Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: February, 2013

People, purposes and participation

The quantity and quality of knowledge workers output is correlated with the amount of well-being they get form their work. For this reason the quality of working life has received increased attention lately. We were asked to study well-being in the context of knowledge-work and social business technologies.

The most important thing that came up was that participation in relevant decision-making needs to be increased at the same time as social technologies are introduced. If this is not done successfully, other changes, such as improving generic communication practices, are only temporary and less effective. At every level of the organization, the quality of a person’s working life is proportional to that person’s participation, first and foremost, in the making of decisions by which she or he is affected.

The need for such participation is unsurprisingly also related to the age, competence and educational level of the individual. The younger the worker is, the greater the need to participate is.

Managers cannot be successful anymore unless they understand the difference between “power over people” and “power with people”. Power over was seen as the ability to get people to do things they would not do voluntarily. It is thinking that is based on the outdated and false motivational theory of rewards and punishments.

Everybody we interviewed recognized examples of decisions that were diluted or compromised because those who had to do the implementing did not buy into the rulings. Educated people do not respond well to commands or to somebody who tries to exercise dominance through the power their position gives them. Hierarchy does not work that well any more. Managers must depend on the willingness of their subordinates to act voluntarily. Managers who want authority for its own sake do not fit well into knowledge-based organizations.

Power with is different. It is the ability to connect people, purposes and participation. It is about co-creation and cooperation: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people, in meaningful ways.

In industrial settings, and in principal–agent hierarchy structures in general, this did not matter. Subordinates were dependent on the managers, never the other way round. As a consequence many managers now lack support from their subordinates resulting in low productivity, dismal creativity and slow learning.

Just as subordinates can make their managers look bad, they can also make them look good. This means that managers cannot hold their positions without the approval of both their bosses and their subordinates.

In modern work, leaders create the followers, and, at the same time, followers create the leaders. It is about power with. Equality and efficiency are not opposites; in fact, they become more and more closely connected as the educational and competence level of the workforce increases and as knowledge work becomes the norm.

The social revolution continues. This revolution, as many before it, may be about equality.

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On power and status. “Power over and power with“.

People, machines and the future of work

I took part in a high-level workshop on technological intelligence and the future of work. One of the questions raised was: “If machines can replace people’s minds in knowledge work as well as machines replaced their muscles in manual work, what will ultimately be left for human beings to do? Are we going to run out of jobs?” My answer was that this concern is based on a totally incorrect assumption. Working life does not consist of a finite number of problems and opportunities to which the human mind and human effort can be applied.

The challenges that confront us are unlimited. Every solution to a problem generates several new problems and also new opportunities. No matter how many problems are solved, there will always be an infinite number ahead of us. Although modern technology has reduced the number of things that in the past had to be dealt with by human beings, it increases the complexity of the challenges that require our attention now and in the future.

Technology: robotics, machine intelligence and cognitive computing do change what people should be doing and how organizations come to be what they are. This is why we need to revisit and rethink our conceptualizations of work.

When the Industrial Revolution began, the dominant Newtonian worldview meant that what was happening in the world was thought to be understandable without any reference to the environment in which things happened. Physical laws described what things following a linear, rational causality would do. The dominant view was that there are no significant uncertainties, or unknowns, messing things up. Most academic experiments were constructed accordingly, with the effect of the environment being eliminated. The aim was often to study the effect of one known variable on another.

Business enterprises were consequently thought of as machines. Enterprises conceptualized as machines, like all machines, didn’t have a will of their own. They were serving the intentions of their creator, the owner. The principal purpose was to obtain a return on the investment. Employees were, of course, known to be human beings, but their personal intentions were seen as irrelevant. People were retained as long as they were needed to fulfill the intentions of the employers.

The biological, meaning a systemic and cybernetic conceptualization, then replaced the notion of an enterprise as a machine. One, often overlooked, reason for this was the changing structure of ownership. When a firm went public, its creator disappeared. Owners were seen as anonymous, and too numerous to be reachable. The Industrial Revolution turned into the Managerial Revolution we are still living through today.

The Managerial Revolution changed the thinking around the purpose. Like any biological entity, the enterprise now had fitness and longevity as raisons d’être of its very own. Profit came to be thought of as a means, not an end in itself. Success came to be measured by growth. It was seen as essential, just like in nature.

The systemic view was a profound change in thinking compared with the mechanistic view. A biological organism is not goal-oriented in the sense of serving external purposes or moving towards an external goal. The movement is toward a more fit or more mature form of itself in a particular environment. An organism can adapt, but cannot choose to be something else.

But humans are creative and humans can choose.

Things are changing again. The sciences of uncertainty and complexity have helped us to understand that organizations are patterns of interaction between human beings. These patterns emerge in the interplay of the intentions, choices and actions of absolutely all the parties involved. No one party can plan or control the interplay of these intentions. But even without being able to plan exact outcomes, or control what others do, people accomplish great things together.

The thing is that people can only accomplish their work in the necessarily uncertain and ambiguous conditions through ongoing conversations with each other. This is why the next revolution is dawning.

The social revolution, the next industrial revolution, is about deeply rethinking the value of human effort. An increase in value can only occur if the parts of a “system” can do something in interaction that they cannot do alone. Social business may be more about complementarity and coordination than collaboration and working towards the same goal.

An enterprise that is conceptualized as a social business should serve the purposes of all its constituents. It should enable its parts to participate in the selection of both the ends and the means that are relevant to them personally. If the parts of a system are treated as purposeful, they must have the freedom to choose and to act. This means that the defining characteristic of a social business is the increased variety of behaviors that is available. It is not necessarily about common goals or shared purposes any more.

The way our organizations are conceptualized has a great effect on what people do, and what they do affects the way organizations are conceptualized. Enterprises have always consisted of people who have ideas, intentions, creativity and purposes of their own.

This, in the end, is what makes people different from machines.

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Background:

Kevin Kelly: “dream up new work that matters”. The Atlantic: “The Robot Will See You Now”. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking. David C. Aron on Systems Thinking, Complexity Theory and Management. Changing the social contract of work. Gary Hamel on the invention of management. McKinsey Quarterly: “The next revolution in interactions”. MIT Technology Review: “The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it”. Race against the machine by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. Greg Satell blog post. Ross Dawson and John Hagel on the humanization of work.

The core of the social business

We are in the midst of a shift from the industrial system of supply and demand to social, co-production models. The customer is now seen as being directly and actively involved in the key moments of value creation as opposed to passively consuming value. There are profound implications that result from this change of thinking. Products and services are not reproducible as such any more. Solutions are by default contextual and personalized, but they can be starting points for someone else to create value.

Creative, connected learning is at the core of the social business.

It is not learning related to meeting the requirements set by someone else, but learning that is motivated and expressed through personal, situational needs. As a result, a new meaning of education and learning is emerging.

Business, more than government, is driving the changes in education that are required for the knowledge-based economy. The government-run education systems are lagging behind the transformation in learning that is evolving outside schools. Businesses are even coming to bear the primary responsibility for the kind of education and learning that is necessary for a country to remain competitive in the future.

Gutenberg’s printing press broke the monopoly of the church on what was taught and by whom. Today’s social technologies are doing the same to schools and universities. The learners decide what is taught and by whom. The new technologies are perhaps not making teachers and schools obsolete, but are definitively redefining their roles and breaking local monopolies.

A learning business is not the same as the learning organization made popular by Peter Senge and many others. It is not about systems thinking, or learning how to use technologies and data.

A learning business is one that leverages the economic value of knowledge.

Producing more value than is used is the characteristic of productivity. True learning businesses must therefore be teaching businesses. This means communicating to customers the additional value of learning in the context of the services and products offered. Learners are teachers and teachers are learners. Creating learning connections is more valuable than creating learning content.

Inside an organization, all people must take responsibility for information and communication. Each person needs to take responsibility for his or her own active contribution. Everyone needs to learn to ask three questions continuously. What information do I need? What information do I owe others? With whom should I communicate?

Each level of management and each process step is a relay. That was OK when the speed of learning was not an issue. It was also OK that businesses were hierarchy-based, because transparency was not possible. In a learning business each relay means cutting the potential for learning in half and doubling the noise. Hierarchy used to speed things up, now it slows down.

The most important principle of a social, learning business is to build the organization around information and communication instead of around a hierarchy.

There is a debate going on that focuses on the distinction between ethical and practical education. There are people who emphasize moral values and those who underline the practical reasons for education. There are voices that are concerned that business-driven learning would mean less moral and ethical education than under government-led learning. But there are also people who stress that in order for any business to thrive in the new economy, it needs to show a new, intense and honest interest in values and sustainable ethics. Some people I know inside the church have been surprised that leading corporations dedicate more time to education about values than they, or schools do.

We have moved to a new economy, but we have yet to develop a new educational paradigm.

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Andrew Ng on the importance of universal access to education. Clayton Christensen on disrupting the education industry. Joi Ito on formal vs. informal education. Clay Shirky on social reading. Paul Graham: “Large organizations will start to do worse now because for the first time in history they are no longer getting the best people

There is no (social) business without customers

Last week I met with executives from large traditional manufacturing firms. They asked me what the ideas of social business might mean for them. What kind of changes might be ahead?

There is a saying that without customers, you have no business being in business. Accordingly, customer focus has been the dominant idea in business since the 1960s. Businesses have focused on customers as an audience for products, services and marketing messages.

But unfortunately, many businesses consistently miss the big shift: customers have transformed from an audience to actors. Firms don’t create value for customers. The way customers use the products and services creates value. It is a process of co-creation, not consumption. There are no consumers any more!

Many troubled companies still focus mainly on the wrong things. Their turnaround efforts don’t typically involve the customer. Managers streamline the businesses mainly through cutting costs; they re-engineer the internal processes to make them more cost-efficient. But they regularly leave out the most important part of the equation. They don’t start from the outside, the customer, and work in. They don’t create customers first. Instead, they work from the inside out. Many of these initiatives save money, but don’t affect the revenue side.

There is a revolution going on at this very moment as a result of the new interactive tools and social platforms. Every organization, no matter how big, now has for the first time the ability to interact directly with its end customers. Every company has the potential to consolidate customer insights and to gain a much better picture of who its customers are, how customers use the products, which products they discuss, and where they discuss them?

The problem for many traditional businesses is the definition of who the customer is. The real customer for any business is the end user of the offering, the person or company who uses the product, not the ones who distribute the product to the user or even, necessarily, the ones who pay for it. If your actual end customers don’t value your product or service, sooner or later you’ll be out of business. The length of time it takes for customer dissatisfaction to put you out of business depends on the number of steps, the degree to which you are away from direct customer contact. This was one of the main concerns that the executives raised in our discussions.

Many companies I met had delegated customer interaction to their distribution channel as part of the overall value chain set-up. Very often the distribution channel “owns” the customer in exchange for the services given. The problem here is often letting that channel withhold information about customers as part of the trade-off.

In most markets, the demand for a direct relationship between producers and customers becomes more and more intense as the channels of distribution become shorter and more varied.

The marketing and sales departments used to be the customer’s proxy, with the exclusive role of interpreting changing customer needs. Social business necessarily transforms the marketing function and sales specialists by formally integrating the customer into every part of the organization. The customer of tomorrow interacts with, and should influence, every process.

For routine retail transactions, as we have known them, such direct customer influence may seem all but impossible. But improvements in interaction technologies and companies’ ability to handle big data, and customer-specific small data make it feasible to claim that the number one thing shaping the performance of the traditional manufacturing enterprise is the interactive capacity between producers and customers.

The good news is that I have seen a new breed of executives coming to power. The people I meet are technology-literate. They are not only the early adopters of the next hot gadgets. They are pragmatists. They are frustrated by antiquated information and CRM systems, firewalls and organizational silos that get in the way of streamlining customer-facing business processes. “There are no back offices any more”, said one of the executives. “All processes need to be customer-facing in order for us to be competitive and serve the new active customers.”

The Internet is not a simplistic agenda reserved for the Internet companies any more. Perhaps we should accordingly stop talking about social business. The timing is now right for those leaders who are willing to doubt accepted wisdom regarding how things are done and are prepared to experiment and interact with their customers in new ways.

“There is no business without rich customer interaction,” as one executive put it.

In the end it is about being closer to things that matter.

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Thank you Tore Strandvik

Developing more effective systems of digital engagement.