Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: April, 2011

What it takes to get a job done

Physical tasks can normally be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks can be divided by assigning people to different smaller parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is much harder to find parts that make for an efficient division of labour. Intellectual tasks are by default linked and complex. Reductionism does not work.

The machine metaphor led to the belief that if we only can arrange the parts in the right way, we optimize efficiency.  When the image of work was the assembly line, work could be fragmented and individual performance goals could be set for each worker. The world was all about little boxes separated from one another.

The demands of work are different now: how efficient an organization is reflects the links people have with one another and the links they have to the contexts of value. How many handshakes separates them from one another and from the things that matter? We are beginning to see the world as relations.

When we talk about relations, we often take examples from nature: murmuration and bird flocks.  The V shape of a bird flock does not result from one bird being selected as the leader, and the other birds lining up behind the leader. Instead, each bird’s behaviour is based on its position relative to nearby birds. Ornithologists say that the V shape is not planned or centrally determined; it emerges out of simple, and relatively few, rules of interaction. The bird flock demonstrates a striking feature of emergent phenomena. But the birds do not need to figure out the rules of flight that guide how they organize themselves. These rules are genetically hardwired. Nature provides this for the birds. Birds then are not “free like birds”.

When it comes to people it is a different story. Mother nature does not provide deterministic rules for collaboration. We are free to choose, or not to choose, our own ways of doing things together. Accordingly we are ourselves responsible for formulating the principles we use to organize our life. Social systems are thus fundamentally different from natural mechanisms.

We have examples of social architectures that redefine some basic beliefs about social systems.

The wiki is at the moment the best departure from division of labor and workflows. Wikis let people work digitally together the very same way they would work face-to-face. In a physical meeting, there are always more or less the wrong people present and the transaction costs are very high. Unlike email, which pushes copies of the same information to people to work or edit separately, a wiki pulls non co-located people together to work collaboratively, and with very low transaction costs. Email and physical meetings are excluding ways of doing things. They leave people out. A wiki (depending on the topic, the context) is always inviting and including. The goal is to enable groups to form around shared contexts without preset organizational walls, or rules of engagement.

Ward Cunningham described his invention in 1995 as the simplest online database that could possibly work. An important principle of the wiki is the conscious emphasis on using as little structure as possible to get the job done. A wiki does not force hierarchy on the people. In this case, less structure and less hierarchy mean less transaction costs. A wiki always starts out flat, with all the pages on the same level. This allows people to dynamically create the organization and hierarchy that makes most sense in the situation at hand to get the job done.

People work together to reach a balance of different viewpoints through interaction as they iterate the content of work. The wiki way of working is essentially the digital and more advanced version of a meeting or a workshop. It enables multiple people to inhabit the same space, see the same thing and participate freely. Some might just listen, some make comments or a small edits, while others might make more significant contributions and conclusions.

New work is about responsive, free and voluntary participation by people who contribute as little, or as much as they like, and who are motivated by something much more elusive than only money. The society has moved away from the era of boxes to the time of networks and linked individualism. Being connected to people – from elsewhere – is a cultural necessity and links, not boxes, are the new texture of value creation.

Organizations are their communicative performance.


Thank you R. Keith Sawyer, Stewart Mader, Robert Cummings, Rod Collins, Doug Griffin, Kim Weckström, Richard Harper and Yochai Benkler

More on the subject: Center for Network Culture. The Agile Manifesto. About Ushahidis. Zen habits. Examples of wikis.

The problem with the iPad and Facebook

I loved Napster.

I saw Napster as a fundamentally important social innovation when it came out in 1999. These thoughts were brought to my mind as I recently heard of Shawn Fanning and his new venture.

The original Internet was designed as a peer-to-peer system, like Napster was. Up until around 1993, the Internet had only one model of connectivity. Computers were assumed to be always on and always connected. The goal of the original Arpanet after 1969 was to share computing resources through integrating networks and allowing every host to be an equal player. Any two computers on the Internet could send packets to each other. Firewalls were unknown and communication patterns were by default symmetric.

Reach together with symmetry and equality were the things that made the Internet such a radical social innovation.

The explosion of the Internet in 1993 – 1994 was largely the result of the web browser and a different logic: the client-server protocol. The client initiates a connection to a known server, asks a question, downloads the answer and disconnects. The device running the client doesn’t need to have a permanent address. It does not even need to be always on. This is the reason why broadband providers gave us asymmetric bandwidth. More bandwidth is offered when getting data from the Internet than when sending data to it. The assumption was that the majority of users want to download and consume, not upload and produce.

It was not about symmetry and equality any more.

The client-server model was not the only development that changed usage patterns. The original model was transformed even more as a result of firewalls. Now the hosts of the network could not talk freely to other hosts because of firewalls creating obstacles to communication.

One of the most common and widely spread social developments is people being able to be their own authors and publishers. What Napster did was a different and likewise revolutionary social innovation. It came up with a third alternative, a new logic between producing and consuming: every computer in the network was used as a re-publisher and curator.

The assumption that there were few publishers and many consumers did not hold any more. Napster changed the flow of data.

The real genius of Napster was the way it made collaboration automatic. By default, a consumer of files was also a producer of files for the network. Once somebody downloaded a file, her machine was available to pass along the file to other users when needed. A central addressing authority connected the nodes of the network and then after that left everything else to take place by itself.

The totally transparent architecture produced value as a by-product of people getting what they wanted. No altruistic sharing motives were needed

Napster was a very decentralized system with some important centralized elements. In a decentralized system every host in the system is an equal participant. No hosts have facilitating or administrative roles. But Napster was also a search engine. It maintained a master song list adding and removing songs as individual users came online. This created redundancy and led to a high probability that a given file could be found although the probability of a given user being online is very low. As a result the contribution of one individual is very small but the collaborative interaction of the group creates tremendous value.

In a centralized, hierarchical system, coordination between peers is controlled and mediated by a central server, one host. A modern version of a hierarchical system transfers some coordination responsibility down from the centre to a tree-like architecture of coordinators. In this model, peers are organized into groups, where a local manager/host mediates communication between peers in the same group, but communication between peers in different groups is passed upwards to a higher level manager. This is essentially the way firms operate today.

Ronald Coase developed the concept of transaction costs. These are the costs of coordinating actions and the costs of interacting and contracting.  When it is cheaper to do this inside a formal organization than as a network of more or less independent parties, organizations will form and prevail.

The reverse side of the Coasean theory is even more interesting. As transaction costs outside the organization fall as a result of technological and societal advance, the reasons for formal coming together dissolve. This leads to the organization becoming outdated, unless it can simplify its processes significantly. The big challenge for many organizations is to do things in a much, much simpler and more responsive way. The sad truth is that it is easier for managers to grasp the threat of competition than the risk of simply becoming obsolete.

In theory, if transaction costs in society at large become low enough, there will be no hierarchical, formal organizations as we have known them. The transaction costs of forming and maintaining these types of organizations are higher than the transaction costs of the alternative ways of creating the same value. The traditional hierarchical and formal organization is just too complicated, slow, and far too costly as a system. Unfortunately, the mainstream business schools haven’t figured this out yet. They still keep on teaching yesterday’s pricey way of doing things.

Peer-to-peer is an architectural model that is much more interesting, but also much more demanding, than the dominant client-server models. I believe that Napster gave us a glimpse of the future. The architecture it pioneered is going to be a viable model for the agile value constellations of the very near future.

Client-server is not the only truth and Facebook is (just) a modern version of a Telco. Facebook is not the same as the Internet.


Thank you Larry Lessig, Clay Shirky and Andy Oram

More on the subject: The early history of the Internet. Blog post by Doc Searls. Blog On personal dataPersonal leverage for personal data by Doc Searls. On user-centric identity. Blog post by Venessa Miemis.