Celine Schillinger on Social as the New Normal

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Celine, our involvement has been limited to virtual discourse online. I hope we can someday sit down face-to-face.

About Celine Schillinger

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Celine describes herself this way:

An agent for change, I help global organizations thrive in the new social economy. Social re-engineering of business and organizations is a passion, to increase engagement and business performance.

As Senior Director, Stakeholder Engagement, Dengue at Sanofi Pasteur, Celine is leading a social re-engineering of the company’s largest vaccine program, and is a charter member of Change Agents Worldwide.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: I read a piece you wrote last year, Can Social Be Top Down?, and I thought we could start there. You noted that the conventional thinking about adoption of social tools and practices is that top-level executives have to act as advocates, but you question that. It’s obvious that other innovations — like bring your own device, file sync-and-share — don’t require advocacy of top executives. You made the point that today’s executives came up in earlier, competitive, and less cooperative work cultures. So, do you think we have to wait for this generation of execs to die, or can we change cultural norms despite them?

We can’t just stay passive and wait for better times, because adaptation to the social age is not a question of generation. — Celine Schillinger

Celine Schillinger: We can’t just wait for the old-minded leaders to disappear, because unfortunately they have bred and promoted younger generations of managers who think and behave exactly the same. I know many 30–40 year old “high potential” employees and executives who are totally ignorant of social tools and practices. They “don’t believe” [sigh] in Twitter, they take pride in not being on Facebook or else (LinkedIn is the limit), and they “have no time” to learn about available internal social tools and communities.

More importantly, they have full faith in the value of current operating models: pyramidal, elitist, command-and-control, segmented, analytical, process and compliance-based models. Their ambition is to make their way through the system, not to change it. To climb the corporate ladder, they reproduce what has seemingly worked well for their role models: presenteeism, obedience, and power games. Young and ambitious women as well as visible minority people realize at some point that this isn’t quite enough: in many corporate cultures, it remains much easier to climb the ladder when you’re a white man.

Anyway, we can’t just stay passive and wait for better times, because adaptation to the social age is not a question of generation.

We can always try to educate and convince the top-level executives, but I’m afraid focusing on this makes us lose time and energy that are needed for more useful endeavors. You have to pick your battles. In my opinion, it is much more valuable to 1) invest in one’s own understanding of this new world, and 2) build / contribute to the communities one needs to move forward.

We can change cultural norms by being the change.

Even in the absence of decision-making power, we can drive organizations into new directions — by embodying new ways of working (new behaviors, really). If we are astute… and connected, we can achieve great changes. Connection is our major asset. Deep connections, to learn from others, spread change, and establish purpose-based alliances (these are the strongest). Large-scale connections, that are made possible by social technologies, to show our muscles and be heard by the small corporate elite.

SB: There’s a kind of deep pessimism about internal change in your words, even if you are optimistic about being able to make changes via a movement of the adherents of a new work culture, who operate outside the business. Is that what you are getting at?

CS: Ah! A roller coaster is probably what describes best the mood of change agents.Whether we are consultants or internal practitioners, we go through successive phases of gloom and doom, when culture change seems at a standstill, and exhilaration when we achieve progresses. There is no small victory in this respect.Every opportunity we have to make people and organizations work differently shall be seized. The more concrete examples we are able to show, the more stories we can share, the easier it will be to overcome ignorance and resistance.
Seeking support and external recognition outside of the organization, to push change forward internally, has worked pretty well in my case. Had I known how difficult it was, in particular in a traditional and conservative industry, I would have started much earlier. But there’s a strong appetite for change within organizations, too.

If someone wants to change something in their workplace, I recommend they search for like-minded fellow workers. People don’t speak up because they believe they’re alone and it is risky and useless; but when they realize they’re actually several, or even numerous, people feel stronger to drive change.

This is actually where I started my “transformational journey” into driving change. It all started by triggering, somewhat by chance, an internal community for gender balance on our corporate social network. The tool was available, so we seized it for a totally new type of initiative: self-organized, bottom-up, inclusive (functional and hierarchical silo agnostic), aiming at creating value. It has shaken the organization pretty much.We need more of this to disseminate social practices in the corporate reality, and ensure their sustainability.

If someone wants to change something in their workplace, I recommend they search for like-minded fellow workers. People don’t speak up because they believe they’re alone and it is risky and useless; but when they realize they’re actually several, or even numerous, people feel stronger to drive change. — Celine Schillinger

SB: Lee Bryant was the first that I know of who said ‘If you start going bottom up, everything has to be bottom up’. By extension, to adopt bottom-up self-organization, then the established top-down sanctioned organizational power structure is undermined. So, social practices and tools are inherently subversive. Your thoughts?

CS: This is very true: social practices and tools are subversive. But we shouldn’t say it too loud, so as not to make social look “dangerous”. Already, the corporate gate keepers perceive social as a challenge, and imagine a daunting world of activists and anarchy. They’re mentally framed by the industrial age management structures and practices, where order and control are far more important than flexibility and creativity. They see the consequences of social in its political variations (Arab Spring) and its use by unhappy customers or citizens. They certainly don’t want this to happen within the corporate walls.

As a result, most companies give a lot of lip service to social collaboration, but don’t invest seriously into it. Or, they focus on tools, because that’s the easy part. They leave the organizational reshuffling and culture change aside — and then wonder why adoption isn’t higher.

Inner social advocates are often mistaken for (or rather: caricatured as) idealists. Our main challenge is to explain that social is actually the new normal.

You can be for or against evolution, but evolution doesn’t care! The world is changing whatever companies do (or do not), and those that don’t adapt will just disappear. I’m doing my share to explain this, and frame it in a positive way. Lee Bryant provides precious inspiration to me, as does the Change Agents Worldwide group to which I belong.

SB: Alfred North Whitehead said ‘It is the business of the future to be dangerous’ so we can’t actually divide the two. I think the real challenge is getting people — managers and workforce, both — to grasp the fact that we are in a time when going slow and steady is perilous, and the counterintuitive acceptance of increased risk tolerance is the surest path forward. That’s not idealism, it’s pragmatism.

I agree that many companies are mired in the past, which is why I think the first step has to be getting people to realize that we are in a new era — the postnormal — where most of the premises that defined the previous postmodern era have dramatically shifted. Have you tried that approach?

Inner social advocates are often mistaken for (or rather: caricatured as) idealists. Our main challenge is to explain that social is actually the new normal. — Celine Schillinger

CS: It is utterly important to explain how the world has changed and why the old ways of working are recipes for disaster. We can’t just tell people they have to work differently, full stop. It is our responsibility as change agents to educate our colleagues, our managers, our organizations. We can do this by organizing educational workshops, by inviting external speakers, by coaching people individually, by sharing stories arising from our own, connected experience. I do this as much as I can.

Another powerful way is to connect those who “get it”. Creating a network of advocates facilitates the dissemination of the vision. It takes a network to spread a network culture. I wrote about this in my last blog post [link], which is about making organizations social. I believe this is about listening to people’s voices, letting them speak, encouraging them to speak (I hardly use the word “empower” now, since I’ve read this great piece by John Wenger) and leveraging the power of free speech. It starts with explaining what the new world is about, as far as we know it.

The new era is full of uncertainties, which can be fantastic opportunities. Companies are still trying to split complexity into bits of simple activities that can be standardized through procedures and administered by a specialist functions (= the usual way).Instead, they should quickly understand their survival depends on shifting mindsets to embrace complexity. There is no other way than developing flexible, adaptive, diverse, network-based structures, cultures and practices.

SB: The abiding question of Socialogy is to ask the question ‘what domain of science should we be looking into for better ideas about how business might be better conducted?’ Recent answers include social network theory, biology, and complexity.What’s your take?

CS: Those fields are indeed very interesting and obviously useful. But I’m a bit puzzled by science worshipping. Science is not the answer to everything. We will not “decode” all about emotions, irrational behaviors, coincidences, life. Science enables human progress, but people are not driven by science. Sometimes, things happen through stuff we don’t understand, and it’s fine.

I’m more interested in impact — changing behaviors — than decoding. So, beside searching for answers in science, I believe we should invest into developing people’s humanity, empathy, capacity to connect with one another. It’s time to bring back the humanities in the center of the picture. We can develop human connectedness through arts, literature, philosophy. Sharing questioning and emotions is at the core of what makes us more human; culture is a great way to foster this.

Globalization is a chance in this respect, as we can create bonds across borders more easily now, but surging inequalities (as shown by Thomas Piketty’s research) are a serious threat to connectedness. We have to do something about this. When we are more able to connect, when we understand each other better, then we’ll conduct better business.

SB: I’m happy to imagine the soft sciences — like anthropology, ethnography, and behavioral research — playing a large role in future business. The evidence suggests that business culture is afraid of creativity — witness the research on the astonishing traditionalism of most CEOs, and why creatives are sidelined — so I’m afraid that I hold little hope of the humanities and arts getting a foothold in business in the next five or even ten years.

Thanks for your time and thoughts.

CS: Thank you Stowe for giving me the chance to speak. Your work inspires many change agents. I hope together we can make the “future of work” concept become soon the “new normal” of work.

Originally published at stoweboyd.com on 8 May 2014.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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