Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: September, 2014

The two faces of digital transformation

Have you ever wondered why you don’t see anyone reading a book when you visit companies? We associate reading with finding information and learning, but we also include qualities such as contemplation, solitude and mental privacy when we think about books.

There is a mental framework that is used when dealing with books, and another distinct mental framework regarding information-related practices in the corporate world. Basically, you are not allowed to read a book, but you can read a document.

Documents and word processing are part of the framework of management today. Documents were born from the needs of a hierarchical, systemic approach to management. Top-down information was in the form of PowerPoint slide decks containing vision statements, Excel sheets with goals and Word documents explaining corporate procedures. Bottom-up information was used mainly to provide reports and data for managers, helping them to keep their employees accountable and to ensure the smooth operation of the business process.

Computerized word processing is associated with terms such as information flows and the sharing of information. This is not something you normally talk about when discussing a book. While a book provides a view of the contemplative mind, documents create a view of controlled content.

Are you still asking why you can read a document but you are not allowed to use Facebook?

Instead of predictive process flows, creative work follows a different logic. Work is about community-based cognitive presence. But cognition is just part of the answer. Work tomorrow will be even more about social presence. To work and to manage is to participate in live conversations. A dramatic shift is needed in the mental framework of information, communication and work. Without this changing mindset, no efficient digital transformations can be made in the corporate world. Work is communication. Conversations and narratives are the new documents.

The first face of digital transformation is about new ways to be present and new ways to communicate

You cannot design live interaction. Conversations cannot be controlled. The only way to influence conversations is to take part in them. You cannot plan in the traditional sense of specifying a structure or a process and then implementing it. As many have experienced, communities seldom grow beyond the group that initiated the conversation, because they fail to attract enough participants. Many business communities also fall apart soon after their launch because they don’t have the energy to sustain themselves.

Communities, unlike business units need to continuously invite the interaction that makes them alive.

Community design is closer to iterative, creative learning than to traditional organizational design. Live communities reflect and redesign themselves throughout their life cycle. This is why design should always start with very light structures and very few elements.

What is also different is that a good community architecture invites many kinds of participation. We used to think that we should encourage all the community members to participate equally. Now we know that a large number of the network members are, and should be, peripheral. In a traditional meeting we would consider this type of participation half-hearted, but in a network a large percentage of the members are always peripheral and rarely contribute. Because the boundaries of a live community are always fluid, even those on the outer edges can become involved for a time as the focus shifts to their area of particular interest.

Because conversations and communities need to be alive to create value, we need an approach to management that appreciates passion, relationships and voluntary participation. Rather than focusing on accountability, community design should concentrate on energizing, enriching participation.

The new structures and new designs are about communities continuously organizing themselves around shared contexts, meaning shared interests and shared practices. The focus of industrial management was on the 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.

The really big objective of the social side of digital transformation is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center. Success today is increasingly a result of skilful 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.

The customer of the industrial age was seen as a recipient of value, or a consumer of value. Enterprises also viewed customers through the lens of a fairly uniform set of features, leading to customers being seen as having relatively uniform needs. But even commodity products are always a bundle of use contexts, buying patterns, complementary goods and delivery options. Just because a product is a commodity doesn’t mean that customers can’t be diverse in the ways they use the product. Different customers use products that are manufactured in the same way, with the same product features, differently. This is why customers are today understood to be active contributors to value creation. Without their part, the value of the product could not exist.

Companies used to have no mechanisms for connecting with the end users in order to understand and influence what was going on. Digital technologies are now changing this. When a customer teaches a firm what she wants or how she wants it, the customer and the firm are also cooperating on the sale of a product, changing the industrial approach to sales and marketing. The marketing and sales departments used to be the customer’s proxy, with the exclusive role of interpreting changing customer needs. Internet-based business necessarily transforms the marketing function and sales specialists by formally integrating the customer into every part of the organization. The customer of tomorrow will interact with, and should influence, every process.

As the goal is to create more value together, a critically important new element is embedded computing, the integrated intelligence that is attached to the “things”, the offerings, the products.

It is about creating new software code. It is about two new digital layers for all products: (1) an algorithmic layer, which can mean sensors or location and usage data allowing totally new kinds of data analytics and (2) a network layer.

As the customer’s need set is expanded beyond the pre-set features of the physical offering through software, the definition of the product changes and becomes more complex. The more complex the product, the more opportunities there are for the company to learn something that will later make a difference.

The value of the code may determine the value potential of a product more than the physical product itself. The effectiveness of an offering is related to how well it packages the learning from past activities and how it increases the users options for value creation. A product or a service should be pictured as a node in a network with links to other use cases, supplementary services and complementary features surrounding the product. The more relevant the links are considered to be, the richer the product will become. The task today is to visualize the product in the broadest sense possible.

The study of isolated parts offers little help in understanding how connected parts work in combination and what emerges as the result of network connections. What new relational technologies are making possible for manufacturing industries is a much, much richer repertoire of potential futures than what we were used to in a traditional industrial firm.

The ability to create value in a remarkably more efficient and resource-wise way corresponds to possibilities for interaction with other relevant parts and actors. If interdependent links are few, poor, or constraining, the activity and value potential will be limited.

Interestingly, the same principle applies both to things and to human beings!

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More: The product is the medium.

From productivity to social innovations

The printing press constituted a true revolution in communication. But what really happened as a wider consequence of that revolution? Let’s try to reconstruct the circumstances that preceded printing. We know that there was a strong, although very divergent scribal culture before the printing press. The cultural texture was quite thin outside monasteries, libraries, and cities such as Bologna. That led to a heavy reliance on the vocal transmission of information, on storytelling.

The information culture was half-spoken, half-written.

The influence of the scribe was greatly enhanced because of a complementary character, the copyist. At first, the shift from script to print produced a social culture that was not very different from the culture produced by scribes. The writer – printer process was not very different from the scribe – copyist process, if looked at from the outside. Of course there was a huge increase in the output of books and a drastic reduction in the man-hours required to turn them out.

The first change was a remarkable increase in productivity. But then, the communications revolution of print caused remarkable changes in information-related practices that led to even wider social changes.

The well-informed man had to spend a part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men – reading. Another development was the Sunday papers replacing church going.  Sermons used to be coupled with news about local and foreign affairs. The new media players handled news gathering and circulation logistics much more efficiently.

The most noteworthy social change took place on the community level. To hear, you have to come together. To read encourages you to draw apart. The notion that a society can be regarded as a bundle of discrete units supported the principle that detached people can be represented through a system of disconnected political parties. The reading public was very different from the one before. It was not only dispersed, it was very atomistic and individualistic. As a result, the present political system was born.

Learning, which used to take place through vocal interaction in groups, was now the activity of a solitary, independent individual. The picture of the student in the library reading room was transferred to classrooms and the architectures of education.

According to some researchers, print silenced the spoken word. The orators of Rome gave way to the men of letters. Written text was now about facts and talk was cheap.

From this point on, people have tended to see information and communication technologies as two separate domains, not only for technological reasons, but because of the historical developments described above.

We are again going through another revolution in communication. The way the written word is used on Twitter or on Facebook is much closer to the vocal transmission of information than to writing. Through closely combining communication and information technologies, we are creating a much richer cognitive tapestry than the present separate ICT-systems are capable of.  Second, instead of drawing apart, we can now come (digitally) together. The culture is again half-spoken, half-written. The printing press separated information and communication. The Internet and the new social technologies are causing the two to converge.

The first change is again a remarkable increase in productivity, but again, it does not end there. The real promise of the Internet is in the new information-related practices and the social innovations that are still ahead of us.

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The brain, the Internet and the future of work

It is not uncommon to think that knowing is something that goes on in the brain. Perhaps astonishingly, the evidence that it is really so is not quite clear. Some scientists have recently 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.

The structures of the brain and the Internet look the same. In the brain there are neurons that link as a result of being active at the same time. This firing together creates a connection that increases the strength of their connection. On the Internet there are servers and people that are linked in temporary interaction, sometimes as a result of being inspired and interested in the same topic. This short-term communication sometimes leads to a longer relationship increasing the strength of the connection. No neuron links with all the other neurons at the same time. No server links with all the other servers at the same time, and no one person interacts with all the other people at the same time. So all communication is always contextual and local, whether in the brain, in an organization, or on the Internet. However, local here does not mean spatially local. The nodes in local interaction can be physically located far away, in different parts of the world. The Internet redefines what the local, in local interaction, means.

We often think of individuals as independent and self-contained. The view suggested here sees individuals as nodes of the complex networks they form, co-creating themselves and the reality in which they participate.

Our social interactions play a role in shaping our brain. We know now that repeated experiences sculpt the synaptic connections and rewire our brain. Our relationships gradually frame the neural circuitry. Being chronically depressed by others or being emotionally nourished and enriched has lifelong impacts. This is of course unwelcome news to someone whose relationships tend towards the negative but it also points to where the possibilities for repairing the situation might be. And they are not inside a person’s head.

We can no longer see our minds as independent and separate but as thoroughly social. 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.

This is why we need to focus on communication practices in addition to, and perhaps even instead of, communication technologies. Communication starts with acknowledgement. It is about paying attention to others and making room for them in our lives. Our attention should be on questions such as who is talking and who is being silenced, who is included and who is being excluded, who I acknowledge and who acknowledges me?

In a corporate context, an organization is still metaphorically a picture of walls defining who is inside and who is outside a particular box. Who is included and who is excluded. Who we are and who they are. This way of thinking was fine in repetitive work where it was relatively easy to define what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labor and quality of capabilities. As a result, management practice created two communication designs: the process chart and reporting lines.

In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are already the least important part of communication. At the same time, much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. The variables of creative work have increased beyond systemic models of process design. It is time to learn from the brain and the Internet.

What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization as a structure, let’s think about contextual communication. If we take this view we don’t think about walls but about connections and how groups are formed around what we actually do. The new task is to make possible very fast linking and thus to make it as easy as possible to get the best contributions from the whole network.

The focal point in organizing is not the organizational entity one belongs to, or the manager one reports to, but the reason that brings people together. What purposes, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause of interdependence and group formation? These contexts should create transparent, permeable boundaries between them, not walls. Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live graph of interdependence and accountability. Yes, accountability, because the interaction itself constrains and not only enables the people in the interaction.

Changing the way we communicate is the way we change organizations. Changing the conversation is not a major programme or change process. It is about understanding and influencing participation. It is sometimes about new connections, new conversations, and new people actively taking part. It is often about asking different kinds of questions and pointing to different kinds of issues.

The human brain has more than 100 billion neurons. There are around 3 billion Internet users at the moment. So we are still far away from the cognitive potential of the brain when it comes to possible link combinations of communication between people. But this may be humankind’s most valuable untapped resource!

On any scale we choose to look at things, there can be no change without changes in the patterns of communication.

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More information: Learning rewires the brain.