Restorative Technological Practices

Repairing Harm, Maintaining Community & Building Relationships

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First up… what are restorative practices?

Restorative Practices have their roots in Restorative Justice, a way of looking at criminal justice that emphasises repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than only punishing offenders.

So, for example, instead of sending a person found guilty of drug abuse to prison, they might instead be connected with their local community so that they can understand how their behaviour has caused harm to others.

Restorative practices can be thought of as a proactive set of tools for avoiding harm through good, close relationships. Essentially it’s designed to bring people together before situations escalate.

You might be wondering why am I telling you all this? Hang in there, I’m going to try and map this to what we commonly refer to as ‘digital transformation (…or whatever you’d like to call addressing the amassed technological and organisational debt in your organisation).

I first became aware of Restorative Practices through colleagues working in housing and support services. I saw something similar to this diagram doodled on one of the whiteboards in our office.

This is the social discipline window. It leapt out at me as a fairly interesting way to frame the way we work with technology and people.

If you think about how people and IT generally interact, how many of those interactions end up in being permissive (doing things FOR people), punitive (doing things TO people) or even neglectful (NOT doing anything for them at all)?

Here’s the fundamental unifying hypothesis of restorative practices…

“Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behaviour when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

I think the above statement serves as a pretty great underlying principle for modernising our workplaces. Why wouldn’t you want happier, more cooperative and productive coworkers?

Bridging the gaps

In recent years it’s struck me that many of the basic challenges in front of us are less to do with technological limitations and more to do with a gulf of understanding and empathy that exists between people.

I’m reminded of one of my first jobs as an IT technician in a secondary school. A small but committed group of pupils would spend hours finding ways to circumvent the schools IT systems. And I would spend hours trying to stop them. The upshot of this escalating game of cat and mouse is that IT security got much more harsh and restrictive for everyone, despite only a small minority of pupils circumventing the rules. I dread to think how much collective time and productivity was squandered during this cyber security arms race.

When harm happens in the community, it is a violation of the relationship.

People who work in IT have a lot of responsibility thrust upon them. Among many other things, they have to keep everyone’s data safe, or face some fairly eye watering consequences.

By default, I think that often leads to a paternal or authoritarian relationship with everyone else.

Undesirable behaviour is generally discouraged through fear of punishment (loss of resources or loss of privilege). And punitive measures are sometimes applied proactively because… “users can’t be trusted”. I invite you to browse this thread from the SysAdmin group on Reddit where you can get a hint of this culture.

When people aren’t treated like grown ups, some eventually adopt the role of a child or teenager and rebel against authority whilst also feeling absolved of responsibility. Sometimes this takes the form using unofficial digital tools and workarounds. Unfortunately, this is a common enough occurrence that there’s an official term for it. ‘Shadow IT’.

“Gartner studies have found that shadow IT is 30 to 40 percent of IT spending in large enterprises, and our research at Everest Group finds it comprises 50 percent or more. […] I believe these statistics are an understatement of the shadow IT ecosystem”

When people are shamed and stigmatised for doing something wrong, it pushes them deeper into negative subcultures and further ingrains the very behaviour that was trying to be modified through punishment.

I reminded of one extreme instance where an entire branch of a University funded it’s own IT department because the relationship with the actual IT department had degraded to a point where they just decided to ignore each other’s existence.

So often it seems to follow this pattern. Individuals and whole teams who put up walls of varying sizes instead of building bridges to deliver more joined up services and more connected organisations.

What if there was a different way, where instead of leaping straight to punitive methods when something has gone wrong, we did things WITH people and figured out the best way forward, together?

A skill set for solving problems at the ground level.

You might be thinking.. “Yeah.. this all sounds like nice fluffy stuff, but what’s the practical use of doing things with people when I’ve got all these compliance and governance headaches?”.

Put simply, if we (technology people) spent more time working with others and building relationships, we’ve got half a chance of reaching a shared understanding. An appreciation of our respective intents and motivations and finding a way to reconcile governance and compliance with business needs and user needs.

When things do go wrong, rather than seeking to assign blame and implement ever more restrictive controls, we can start by asking questions like…

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • Who’s affected?
  • What are we going to do to make things right?

And the most important part of all this, is that the solution is constructed WITH the person or people who made the original mistake AND those affected by it.

Rather than perpetuating an US vs THEM culture, this ensures an empathetic response to the problem and improves the chances that history won’t repeat itself in the future.

So, what does this all mean?

Many IT departments have leapt onto the digital transformation bandwagon, some I’m sure as a means to better control their own technological destiny. But if the operating model for IT looks much the same as before (doing things FOR or TO people) then I’d propose it’s not likely to produce transformative results.

If we’re really in this to change our organisations to better fit with a world that’s been reshaped by the connected nature of the Internet, it’s only partially about the technology itself. It’s also about changing behaviours and mindsets to embrace a different way of working. One which is more networked and less command & control.

Arguably any behaviour change will only happen if time is sufficiently invested in building bridges with others and promoting values like tolerance, inclusiveness, respect, empathy and forgiveness. A whole community approach to change and a way to manage the tensions that invariable arise as part of that process. That’s where I think the ethos of Restorative Practices could be deeply useful in helping us transform our organisations.


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