Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: June, 2012

The really big idea of social business

It is often said that the transformation to becoming a social business means facilitating activities such as transparent action and cooperation instead of the competitive individualism we are so used to.

Management buy-ins are also seen as a challenge that needs to be tackled. But can it be that the real challenge is not the return of investment of the new tools or learning new ways of doing things, but acknowledging that there is a need for rethinking what management is and refreshing the theories it is built on.

The way business thinking sees the self and its relationships is based on Cartesian philosophy; I think, therefore I am. Everything in management and thus also in mainstream social business takes place from the first-person point of view.

This Cartesian isolation was strengthened in Newton’s physics, where matter and also people, were seen metaphorically as billiard balls, bumping against one another every now and then. Billiard balls don’t really meet. They don’t get inside each other and alter each other’s internal qualities. During a collision they may undergo a change of position or direction, but they remain essentially the same. This is why psychology and sociology were separate disciplines. This also explains why human capital and social capital are seen as two separate things.

The Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm of isolated individuals having external relations underlies the mainstream thinking about what is going on in Twitter, Facebook and social media in general.

The often-asked question is what causes things to happen. When we seek for causal explanations, we begin to split the world into independent entities. There are causes on the one hand and effects on the other. Thus when we try to understand a person’s actions or try to understand what is happening, we search for an independent set of conditions that bring these about. This is why we search for the good managers and blame the bad ones. The manager is the independent cause – and deserves to be paid accordingly. The rest of us are the effects.

In attempting to understand the big idea of  social business, let us replace the metaphor of billiard balls by the metaphor of baking as Kenneth Gergen suggests. It is then about the combination of ingredients and how the ingredients co-create the end result. With the right combination you get delicious food. The elements don’t independently cause the end result to be a success. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response

The really big idea of social business is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the centre. The task is to see action within relationships. It is about interdependence instead of independence.

Every human relationship serves as a model for what is possible. As we observe others we incorporate their actions into our own repertoire. Learning is the fundamental process of socialization. Within any relationship we are also in the process of becoming. We come to play a certain role, a certain identity. With my deceased father, I came to being as a child. This happened even when I was a grown up. With my son, I come to being as a father. Each relationship will bring me into being as a certain kind of person creating a huge repository of potentials. What social technologies are making possible is a much, much richer repertoire than what we were used to in a traditional firm.

Amyarta Sen has written that wealth should not be measured by what we have but what we can do. As we engage in new relationships we are creating new potentials for action. There is still the little boy in me but also much, much more, not least because social media are part of my life.


Thank you Kenneth Gergen for great conversations! This is based on my notes from our meetings. Thank you also Stu Kauffman and Doug Griffin

Designing for sociability

Interactive technologies like smartphones have been with us long enough to become familiar and find their present dominant designs. The explosion of the mobile Internet and location based services have added the potential of connectivity for objects, places and services in ways that very few companies still grasp. There is a new design dimension to everything: designing for sociability.

Most of us are aware of the direct effect we have on our friends and relatives. Our actions can make them happy or sad. But we very rarely consider that things we do or say can spread beyond the people we connect with. Conversely, our friends and family serve as conduits for us to be influenced by people we don’t know. We can be deeply and surprisingly affected by events we don’t take part in, that happen to people we don’t know.

It may not be appropriate to think about (digital) action only in terms of spatial metaphors: spaces and walls. Things happen and develop in time.

Focusing attention on the temporal processes of relating between people encourages us to take a special view to what interaction design might mean. Organizations are processes, not things. People are processes, not things. They are reproduced and transformed in interaction.

It is about how we continuously experience being together. The outcomes of organizational interaction are not within the powers of any single individual to choose. Both the outcomes and the dynamics producing the outcomes emerge in the very interaction! You cannot take away the uncertainty and the surprises.

When we shift the focus from spatial to temporal metaphors, the ethics of participation become more important than ever. The experience of being together results less from the technical and functional aspects of interaction and more from the purposes and values of the people taking part –  in ways that are very hard, or impossible to predict.

Perhaps temporal processes and iterative designs are the new dominant ways of designing for sociability.


Ten Timeframes“. “The Design of Time“. “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses“. “An interview with Nicholas Felton” by Dan Hill

The management of the social business

The division of labor reduced organizational effort and the cost of work in factory production. The division of labor also increased the quality of work through specialization. This led managers to focus on the efficiency of activities that were separated from other activities. Organizational design was seen as the planning and execution of a collection of independent, but connected jobs forming the workflow system.

Connections were based on top-down command-and-control and horizontal, sequential processes. In both cases the action of one part was meant to set off the action of another. Interaction was understood as one-way signals, a system of senders and receivers, a system of causes and effects.

In the cause-and-effect model of communication a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough.

Physical tasks could be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks could be divided by assigning people to different, smaller and fairly independent parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is not possible to find independent parts because intellectual tasks are by default linked and interdependent, creating a totally different work environment. In this new work, communication is not talking about work, but work is communication between people.  This is why a social business follows a very different model of causality.

In this model of complex causality, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning can only be known in the gesture and response together. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning may be contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one act. Neither side can independently choose the meaning of the words or control the conversation. Thus you can never control communication.

The cause-and-effect model of management presumes, accordingly, that leadership potential resides within an individual person, who is the cause. From a social business standpoint the individualistic view is fundamentally misleading. One cannot be inspiring or energizing alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition. An inspiring person is only inspiring by virtue of others who treat her this way. A good decision is only good if there are agreeable people around. Mutually recognizing and mutually supporting relationships are the sources of progress. Actions always emerge in a network of relationships – in co-action instead of cause and effect.

Any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person or one team. Instead of division of labor and the vertical/horizontal communication design, the managerial focus should now be in synchronous co-action and enriching interaction. Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being.

Social businesses are about interdependent people working in complex interaction