The Work of Civil Society

Last night I read Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration, an extended essay on potential causes for slowing growth and rising political and social issues in Western Economies. While I don’t necessarily agree with every aspect of the argument, I do agree with one of the key principles that shapes the essay. Our societies and their performance is shaped by the institutions we have and in particular by the relationships we have beyond commercial transactions, our civil society. Our institutions matter in many cases to the extent they foster or impede these civil relationships. 

For organisations, wanting to improve financial performance and effectiveness, their employee’s civil society can play a critical role. Culture and the institutions that shape and reinforce it matter for every organisation.  
Joining in

At University, I was a joiner. I was a member of many clubs, both sporting, social and political. In my twenties, I lost the these civil society connections and my world was narrower for it. Travel, relocations, changing jobs and life’s many demands became excuses for focusing solely on my personal achievement and life. My community relationships and connections were poorer for it. 

Part way through my time at NAB, I rediscovered the importance of these social connections in enriching life and shaping your experience of society. I realised I valued belonging. I became a joiner and even took on community leadership roles in not for profit arts and sporting organisations. I reminded myself of the value of volunteering and meeting new connections in my community. The rewards are many. I know far more people in my local communities, I have the rewards of making a contribution and these civil relationships have led to commercial relationships too. 

One of the reasons I am so passionate about Change Agents Worldwide is that it offers those working on change in large organisations their own civil society. Change leadership can be lonely, hard and isolating. A community of peers can provide information, skills, trust and support. I have seen the same surge of civil society in client organisations when we work on collaboration.  They are always richer for the connections, understanding and trust built even if the participation is only in non-work social groups. 

New Institutions 

As work changes, organizations and individuals are going to need a panoply of new institutions to support the civil society around work. I was recently interviewed for the Breaking Banks Asia Pacific podcast with Simon Spencer. Simon asked what innovations I expected around the future of work. 

My response that I hoped we might see a return to the flowering of financial institutions of the late 19th century. As the economy industrialised, workers and business people came together to found a range of social financial services institutions. Niall Ferguson highlights the effect of these mutuals, friendly societies, building societies and more. Many have lost momentum under the onslaught of global financial services competition and competition from the social safety net of welfare state. 

When we look at the changing work dynamics of the next century, there will be a demand for new social institutions to help underpin the changing relationships of civil society. Our government social safety nets are fraying in societies with ageing populations and political deadlock.  We need new social institutions to help with new contingency of work, the risks and opportunities new work and the structural adjustment of lost work. 

This opportunity is more than the asset sharing of the sharing economy. The challenge and opportunity is to create new models of social risk sharing, social support and to found these on deeper connection and trust in our civil relationships. The robots win if it is each person for themselves. The great success of human civilisation has not been our intelligence, it has been our collaboration and our ability to invent institutions to sustain and grow that collaboration.

For organisations, the challenge now is to begin to consider the future culture they need and how their present institutions and actions support this need. Organisations that work with talent in volatile networks compete on more than just a narrow subset of employee experience.  The field of competition opens to the entire gamut of social relationships, including purpose, reputation, trust agility, security, and more. If your sole model of adaptation is a period restructure from one inflexible model to another then you will lose.  One of the reasons I am a passionate advocate for community managers in organisations is that the community building work that they do and the strategic value they create runs far beyond the collaboration platform or social network. These communities are new relationships and the foundations of new civil society as they grow and mature. 

We can’t predict the future well. However, we can shape it by creating it. That act of creation will take new civil society within and without organisations.  We need leaders and change agents to foster these new relationships and institutions.  

6 thoughts on “The Work of Civil Society

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