Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

The art of interaction, the design of digital work and the science of social complexity

Month: March, 2010

Networks and the value of what is public

According to earlier simplistic management thinking stimulus and response processes control human behavior: you get what you measure; you get what you reward. This means that people are understood as having no real connection to what they are actually doing. A somewhat more modern way of thinking states that human beings actively create meaning in life through attempts to understand their own experiences. Intrinsic motivation, peoples’ relation to what they do, the meaning of work, replaces extrinsic rewards. People connect with what they are actually doing.

A new third way of thinking is now enfolding. Since we cannot experience everything ourselves, other people become the co-creators of experience and meaning. Relations, connecting with others, create a new, networked way of knowing and learning.

As a result, people can now connect both with what they do and with their peers, their network, making them much more knowledgeable than their colleagues who lack these capabilities.

Information is, paradoxically, simultaneously both social and individual, with multiple, variable goals and constantly negotiated premises because of the number of people taking part.

Information creators, publishers and curators, are not the (few) traditional verified experts; rather, information is created by a broad collection of reflexive practitioners sharing in the construction and ongoing evolution of a given field.

Information becomes a process of continuous facilitation and networked negotiation. Information networks are a valuable, shared resource making the interactive movement of thought possible. These networks are the new commons. Sociologists call such shared resources public goods. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private has been valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the confusion we are in the midst of today. The physical commons were, and still often are, over-exploited but the new commons follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

On the new commons, people with many ties become better informed and have more signaling power, while those outside and with few ties may be left behind. This may be the new digital divide. Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

In the age of abundance economics, public is much more valuable than private.


Responsiveness, emergence and self-organization

I gave keynote speeches at two conferences this week. The organizers of the events did not suggest a (#) hashtag to be used by the delegates. There wasn’t any backchannel Twitter discussion going on in the audience. I felt strange.

I wasn’t able to listen and respond to real-time feedback. I was missing the self-regulation and self-organizing that social media make possible. This is what I have grown so accustomed to. I started to ponder on two questions: Is it becoming more common for responsiveness to be the missing ingredient in many communities? And can there be rules for responsiveness that help to create viable communities?

I know that there are problems with two-way communication. There are the people with a pre-set interpretative model. We all know the people who are grinding their axe at the back of the room. They are the know-alls and the one-point-of-view evangelists, the people who insist on bringing all conversations round to their particular issue.

I know that there are even bigger issues: All participants are never visible. Any given conversation on the Web may have a few active participants and several silent ones. This creates a fundamental imbalance in the system and gives the oddballs the opportunity to dominate the space in a way that would be much harder to do off-line.

What I felt at the conferences was a crucial disparity: they hear me talking, but I don’t hear them. The audience was both present and absent at the same time. A conference with a Twitter backchannel creates inputs from the official speakers and responses coming from the audience that is present, but also the online audiences elsewhere. The most important thing is that the primary inputs can then be further adjusted on the basis of the responses from the group. There is real-time emergent self-organizing going on.

Information flows are far too often unidirectional. The audience is present but in a passive, invisible way. The tyranny of the hatemonger results from this one-way flow and scarcity of feedback.

The volume is too high for any single individual to filter out the useless or plain repulsive. There are, however, ways to filter out the irrelevant and the obnoxious, but it requires people to respond. If you are a participant, you are also a moderator.

The quality control has to be handed to the community itself without any single individual being in control. The solution is fairly simple in theory. It is about responsiveness and a mix of negative and positive feedback.

You always rate what you see. The ratings coalesce algorithmically into something that is called karma in Slashdot. If your contributions are highly rated you get karma points. The karma you have earned means that your subsequent posts begin life at a higher level than posts by others. Your ratings also have a higher value than ratings given by people with fewer karma points. Dynamic rating is to posts what links are to websites.

The people worth following, the leaders, raise bottom up. Hierarchies in network architectures are natural and dynamic heterarchies. In fact this is the only way that there can be leaders in democratic systems. One “algorithm” tracks the value of contributions; the other tracks the value of contributors.

The Web 2.0 gave the audience a voice. What is happening at the moment is much more radical. It is not about representation but gestures and responses leading to emergence and self-organization. It is not about the message or the media any more. It is more about the rules of responsiveness. In a simplified way, you can express those rules as constant positive and negative feedback moving the whole system towards a particular direction based on the behaviour of the participants.

The definition of what is quality and what is crap is a result of the responsive interaction. It is not group think however, because the ratings of people with high “karma points” weigh more than the assessments of the average members. The huge problem is that the majority viewpoints get amplified, while minority opinions get silenced. This is why we need a new category to support quality. It is diversity.

Changing the algorithm to reward diversity of opinion means the emergence of a system that looks totally different. Instead of highlighting posts with high average ratings, the system could highlight posts that have triggered a high divergence of ratings. There are many +5 responses, but also many -5 responses. The posts that inspire strong responses either way, both positive and negative, could then rise to higher visibility. The system can thus reward controversial voices, not only popular ones.

A viable system needs to reward perspectives that deviate from the mainstream. We need perspectives that don’t aim to please everyone. The oddballs would still be marginalized but the thoughtful minorities who attract both admirers and critics would have a visible place in the ongoing process of creating the future in responsive collaboration.


Thank you Steven Johnson

Lessons from the early adopters of corporate social technologies

The mainstream approach to management places a heavy emphasis on the formulation of plans and intentions and then communicating them as actions to be implemented by the organization. The starting point for change involves conceiving a picture of the future that is somewhat different from the picture of the present. After the content side is taken care of, the focus is then on providing tools for the process of change.

The approach that is made possible through enterprise social media is very different. The question that is now asked is: “How can people participate in such a way that things develop and change over time?”

The strategic focus of the early adopters of corporate social media is an ongoing continuous movement that is open-ended, and always incomplete. The strategic logic is temporal rather than spatial. When following a spatial metaphor, there is a territory that can be explored and understood, but here the territory is seen as being under continuous development and formation by the exploration itself. “It is impossible to map an area that changes with every step the explorer takes.” People inhabit a world of emergence, uncertainty and responsive change.

Themes such as communities, social network analysis and social graph underline a fairly strong sense of definable relationships and a sense of “us”. Our studies, however, show that social media create a dynamic and shifting sense of groups one belongs to. Conversations always follow from previous conversations and move on involving others, often as a result of responses from outside the corporate firewall. Work utilizing social media has much less clear and managed beginnings and endings. There is, typically, no pre-conceived design for the pattern of work: it evolves live.

Corporate life is improvising together

Physical meetings in organizations are often more or less orchestrated and planned in advance: “You should come prepared. There should be a clear goal for the meeting.” Following this thinking, there is no true sense of creating the future together. It is much more likely that people construct what they have always constructed. When people use social media to connect, they experience the potential inherent in communication, depending on how they express themselves, and how they respond. “Social media create the experience of acting into the unknown, creating the future together, improvising together.”

By linking improvisation to a group, like in theatrical improvisation, we get to what is in fact happening in social media. All of us with our differing intentions, hopes and fears, are acting in corporate plays that are very close to improvisational theater. We are self-organizing in shifting social configurations in the responsive interplay of different players.

We are fellow-improvisers in corporate ensembles constantly constructing the future, and our part in what is happening, in responsive interaction. The idea of improvisation is often associated with notions of unrehearsed, unintentional action. However, the more skilled we are, the better we can improvise. The better we have planned, the more flexible we can be. The more intensely we are present, the more responsive we can be.

The real time web is creating a real time company. The most important outcome is that social media focus attention more on what people are doing in the present than on what they intend to do in the future. The focus is on communicative interaction, the next tweet and the latest blog post.

The pattern of relating also becomes very clear: “We get to see who is talking and who is silent? Who is invited to join and who is excluded or opts out?” The focus of attention is on the processes of participation and the life stream as the narrative of progress.

A senior manager in a very large multinational corporation explained the impact of social media: “Since I moved away from thinking that what I do is manage the corporation through communicating with the whole corporation, I have started to pay attention to my own participation with the people I meet or should meet, and my responses in everyday interaction. Through asking different kinds of questions and through pointing to different kinds of issues, through changing my own participation, I have in fact changed my company.”


Thank you Keith Johnstone, Srikumar Rao, Patricia Shaw and Doug Griffin

Learning from the Fat Duck

Organizational practices that are related to specific technologies significantly influence how firms adopt and use new technologies.

IT still today widely mirrors old manual tasks; sending an email is mimicking sending a physical letter. The vast majority of corporations choose incremental migration paths to the future. Past processes structure present ones. Most firms clearly prefer to use new technologies in the least disruptive way possible, creating as much continuity with past practices as possible. Communication researcher Carolyn Marvin has explained this tendency the following way: “Early uses of technological innovations are often conservative because their capacity to create social change is intuitively recognized amidst declarations of progress and enthusiasm for the new.  There is fear to expose old ideas to revision from contact with the new.”

The preferred incremental migration paths also explain the productivity paradox. Many economists and managers have claimed that information technologies have failed to boost the productivity rate of the firms investing in IT. But new technologies coupled with old ways of doing things cannot generate change in productivity. Manuel Castells claims that organizational and cultural changes are necessary before productivity gains can be achieved. He writes: “For new technological discoveries to be able to diffuse throughout the economy, thus enhancing productivity growth at an observable rate, the culture and institutions of society, such as business firms, need to undergo substantial change.” This statement is very appropriate in the case of the technological revolution centered on information and communication that we are in the midst of today. Why is it then that most firms choose the slow migration path while some are able to learn and change much faster? What kind of revolutionary thinking is needed to benefit from revolutionary technologies?

The Fat Duck is one of the best restaurants in the world. From the very start, chef Heston Blumenthal decided that, far from avoiding new technology and new science in his cooking, he would try to find people who could answer his questions and doubts about the accepted wisdom that was passed from chef to chef.

The timing was perfect. There was already a small group of people, some scientists and chefs who met on a regular basis to discuss the issues of science and technology transforming the habits of cooking. To make sure that the efforts were taken seriously, they coined the term “molecular and physical gastronomy” in 1992. The scientific understanding of the factors that determine the pleasantness of food is of importance, because it provides a strong platform for helping to make foods that are healthy, but are at the same time delicious. Heston Blumenthal thinks that new technology and the art of cuisine have much to offer each other and there is much that can be achieved by using them in mutual support. It is not just about the three star restaurants in the world, but the everyday practices around nutrition.

The starting point is the combination of an experimental chef and new technology.

The leading figures in combining the role of science and the kitchen have been Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal. They don’t like being labeled molecular gastronomists because this interpretation reduces their culinary intentions to a simplistic agenda. Perhaps it is accordingly time to stop calling Google an Internet company. The Internet is not a simplistic agenda reserved for the Internet companies any more. Perhaps we should accordingly stop talking about social media. The timing is now right for those leaders who are willing to doubt accepted wisdom regarding how things are done and are prepared to experiment.

Anyway, it is time to gather and talk, perhaps in the kitchen.


Thank you Joanne Yates and Heston Blumenthal

The San Pellegrino list of best restaurants. About El Bulli

What Knowledge Management should do?

Databases and documents are usually thought of as stores or stocks of knowledge.  From the mainstream Knowledge Management perspective, knowledge is understood to be created by individuals and then shared. It becomes the asset of an organization when it is extracted or externalized, as it is called in the SECI-model of Nonaka and Takeuchi.

But the everyday experiences we have do not exist in a meaningful way in any documents. What has happened can seldom be understood from the Excel sheets explaining the results of our actions or the Word-documents explaining what we did or what we should have done. What really takes place is very rarely a repetition of documented practices although there would be an efficient flow of these documents between people.

The actions in real life always vary. As the people with whom we interact change, the context of the interaction changes. In other words, there is always variation in processes, routines and actions. Actions are thus never based on knowledge that is separate from, or outside of, those actions and contexts. Accordingly actions are not fully explainable through documentation. “We know more than we can tell”.  Knowledge, in this sense, cannot be seen as residing in databases and attempts to store it in documents of some kind will capture only partial aspects of it. Knowing cannot be separated from acting.

Knowledge is always a process of responsive contextual, live interaction. It cannot simply be located in an individual head to be extracted and then shared.

Knowledge is neither a stock nor a flow! What happens between people is interaction. Interaction is not a flow.

Knowledge is the act of interacting and new knowledge is created when ways of interaction, and therefore patterns of relationship change. The knowledge assets of an organization are the patterns of interaction between its members and knowledge is destroyed when relationships are missing or are destroyed, as is happening widely in the corporate world today. Key corporate assets are lost!

Organizational change, learning and knowledge creation are the same as changes in communication. Enabling new habits of communication and improving the quality of the conversation are the most important processes of knowledge management.

The world of people in interaction is (luckily) very different from the world of algorithms and technological intelligence.