Have you ever winked at someone? I have tried, but to be truly honest I have never quite achieved what I think is the “right way” to do it, so I seldomly try.

I bring the “wink factor” into your attention because for the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to work closely with IT areas in digital transformation projects. And, to my view, understanding what a wink, Clifford Geertz style, is exactly what they need. (What we all need).

I will share with you the story of how this text came into being so you guys travel in the same direction and grasp where I’m heading.

The IT projects I have worked so far have to do with the implementation of cloud computing, cybersecurity and development and execution of communication software’s. So, in all of these cases I have closely worked with engineers, UX designers, and all sorts of people within different realms and expertise levels.

When working with them we use weekly routines so our team can share the results gathered from fieldwork, whilst they share the latest software developments and other technical aspects with us.

In one of those occasions, I was sitting with two engineers. For the sake of the story let’s say their names are Rick and Joseph. We were all in the seventh floor of the company, looking at our computers…

Suddenly a request from an inner client came through, Rick started talking:

Rick: Oh man, it’s Christine, last week I helped her install X tool….(He keeps staring at the message kind of waiting for her to finish what she is trying to say…) 

 A couple seconds later…

 Rick:Ok, she is asking if I can help her install the tool in her phone…that’s easy…I’ wonder what operating system does she have…I’ll ask her…. (He types his question…)

 With a face of full surprise and kind of laughing Rick turns his computer to show us what Christine had told him

 Christine:What is an operating system?? You mean that I have to download something, or buy it? Oh no please help me….

 Rick:Oh man, this is just typical “end-users” …. they just….I mean it seems like they have no common senseAT ALL. 

 Joseph: I know right? I have heard stories like…I heard that one time, a guy from my team was giving tech support to a dude in Human Resources. He had a problem with his computer. So, my guy told him to open X window….and instead of opening it in his computer, the guy (laughs loudly) opened the window next to his desk, can you imagine? I mean it is just COMMON SENSE!!! 

And just like that story, which I vividly recall, I have experienced lots of situations in which engineers, UX designers and why not even us within the anthropological realm think their clients lack common sense.

So, what is it about common sense? Why are engineers, project managers, designers, and the people involved in these technological projects demanding common sense out of their clients? Is it common to ask for common sense? Is it worth it?

I think a reflection, such as the one Clifford Geertz via Gilbert Ryle, makes about what common sense is and is not, is worth bringing into the table in order to answer these questions.

For the neophytes in the anthropological subject, Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist (one of the greatest in my opinion).  He focused his work on what is known as symbolic anthropology, which, not to extend myself here, could be understood as the practice of grasping the way in which others perceive and enact their reality through a series of rituals and such. (Go and buy Interpretation of cultures1973,to fully enter into the Geertz world and grasp more on what this article cannot, but would wish to discuss!!!)

I bring Geertz and consequently, Gilbert Ryle, into this story because in his book Interpretation of Cultures (1973), he, inspired by Ryle thoughts, shares an analogy about common sense. It goes like this:

(…) Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows.

The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way:

(1) Deliberately,

2)  To someone in particular,

(3) To impart a particular message,

(4) According to a socially established code, and

(5) Without cognizance of the rest of the company.

As Ryle points out, the winker has not done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and—voilà!—a gesture. (Geertz, 1973, pg 7)

That’s why I first asked you, reader, if you had ever winked.

Because as Geertz and Ryle put it, a wink only becomes into a wink if the symbolic practices within the situation create the synchronicity in which the message between the recipient and interlocutor make a match.

Therefore, there are several scenarios:

For example, you could receive a wink from a stranger and feel completely awkward because you don’t know if the person is flirting with, you or if it’s just a twitch. Or, you might by with a close friend and completely understand that this is in fact a wink.

So, there is no way to say that, out of “common sense” a wink it’s obviously a wink.

Let’s bring the wink example into the organizational realm, and specifically into digital transformation projects and let’s ask ourselves; are we expecting for our end user to wink at us? Are we truly winking at them? Do we understand their winks? Do they understand ours? Our we speaking the same language?

I will rephrase that; the last couple of years, the hush-hush within the organizational realm has turn into the famous but yet vague “digital transformation” space, and I mean vague because everyone talks about it, some companies think they practice it, other truly practice it, but no one seems completely sure.

The process of implementing this kind of technological advances, seems to go a little bit like this, (a bit reductionist yes, but it just to make my case);

Companies hire two suppliers for the implementation:

  1. A team to implement the technical aspects while they are still trying to understand how it works
  2. A change management team that has to explain the inner client how this works, even though the ones that have hired them don’t quite understand it, to an audience that has no clue about what the digital process is and how to work with it.

Meaning there’s a lot of processes that need to be understood whilst the technical implementation is happening; both for the people that leads the project, as for the ones that are going to use it on a daily basis. There is a lot of work to be done in order to have the organization enacting, practicing, and sharing the same knowledge about what and how they have to adopt this tech novelty.

I think that in order to really understand and grasp a concept one needs essentially to destabilize it, and ask what the implementation truly means for everyone. It certainly cannot and will not be understood homogenously by all area at the organization.

The marketing department has a series of rules, behaviors, intrinsic knowledge and just understanding of what their world is that is different from accounts and finance. And same if we were to compare the understandings of the world between finance with the human capital department. And the “rabbit whole” goes deeper and deeper if we were to consider the microcultures merged within those areas into their structural and collective level. Thus, as Geertz puts it, the deeper we go, the deeper we know that we do not know, and that nothing within the digital implementation is neither common, not filled with sense.

Sense making, for me, comes after you notice that at the early beginning of any digital transformation everything kind of sets in non-sense arena, previous understandings of what the “ways of working” were in the organization, the rituals, every day practices are destroyed, evolved or forgotten, as people enter in this liminal stage in which they need to transition. But to do it, they need to grasp what is happening within the simplest of terms, a great communication system, procedures and training as possible.

I guess that what I am saying here, is that whenever we find ourselves within a project that is developing the latest digital strategy, product, experience or whatever, we need to put in front of ourselves these questions:

  • What is winking for our audience?/ How are they winking in the present?
  • Will winking be understood similarly within our set of clients or how do we make it happen?
  • Have we tried similar winks in the past? How has that turned?
  • What are the cultural codes emerged within winking practices in our organization?
  • How do we continuously and properly communicate this wink, so not to be confused with a twitch?

This is all about knowing that a digital transformation strategy with our audience goes way farther than just making the implementation process happening. We, the ones that are at the back stage of the process, might think we know lots about the process, but the front stage, the day to day client needs a deeper training process and super clear communication if we expect them to wink at us, in the same way in which we want to wink at them.

So, let’s deconstruct what winking is, in order to cross that frontier in which we just think that the client needs common sense, because they don’t.

They just do not know how to wink because it is not within their rituals, codes and just their general understandings of how they are supposed to work with these new tools.

Just to put it like this: The digital concept is pretty much a senseless and liquid arena that needs molding, guiding, and a serious thinking on how the culture around it needs to be deconstructed to be constructed all over again.

Let’s embrace a non-sense  state for a while, just to give space to the new ways of working and together with the final audience construct these new set of symbolic understandings 😉

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¡Hi! I am Natalia Usme, Business Anthropologist at Flipa

I have a masters degree in Applied Cultural Analysis from Lund University in Sweden with a major in ethnography. My B.A is in Modern languages from Ean University in Bogotá, Colombia with a major in translation. So, I think of my role as a Business anthropologist as an organizational translator that gets the business goal match with what the customer needs.

At Flipa I lead etnographic projects applied to the organizational realm for international and national clientes. I mix theories from the social sciences with Thick Data to design strategies within: UX, XD, innovation, communication, change management, organizational culture and basically any project my client needs to develop having a deep outlook and understanding on the needs of their final audience.

Twitter: @NataliaUsme







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