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Sets, scenes, and worlds: understanding social scale in the organization

I want to talk about the role that social scale plays in organizations, especially in cultural change. But before doing that, I want complain about our language, which lacks some fairly critical elements for describing degrees of social connection.

Take the matter of pronouns. In English we have ‘I/me/mine’, ‘you/you/your’, ‘he/him/his, she/her/hers’, ‘it/it/it’s’, ‘they/them/their’ and ‘we/us/our’. (This leaves out regionalisms like ‘you’all’ and ‘youse’.) What we lack is a useful distinction between various degrees of ‘we’. For example, there should be a syntactic distinction made between the ‘we’ of my set of contacts, and the ‘we’ of all the people in the company. If I were trying to fix the language I would propose the new pronoun ‘se’ (pronounced ‘see’), which would mean a set of my direct connections, in distinction with any larger network that includes people I do not personally know (‘we’).

Se should get chinese food today for lunch.

In our company we work hard at innovation, but in sy group se work harder at that than others.

I am not actually suggesting that we rewire our language that way. Although apparently kids in Baltimore have started to spontaneously use ‘yo’ as a gender neutral third-person singular pronoun in place of ‘he’ or ‘she’, as in ‘Look at yo!’ or ‘Yos shirt is on backwards.’ But at the very least we need some terms to clearly discuss the dynamics of social connection.

One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communications are widely used terms, and the differences are generally understood. But the distinction I am getting at isn’t that. Instead, it is the very important difference between three social scales: the set of people I am directly connected to, the collection of sets that make up a social scene, and the largest scale, the world that subsumes sets and scenes and which comprises the entire organization of a company (or the population of the earth). So I am going to use the term ‘set’ for the first,  ‘scene’ for the second, and ‘world’ for the third.

I might have used ‘circle’ for ‘set’ except that Google+ has coopted that term. And I am using ‘scene’ as a nod to Brian Eno’s notion of ‘scenius’, which is the genius of a social scene, like the music scene of Berlin, or the artisanal food scene of Brooklyn. And a world has limits, and is — to some extent anyway — discrete and separate from other worlds. A company is a world, and to some extent so is the NY headquarters of a company, or the Spanish subsidiary. There is an inside and an outside to companies, so thinking about them as worlds is helpful.

It’s important to understand what happens in sets, what comes from scenes, and how those shape worlds.


This dynamic is the core of social communication: communication starts as small talk between an individual and a set of contacts. The actions taken by those contacts — to repost, reply, favorite, or ignore the communication — determine if it spreads. It’s the decisions of the set that determines the spread of the communication across the scene. And the change that engenders in the scene is what pushes the world forward, as new ideas and behavior bleed over from one scene to another.

Sets are the locus of most communications (except for network-wide or other set-insensitive broadcasts), since the overwhelming majority of communications are conversations between well-established contacts. It is also important to note that not all relationships in a given person’s set are equal. For example, I have many relationships with people that I hardly know at all, but from who I pull posts and tweets in order to gain new insights and ideas. As a result, the great majority of those relationships are based on weak ties, while a small minority of my links are strong ones, with people I talk to frequently and know very well.

On the other hand, once I learn about something new and different, I dispatch a tweet with a URL out to my followers (the superset of all the people who have added me to their set: the subset of a scene) and that idea propagates out across my Twitter scene, reaching a far greater number of people that are unknown to me, but probably not all the Twitter world. In the corporate setting I might do the equivalent on a Yammer, Chattr, or Podio platform with similar, although more tightly bounded effects. And in both the open and closed contexts a message that starts as a one-to-some communication can rapidly evolve into a many-to-many conversation involving hundreds or thousands of people across a scene (like the cascade of discussion on Twitter last week following my Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either post).

This dynamic is the core of social communication: communication starts as small talk between an individual and a set of contacts. The actions taken by those contacts — to repost, reply, favorite, or ignore the communication — determine if it spreads. It’s the decisions of the set that determines the spread of the communication across the scene. And the change that engenders in the scene is what pushes the world forward, as new ideas and behavior bleed over from one scene to another.


Altogether too often, however, companies continue to think that about the company as a monolith made up of individuals. This misses the sets and scenes that comprise and shape the heterogeneous company world. That’s why I say companies need to think small to change big. We need to think about the individual, the set, and the scene, and the interplay between them, and let what happens there spread out all the way to the edges of the entire world.

My friend Lee Bryant once remarked that when something works bottom-up then everything it touches becomes bottom up, too. And since social scaling works that way, then the adoption of the medium through which this sort of communication flows through also needs to be bottom up.

Altogether too often, however, companies continue to think that about the company as a monolith made up of individuals. This misses the sets and scenes that comprise and shape the heterogeneous company world. That’s why I say companies need to think small to change big. We need to think about the individual, the set, and the scene, and the interplay between them, and let what happens there spread out all the way to the edges of the entire world.

It appears that researchers at McKinsey have found this directionality of adoption to be true in successful roll-outs of social business tools and practice.

Michael Chui, Martin Dewhurst, and Lindsay Pollak, Building the social enterprise

When Canadian financial-services company TD Bank Group launched an internal social-media network, using IBM’s Connections platform, for example, individuals were designated as “Connections Geniuses” to spur its adoption. This group helped colleagues learn how to use the platform and evangelized for its ability to improve day-to-day work, thus making the potential impact more relevant to individual users. The support that’s required to maximize the odds that social technologies will be implemented successfully should obviously be customized to the needs and culture of individual organizations. But make no mistake—support is essential.

Top-down implementation directives don’t work for social technologies—and in fact directly contradict their very purpose. Organizations should adopt approaches that emphasize testing and learning; any lack of impact must be viewed not as a failure but as a lesson learned. Developing an atmosphere of experimentation enables organizational learning and keeps alive the possibility that technologies may have unexpected successes.

The mantra “Think big, start small, show impact” guided TD’s  social-platform launch for its 85,000 employees around the world. A small pilot program launched in 2011 allowed the company to manage technology risks and thoughtfully identify communities for the platform. As examples of success became clear, TD leveraged its Geniuses to help it scale up the effort. This process of testing, learning, and thoughtful growth was instrumental in expanding the platform, which now has thousands of communities, blogs, and wikis that help colleagues find relevant knowledge and skills quickly and easily.

Note that the spread of the system was engendered by finding ‘geniuses’ who were both well-connected and already exhibiting the skills and behaviors that lead to contributing and gaining value from their sets and scenes. These are the ‘positive deviants’ that are essential in spreading desired cultural norms (see How ‘positive deviants’ help a culture change itself), the ones that already exhibit the behaviors of the future organization.


You don’t change things by thinking big, you start by thinking small. You must solve a need for those most likely to spread the word.

The only tweak I would make to the TD effort is to change the motto. You don’t change things by thinking big, you start by thinking small. You must solve a need for those most likely to spread the word. It has to start with a person and yos set (note I am using the new Baltimore pronoun, in the possessive, here). You start at the smallest social scale, and the social apparatus spreads the idea and new behaviors, and then the new norms emerge in the scenes’ interactions. The geniuses — the positive deviants — work at the level of sets, but the cultural change is an emergent property arising from the complex communications within and across scenes, which can change worlds.

This is why small talk is not really small at all: it’s big