Sunday, 11 March 2012

What Goes Around...

One of the best things about living where I do is that, despite being in the centre of London, we are a genuine community.  I don’t just know my immediate neighbours, I am on first name terms with many people in the area and I can recognise almost everyone by sight.  This is partially because we make an effort to do things together.  A case in point is the annual Revolving Dinner.

This is a fun, fund-raising event for which local people buy tickets, with the proceeds supporting neighbourhood charities.  It is always fancy dress (this year’s topical theme, as you can see from the above hand crafted ticket, was The Olympics).  The attendees all meet at an initial venue, where we draw a piece of paper from a hat which informs us as to which hosting house we should go to for the starter, then on to another for the main course and a third for dessert.  I love the surreal vision provided annually of people in diverse costumes trying to locate the right home for the next stage of their meal.  This year the streets round me were filled with ancient Greeks, medal-winning athletes, dope testers, team mascots, flaming torches, security guards, builders and numerous other characters cheerfully waving and chatting as they passed one another.

The evening works because of the people involved.  We are a community because we are prepared to make an effort for those around us, rather than existing in self-centred isolation.  Later this year we will hold our annual Festival, at which local residents will play in a concert, gardens will be opened for viewing, a fete will be held with games for local children and we will get the chance to chat together over a barbeque lunch and a traditional British tea.  I know I am lucky to live where I do, but I also know that we make our own luck.  Even without the fun of a Revolving Dinner, there is truth to the phrase “what goes around comes around”.

A friend of mine, a vibrant divorcee who is bringing up two great children on her own, was recently bemoaning the fact that it takes more than a sole person to raise a child: “The trouble is that we are not supposed to bring up children by ourselves. It's a labour-intensive job, and it takes a combination of partner / family / friends to be actively involved.  I think it might take a community to bring up a child”.  Her comments, made on a social media site, resulted in a flood of reminiscences from others about growing up in supportive neighbourhoods, where people knew each other by name and hence there was respect and understanding, as well as a helping adult hand to put you back on your bike when you fell off aged ten.  A supposedly Nigerian originated African phrase, brought into Western usage by Hillary Clinton who used it as a title for her book, expresses the same sentiments, “it takes a village to raise a child”.  Much, however, depends on how you view the capabilities and values of the village!

For the main part, we are responsible for our own environments.  The atmosphere in a neighbourhood and the culture of an organisation are created by the people within it.  Many businesses are beginning to contemplate the benefits they can reap through collaboration, reciprocity, trust and embracing ethical approaches, rather than focusing predominantly on wealth creation for shareholders.  Robert Putnam, the political scientist and professor of public policy at Harvard University defined buildings, plant and equipment as Physical Capital; people skills, knowledge and experience as Human Capital; and social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity as Social Capital.  In his article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, published in the Journal of Democracy, Professor Putnam pointed out that many traditional social, civic and fraternal organisations – typified by bowling leagues – had suffered massive declines in membership, while the actual number of people bowling had signifivantly increased.  He went on to write a book on Social Capital (“Better Together”, published in 2003) in which he differentiated between Bonding Capital (which occurs when people socialise with others like themselves: same race, same age, same religion, etc...) and Bridging Capital (where people forge links and understanding with others who are dissimilar to themselves).  

Until recently, many academics and HR professionals have focused on the attitudes and behaviours that differentiate generations within the workplace (e.g. Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers and Y-ers); the emphasis has been on the dissimilarities, as opposed to the ways in which Bridging Capital occurs.  Benefits and Engagement strategies and methods of communication have been devised, intended to appeal to specific generational types. 

The tide now seems to be turning, as we try to encourage trust and collaboration.  There are numerous areas of similarity that can cause links and bonds between the generations.  For example a 19 year old parent of a toddler may have more in common with a 40 year old parent of a toddler, than perhaps another 19 year old who is single and out socialising most evenings.  Some organisations have been working to enable better collaboration and cooperation between generations.  A leading global financial services business has introduced “reverse mentoring”, with recently joined graduates being paired with members of the top leadership team, with a view to the new-joiners teaching the C-suite about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of Social Media.  The trainees themselves have gained a better awareness of the business and its drivers.  Both parties have benefitted from the experience and bonds have been created that have enhanced business performance and mutual appreciation and understanding. 

Most conflicts arise due to a perception of unfair treatment and/or as a result of misunderstanding.  If we segregate ourselves from the broader community it is easy to grow to mistrust others who seem different and therefore “strange”.  Another organisation that is working hard to develop more inclusive approaches that enable better business is  ITV, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster.  It needs to produce content that appeals to as wide an audience as possible, as its revenues mainly depend on the ability to attract advertising revenue.  ITV has introduced some innovative methods to ensure that the issues around diversity are appreciated by its employees.  Regional News Teams have attended road-shows that emphasise diversity as a business imperative.  They are encouraged to compare the make-up of their teams with those of the wider communities in which they operate.  They are then shown video clips of people who are not regular viewers of ITV’s news output and made to consider why these people are not viewers, before developing measurable action plans for the following twelve months covering both onscreen and workplace initiatives.

If you are not inclusive, it is hard to justify your wishing to be included

As its Latin roots com and laborare suggest, the basic meaning of collaboration is “to work together”.  The reason my neighbourhood is such a great place to live is because most of us who live here are prepared to make an effort to enhance the area for the benefit of all.  I know that if I help those around me, they will put themselves out for me and/or share their expertise when I need it.  One of the charities the Revolving Dinner supported is a local project to create a safe and enjoyable playground and garden area for the use of local children and all of us who live here.  The space was originally housing, but a V1 rocket fell on the area in 1944, killing 11 people.  Over time the derelict patch became a site for drug usage and prostitution.  By turning it into a space for children and the wider community, we have enhanced our surroundings.  By revolving we have produced roundabouts and smiles.  Since the creation of the dedicated play area and attractive community space, our small area of London has seen crime rates decline.  Enhancing cross cultural and generational appreciation and enabling interaction has enabled us to make our neighbourhood a better place.  

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