It's a dead end baby (Andrew Mason/flickr)

Debunking the “Social Age”, a dead end for humanitarian leadership practitioners

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

“And I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still … put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster.” – Joseph Campbell, Foreword to The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969

Humans are social beings. If there is one constant in our experience, this is it. Of course, the tidal waves of digital transformation are reshaping the cultures of how we learn, share, communicate, and grow. But this constant remains.

Claiming that our entry into a “Social Age” is the key to grappling with change is akin to clamoring that we are entering a new “Age of Transportation”. There are obviously new means such as electric cars. But to try to understand what is changing – and how we can learn, grow, and lead to harness change – through such a narrow lens is likely to lead to reductive, myopic approaches. It confuses both symptom with cause and effect with intent.

Anyone who values peer-reviewed evidence will find nothing to discern whether the “Social Age” is a valid concept. Zero articles in Google Scholar and just one book written a decade ago by IBM’s vice president of cloud computing enablement. There is no science to describe or theorize the “Social Age”. Stripped of its marketing collateral, the pretty pictures painted by the “Social Age” reveal themselves to be hollow of meaning.

There is no denying the constance of change. It is a truism by definition. The need to adapt is true by necessity. One should be suspicious when a concept appears to be premised by not one but two tautologies. Stating the obvious is a wonderfully effective way of reassuring those who maintain the status quo that only need to adopt a new vocabulary, distinguishing themselves from the “usual suspects”… when in fact they should be front and center in the line-up.

There is no spoon

There is no Social Age.

So why is the “Social Age” concept a dead end for humanitarian practitioners, and especially the learning leaders amongst them who work on the outer cusp of chaos in emergencies, disasters, and toward greater community resilience?

First of all, the humanitarian space is already littered by amorphous, vague, or empty concepts that, combined with opaque jargon, lead to analysis paralysis or just produce more litter. We need tools and approaches that help us clear the rubble, not add to it.

Second, there are evidence-based approaches to understand and harness the sweeping changes we face, how they impact our work, and how we can build on them to strengthen how we learn and how we lead. Yet, given the dearth of impact measurement in humanitarian capacity-building, this not the first time that we have observed senior managers seduced by an imported concept with no sector-specific evidence to back it up, for reasons that have more to do with their own identity and moral quandary than with the actual relevance and usefulness of such imports. There is a need to resist our own insularity, but this should not lead to embracing obscure concepts as an end unto itself. The vocabulary of the “Social Age” proponents may be different, but how is it different from failed attempts of the past to build capacity through training?

Third, nothing in the amorphous relativism of the “Social Age” explicitly recognizes the unequal power relations that are the heart of the contradictions in a humanitarian system that preaches localization from the center to the periphery, but lacks effective mechanisms (and, in some countries, domestic political will) to shift the balance of power. There is a growing number of promising projects that are already helping us find new, authentic and meaningful ways of growing collaborative leadership from margin to center. These are increasingly often being driven and led by those on the periphery. They are about inspiration, innovation, and collective responsibility to progress through self-directed growth and development. By contrast, the “Social Age” seems to be about renting and delivering the policies of others, rather than shared ownership and development around a compelling purpose. (Yes, I am paraphrasing Hargreaves and Shirley’s distinction between Third and Fourth Ways in their book about inspiring future for educational change.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, in her analysis of why governments pursue policy contrary to their own aims and the needs of the people they serve, asks why we should “expect anything else of government”, answering that “governments have a greater duty to act according to reason” because “folly in government has more impact on more people than individual follies.” This echoes the peculiar responsibility of those who are in the business of transforming the aid business. Imported gimmicks are not where we should be expending time and effort. Staying silent is not an option.

Yet, inertia remains a powerful force in our peculiar, mission-driven corner of the universe. Once an idea somehow gains currency, it breathes a life of its own. Lip service to failure tolerance has not changed the reality that once you have promoted a clunky concept, chances are that you will feel offended or threatened or both when challenged, especially if you lack the evidence for a rebuttal. There is little or no reward for critical reflection or questioning, for taking a necessary step back to reconsider, especially when scarce sector resources are being expended at for-profit corporate rates in the name of doing something different. This is unfortunate because stonewalling equates to lack of accountability – no matter how stringent the logframes and other formal mechanisms that may be in place. Is dissent ignored, tolerated, or does it open up to potentially nasty reprisals?

La critique est facile, l’art est difficile. It is really easier to tear down than it is to evolve and/or reconstruct?  In fact, my perspective is shaped by substantive collaborative leadership work that I admire or the digital learning that I see transforming people and strengthening their individual and collective capabilities. Few blog posts about this work ever get written. I consider this failure to self-promote to be consistent with the modesty and authenticity of practitioners who are truly pushing the boundaries. We need a space where such stories can be told, not for competitive advantage in the marketplace of ideas for rent, but to strengthen and deepen the bonds of our yearning for a better future.

Image: It’s a dead end baby (Andrew Mason/flickr)