The “I and Thou” of Social Media: A Conversation About JEDLAB and Organizational Change

[Jewish organizations seek ways of building community and engaging constituents online. We see some companies, causes, and individuals who have successfully built loyal and growing “tribes,” and wonder if we can do the same. Turns out, as any marketing director can attest, that it’s easier said than done. Many Jewish orgs push content through social channels such as Facebook and Twitter and garner respectable followings, but have trouble engaging their constituencies. Building on a recent forum held in Boston, David Bernstein of The David Project, and Ken Gordon of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, discuss the challenge of online engagement, and reflect on the interest people have shown in JEDLAB, a new Jewish education community.]

David: You have created a new vehicle for genuine engagement on Facebook called JEDLAB, which brings together Jewish educators and others for a conversation on education change. Growing out of these conversations are numerous face-to-face meetings, conferences, book clubs, and study projects. JEDLAB is not only growing rapidly in numbers – convening more than 1,500 members in four months – but it’s generating multiple conversations and new work every day. What’s the secret sauce?

Ken: If there were a secret sauce, I’d bottle it and sell it by the gross! In fact, the ingredients that make JEDLAB different from other online conversations about Jewish education aren’t – or shouldn’t be – a secret or a surprise to anyone who has ever read Martin Buber. You come into JEDLAB speaking what Buber calls “the primary word I-Thou,” rather than “I-It.” That is, you approach the people in this community with an unwavering, authentic respect. You make yourself open, by speaking honestly, as one individual to other individuals. You do not view the other members as instruments, as a means to an end. You do not use them as metrics or as prospective customers or whatever. It is about conducting unbounded, holistic conversations between human beings.

“Relation is reciprocity,” writes Buber. “My You acts on me as I act on it.”

I-Thou interactions have played out in JEDLAB in a number of ways:

  1. We have a shared ethos on JEDLAB, a philosophical meeting place. Our common vocabulary and values derive from two books: The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, by former MIT Media Lab director, Frank Moss, and Relational Judaism, by Ron Wolfson (which we recently discussed via Google Plus Hangouts). These foundational texts help ensure our members’ commitment, provide a shared discursive framework, and give our back-and-forth a depth that’s unusual online. Of course, there are sometimes disagreements of exactly how that ethos works, but these really enrich the dialogue. And these are just the first books to influence our thinking – JEDLAB will surely page through many more volumes – but the process of having our community read and learn together seems both unique and effective. Our next book: I and Thou!
  2. We get to know (to really know) each other in JEDLAB. It’s not about connecting to LinkedIn profiles or swapping CVs. Instead, we encourage our people to go public with their own personal Jewish narratives. We share our stories – and our stories evolve as we share. The more we talk, the more we reveal about ourselves. This builds trust, and deepens personal accountability.
  3. We encourage members to share leadership roles. Conversation is pushed along by a committed core of volunteer facilitators, a diverse group of thinkers and doers, all of whom bring their diverse intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm (not to mention their own personal networks!) into the LAB. Some are great conversationalists, some connectors, there’s even a self-identified “gadfly” here – all of whom engage because they’re passionate about Jewish education.
  4. JEDLAB happens where JEDLAB congregates. We deepen the group bond by going off Facebook. We call up people to talk. We chat over coffee. We do meet-ups – in NYC and Boston, so far – and we have plans to do much more of this. We do this because we want to encourage collaborations, and not just Likes or Comments. Our most ambitious non-virtual gathering was when Tikvah Wiener, and her former students/assistants/JEDLABians Penina Warburg and Akiva Mattenson, ran an amazing experimental conference called the RealSchool Summer Sandbox.
  5. In JEDLAB, we strive to bring the right people together to make significant improvements in Jewish education. We are always on the lookout to introduce like-minded individuals, or to bring, say, someone with a great idea to someone with an interest (and power) to make that idea a reality. JEDLAB is best when we get people who are passionately opposed to get together and see the possibility of collaborating. Doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s cause for a virtual celebration!

David: The network leader, as you suggest, must adopt an I-Thou posture in the group. You and other JEDLAB network facilitators refrain from pushing your own organizational agenda on the group and, instead, facilitate conversation among participants. You act as a network weaver. This form of leadership does not involve dictating actions to followers but tries to bring out the very best in each participant. It’s not command-and-control, but climate control – creating a social system that allows for fruitful discussion and joint action.

In the networked world, a leader may not be the highest person on the organizational totem pole. A charismatic junior educator may have as much if not more standing in the network than a headmaster of a major day school. For a head of school to participate, he or she would have to drop the pretense of the title and speak to everyone as peers. Not every leader is willing to do that.

In such an environment, it’s very easy for others, beyond the original facilitators, to emerge as leaders either by the quality of thought they bring to the conversation or by acting as another discussion catalyst. Leadership in a network is dynamic, not static. All of which raises the question: In a more networked world, does the very nature of leadership change? If so, how do we replicate it?

Ken: We’re talking about the difference between power and influence. (A favorite topic of my pal – and JEDLAB co-instigator – Yechiel Hoffman.) In the networked model, influence is perhaps more important than power. And influence is available, in abundance, in a healthy network. As you say, a charismatic junior educator – one with good social and writing skills – could well be a school or even field leader in a network. Of course, this kind of thing may upset those who’ve worked hard to attain power, in the non-networked way, as well as those who feel comfortable with hierarchy and traditional modes of management.

It seems to me that, with the flattening effects of social media, what one loses in titular pretense, one gains in democratic influence. The idea of a leader with the “common touch” really does change in the networked world. The common touch used to be about using folksy words or baby-kissing photo-ops or whatever. These superficial methods are no longer the only/best/main option for the person at the top. Leaders now have tools that can, in the right hands, create real, direct relationships with their constituents. Will this be a challenge for some leaders? You bet. But time management is an issue here! Some execs will say that the majority of their time must be spent with VIPs – and that mixing with the rabble online will cheapen the coin of the realm. A truly networked leader will work to find an appropriate balance, knowing that all constituents have something to offer. The smartest leaders, the ones thinking about the long-term health of their ecosystems, will plug in ASAP.

Let’s remember that online social networks are still very new. Social media moves fast, but it hasn’t – yet – made it all the way to the top. But it will. And as leaders figure this out, they will adjust their communication styles and their general managerial attitudes. The rising generation won’t have to figure this out… but my hope is that there’s someone at the top, right now, who is reading the writing on the Twitter feed.

David: You’re very optimistic about enlightened managerial attitudes filtering up before it’s too late. This new, networked reality poses both real opportunities and serious threats to organizational life as we know it. Transaction costs have plummeted. The opportunity for existing organizations is to embrace these social technologies and find ways similar to JEDLAB to launch and participate in a conversation, learning from participants along the way. The threat is that many organizations will fail to grasp this new reality and become obsolete, replaced by informal social networks that can accomplish the same goals far more cheaply. Too many existing organizations will limit their use of social media to conventional, I-It marketing and never get a conversation going. They’ll seek to constrain rather than encourage their staffs from networking for fear of losing control. They’ll treat social media organizing as a side dish rather than a main course, and not fully invest in the process.

But beyond all of these potential threats, I wonder if the biggest long-term threat to traditional organizations is much more fundamental – the continuation of hierarchical organizational structures, incapable of operating nimbly or open enough in a networked reality. For organizations to really thrive in the Internet era, do they ultimately need to become flatter, operating more like social networks such as JEDLAB?

Ken: Is it absurd to hope so? I hope not. Not that long ago, I published a piece on eJewish Philanthropy, “Money Can’t Buy Love… and Neither Can Compulsory Professional Development Seminars,” that suggested the following: in order for orgs to become “employers of choice” they need to rethink the way the organize and operate themselves. I still believe this now. Will others soon think this way? We’ll have to see…

I know that you, as an executive director yourself, are looking to take steps to flatten your organization. I can’t imagine that you’re the only one out there who senses the need to change. The people in JEDLAB, right now, who have positions of power (progressive executive directors, quiet-but-attentive board members, selectively social philanthropists) show no signs of disliking or distrusting the network. Just the opposite in fact. Still, it is very early in the game.

David: This has been a real I-Thou experience. Keep up the good work!

Ken: Thanks to you, David. Let’s end by inviting anyone within eyesight of this dialogue – anyone who deeply cares about transforming Jewish education to join us on JEDLAB. Talk soon!