Fluency and Card Games

Posted on June 23, 2010

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Last night i was reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice, and happened upon his very effective use of a card game as a metaphor to explain the very complicated sociology of a Kabyle marriage process.  I think the metaphor might be a helpful way to explain some of the things SociaLens found in our research.  Though our results are excellent (we’ll be sharing much more very soon), this card game metaphor is going to be a bit rough.  I’ll put it out here so that you all can let me know if it seems like a useful way to frame some of the current confusion around organizations and people’s use of social media within them.

Our research at SociaLens has led us in a very interesting direction.  We’ll be sharing a lot about this very soon, but in the interim, i’ll give you a teaser: the ability to use new forms of communication like social media is heavily dependent on a set of literacies and fluencies that go beyond what you might expect when talking about media.  It’s helpful to mention first that “literacies” are the basic abilities to use a language, a technology, etc. to do basic things.  “Fluencies” go beyond this and are characterized by what Bourdieu might call a “feel for the game” which allows a person to transformatively use a language, a technology, etc.   

In order to understand how a person or group of people act in a situation and the eventual outcome, one must understand multiple factors.  This is especially true when dealing with complicated things that involve groups of people, technologies, rules, social interactions, etc.  Business is one of these things, and so is the use of social media.

Okay, so here goes with the card game metaphor:

Remember that uneasy feeling you had the last time you sat down to learn a new card game? That’s a lack of fluency.  I’ll use myself as an example. I am a terrible card player.  Or to put it another way, i am not very fluent in many card games.  I know how to cut a deck and deal (literacy), and i can learn the basic rules of a card game (literacy), but the minute we jump into the actual game, i realize that i don’t know the first thing about the unwritten rules (lack of fluency), the strategies, etc. that will help me to succeed (lack of fluency).  In fact, until i’m more familiar with the game and the social situation in which it is played, i can’t even be sure what “winning” really is (serious lack of fluency). Once i start to understand and internalize these things, i can start to enjoy the game, and even come up with my own novel strategies and tricks (fluency), but until that point, i will be hesitant, apologetic, and will often avoid playing the game altogether.  

Now, here’s how the card game metaphor helps me to understand the relationship of literacies and fluencies to communications technologies and organizations:

a) Lots of people have assumed that social media is just a simple next step after the adoption of email.  In other words, they think:  The elements are the same: a group of people, a computer, a piece of software, so why is it so difficult for people to adopt?  But this assumption is analogous to the assumption that the game of Bridge should be the next logical step up from War or Slapjack because it’s still just a bunch of people, 52 cards, and a table and chairs.  If you’ve ever tried to learn the game of Bridge, you KNOW that this is a false assumption.

b) The outcome of any card game is always dependent on lots of different factors: the deal, the written rules, the unwritten rules, the players’ ability to cut a deck and hold cards (literacy), their deeper feel for the game (fluency), the cultural context, etc.  It is almost never the case that one of these factors completely trumps (pun intended) the others.  Even the best hand can be squandered by a non-fluent player (me), and a crappy hand can be made the most of by a great player (anyone else, when compared with me).  It may be useful to think about the use of communications technologies in an organization this way.  Success never depends solely on the technology, the people, the situation, the incentives, etc.  It is always a combination of these factors.  Success also depends on how one defines success.  Some people play cards/use social media to win prestige, and some play to socialize.  Still others play for intellectual stimulation or for money. 

c) It is possible to develop the literacies necessary to play a card game (the rules, how to cut the deck) by yourself, but to develop the fluencies requires playing the game with other people.  Working with an experienced player at first will help a person develop the fluencies a lot faster, and with much less pain ans suffering, than if they just sat down and started playing cold.

d) Not every card player is fluent in all parts of the game.  Some are fluent in reading non-verbal signs, while some are fluent in keeping track of the deck.  But a good team (if i understand team games like Bridge enough to say this) will have a good balance of these fluencies.  Similarly, a good organization has a balance of the fluencies we’ve identified through our research like innovation and the ability to find information, though all of these fluencies don’t necessarily need to be equally strong in every person.

I could continue with the metaphor, but i won’t.  I’d love to hear your feedback.  Does it help to frame some of your experiences with your organization, colleagues, and your use of communications technologies to get things done?

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