Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: August, 2010

Online is not a separate place

With the emergence of writing, physical presence was no longer necessary for sharing information. In other words, a person’s being there was not necessary for their influence to be felt. As typing replaced handwriting or when movable type replaced the hand copying of words, it became even easier to communicate with words that replicated ideas and simulated human interaction without face-to-face contact.

Cultures without writing used human contact as a means for interpreting shared reality. Information within these cultures was community-based and people tended to construct their identities in relation to the community. People were dependent on contact with others for information. Print cultures in contrast encouraged more individuality and less connectivity with the community. Literacy led to people looking for information through the relatively isolated practice of reading rather than through face-to-face interaction.

When encountering anything for which we don’t already have a term, we turn to metaphor in order to make a comparison between the new phenomenon and a familiar thing. For example we display applications on our desktops, we place documents in folders, and we check our mailboxes for messages or we speak about virtual communities when we refer to groups of people communicating online.

Online communication has challenged our ideas of what a community can be. Social media allow people to relate to groups of people who live beyond the borders of location and time in the very same way that print once allowed information to be free from the constraints of location. Social media thus redefine what local interaction is and remove the constraints we earlier had on community building. The view of online as a separate space, a “virtual” space or “cyberspace” is an unfortunate example of a misleading metaphor that makes it hard to understand what is going on today. Our social media tools are no more alternatives to real life than books; they are very much part of it – making life more meaningful. People who are concerned about the increasing use of online communication and digital media often express their worries about the decay of face-to-face contact, but in effect social media are reducing the transaction costs of group activities and are increasingly the new coordination tools for real-world action. It is all about a richer life!

Communities are about bonding and belonging. The public access that the Internet now allows people to have is mistakenly believed to mean trying to get the broadest possible audience. But in effect people are trying to reach people like themselves, like-minded people, in order to belong to a community. There has been a tremendous increase in the amount of material that is available to the public, not really intended for the public, but instead for the emerging communities.

Many of our behaviours are held in place not by rational decisions or desires but by present or bygone constraints. Our cultures are shaped as much by these constraints as they are by capabilities and aspirations. Changes often take place very fast when the constraints are removed. The challenge is that misleading metaphors are often the biggest obstacles to moving forward after the technological constraints are gone.

Change occurs not so much as a result of new information leading to individual learning but when the patterns of connectedness between individuals change. Learning as a result of the print revolution was seen as an individual process. Learning as a result of the social media revolution is an active process of communication between people. Knowledge was earlier seen as being stored in content. Today knowledge is understood to be perpetually constructed in communication. Books could be transmitted from one person to another. Today knowledge is the process of relating. The technological constraints are gone; now is the time to get rid of the wrong, constraining metaphors.

We are living a communication revolution that equals the changes brought about by print.

Thank you Andrew Wood, Euan Semple, Matthew Smith, Clay Shirky and Ralph Stacey


Reading revolutions Thomas vander Wal’s blog

How to fight group-think

The mainstream approach to groups and teamwork underlines the need for consensus and cohesion. It is believed that members of an organization should commit themselves to its policies and chosen direction. Many writers claim that people should share the same vision, be positive and work harmoniously together. Seeking consensus often becomes so dominant in a group that its members tend to leave out of any alternative thinking. The symptoms of what is called group-think arise when people are not motivated to judge or criticize views and assumptions. People are positive and seek harmony on issues with no conflict to spoil the “we” atmosphere.

Often the more cohesive the group, the greater the inner compulsion on the part of the group members to avoid creating a disturbance. This often leads to people believing in the soundness of whatever proposals are promoted by the leader, or by the majority present. The danger is not so much that each individual will fail to reveal ideas that conflict with what the others propose, but that he will think that the proposal is a good one, without attempting to carry out any critical study of the possible alternatives. When this kind of group-think becomes dominant, there is often a considerable suppression of deviant or creative thinking. But it takes the form of each person deciding that his differing thoughts are not relevant and should be set aside.

Evidence of the group-think symptom is that things are left unsaid.

James C Thomson was a historian who studied the Vietnam War through observing decision making in the US State Department and at the White House during the war. He writes about the victims of group-think ignoring warnings. People collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount any negative news and feedback that, taken seriously, might lead the group members to reconsider their assumptions, as they recommit themselves to past decisions. Thomson’s findings came into my mind as last Wednesday I listened to Anssi Vanjoki defending Nokia’s past strategic decisions – no mistakes have been made!

Thomson writes about the fall of 1964. Just before the bombing of North Vietnam began, some of the policymakers predicted that six weeks of air strikes would force the North Vietnamese to seek peace talks. When someone asked: “What if they don’t?” the answer was that “Another four weeks would certainly do the trick!” The assumptions behind the decisions were never questioned.

What is being discussed in groups is often unclear. The lack of clarity is the very reason for having the conversation. We come to know what we are talking about as the conversation develops over time, if it develops. Communication is not one person saying something and others listening in order to understand what is being said, and thus formulating a joint decision. Whatever people do in groups is accomplished in communication, which always has a thematic pattern. The thematic patterns are, in turn, iterated over time as repetition, group-think or creativity. The demand that (management) group meetings are carefully planned and agenda-based may actually kill the possibility of any new meaning to emerge.

A group’s ritualistic adherence to meeting procedures and idealized rules of behaviour may create a false justification of the decisions made.

Research on complexity and creativity has shown the importance of diversity. If members join a group and have nothing in common at all, obviously, joint action will be impossible. But perhaps the bigger challenge today is if they conform too much in the name of group cohesion and thus block the emergence of the new. Organizations have the capacity to change only when they are characterized by diversity and deviance.

What is needed in groups, is paradoxically, conformity and deviance at the same time.


Thank you James C Thomson, Irving L Janis, Clay Shirky and Patricia Shaw

(Mårten Mickos blogs about this topic in Finnish)

More on group-think