What it takes to get a job done

by eskokilpi

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.