Metaphors are everywhere – and this has an important implication when it comes to choosing a toolkit for remote working. If you want to encourage specific behaviours, you need to use tools underpinned by metaphors that support those behaviours.
Let me explain. A “metaphor” is simply an instance of one thing being compared to another kind of thing. So when I say, “metaphors are everywhere” I’m comparing the abstract concept “metaphor” to the kind of object that can be spatially widespread.
We use about six metaphors per minute in English, whether spoken or written. When I say, “we use…” I’m comparing that same abstract concept, metaphor, to a tool or other resource that can be “used”. And that’s just in language. The fact is that metaphors go much deeper than that, because they are the native language of the unconscious mind, the atom of thought. The metaphors appear in our language as a side-effect of the metaphors in our thoughts.
Given this, it’s not surprising that metaphors are everywhere in the online world. We’re humans, evolved to live in the real world . And when we go online, we continue to use metaphor to make sense of our experience. We send “email”, for example: digital information transmission is being compared to sending a letter by post “IRL” (In Real Life).
We’re swimming in metaphor. But like goldfish in water, we don’t notice that it’s there.
When it comes to remote meeting tools, it often looks as if we’re being supplied by goldfish-style systems developers. They’ve built some clever tools – but they’re not noticing the metaphorical implications of what they’ve created.
I wrote recently about how this applies to video-conferencing tools. In some of the most widely-available systems, 100+ people can be on the call, but only a few can be seen. You can see how that’s happened: a tool which was originally intended for small meetings has been developed to accommodate larger ones. But the resulting metaphorical space ends up like a train carriage! Or, if we’re being more charitable, like a panel discussion on a stage.
By contrast my favoured video-conference tool, Zoom, seems to start from the assumption that all participants are equal, and the resulting metaphorical space is like everyone sitting in a circle together. There’s no “stage”. With a great breakout rooms feature, Zoom feels much more like the spaces most organisations favour for collaborative conversations IRL.
The same principle applies to “online whiteboards” and other “presentation” systems. Many of these seem to have an underpinning “teacher-at-the-blackboard” metaphor. One person is in control, “presenting” to others. Presumably that’s come about because of the technical history: years ago that’s all that was possible. Nowadays, though, it’s technically possible for lots of people to write on the board at the same time, just as collaborating teams do at an IRL whiteboard.
What’s the effect of this on people’s behaviour? You’ve probably noticed that IRL, your behaviour changes significantly depending on the space you’re in. You don’t behave in the same way in your house, as in the street.
The same is true online, once people get the measure of the metaphorical space they’re in. The nature online space, created by its underpinning metaphors, affects people’s behaviour significantly. When they’re offered the ability to keep quiet and be part of an audience, they accept. Invited to participate with others on an equal footing, they accept. So, one way for a facilitator like myself to encourage participation is to use online spaces which seem to be underpinned by participative metaphors.
Given that, if your organisation seeking to be “agile”, asking people to collaborate to solve problems, to take initiatives, to innovate, what kind of remote-meetings toolkit will deliver? Which tools best support the behaviour you seek to encourage? What are the hidden metaphors?
If your organisation persists in using “sage-on-the-stage”, “teacher-knows-best” tools, expect people to wait for top-down instruction. If you want participation, collaboration and conversation, then choose technology that supports that.
- Once you start noticing these hidden metaphors, they really are everywhere! So, over to you. What metaphors seem to underpin the specific tools you use? Please comment below.
- I hate the metaphor “IRL”! For me, video calls are no less “real” than geographically co-located conversations. But I don’t have a good alternative. Suggestions most welcome!