Leadership / Management | Technology & Social Media

Here comes Clay Shirky — and a new definition of normal

Shirky When John Fitch sat down in the late 18th century to design a steam-powered ship, he envisioned one that would be powered through the water by a series of steam-driven oars on either side of the boat.

Why? Well, that was the way everyone had always driven their boats through the water. Paddle on one side, then the other. Repeat.

It didn't take long before Fitch realized the way it had always been done wouldn't work with this revolutionary new technology. So he re-thought the problem, put the paddles in the back and -- voila! -- he changed the face of transportation.

Using that analogy, Clay Shirky kicked off this year's DigitalNow Conference in Orlando by challenging attendees to rethink their current realities.

Shirky is author of the influential (and bestselling) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book looks at how social media are influencing society, and his keynote at DigitalNow, an annual conference that examines association leadership in the digital age, was a thought-provoking call to challenge our generally accepted views of the world.

Case in point: Our own organizations. Too many businesses believe we can just tack social media onto to what we've always done. By doing so, though, we're just trying to turn rowboats into steamships.

"A lot of people think they can create an Internet organization by taking an organization and adding some Internet," Shirky said. But here's the thing: "Every organization has a relationship with its readers, or members, or customers, so two-way communication (via social media) is not a radical change. The radical change is that now all our members can talk to each other. It's that person-to-person conversation that's framing the challenge for institutions."

In other words, the medium is so radically different that the way in which we do things -- move ships through the water, for example, or communicate with our various audiences -- much change radically as well.

Some of our most respected institutions are grappling with this very issue. Shirky asks us to consider the case of Chris Avenir, a student at Ryerson University who was nearly expelled for cheating in 2008 after he created a chemistry study group on Facebook. Here's the moral dilemma: Is it cheating to collaborate with fellow students on Facebook? Or is it just the way a new generation of students learns?

"Everyone wants to know if Facebook is the media of today," Shirky said. "The truth is, Facebook is not the new anything. Facebook is Facebook. Our collective academic institutions are going to have to figure out what to do now that everybody is a global publisher."

As are we all. The time has come to rethink everything we've come to accept as normal.

Brent Johnson gets it. Shortly after Shirky's speech, Johnson -- deputy executive director with the Florida Institute of CPAs -- wondered aloud what the CPA world would be like if standard-setters used the power of the community to develop new standards rather than doing what they do now -- that is, coming up with the answer themselves, then asking the CPA community to sign off on it.

I don't know the answer. In fact, there may be some very good reasons why such a model won't work.

But in this new world where the rules are changing before our very eyes, that's the type of thinking we need to adopt going forward.


Bill Sheridan