The barriers to skill-sharing and what to do about them (maybe) #SocialMovements #SocialMovementPathologies

Hello, this post, inspired by this one on Friday covers some reasons why skills-sharing is so hard to do, especially in allegedly “non-hierarchical” social movement groups..

It covers why it matters, why it doesn’t happen easily, and, of course, ‘what we could do.’ I’ve tried to park my unhelpful (to other people if not myself) cynicism and gloom. It ends with some thoughts about how lack of skill-share is only one of the many many reasons social movements and social movement organisations fail. At some point I may write a series of posts “why is movement-building so hard?” If someone like George Soros or that JSO-funder is reading this, I’m right here…

Why skill share matters

If you don’t share skills in a group, then a few people end up doing all the specific kinds of “skilled” work. This creates staleness, burnout, resentment, accusations of power-hoarding etc etc So in theory, to reduce the likelihood of these, groups should devote significant amounts of energy and resources into spreading the skills.

I have never (well, okay, once) in my three decades of watching/being involved in “activism” seen this (that is distinct from it talking about doing it; seen lots of that , obvs.). If you know of examples where groups made concerted efforts (successful or not), please say so, describing what they did, how, with what outcomes).

I think that there is no single explanation for this surprising and important failure.  Sometimes it might be the group is too small.  Sometimes it will be a bigger group that doesn’t see the point because it is “winning” (getting media attention, has enough new recruits to cope with the retention problem). Other times a group will decide to try to make it happen, but simply not be able to make it so.  It will stage some “skill share” events that are patchily attended and don’t deliver results that make the effort of putting on the event ‘worthwhile’. After that, future efforts at skills share are endlessly deferred until “after the Next Big Event, comrade.” At some point it becomes obvious the ‘group’ has decided – without ever actually having discussed it – to not bother and just keep going as it is, until it can’t, with members of the group burning out and being an unwitting advert for a life of quiet gnawing acceptance of a status quo that everyone knows is suicidal.

Why skill-share doesn’t happen easily, or at all

The obvious thing, that applies across the board, is that acquiring new skills is DIFFICULT.  Cognitively, or emotionally, or practically, it’s difficult.

It used to be, in the real world,  that you were apprenticed to do one thing, and this took YEARS (George Eliot’s Middlemarch is good on this, and it’s a great book.)

When you are learning, you make mistakes, you feel clumsy, it takes forever, you get disheartened. Even with encouragement and practical advice delivered with compassion and precision, it just takes time.  We are not as smart as we think we are.  The uber and instantly competent James Bond is a myth. But it’s one we like (see that story in The Onion “smart qualified people keeping America safe say ‘we don’t exist’).

It’s hard to learn, and it’s hard to teach. This stuff is difficult.  And when your mind is taken up with the coming apocalypse, when you have joined a social movement organisation like XR or Friends of the Earth, you are not looking for hard things, you are looking for companionship and catharsis, a sense of a beloved community (to use a phrase popular in the US Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s), of camaraderie and a haven in a heartless world.   Learning new skills consciously can send people back to (usually miserable) experiences in school, when they simply were not deemed good enough, quick enough etc.

Let’s take a small group, that is campaigning for a needed change in their community. Or on a big global issue – it doesn’t really matter.  Within that

Some people have skills, others don’t.

Those that have them are not going to be around forever, and in any case, may get skill-rot or simply get stuck in their ways.

Let’s assume the group has asked one person with skills to help another person without skills to get up to speed so that there is more than one person who knows how to do – say, write a press release.

Prospective Mentor doesn’t want

“Uggh, again? Another empty-headed newbie comes along saying they want to learn new skills. But they take forever to do so, it takes up my time and energy to teach them, and then they don’t stick around!  Or they take the skills and go and be a corporate idiot, or worse, join our bitter rivals, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea. And then I am back to square one being the only person who does this.  Sure, being that person who has those skills, those contacts, is something that gives me a certain status and power in the group, but so what?”)

[I remember an anecdote told by the former Australian Greg Matthews . As a young spin bowler he turned up at a club expecting to be mentored by the team’s established and much older spin bowler. And the guy said “piss off, why would I teach you how to replace me?” See also Jo Freeman ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’].

Prospective Mentee doesn’t want

“Oh, god, it’s sooo boooring. And I hate being exposed to my own incompetence.  It’s demoralising and climate change is already demoralising as it is. Why can’t we all just go on demonstrations, or glue ourselves to things?  And look, they’ve already GOT someone who can do that really well. I won’t be as good at that, so what’s the point. And they probably will resent me anyway for destroying their monopoly on this skill. And then when I AM doing it they will be tutting in the corner saying they would have done it differently, they could have done it better and quicker (which is probably true!) And if I learn this skill properly, then I will get lumbered with it forever, and become a beaten-down disgruntled hack like this clown, who is clearly reluctant to engage with me.”

Both don’t want (n.b. this might be distinct from what they publicly proclaim, and even what they say to themselves).

Then it is “game over”. Both will collude, perhaps unwittingly, to ‘kick the can down the road’ and not be available when the other one is.

So, we’ve only got the bottom right quadrant of this matrix to play with

Everything is fixed, if both want it,right? Ha ha ha ha ha.

But even here there are genuine problems (i.e. not ones that have been invented by one or both of mentor and mentee.)

It may be that they

  • don’t have the time (there’s always The Next Big Event coming, the organising of which sucks oxygen out of the room)
  • don’t have the skills to be mentor/mentee (see “culture” too)
  • don’t have the resources  (training materials, space)
  • don’t have a “match”  [the person with the skills isn’t a good personality and demographic match, or has other ‘issues’. (footnote 1)]

Or it may be that the effort is not considered by the rest of the group to be a good use of resources (why are they wasting their time on that when they should be…)

The “culture” of skills-sharing in the group is all wrong   E.g it’s assumed you have ‘skills share away days’ where “training” is delivered in death by powerpoint mode and then you have ticked that box.  It’s the classic problem of seeing skills-share as an event, when it is actually a process, and a long, hard-to-measure one with advances and retreats, growth spurts and periods of stasis and regression.

What is to be done?

Why listen to me? WTFDIK? I am just a guy who had some ideas, implemented some of them with limited success and – for many reasons (some good, many lousy) – failed and failed and failed to implement the others.

Whatever. It seems self-evident that

  1. If you can ‘surface’ the underlying pathologies/dynamics you have then got some chance of containing them, or at least contending with them (as per James Baldwin – “not everything that can be faced can be dealt with, but nothing can be dealt with until it is faced”). That could be as simple as adapting this post, with your own insights, into a short discussion paper ‘why do we suck at skill-share?’
  2. If you can separate the urgent from the important, and insist on time for processual skillsharing (not deferred for a future time, but integrated into the design of any given organising). This will require not a one-off agreement, but distributed responsibility to be a consistent pain in the ass and saying “I know this Next Big Event is going to be the one that heralds in the glorious eco-revolution, but we still need to make time within the planning of it to spread core skills.”
  3. If you can make the process of auditing what skills exist in the group already fun and empowering [see here about novice lines and so on ], then it might help with the next stage, of assessing what skills the group needs [see here] more manageable, and conversations about ‘single points of failure’ and ‘absolute gaps’ less daunting and off-putting.
  4. If you can get people to be reflective on what has worked for them (this will shift over time) and then iterate that into future efforts. One hugely useful (to me anyway) metaphor is Vygotsky and his ‘scaffolding’ and zone of ‘proximal development.’
  5. If you can build a bunch of basic resources about some of the core functions of the group, so it becomes easier to teach “newbies” (who may not be “new” at all). But beware elaborate and comprehensive “solutions”.  As per the great slogan “toolkits are like toothbrushes – everybody has one, but nobody wants to use anyone else’s.” But the existence of basic resources may help reduce the resentment/demoralisation when someone you have spent significant time in training up is suddenly – for whatever reason – not available to use their newly acquired skills…
  6. If you can have one person with the job (it can rotate) to ‘nag’ and facilitate others into mentor-mentee relationships in the group, towards a group development plan (again, these will shift), then…

you might be able to deal with the skillshare problem for a while and delay the implosion of your group by as much as, oh, I don’t know, six months.  Wait, what was that I was saying about eschewing cynicism?

Failure all around us…

It’s complicated – skills-share is not the only thing holding back social movement organisations. Skills-sharing is only one small part of what is going on within a social movement organisation. You can with a little thought come up with plenty of ways a group could have “solved” its skill acquisition and maintenance problems (by solved I mean – learned how to acquire and spread the right skills) and STILL fail.

It might

  • choose the “wrong” target, “win” and get the wrong result
  • choose the wrong target, lose and get disheartened
  • choose the right target, win and not be able to cope with the next set of demands on it, to exploit the opportunities that arise from its “win” (people become exhausted, think it is someone else’s turn in the relay race.)
  • choose the right target, lose and not be able to cope with the loss

(“win” and “lose,”  right” and “wrong” are messy terms, of course.)

Key people might get co-opted by ‘the system’ (“man”), or in other ways neutralised (successfully smeared, blackmailed, whatever).

Other organisations in the social movement may make it harder to recruit and retain people, by their stupid actions. (though this can be a convenient rationalisation for the group’s own inability to recruit and retain.)

So, skills-sharing effectively, while necessary, is most certainly not sufficient.

Have a happy Anthropocene/capitolocene/cthulucene….


(1) It may be that the person with the skills is, while respected for having that skill/those skills, is simply not liked (for valid or invalid reasons). If they’re any kind of obnoxious, creepy, inappropriate, whatever, then those without the skills may find reasons not to be with that person – alone or in groups.

One thought on “The barriers to skill-sharing and what to do about them (maybe) #SocialMovements #SocialMovementPathologies

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  1. Surely the problem with “skill sharing” is two fold? The holder of the “skill” must be prepared to pass it on and there must be a person prepared to accept it. I’d suggest many, in any group, or in society in general, are prepared tp follow, but not necessarily lead.

    Leadership is itself a “skill”, sadly lacking in todays society, a result in my opinion of the so called Nanny State.

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