Many of us who travel come home with memory cards full of travel pics. The majority will show the places that we have been to. Often they may also include shots of people we meet as well. I thought it might be interesting to have a travel log (including an evolving network map) which starts with people we meet and then support this with the places that we meet, rather than the other way around. The idea is that I intend to build the social network of people that we meet or connect with as we travel to new places over a 40 day period.
There is a connection to ‘Social Business’ here. As the term implies, the line between ‘social’ activities and ‘business’ is now well and truly blurred. Friends can become business associates in the same way as business associates can become friends. On this 40 day ‘Holiday Trip’ I met with business associates who had become friends and I also took the opportunity in Israel to meet face-to-face, two online connections I have had for some time. While the Internet affords connections that would have previously been unthinkable, relationships thrive on such face-to-face encounters.
The full Travel Blog includes ‘Side Bar’ social networking reflections I had while writing the actual travel content. I have extracted and edited the content for this blog post, but it is still quite long. So here is the network map after 40 days:
And here is a highlights reel:
Side Bar 1 – Interesting connections and 6 degrees of separation
I am reminded of how, as social beings, we naturally look for connections. We do this by trying to identify something we have in common, however obtuse. When we find something, we can start to connect and bond. If we find nothing then we will probably just move on and completely forget the contact. Sometimes it can be something simple like the episode above (chance meeting on a ski lift), that makes the connection memorable. However the more radical the connection, for example meeting a complete stranger in a place foreign to both of you and finding that you know someone in common….that becomes really memorable.
I had one such episode at a conference in Colorado many years ago. I was hanging out with some folks from Alcoa, Pittsburgh when one of them said to me…”you know I only know one person from Australia’ his name is Bill F.” Amazingly Bill was someone I did know as well through a work engagement. He and Bill had worked together at a previous company for them both. We laughed when to think that from a population of 20 million people that the two of us who had never met before would find a common connection.
More recently Julie and I had joined a tour group in Turkey and met Sharon and Tony. They lived in Sydney but had previously lived in Port Macquarie. After a bit of exploring we found that one of their best friends had gone to college with Julie and they had even lived together during that time! They shared some even more incredible six degree stories of their own. I find these small world connections so fascinating. We still keep in contact with Sharon and Tony, no doubt influenced by our shared connections. Interestingly, in that same share house of Julie’s she had another friend Margaret who she hitchhiked around New Zealand with over 30 years ago now. Recently we found that it is highly likely that they are related based on some genealogy detective work that Julie’s sister Kerri has been doing recently.
It really is a small world after all!
Side-bar 2 – Intriguing Connection Reflections
Looking back on our “White Xmas” its intriguing to reflect on how much our connections, both people and places, influence and shape our life experiences. How our social networks evolve through surprising and sometimes coincidental connection of intrigue. I’m always fascinated by such connections…we’ve all had our 6 degrees of separation moments,.. that make life interesting. Here are some of ours from this trip:
Thirty two years ago Julie and I made our first trip to Europe for a skiing white Xmas in a small Austrian town called St. Ulrich …. Interestingly Ortesei also goes by that same German name.
We were a little younger than our own children are now. That trip took us through Japan to London and then to Austria for our 2 week skiing over Xmas and New Year. We had extended family with us, my cousin Debbie and her then boyfriend, Danny and Julie’s sister Kerrie and husband David. We met one couple on that trip, Beau and Janice, who were from the same town as us. Eventually our children became good friends at university. After that we travelled through Italy for the first time. With Debbie and Danny we stopped in Milan to visit with Gary’s (from Gary & Lyn), sister Lynnie and her then husband Giovanni. This visit was memorable for a number of reasons. Firstly while we were there Gary rang with the news of his first born son David (from David & Theresa) who was with us on this trip. We had first met Giovanni at their wedding in Sydney but we still recall the pleasure and relief of being met by a native speaking Italian at Milan station after several weeks of struggling with European languages, and now being guided around by a local.
We will be meeting with Giovanni later in this trip so I will talk more about our connections through Giovanni then. It is suffice to say however that without our connections to Giovanni it is doubtful that I would be writing this post from Italy today.
Sidebar 3 – Eras of travelling: Generational Networking Practices
Aussies are avid travellers and we are no different. Travel has become easier over the years. When I reflect back on my travelling experiences there are three definite eras….BC (before children); WC (with children) and AC (after children). BC is travelling on the cheap in hostels and cheap hotels; WC is more expensive and invariably requires family sized accommodations. AC is more comfortable. The accommodation is better and usually the food as well, as we only have to cater for ourselves while we spend the kids’ inheritance.
Julie and I did quite a lot of travel BC. Before partnering up I had made my first overseas trip and had my first ‘away from home’ Xmas in Asia, flying to Malaysia on a cheap student flight with a couple of mates. During that trip we endured a 42 hour bus trip on muddy back roads to Bangkok and then back down to Singapore staying in cheap hotels all the way. Yes in Singapore’s less pristine days there were cheap hotels in Bencoolan st, and Boogie St was a gay bar buzz of street markets and she-hes. Oddly enough they insisted on males having short hair. I had the 1970s long hair style of the day and it took two trips to the barber to meet the standard. The last haircut was given by a barber located at the border crossing from Malaysia! Julie had done the outback tour through the back of Queensland, NSW and South Australia. We had then both independently done the New Zealand back backer thing, hitch-hiking around both islands (in the days before back packer murderers) and staying in cheap youth hostels or just camping out in our $30 cheapie tents.
A little later in our WC days I had the bight idea that we should re-discover that experience with our then teen-aged children. They were both studying languages at school and I was sure that in a few years time they would become independent back packers as well. Here was a chance for them to practice their language skills and we would also save money by staying at pack packers around New Zealand. We didn’t go so far as to try and hitch hike, but I did find a good rental deal at “Rent-a wreck” (it really only did break down once in Dunedin). Well in hindsight I was right about them doing the back-packer thing but the early exposure was a #fail! You should have seen the shock on Erin’s face when she heard that we would have to actually share a bathroom with strangers. Even worse some backpacker had mistakenly set up in our room….how could you even think about sharing a room with complete strangers! On our last day of the trip we arrived in Christchurch to see the backpacker hotel that we had booked into. As was typical they were basically un-renovated old hotels in the centre of town (usually on the edge of the red light district). This one however was about 3 centimetres from the bell tower of the church in the centre of town….and it was ringing away as we approached. They all turned to me and said in unison…”we’re not staying there Dad!”. As it turned out the NZ tourist industry was suffering from the loss of Asian tourists because of the Asian bird flue epidemic. We managed to pick up a luxury apartment for not much more than the back packers. Erin was in heaven luxuriating with her own bath and Gav was likewise happy to be surfing the cable channels. I noticed on the recent footage of the Christchurch earthquakes that the hotel and church had been extensively damaged….so I guess both will now have to be renovated…can you get sound-proofed bells?
Our AC travel has been somewhat more relaxing. It is often said that an overseas trip can make or break a relationship. Julie and I travel well together even though we have quite diverse interests. Julie trained in Art and so the European galleries are her nirvana. I trained in Metallurgy and Computer science, so seeing the first Bessemer Iron making furnace in the Smithsonian in Washington or the Turing machine was what gave me a buzz…but alas there are far more art galleries around than science museums. We managed to find a workable compromise though. I was happy for us to visit as many art galleries as Julie wanted to, we just had to go through them fast!
Our AC travel has also seen us regularly meet up with our children overseas, mostly together, like this time, but sometimes apart. Over recent years my annual Italian conference trip has been followed by a weekend away with Erin for her birthday. This year it was Stockholm, last year Budapest.
When Gavin was also in London he decided to do a one man surfie tour of Western Europe. As parents you naturally worry about a son buying an old van and driving alone through unknown territory …. crazy Aussie surfer. Sounds just like a young Rosario driving alone to Perth across the Nullabour and then to Darwin … not without incident and as it turned out it was the same for Gavin.
In one small coastal town we called in on the recommended hostel to be told that they were full. They did say however that they had another place closer to town and that we should look there. It was only a small village so we decided to walk. On the way we saw this impressive new apartment block renting apartments so I suggested we look in there. Looked wonderful, several bedrooms with their own televisions, fully air conditioned and two modern bathrooms….and at a very attractive price. I was ready to stay here but we thought we better look at the other place as they were expecting us. We arrived at the town site…a quirky brightly coloured building on the waterfront and yes right in the village. They showed us the room, which was just that, one single room with three single beds and a small window facing the ocean. No internal bathroom, you had to walk outside and down the hall to the shared facilities. When we learned the price was the same as the previous apartment we looked at, so I declared “this is a no-brainer”. “Yes they responded in unison, we’re going to stay here!…who wants to stay in a boring apartment!”… how times had changed since the New Zealand fiasco!
We have however managed to travel to many other countries beyond my work destinations, some triggered by work connections, like Rosario and Maria’s wedding in South Africa
which was a real treat. Two more this trip being Israel and Jordan. The world is such a big place, we feel we are only just scratching the surface.
I read an article once that indicated that our networking patterns changed as we grow older. As youngsters we spend a lot of our time collecting new connections. Mid career we learn how to distinguish connections we want to nurture while still collecting new ones. In our later years we become much more discerning about how we spend our ‘networking time’. Having lived through these generations and observing my own children I’m not so sure that these findings hold up now. Apparently the growth segment for Facebook now is amongst retirees over 65! The technology not only helps us develop new connections, but to also reconnect with old connections.
Side-Bar 4 – The blessing of being born English speaking.
As English has become the dominant language across the world and more especially in the business world, I am eternally grateful that I was born English speaking. I spent 6 years in high school studying French, but even then at the end of it could barely string a sentence together let alone understand what a native French speaker was saying to me. I recall on our first trip to France down on the Riviera I called into an information booth to get a local map. The attendant refused to speak English and wanted me to speak French to her…they can be pretty arrogant to the English speakers in that area. I called on my best halting French with some effort. She immediately slapped down the map in front of me….she knew what I wanted all the time!
In my lecturing I am regularly teaching non-native English speakers from Asia, the Middle East, Scandinavia, South America and Eastern Europe as well. The Scandinavians from Denmark, Sweden and Norway are excellent, as are students from Hong Kong. Chinese students are known to be very studious. However I found that they often preferred to have the online notes than to attend the lectures (though they usually did out of respect, but never interacted in class discussions). I could tell from their emails that they were working well into the night. Clearly they were doing twice the work of a native English speaker, having to tediously translate their work, while at the same time trying to avoid being seen to plagiarise. I can see how tempting it is for a non-English speaker to “borrow” a good turn of a phrase that they might find in the literature. I would often say to them that I know that in their minds they have some real insights and that they should try to share them in their own words, no matter how bad the English might be (of course this made my job harder in assessing, but plagiarism risks are much worse). I felt their frustration….”so much to say…but no way to say it”.
Language also strongly dictates whom we connect with. We will always prefer to connect with people we find it easy to communicate with. Even in my classes I could see the cliques formed around shared language. Mostly this is a good thing as they can help each other. Sometimes not so good if they are sharing a wrong interpretation or understanding of what is required. Networks aren’t selective. They will propagate both good and bad information with the same effectiveness. Rumours are different however, they travel the fastest!
A few years ago Julie and I enjoyed our first real cruise holiday down the Dalmatian coast. We were with cruising veterans, Julie’s sister Kerrie, husband David and their daughter Katrina. The Cruise line was French and therefore the majority of passengers French. Over the period of a week we found ourselves gravitating toward the small English-speaking enclave. We even found some common connections around Wollongong, where Julie and Kerrie grew up and Kerrie still lives. It was my time to experience being part of the language minority. Language can have a big effect on our networking patterns. This is why the social networking sites are so powerful as it gives the non-native English speakers the time to ingest and compose English language discussion interactions. And this is the same for e-learning and why online learning will also help bridge the language gap.
Side Bar 5 – Connections that Matter
In Network Science we often talk about Brokers and/or Bridges. These are people that can connect you to other groups that you would normally not come into contact with. This can be particularly important across language barriers as common languages tend to define our communities. As the world becomes increasingly globalised these brokers are becoming increasingly important. While I have said that I am happy to have been born as a native English speaker, I also admire the muliti-lingual talents of some native foreign speakers. I sometimes regret not being able to speak the language of my Chinese heritage. It does become awkward when travelling and/or lecturing in Asia. Of course there is an expectation that I can speak Chinese. Recently when in Hong Kong with friends Noelene and Geoff (who will be joining us on this trip in Israel) we went to a regional Yum Cha restaurant. The waitresses obviously thought I was hosting these visitors and addressed me in Chinese. I responded that I would speak English only in respect for my visitors. They weren’t fooled, we could hear them tittering to their fellow waitresses about the Chinese guy with the broad Aussie accent!
Many of these important brokers have been introduced to us through family connections. Some have come through friends, but how many of your acquaintances (or what network scientists call ‘weak tie’ connections) have ended up having a major influence on you life experiences? How did you first connect? What was the source of common interest? For my wife Julie our first common connection was that her sister Kerrie and I were both studying Metallurgy and working at the BHP (in different cities though). Interestingly my brother who was also studying Metallurgy was in Kerrie’s classes in Wollongong and working at the BHP. In those days working at the ‘big Australian’, BHP was seen as a real coup. How quickly connections can build through serendipitous associations.
Sidebar 6 – Bridging Disparate Communities
The importance of the bridge/broker is heavily reported in the social network science literature. The fact is that when we aim to build our expertise in our preferred fields of endeavour we do this by surrounding ourselves with ‘like minds’, often to the exclusion of those that do not share the same interests and passions. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, popularized the view that it takes 10,000 + hour of concentrated effort to develop any level of distinguished expertise in an area. I think one could also come up with a complementary measure of the number of ‘Like Minds’ one might need to be connected with, to develop that level of expertise. Social Network Scientists have studied “hot spot’ areas of expertise like the Technology hubs around Silicon Valley and Boston, and perhaps the art history hub around Florence and the list goes on. We have been involved on the periphery with a number of government initiatives looking to build business ‘clusters’, acknowledging the value of co-locating clusters of expertise.
Therefore to find individuals that are able to bridge quite disparate fields is indeed vary rare. While many of us can have diverse interests, this rarely means high levels of expertise in more than one area. There are few people I can think of that have been world leaders in two quite different fields. The standout of course is Vincent Van Gogh who was able to bridge the worlds of science and art as a leader in both fields. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin in Science and Music. Who else? I’m sure that other names will pop up, but how many in recent years. Today one has to specialise to be able to compete in an increasingly globalised world. So I suspect we will never see another Van Gogh, Franklin or the like.
Side-Bar 7 – GPS adventures – unexpected but memorable experiences
Let me say upfront that I think that GPS devices are amazing technology that I’ve come to depend on to the extent that I can’t think what I did without them. That said, no technology is perfect and with any technology, if you become over-dependent on it and have no ‘Plan B’ then life can get interesting. Italy in particular can be difficult to navigate for reasons I’ve already mentioned. I recall the days when we had to rely on paper maps. We had good maps of city centres and a good map of the whole of Italy, but if you wanted to go somewhere in between, you were on your own.
GPS adventures are a little different. Map errors can prove interesting. More than once, in the UK, we have had the GPS happily announce we had reached our destination when we were in the middle of nowhere. On this trip we have visited some villages by mistake that we would never have seen otherwise. The most interesting times can happen when you miss a turn and the GPS tries to get you back on track. We have been on some pretty scary roads. This trip we have been asked to go on some of the narrowest roads (both side mirrors folded in). In the UK we have driven down roads with hedges scaping both sides of the car. We missed a turn once and had to travel 14 klms on the Heathrow express way before we could turn around. This was after a long day driving already.
On the other hand I’m amazed at how well they can do at times. One winter up near York in the UK we were driving in pitch black, no street lights or signs, only our headlights and it guided us to our remote B&B, which we would never have found otherwise. On that same trip we were out in the country and the GPS announced a toll road. We could not believe that it could be right, but sure enough, in the UK there are still some private roads that the public use and here was a toll booth with the attendant taking 10p for the kilometer or so of private road we were to use.
Who else has had an interesting GPS adventure? What memorable experiences have you had by taking a wrong path (both physically or figuratively!)
Sidebar 8 – The Importance of Weak Ties
You will notice now after some 20+ days now that the cumulative social network map is getting pretty busy. You might ask what is the value of this? It just looks like a big mess. Others may see it as a piece of abstract art. In fact network maps have been used in Art Exhibitions. I saw this exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s hand drawn network maps when I first met fellow Social Network Analyst Valdis Krebs in the 1990s when he took me to see it in his home town of Cleveland. Art aside, social network analysts use these messy network maps to explore for interesting patterns that can tell us something new or insightful about the people in the network. They do this by taking selective snapshots from the network. For example, I could extract just the network nodes from certain places, like say, Northern Italy. I could select by time like say, the 2 week period around the 1st of January. I could select based on the link type e.g. friends only, friends and family etc..
You might suggest that I could make the maps look less messy by not including the serendipitous acquaintances like the people we met in a cable car, or in a restaurant for instance. They are only fleeting connections with a high likelihood that we will never connect with them again. This is absolutely true, but not all connections need to be direct connections. Network scientists also work with what we call “affinity” connections i.e. people that are connected through common attributes. Some of these are obvious, like we met them at the same place. You can see some of those on the maps now. Others may not emerge until some time after. These are time based associative patterns that only emerge over time. We might only make these connections when looking back over time. For example I might reflect over our time in Sicily and note an associative connection between 3 of our AirBnB hosts Linda, Anna and Elena. Firstly they are independent female hosts running a B&B as their “business”. Two of them are single and still live with their parents, perhaps making a statement about modern day Sicilian women…in fact the exception Linda also provides commentary on this topic. This is all grit for the mill for the social scientist.
The other reason that we like to include ‘weak ties’ in our analyses as it has been found that weak ties are often the source of our most memorable experiences. Sure, perhaps 99% will fade into obscurity, but it is the 1%, those serendipitous 6 degrees of separation that we never forget. On a more business like note, our weak ties have also been shown to be the most likely source of innovation as they bring in new and diverse knowledge and experiences that we would not normally come into contact with. They have also been found to be the most likely way of finding a new job…. the topic of the now most celebrated theory of American academic Mark Granovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties.
Side Bar 9 – Social Technologies finding mainstream application
We mostly think of social software being designed specifically to bring people together for social interactions. Facebook facilitates interactions between friends, Linkedin facilitates more business focussed interactions. We are however now finding mainstream applications that have social technologies at their heart and with the expectation that they will outperform traditional software because of that. Twitter is perhaps a good example of software software designed for people to socialise via short sound bites, that is now being used as an early warning news source. Breaking information around natural disasters more regularly comes through Twitter, than conventional sources, with the people on the ground, in the event, being able to act as reporters. News trends are also being reported through mining of Twitter hash tags. Twitter is one of the reasons for the disruption being felt now in the publishing industry, worldwide. Ebay’s auction application was arguably the first major application of social technologies for mainstream use. Ebay was started as a means for people with common interests to get together and trade artefacts. This has now grown to be the world’s leading online selling application, on its way disrupting traditional retail markets.
In our tour with Benny H. I noticed that he was using a GPS application that is gaining popularity and one I had recently also loaded on my iphone. It is called Waze and as it turns out , it is an Israeli software innovation and the CEO is a friend of Benny’s. What is unique about Waze is that it does not rely on existing road maps as its base. It simply tracks where vehicles using its software are travelling and therefore builds its maps from this data. Additionally it uses social techniques to encourage people to report on points of interest, the most important being traffic incidents. As Benny suggested, Waze uses complex systems methods to collect information from independent agents and then to fuse this information in a way that it benefits all of the agents. Clearly cloud technology and the ability to collect realtime information from agents has made the Waze model possible….and we are likely to see more of this as cloud technologies mature. The unique utility that Waze offers is that the path it provides to you takes dynamic notice of traffic situations, and is therefore really the fastest route to your destination. As with all new software there has been some interesting anecdotes about its early use. Waze can claim to be the first GPS software with a map to the Antarctic! All it took was for someone travelling there to have Waze operating while they made the trip. It did not need a pre-existing road system. On the more negative side Benny told a story about one time where the software actually created a traffic jam by sending people through the same bottleneck. He called his CEO friend to point this issue out, only to be told that he wasn’t the first and the CEO had been inundated with complaints. Apparently there was a glitch in the cloud system that prevented certain servers from updating information …. I suspect this is an issue that only real-time applications like Wayz might be impacted by.
We will undoubtedly see more mainstream software relying on social models as their core means of delivery. This fusion of social and traditional is an exciting evolution which promises to bring another level of everyday utility to software consumers.
Side-Bar 10 – Social Network Analysis and Jewish Diaspora
While walking around Jerusalem; a complex fusion of religions, nationalities, cultures and histories I thought about whether network scientists had studied and contributed to resolving the complex issues that exist here. From a building communities perspective, I had previously commented that a common language is the strongest of ‘bonding agents’. Religion would have to be a close second. A quick Google search uncovered this article:
“Re-thinking Jewish ethnicity through social network analysis” – by Anna Collar: In Network Analysis in Archaeology : New Approaches to Regional Interaction; Edited by Carl Knappett
Basically Collar found that looking at the Jewish Diaspora as a small world network provides a deeper insight into how religious innovations diffuse across large networks over time. She does identify that only strong ties can influence change, the weak ties can prepare communities for change via information sharing transmissions. Where weak ties do not exist, the communities become inward looking and parochial.
As we have discovered in other contexts, the more a community are connected by dense strong ties, the less likely that the community will be open to change. The religious denominations are strong tie networks. One does not find people who are both Muslims and Christians. There are however people who are happy to be open to the views of multiple religions, but these ‘weak tie’ people are not in a position to influence change. Perhaps it requires the religious leaders to look for points of commonality, rather than points of differences if we are to achieve a more peaceful co-existence between the religious denominations. Interestingly co-existence of religious denominations was the stated objective of the Jews for Temple Mount. Weak ties can still be useful for information dissemination between the denominations, but the denominations have to be open receptors. Our Jewish guide Effie may have had his prejudices, but to do his job well he had to become well informed about other religious denominations. Perhaps weak tie linkers educated like Effie could play an important role in brokering at least a tolerance of religious differences. Perhaps the network scientists can contribute something here.
Back to the Jewish Diaspora …. arguably the largest network of its type, network science definitely has a role to play in sustaining and improving its connectedness. We have already had discussions with the CEO of an Australian Diaspora network on this very topic.
Side Bar 11 – Selling Networks
The stall holders, donkey and horse taxi riders we saw in Petra are typical of what you see in any country or areas where people are struggling to earn a decent living. We see this in a lot of Asian, Middle Eastern and South American countries and even in the suburbs of well-developed cities. Beyond the clever pitches I am always stunned by how effective the “hidden network” is when you express just the slightest interest in something. It happened to me first in Bali over 30 years ago. I expressed an interest in a carved fisherman… which was not that common. However everywhere I went the vendors would see me coming and rustle around in their stock to pull out the ‘Fisherman”…their intelligence network was absolutely stunning. I also recall visiting a computer market many years ago, intent on building my own PC from parts. I had my list of “best of breed” parts, which no single stallholder had. However one entrepreneurial stallholder quickly ran around to the other stalls and picked up my parts (no formal transactions…they would settle up after) and then built my custom PC on the spot for me!
When I think about how “big business” goes about its work with expensive customer relationship management systems (CRMs); formal partnerships and agencies; sophisticated analytics; expensive advertising campaigns; you would have to think that there is something to be learnt from these small business networks, built on trust; but highly effective. I would love to map one of these networks but I suspect that their power is in the invisibility of it all. Our guide Riad comes from a large family and seems to be greeted by people everywhere he goes. I joke that he has many cousins. Marguerite’s Son told us that he himself has over 80 cousins just on the Jordanian side … what a start great start to a network!
Sidebar 12 – I find a personal connection with Yolie and Larry (new connections)
Yolie and Larry joined our organised tour of Jordan. In casual conversation I find out that Yolie managed the development of the NRMAs initial Expert system in the 1980s. Larry was also involved. I started the Expert Systems initiative in BHP in the mid 1980s so we would have attended the same Expert Systems conferences at UTS in Sydney. Our common connection was Professor Ross Quinlan, who was at UTS at the time and the convenor of those early conferences on Expert Systems. So bingo; from two people I had never met before it only took a few days to identify a common connection (without the help of Facebook or Linkedin!).
Final Side-Bar – Travel and Social Networking Closing Perspectives
I created this Social Networking Travel Log (SLOG) to bring a sightly different perspective to the traditional travel blogs by placing people and social connections above places in my reporting. For the most part this has worked, though the “the Organised Tour” parts of the trip did provide less opportunity for new social connections, which I guess is an observation in itself. I also wanted to link the experiences of the past 40 days of travel to a business context, in this case the “social business” context.
I should start with why I had wanted to write a blog like this in the first place. Some of you may be thinking “what has holiday travel got to do with business?” My response is that the words “Social” and “Business” were previously unconnected, but what about today with all the social media/networking tools? The line separating work and pleasure is getting muddier all the time.
I am an avid traveller and have been fortunate to be able to travel for both work and pleasure, I do however have some friends and relatives that don’t really share this interest (they are in the minority). They appear to have a comfort zone that they are unwilling to move beyond. Even when they do travel, they do not return with the same delight from the experiences as those of us that love to travel. In the workplace we see many people like this. They have found their comfort zone, where they can perform competently, if not necessarily with distinction. They tend not to change jobs or roles too much. In some way we could see them as the “keepers of the status quo”; the signposts of the culture and “how we do things here”. As I said these people tend to be a minority. I have many friends who in their early lives had not been able to afford to travel extensively, but once they start, they just can’t get enough. These are people who may initially appear like the ‘stay at home’ types but once given the opportunity, their minds are broadened and it can change their whole perspective on life.
I was fortunate in by early career to have a Research Director who came to us after a distinguished academic career across Europe and the USA. He immediately identified how insular we were in Australia (largely due to distance and this was pre-Internet days); and he went about changing this by facilitating greater overseas travel amongst his research staff, even if this meant foregoing the standard business class for overseas travel for economy class travel. We weren’t complaining! In essence this Research Director became the broker for new work experiences and perspectives for a generation of researchers, and I for one am eternally grateful. My Research Director was a ‘Catalyst’ for change. In many business situations staff may find themselves drawn into the status quo. It’s convenient and comfortable. Sometimes it takes a broker, in the form of a catalyst, to awaken the explorer in us. Others seek out these experiences, without the need for such a catalyst. In a travelling context I’ve always admired those that were able to travel the world on a shoestring. They will no doubt be taking risks that many of us are not comfortable with. But their reward is the life experiences that many of us will never have. Of course not all experiences are positive, but even the bad ones are memorable and ones we can learn from.
I believe that the majority of people are open to broadening their minds and moving out of their comfort zones to take on new experiences. Sometimes it just takes that catalyst to make it happen. I’m also convinced that those that travel bring a greater appreciation for cultural differences when they return to the workplace. All workplaces create the opportunity for conflict. We strive for conformity and consensus through building strong bonds but as the saying goes “It’s often the ties that bind us that also blind us”. As network scientists we will often preach the need for balancing cohesion and diversity. I think from this trip, particularly the middle eastern part, I have learnt a better way of expressing this…and that is “tolerance”. By this I mean that we need to respect that there will be strong communities that we will not always share a common view with. We can waste a lot of time trying to achieve a common view, a consensus if you like. The challenge of the “social business” will be to thrive without the discipline of top down control. From what I have experienced in the middle East, the vast majority of the people we met were looking for an amiable co-existence, not a domination of one over the other (which the media would have us believe). It is even too much to expect that such disparate groups will ever trust each other. But what they can do is develop a level of tolerance for their neighbours that at least mean that they can still live a productive life. For the social business there will also be inevitable differences that will need to be addressed through peer level negotiation and not destructive conflicts.
Effie our Israeli guide mentioned it several times. While we could see where his allegiances lay we could also see he was trying hard not to be overly judgemental on the other faiths. Effie also made the early comment (in jest) that the problems in the Middle East could be resolved by getting rid of CNN and similar press agencies that like reporting on only the extremist positions, that inevitably result in a drop in the Tourist trade (which is happening now). It certainly was our experience that the general public are much more tolerant in their views than what we would have believed before we came here. This is where I believe that social media has a part to play in balancing the views of the traditional reporting agencies. The Internet facilities we have seen in Israel and Jordan are as good, if not better than we would see in Australia. Lets just hope that tolerance for freedom of speech could be the same or better. We can translate this situation to a business context as well. How many of you have experienced work cultures that reward “towing the party line and labelling the outspoken as dangerous?” I have met many mid level and senior executives that have felt politically constrained in speaking their own minds, in the name of conformity and consensus. Tolerance is about making your views known but being able to live with opposing views if the situation calls for it.
From a generational perspective I see the Gen Xs and Gen Ys as much more avid travellers than my own baby boomer generation, largely driven by the greater opportunities and affordability that now exists. In the Middle East, the cultural traditions are being challenged in the same way that previous generations have done, but perhaps at a faster pace? I reflect on Riad’s comments about his own children. He is about the same age as me. His marriage was arranged and he is looking to have at least a strong say in his children’s marriages, but he sees that he will be fighting an uphill battle, which I think he grudgingly accepts. Armed with more open, global experiences; and with it broader minds and cultural tolerances, I look forward to this generation driving the Socialisation of Business practices into the future.
It may sound like I’m suggesting that the Middle Eastern cultures are starting to modernise along the lines that we are familiar in the Western world; and that this is a good thing. With respect to women in the workplace I think this is true. Riad had mentioned that he was not supportive of the more extreme Muslim treatment of women in the workplace. I recall when teaching a knowledge management course to students who were mainly from the Middle East and being informed by some of the women in the class that they were not even permitted to be in the same meetings as men, let alone share knowledge with them! On the other hand I think we can learn a lot from those cultures that value trust relationships as I wrote about in the Side bar “Selling Networks”. Riad joked that one of the main products from small villages in Jordan are children. He has seven of his own and comes from a family of twelve, so he has many cousins. I too come from such a culture and have a large extended family. Family networks start as trusted networks by default and of course some will degrade to different degrees. In the Middle East, as in China and other parts of Asia business is still conducted through such networks. It can move surprisingly quickly, as I have indicated earlier. Western world business practices, in the absence of such networks, have tried to substitute with formal legal mechanisms. While these mechanisms are a necessary evil when it comes to scaling up an enterprise, we should always be mindful that “trust will trump contract” any day.