

The point here is that the more rapid the feedback, the more effective at reducing oscillations. The social media analogue is the ease - and therefore rapidity - of publishing information. If getting your message out is as quick and simple as publishing a blog post, then that’s going to be far more effective than waiting for the marketing function to approve and publish a press release via their weapons-grade content management system.

Sixth in the list is the structure of information flows - one example of which is that placing an electricity meter where people can see it will tend to lower consumption. If you can see what you’re consuming, you’re more aware of the rate of consumption - and if it’s expensive, you’ll tend to slow down.

Where social media fits in is surfacing that information. Very often, key information is buried, whether it’s in emails, spreadsheets, report documents and so on. By taking it out of the “containing media” and sticking it front and centre - on a blog post, for example - it’s the informational equivalent of taking the meter out of the cupboard and putting it on top of the TV.

Fourth on the list is the power to add, change, evolve or self-organise system structures. Now we social media types have to be careful here - it’s very easy to make grandiose claims about the ability of social tools to change the world, and the reality is that their effect is often less than we’d like them to be.

But the key point here is that the tools themselves can adapt - big, monolithic enterprise software takes years to plan and implement, by which time the conditions that formed its design have long since passed. What’s left is organisational scar tissue.

Small-scale social tools - small pieces, loosely joined - can react far quicker and far more flexibly. Rather than trying to bend content into an organisational taxonomy, an emergent tagging structure will adapt to the material rather than the other way around.

And there’s also a warning here for the “that’s not the way we do things around here” brigade, which is worth quoting in full:

“Insistence on a single culture shuts down learning. Cuts back resilience. Any system, biological, economic or social, that becomes so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, a system that systematically scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.”

I’m going to try to remember that for the next time I’m talking with an internal IT function that trots out the “oh, we’ll only use Microsoft products here” line.

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