Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: March, 2013

Communication and cognition

Economic growth is about value added. In manufacturing adding value was a transformation process from physical raw materials to physical goods. Economic growth is still today about value added. The difference is that the generic, homogeneous raw materials of the industrial era are now unique ideas and the transformation process is an iterative, interactive, non-linear movement, rather than a linear, sequential chain of acts.

The worlds of manufacturing-based added value and creativity-based added value require very different skills. Before the Internet and smart devices, most professional occupations required individual competencies that in most cases had accumulated over years. This experience base, often called tacit knowledge, was used to retrieve answers from memory and to independently solve situations arising at work. Knowledge was situated in the individual. In order to help individuals cope with the challenges of everyday life, individual competencies needed to be developed. This is why our whole education system is still based on independent individuals learning and, as a consequence,  knowing.

The cognitive load of work has increased as a result of manufacturing giving way to creative, knowledge-intensive work. The content of work is changing from repetitive practices to contextual, creative practices. This makes the individual experience base, by default, too narrow a starting point for efficient work. Experiences can be a huge asset but experiences can also be a liability, creating recurrence where there should be novelty and innovation.

Creative work is not performed by independent individuals but by interdependent people in interaction. A new way to understanding work and competencies is unfolding: knowledge that used to be understood as the internal property of an individual is seen as networked communication. This requires us to learn new ways of talking about education and competencies. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles of industrial work. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier of creativity.

People have always networked. Scholars depended largely on correspondence networks for the exchange of ideas before the time of the universities. These communities, known as the “Republic of Letters” were the social media of the era, following the communication patterns of today astonishingly closely. The better-networked scientist was often the better scientist. The better-networked worker is today usually the better worker. The better-networked student in the future is always the better student.

The main difference from the time of the Republic of Letters is the efficiency of our tools for communication, meaning thinking together. A “man of letters” may today be a man of tweets, blog posts and Facebook, but the principle is the same: the size and quality of the network matters. What matters even more than the network, is networking, the way we are present and interact. It is time to acknowledge the inherently creative commons nature of thinking, creativity and economic growth.

Life is a temporal pattern of emotional and intellectual interaction. We are our interaction.

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Noam Chomsky interview.

Patterns

Social sciences are concerned with understanding and representation of what is going on and what has happened. Earlier, social scientists took great leaders and their personal characteristics as the topics to be explained. Context and time did not matter. More recent approaches to the study of social phenomena can be summarized as trying to understand temporality; the processes of becoming, live movement in time, which, in the world of business, either gives rise to viability or makes us slowly, or rapidly, obsolete.

The life stream of individuals is the new focus area. Life streams are also called social activity streams. The term “lifestream” was coined by Eric Freeman and David Gelernter in the mid-1990s to describe a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary; every document created and every document received is stored in the lifestream.

In management studies, the questions of becoming, remembering and forgetting are not only new concerns. They are the essence of modern knowledge management, especially in the time of Big Data, when “it is cheaper to keep than to throw away”.

There is a fear of memory loss in business, but there is also the opposite fear, that memory produces practices in the present that should best be forgotten.

Anthropologists claim that reproduction of the past is easier than change. This often leads us into situations where the past is no longer an adequate guide to the present, leading to a situation where an information asset turns into a liability.

Knowledge-intensive work takes place in communication. The process of knowing is the process of communication. The most important knowledge management challenge is to understand what takes place in that interaction: what is being discussed? What is not discussed, what is silenced? Who is included in the conversation, who is excluded? The most important measure, however, is how the common narrative develops, how fast, and where to.

This is why an organization should be seen as a pattern in time, a lifestream, a continuing story without beginnings. Everything we do is built on what has happened before. New people join this narrative and people leave. The patterns that emerge do so because of what everybody is doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. Work is dynamic participation and influencing how the story develops.

Without understanding and visualizing where we come from and where we are heading, it is impossible to know whether we move at all, whether the flurry of daily activities is actually keeping us trapped in repetitive patterns without any progress. The same people having the same conversation again and again, as often seems to be the case.

Our past, together with our intentions for the future is present in the daily, mundane actions and interactions that often pass without notice. A lifestream is the ongoing reference point and visualization of progress in place (a map) and time (a calender). It is the means for pattern recognition to help create the future we truly desire.

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More on the subject: Euan Semple on Patterns. Doc Searls Weblog. Big Data and pattern recognition.

Changing the way we work together

Many organizations are trying to ease into the social business environment. They take parts of the agenda in piecemeal fashion following an “easy steps” logic. Often this, in the end, means some additional communication tools inside the organization, or additional content through some additional new channels for customers. Nothing really changes what comes to the way people work together.

The way in which companies organize themselves and define their boundaries has essentially been determined by the way in which communication between people is planned and access to information is designed. The classic organizational structure was based on the assumption that a manager or worker could have rich interaction and exchange of information only with a limited number of predetermined people.

Our mainstream management theories are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mind-sets are not only unhelpful, but wrong in a world of information products and ubiquitous, low-cost/high-quality connectivity.

New communication technologies have always had a strong impact on industries and the logistics around production. But this time, with information products, the societal changes are even bigger than before. The Internet is the first communication environment that decentralizes the financial capital requirements of production. Much of the capital is not only distributed, but largely owned by the workers, the individuals, who themselves own the smart devices, the machines of work.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the machines were. In knowledge work, the machines are where the people are. The logic of ubiquitous communication makes it possible for the first time to distribute work to where the willing people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs, but about tasks and interdependence between people. You don’t need to be present in a factory, or an office, but you need to connect with, and be present for other people.

Work is communication and cooperation, and there are so many new ways to do that.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed contributions. As a result, the organization is not a given entity or structure, but an ongoing process of organizing. The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational resilience can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are vertical and/or horizontal arrangements, that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction.

Information is the power plant that has the ability to change the organization. When information is transparent, people can organize effectively around changes and differences, around customers and new opportunities. Different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization.  The easier the access that people have to one another and to information is, the more possibilities there are.

Rather than thinking of organization as an imposed structure, plan or design, organization arises from the interactions of interdependent individuals who need to come together. Sometimes people stay together for a long time, sometimes for a very, very short time. This is because any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person, team, function, or a firm.

The focus of industrial management was on division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

What comes to the productivity of work, these may be the most important points on the social business agenda. The really big objective of social business is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center.

Success today is increasingly a result from skillful participation: it is about how we are present and how we communicate. Through new technologies, applications and ubiquitous connectivity, we have totally new opportunities for participation and communication – potentially changing the way we work together.

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More: the trend from routine to nonroutine work.

Emergence and self-organization

Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few (powerful) people that others blindly implement. Instead, what emerges is the consequence of the choices of all involved in the whole interconnected network, “the connective“, as Stowe Boyd puts it. What happens does not follow exactly a plan or a design, what happens emerges. It is about the hard to understand process of self-organization.

We still don’t quite understand what emergence and self-organization mean. The problem is that we believe that the unit of work is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of others. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do. But connected people can never simply do what they like. Cooperating individuals are not, and cannot be, independent. People are interdependent.  Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. What happens, happens always in interaction and as a result of interaction.

According to the present approach to management, planning and enactment of the plans are two separate domains that follow a linear causality from plans to actions. From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes explicitly emerge in a way that is never just determined by a few people, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. For example GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”.

What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning, or management, as pointless, but means that the future always contains surprises that the managers cannot control. The future cannot be predicted just by looking at the plans.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction for others.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts, but an emergent pattern in time that is formed in those local interactions. It is a movement that cannot be understood just by looking at the parts. The time of reductionism as a sense-making mechanism is over.

What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that organizational sustainability requires the same kind of learning that these software developers already practice: “All work and learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow. Doing and learning mean the same thing.”

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work and learning is not the independent individual, but interdependent people in interaction.

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Thank you David Weinberger, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin

More on the subject: the GitHub generation, Sugata Mitra. Video: “Knowledge in a MOOC” Steve Denning on complexity. The mundanity of excellence.