Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: gregory bateson

A Christmas Letter

Gregory Bateson wrote that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think. Mainstream economics still sees the economy and society as ultimately predictable and controllable (machines), although the repeated financial crises have shown how deeply flawed this view of the world is.

Luckily, during 2013, more scholars than ever before saw organizations as being more analogous to nature. There, it is not about predictions and control, but about perpetual co-creation, complex responsive processes and fundamental interdependence. Their claim is that we should study links and interactions. Many aspects of our social and economic world would start to look completely different from this complex network perspective.

2013 also brought us closer to understanding how work itself is changing.

Knowledge work is creative work we do in interaction. Unlike the business processes we know so well, where tangible inputs are acted on in some predictable, structured way and converted into outputs, the inputs and outputs of knowledge work are ideas, information and decisions. Even more, there are no predetermined task sequences that, if executed, would guarantee success. Knowledge work is characterized by variety and exception rather than routine. It is thus impossible to separate a knowledge process from its outcomes. Knowledge work is not “just work”, a means to doing something else! Knowledge work is about human beings being more intensely present. Thus, a business today needs to be human-centric – by definition.

The good news then, is the advances during 2013 in network theory and knowledge work practices. The bad news, as we now look ahead to 2014, is that today we are as far from being human-centric, as we have been for ages. As one example, people still tend to see their work and personal lives as two separate spheres. Although this conflict is widely recognized, it is seen as an individual challenge, a private responsibility to manage.

It is now time to challenge this and see the conflict as a systemic problem. It is a result of the factory logic, which saw human beings as controllable resources and interchangeable parts of the main thing, the production machinery. The context and logic of work are dramatically different today. In knowledge work we need to create an explicit, new connection between work and personal life. We talked earlier about balancing work and life. Here we are talking about connecting work and life in a new way, with a new agenda. Human beings are the main thing.

Traditional management thinking sets employee goals and business goals against each other. The manager is free to choose the goals, but the employee is only free to follow or not to follow the given goals. This is why employee advocates mainly want socially responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants committed employees who come to work with enthusiasm and energy. Must we then choose between the goals of the people or the goals of the business, or can the two sides be connected? As we know, passion and commitment are best mobilized in response to personal aspirations, not financial rewards. We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses! The aim, however, is not to have a single set of common goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both!

Linking personal lives with corporate issues may seem like an unexpected, or even unnecessary connection. But if we don’t learn from network theory and knowledge work practices, and continue to deal with each area separately, both individuals and organizations will suffer. The lack of a connecting agenda may also be one of the big challenges facing the emerging post-industrial society.

We need to study the intersection of business strategy and personal narrative and use the new agenda to challenge our industrial age practices and flawed ways of thinking. Knowledge work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership. We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? This may be the next frontier of social business. More on this next year!

Christmas is a special time for family and friends. Perhaps the rest of the year can also be made very special through rethinking and reinventing some of the basic beliefs we have about work!

Happy New Year!


Thank you Deborah Kolb, Lotte Bailyn, Paul Ormerod, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey, Joyce K Fletcher, Doug Griffin, Kim Weckström and Katri Saarikivi

More on the subject:

Futurice. A company that is already in the future. HBR: “To Optimize Talent Management, Question Everything” HBR: “The Ideas that Shaped Management in 2013” “Essential Zen Habits” “The Third Way of Work” “a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done” “Bring Your Own Device is really Bring Your Own Mind” “work is you, you are the work. So what is the future of You?

Organization is a process, not a structure

The way in which companies organize themselves and define their internal boundaries has essentially been determined by the way in which communication between people is planned and transfer of information is designed. The classic hierarchical 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. A narrowing of interaction always marked operational boundaries. Thus you did not want people to cross functional silos. This was the infamous trade-off between richness and reach.

An increasing number of companies trying to become social businesses are now becoming aware of the technical barriers and structural bottlenecks that hinder or totally prevent cooperation that is not planned in advance.

It is time to rethink. 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.

The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational agility can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are structures that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction. An organization as a structure is a seventeenth century notion from a time when philosophers began to describe the universe as a giant piece of clockwork. Our beliefs in prediction and organizational design originate from these same ideas.

A different ideal is emerging today. We want to be agile and resilient and we want to learn effectively and fast. The tension of our time is that we want our firms to be flexible and creative but we only know how to treat them as systems of boxes (or network nodes, where the shapes are round instead of square), with a fixed number of lines between them.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. It is not about hierarchies vs. networks, but about a much deeper change. Organizations are creative, responsive processes and emergent patterns in time. All creative, responsive processes have the capacity to constantly self-organize and re-organize all the time. Change is not a problem or anomaly. Change is the organizing input rather than the typical managerial re-design process.  All solutions are always temporary.

Gregory Bateson wrote: “information is a difference which makes a difference”. Information is the energy of organizing. When information is transparent to everybody, people can organize effectively around changes and differences, around customers, new technologies and competitors.

What we have still not understood is that people need to have access to information that no one could predict they would want to know. Even they themselves did not know they needed it – before they needed it. Thus an organization can never be fully planned in advance. When information is transparent, different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization. The context matters more than ever. The easier the access that people have to one another and to (different) information is, the more possibilities there are.

We seek organization, but organization is a continuous process, not a structure.


Thank you Ken Gergen for a great evening and great conversations

More on Gregory Bateson. On social business. Narrative work.

A relational view to management

Gregory Bateson argued that humankind’s fall from grace began through separations such as separating the self from the other, separating thought from emotion, separating the sacred from the secular and separating the subject from the object.

Today, there is new thinking that is based on the very latest findings in the sciences of complexity and sociology. These new approaches define a participative, relational perspective: we should speak about subjects interacting with others in the co-evolution of a jointly constructed reality.

In mainstream thinking, managers are understood as the prime originators of what happens in their businesses. The central concern is how the manager/subject gets the follower/object to act in ways that reflect the manager’s perspective. Management continues to see relationships in terms of influence and manipulation. The manager’s perspective is taken for granted in terms of what the facts are, and what is true or false. Employees are treated as instruments. They are less active and less knowledgeable although they can be sources of information for the manager.

In identifying management with science, two concepts were imported, which we now take so much for granted that we hardly notice them. There is the assumption of the autonomous, rational individual which corresponds with the atomistic view of society and the objectification of nature. The second concept that is imported into management is that of the objective observer who identifies causality and tests hypotheses like visions and goals based on these identifications. The objective observer is detached from the phenomena being studied. When this idea is imported into theories of organization, the manager is the objective observer who is supposed to act upon rationally formulated hypotheses about organizational success.

These assumptions have created the still prevailing subject-object understanding of organizational relationships. When a person is understood as a knowing individual she is being viewed as a subject, distinct from others, the objects. Relations are considered from the point of view of the subject and are instrumental in nature.

The social business/relational perspective to management views life and knowing from a different point of view: knowledge is socially constructed. Knowledge is not stuff accumulated and stored by individuals. Contextual interpretation takes the place of the objective fact. When knowledge and truth are viewed as social and temporary then constructions of what we call understanding or knowledge are always a part of what is going on.

Whether the social process is called leadership, management, networking, or communication, knowing is an ongoing process of relating. Social media best produce connectedness and interdependence as processes that construct collective authority and responsibility. Social media are most meaningful when giving voice to multiple perspectives, making it possible to seek out, recognize and respect differences as different but equal. Accordingly, reality in science is no longer viewed as a singular fact of nature but as multiple and socially constructed as David Weinberger writes in his newest book: “Too Big to Know”.

In a relational model identity is constructed from being in relationships, being connected, as contrasted with the mainstream view of identity through separation. Knowledge of self and the other thus becomes viewed as co-constructed.

The relational view sees networking and social media as conversational processes of meaning making. Here, people who network may be regarded as seeking to understand the meanings of the others’ contributions. To do so, they would have to give up the assumption that they and others necessarily mean the same thing by the same terms or expressions. A manager, when networking, would be asking questions that invite others to make explicit what is usually left tacit. In the end it is a process of movement of thought on the basis of multiple perspectives.

For Bateson and many others, re-engagement is essential for recovering wisdom and long-term vitality. This requires re-connecting with participative ways of knowing, with others as part of the self.


Thank you Gregory Bateson, Doug Griffin, Ralph Stacey, Kenneth Gergen, David Weinberger and Katri Saarikivi