Where Information Goes In And Nothing Comes Out
Over the last five years I have been making a study of what is needed to create a community education project or network. The Ragged University project is about promoting and propagating all communities rather than building a monolith; this is another part of it as a multi-valued project which is interested and inspired by people sharing their knowledge in social spaces. A ‘recipe book’ is being created to distill helpful information and insights for all people out their who want to run their own ‘Ragged-University-type-project’.
This is not easy, as it is very much a living process, so refining pieces of wisdom which have come from hard won struggles with problems is the best way to go, along with practical organisational advice. In developing events, key to the whole process is using available infrastructure and common technology NOT bespoke infrastructure and special technology. The key reason is that this is about operating in any environment with few resources so that it is maximally inclusive.
Thus there is a lot of interacting, discussing, conversing and negotiating that needs to be engaged with in the very organic process of creating community events. This is designed to run without funding, so there is not the opportunity to ‘buy’ your way through making things happen – as occurs with well resourced initiatives. Again, the idea is to evolve a model of community network which can survive and self organise in the harshest of environments so that educational provision can be built by the people who want and need it.
The majority of communities and many individuals simply do not have the option to apply for a twenty thousand pound grant, or money for fancy computers, to own a piece of land and build a glass and steel bespoke cutting edge facility. In fact, in an age of bureaucracy and the professionalisation of lifeworlds, funding and grant writing has become an esoteric art which is exclusive to those who know the language, the places to get the forms and file the papers, the people who can get the celebrity endorsements etc.
Grant writing excludes everyone who struggles with such paperwork – precluding those who are dyslexic and not seasoned with the zeitgeist language that commands allocated money. It often winds up being an activity which distracts from the community activity itself, reducing the fun and dynamicism of the learning/social event to ticking boxes and asking reductive questions of those taking part. Thus the Ragged University is about finding a different way to operate – which involves talking to people who own things and who have the power to lend those resources to the project.
Absolutely central to operating in these spaces is recognising when “Information is going in but nothing is coming out”…. What I mean is to say that each and every relationship needs to be reciprocal – if it is not reciprocal, then you are setting yourself up to fail.
This axiom stands true for individuals, organisations, information systems and institutions. As there are no resources to speak of, every conversation has to be productive, and dealing with people who do not respond to emails is a cost which cannot be engaged in. Time is as precious as energy.
On your journey, you will need to speak to people who own or manage venues. There is little point in speaking to someone who does not make the decision, and if you cannot speak to the decision maker then you are suddenly dealing with a hierarchy. In my experience, hierarchies are quagmires of entropy and usually situations where “information goes in, and nothing comes out”.
I state the case for my point in the thought exercise of using a computer. If we consider (a) the situation where you speak directly to the person with the authority to say yes or no, and (b) you must communicate to that person through a series of other people.
In situation (a) you can communicate quickly and cleanly why you need the computer and the conditions around this. The individual with the authority can make a decision on the spot (mostly), and give you the thumbs up and thumbs down within five minutes. The majority of decisions are made this quickly as it either speaks to them as an idea or does not.
In situation (b) you ask someone to ask the person with the authority to make the decision. In principle it sounds simple, however, in practice, hierarchies are fraught with problems such as:
- It is more than twice the amount of work as the number of communications often escalates as details are checked. A ‘middleman’ is created and information must flow back and forth both ways through this person as a rate limiting bottleneck.
- Anything but the simplest of requests gets simplified into an undetailed form. It is a game of Chinese whispers, and (nearly always) important information and emphases are not communicated significantly by the third party as they transmit the details in a standardised form.
- Your request will often get prioritised into a queuing holding pattern. The information is standardized and put in a reduced form which gets processed in the same manner as every other. It is rare that any system of middle-management is efficient, and so long decision making cycles result adding to the entropy.
- People in middle and distance management (bureaucracies) are less engaged with the realities of the task at hand. It is the nature of being distant to the site of work that people are less engaged; absentee landlords tend to make slum accommodations, middle management tend to engender mediocrity as they lack creative control.
- People are uninspired in hierarchies and bureaucracies as they lack agency and creative control over their actions. When people are striped of their agency and creative expression, they often become demoralized and less interested in doing the work to its highest standards.
Thus dealing with small organisations and individuals is the most efficient and effective means for getting things done. For example, speaking to your local pub, the manager but not the dishwasher – this is a practical way forward. My experience with trying to engage with a large corporate situation was that I wound up feeding all the information in, and it got buried in the superstructure – a memorandum which could not be tracked or accounted for in systems where people have control over other people’s actions but none over their own.
Corporate Social Responsibility policies I have come to regard as not being worth the paper they are written on. By the time a decision is made, then the moment has passed. Large superstructures can afford to dictate terms, and change terms when it suits them without having to answer to anyone. With individuals and small organisations, there is proximity and links with the community, thus a real empathy.
Which brings me onto my next axiom – choose who you work with carefully. I see it as imperative to give the trust we need to afford to any individual, however, when there is no reciprocal action, take stock of this, remember them as unreliable and act accordingly.
It is rather like dating – the things we engage when trying to think about who we might like as a personal partner indicate qualities which are valuable. If you arrange to meet someone and they regularly do not turn up, then that indicates that they have not allocated the same amount of effort – or they are pre-occupied. It is always important to acknowledge mitigating reasons, but if they are not offered, then there is a problem of some sort which will have a bearing on a good working relationship (in my humble opinion).
I have noticed that when there is a difference in social stature (measurable by differentials in pay grades) there can be an accompanying aloofness or tendency to take the activity less serious. This is by no means the rule, however, it should be watched out for. Some people get star struck by the celebrity of perceived power. If the celebrity – be they pop culture, academic, or industry based – is not approachable, reciprocal and hospitable, then they are likely not to invest; spend your time focusing on those who do engender these qualities.
Sometimes, you will encounter people making all sorts of promises for community which never materialise, or which are always around the corner. This is a situation where information goes in and nothing comes out. These people are not good investments and can be caught up on status and the idea of doing community work, but in actuality, it never materializes.
Our culture is filled with ample space to support the dilettante. The word has come to describe a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. This can be discouraging to encounter, as dilettantes are often likeable and charismatic in some way – as they probably want to be liked. However, they are unhelpful in getting anything done and can sink a project if in a critical position.
Recognize these people and know them for what they are. It often is accompanied with a thirst for CV culture. Perfectly nice people who want to pad out their curriculum vitae with ‘I have done fundraising for this’ or ‘I have done community work for that’, but in actuality spend their time maybe staring at vacuous social media, or describing how their diaries are so full that they cannot manage to help out. Information goes in but nothing comes out.
Lead By Example
In all of this, it is imperative to embody the qualities which you are looking for. This is the foundation for all good working relationships. Take the time to give people the time. Make the effort to give people the information they need. Reciprocate peoples efforts in an appropriate way – answer emails, meet face to face, contribute to their work. Learn to be clear and concise with people.
Remember people are just people and love them for it; this is a community project and is going to be messy – because humans are. Be flexible and understanding; life changes for people and it is unfair to have unrealistic expectations.
Make simple plans which rely primarily on your self – this way you can ensure things happen; the trick is to allow plenty of opportunities for people to contribute. For example, you could have a film night where you watch a film and have a discussion – if only a few people turn up, then the conversation is richer. If lots do, then great – the more company, the merrier.
You can ensure the projector by borrowing it and setting it up, you can have the film ready, you can do the social media and advertise it on websites; if others would like to help, they can add to the work. Have fun with what you are doing – even though this article is focusing on the healthy scepticism we need to operate, without pleasure the activity loses important meaning.
- Identify when information is going in but nothing is coming out
- Identify if the individual or organisation is reciprocal
- Choose who you work with carefully
- Embody the qualities which you are looking for in others
- Be flexible and have fun