Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: December, 2011

Designing a beautiful business

I have recently heard people say: “I have a great job.”; “I love what I am doing here.”; “He did it in a beautiful way.”; “I work in lovely surroundings.”; “I work with nice people.” Conventional analysis of organizations is dominated by a rational tradition that ignores aesthetics, yet life is pervaded with beauty as these people proved.

Aesthetic considerations can sometimes be of decisive importance. Apple products and the Nokia N9 attract people the same way that the theory of Einstein attracts scientists – by virtue of their sheer elegance.

Organizations are social constructs. They are nothing but constructs to which people are drawn in pursuit of some purpose. Healthy organizations are a concept of relationships to which people are drawn by beauty, values and meaning, along with the freedom to pursue them cooperatively. Healthy organizations enable more than constrain.

Unhealthy organizations are a concept of relationships into which people are forced by birth, necessity or manipulation. Unhealthy organizations constrain more than they enable.

The concept of the social organization has intensified the debate as to whether competition or cooperation should rule in business. But competition and cooperation are not mutually contradictory. In the new design of work they don’t have opposite meanings. They need to be complementary. In every aspect of a healthy life we paradoxically do both at the same time. No successful social endeavor has existed without combining the two.

But sometimes things have not worked out.

The idea of cooperation went mad in socialism leading to an unhealthy and false pursuit of equality and left us with centralized, totalitarian governments enslaving their own citizens. Competition has also gone mad in many capitalist countries, which has led to mindless self-interest and left us now to cope with the results of the irresponsible abuse of people and natural resources.

We need new thinking beyond the old dichotomy: The political left lacks any convincing narrative in the post-socialist world. The right tells a story in which greed is the dominant human motivation and markets actually mean gambling.

The Internet era has proven that we are capable of working together competitively/cooperatively and building social communities that some time ago many would have dismissed as impossible dreams. Thus we don’t yet have a good idea of what cannot be done by connected people working together in new ways. Changes in existing organizations and the evolution of new ones will have characteristics in common. Just as natural systems like the human body are not vertical hierarchies with each part superior to another in ascending linear order, neither will organizations of the future be structured that way. This is not to say that all present industrial organizations are doomed but the models we use to describe the world around us are.

We need a new vocabulary beyond the models of industrial production and separatist, mechanistic concepts of a corporation.

The emerging organizations cannot be portrayed in two dimensions on a traditional organizational chart. They are closer to the networked organization of neurons in the brain. Yet, even these dimensions are not enough without the aesthetic dimension of doing a beautiful work.

The next challenge is to design a beautiful business.

Happy, Beautiful New Year!

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Thank you Dee Hock and Thomas Kuhn.

Christmas Letter

2011 was a year of major breakthroughs. The creative economy is here and looks very different from what we have been used to. I try to sum up some of the most important findings of the year.

The industrial logic was most vividly captured in the idea of the value chain. Value creating activities were sequential, unidirectional and linear. In the model, value was not really created but added step by step. The output of one task was the input of another.  The image of work was the assembly line, meaning that work could be fragmented and individual performance goals could be set for each worker. The world was all about people and boxes separated from one another.

Physical tasks can 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 any more.

Knowledge workers are often put in a position where they have to negotiate some understanding of what they face. The same event means different things to different people. The cognitive opportunity lies in the fact that as we don’t all select the same things, we don’t all miss the same things. If we can pool our insights in a creative, enriching way we can thrive in the complex world we live in. The challenge is that people often treat the existence of multiple views as a symptom of a weakness and conflict rather than as an accurate and needed sign of uncertainty.

Higher performance occurs through the combination of different perspectives and supportive, enriching communication.

Social interactions also play a role in shaping our brain. Repeated experiences sculpt the synaptic connections and rewire the brain. Accordingly, our relationships gradually frame the neural circuitry. Being chronically depressed by others or being emotionally nourished and enriched has lifelong impacts. Our mental life is co-created in an interconnected network. The human mind is not located and stored in an individual. Rather, what we have called the individual mind is something that arises continuously in relationships between people.

Supportive, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction have proven to be the most important explanation behind creativity and business success. The quality of action is always constrained/enabled by the quality of the interaction. The lines between the boxes matter more than the boxes! Communication either accelerates or slows down. Communication either creates value or creates waste. Communication either creates energy and inspiration or demeans and demotivates.

Communication forms much more than informs.

What is now needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles that are still the mainstream. Knowledge used to be understood as the internal property of an individual. Today knowledge should be seen as networked communication.

Work is interaction between interdependent people and the network is the amplifier, and at best a supportive and enriching enabler.

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Winning games

In most games who wins and who loses is the whole point of playing. It would be hard to imagine a more unpopular outcome in a reality TV series, than an announcement that all the players ended up as winners! It is, of course, beneficial that better-motivated and more enterprising players take the place of the lazy, the incompetent, and the unmotivated.

But zero-sum thinking and the winner-takes-all philosophy do not serve us any more. As there are more losers than winners in our games losers multiply as winning behaviours are replicated in the smaller winners’ circles and losing behaviours are replicated in the bigger losers’ circles.

The biggest problem is that as losers are excluded from the game, they are not allowed to learn. The divide between winners and losers grows constantly. This is why, in the end, the winners have to pay the price of winning in one way or another. The bigger the divide is, the bigger the price that has to be paid. The winners end up having to take care of the losers, or two totally different cultures start to form, as is happening today in many developed countries and cities.

Psychologically, competitive games create shadow games of losers competing at losing.

The games we play have been played under the assumption that the unit of survival is the individual, a team of people or a company. However, the reality is that the unit of survival is the players in the game being played. Following Darwinian rhetoric, the unit of survival is the species in its environment. Who wins and who loses is of minor importance compared to the decay of the (game) environment as a result of the competition.

We need a new concept of games in the creative economy. The players and their contributions in the real world are, and should be, too qualitatively different to be compared quantitatively. Unless all the players are comparable and want the very same thing, there cannot be a genuine contest.

Zero-sum games were the offspring of scarcity. In the era of creativity and abundance, new approaches are desperately needed.

As there simply cannot be pre-existing rules for every conceivable situation that might arise, we have to move beyond seeing the players and the rule-makers as separate parties. Real-life games are too complex to be governed totally from outside. We need participation based on values- and strong ethics  as a prerequisite for taking part.

The players have the responsibility not only for adhering to the existing rules, but also for developing the rules further – specifically when the game (environment) decays as a result of the actions of the players.

In creative games the winners would be all those whose participation, comments and contributions were incorporated into the development of the game.

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High Performance Business

In our view of the world, we often think that competition creates and secures efficiency. But it may be that high performance is incorrectly attributed to competition and is more a result of diversity, self-organizing communication and non-competitive processes of cooperation. Competitive processes easily lead to a handicapping of the higher-level system that these processes are part of. This is because competitive selection leads to exclusion: somebody is left out. Leaving something out means a reduction of diversity. The resulting less diverse system can be efficient in the very short term, but always at the expense of longer-term agility and viability.

Our assumption has also been that by understanding the parts of a system in detail, we understand the whole. Classical physics took individual entities and their movement (trajectories) as the unit of analysis in the same way we have lately analyzed the competitiveness of individuals and firms. Henri Poincaré was the first scientist to find that there are two distinct kinds of energy. The first was the kinetic energy in the movement of the particle itself. The second was the energy arising from the interaction between particles. When this second energy is not there, the system is in a state of non-dynamism. When there is interactive energy, the system is dynamic and capable of novelty and renewal.

Interactive energy may be the single most important factor in (business) performance. Higher performance patterns may accordingly occur through the very simple combination of different experiences and enriching interaction. What happens in the interaction between the parts is thus much more important than the parts. The parts are born in the interaction and the whole is the emergent pattern of the interaction, not the sum of the parts.

The focus of the high performance organization should be on communicative interaction.

Interaction creates resonance between the particles. Resonance is the result of coupling the frequencies of particles leading to an increase in the amplitude of motion. Resonance makes it impossible to identify individual movement in interactive environments because the individual’s trajectory depends more on the resonance with others than on the kinetic energy contained by the individual itself. We are therefore the result of our interaction.

The lesson is that every interaction of all of the particles is thus potentially meaningful and can lead to the amplification of the slightest variation. Interactive systems with even the smallest variations take on a life of their own. The future form and direction of the system is not visible in the system at any given time. The future is not in the system and it cannot be chosen or planned by anyone.

The conclusions are important for us: Firstly, novelty always emerges in a radically unpredictable way. The smallest overlooked variable or the tiniest change can escalate by non-linear iterations into a major transformative change in the later life of the system.

Secondly, the patterns of healthy behaviour are not caused by reductionist, competitive selection or independent choices made by independent agents. Instead, what is happening happens in interaction, not by chance or by choice, but as a result of the competitive/collaborative interaction itself.

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Thank you Pekka Himanen and Doug Griffin

Networked thoughts and networked emotions

Since our individual views are always biased and since we cannot experience everything ourselves, other people become the co-creators of information, experience and meaning. Relationships, connections with others, create a networked way of knowing.

Because of more and more specialized, narrow skill sets, new ways of doing things with new definitions are emerging. Nobody can be successful without supporting contributions. One new role definition coming from Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger is a “complementor”. A complementor is not the same as a supplier. The connection is based on a non-hierarchic, voluntary network relationship, not the hierarchic value chain.

Complementary contributions may be the most important explanation of business success today. A classic example of complements is computer hardware and computer software. The greatest hardware engineers are in dire straits without the greatest software programmers. Though the idea of complements is most apparent in ICT, the principle is universal: you can never have in-house all the specialized skills you need.

A complement to an offering is another offering that makes it more attractive. People value sausages more when they have mustard. Because work is specialized, it does not pay to try to make both. The new strategic imperative is to identify complementors and to be inviting to them. To be competitive, is to be selfishly collaborative.

In the world of complementary competences, information becomes a process of continuous iteration and networked negotiation. Information networks are the architecture of work and 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. On the new commons people with many ties and many complementors are better informed and have more signaling power, while those outside the commons and with few ties may be left behind. This may even be the new digital divide.

Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

Emotional contagion is a fact of life. It means that not only information but our moods and even physical health are created in interaction with other people. We tilt either to the positive or tilt to the negative as a result of our relations, and the further relations, the people that we relate with have. It is a chain of contagion that goes far beyond the horizon.

We could, in theory, make an inventory that evaluates the “richness” of our relationships. My friend Marcial Losada has made breakthrough findings on interaction. The thought-provoking model he has created, which is based on decades of research, has three variables and three parameters. The variables are inquiry-advocacy, positivity-negativity, and other-self or external-internal orientation. The three parameters are connectivity, which is the critical control parameter, negativity bias and resistance to change.

According to Marcial, people are most successful when they are well connected, positive, and are able to balance external vs. internal orientation as well as inquiry vs. advocacy. John Gottman on the other hand, has found that in an enduring, happy relationship, a couple experience five times more positivity than negativity in interaction. If we take the work of Nalebuff/Brandenburger, Losada and Gottman seriously, as we should, it would mean that there is a golden mean for any ongoing relationship in our lives.

Organizations are patterns of relating between people. The critical success factor for a social business is to understand that we share feelings much more than we share information.

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Thank you Barry Nalebuff, Adam Brandenburger, Marcial Losada, John Gottman and Kenneth Gergen

Developing new habits of participation and new habits of communication

It is not uncommon to think that knowing is something that goes on in the brain. Yet the evidence that it is really so is not quite clear. Some scientists have expressed doubts. The mind, they have argued, is not a thing to which a place can be allocated. Intellectual life is essentially social and interactive, they say. Life is carried on through communication between people. These researchers claim that interactions are not secondary by-products of thinking. They are the primary sites of that activity.

Industrial manufacturing was a fairly straightforward transformation process from physical raw materials to physical goods. Economic growth today is still about value added. The difference is that the generic, homogeneous raw materials and mass products of the industrial era are today different ideas and contextual, co-created solutions. The transformation process is also very different. In creative work, it is an iterative, unpredictable, non-linear movement, rather than a linear, sequential chain of predictable acts. Knowledge-based value added is a movement of thought.

Individuals should take part in the onward movement of thinking. People should know what the live, future-creating ideas are and how to take part in the conversation in a value-adding way. This is independent of what people do, or the organizational unit they belong to.

The management task is to understand (1) what is being discussed, (2) the quality of that conversation, and (3) whether there is movement forward or (4) are people running in circles. Are people stuck? Thinking does not take place inside independent people but in continuous interaction between individuals. The richer the interaction, the more economic value added is created. The poorer the interaction, the more value is destroyed and waste created.

Knowledge used to be seen as the internal property of an individual. Today knowledge should be understood as networked communication. This requires us to learn new ways of talking about learning, education, competencies and work itself. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles that are still the mainstream. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier. The age of the (lone) expert is over. The process of communication is the process of knowing.

If we want to influence the process of knowing we need to develop new habits of participation and new habits of communication. This is what the new interaction technologies allow us to do. This is also where agile practices impact on knowledge work in a similar way to that in which lean practices impacted on manufacturing.

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Thank you Doug Griffin and Kenneth Gergen