Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Interdependence

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?

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.


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.