Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Jyri Engeström

Patterns and social objects

Complex systems are, as their name implies, hard to understand. The main difference between the sciences of certainty and the sciences of complexity lies in the different causal frameworks they are built upon. Up to now, we have seen the world around us as systems that, we thought, could be described and understood by identifying causal links between things: if I choose X, then it will lead to Y. If, on the other hand, I choose A, it will lead to B.

We are accustomed to drawing boxes and lines between the boxes. We try to model the world as predictable processes that we can control.

The mainstream ways of thinking about management are based on the sciences of certainty. The whole system of strategic choice, goal setting and choosing actions to reach the given goals in a controlled way depends on predictability. The problem is that this familiar causal foundation cannot explain the reality we face. Almost daily, we experience the inability of leaders to choose what happens to their organizations – or to their countries.

We live in a complex world. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable. If a system’s long-term behavior is unpredictable, goals can still be set, but there is no certainty that the actions taken are going to realize them.

Complexity refers to a pattern, a movement in time, that is at the same time predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. Healthy, ordinary, everyday life is always complex, no matter what the situation is. Human patterns that lose this complexity become repetitive and rapidly inappropriate for dealing with life. Unlike mechanical systems, human systems thrive on variety and diversity. An exact replication of behavior in nature would be disastrous. For example, a failing heart is typically characterized by loss of complexity.

Human interaction cannot be understood as predictive processes but as patterns. A pattern is something that unfolds through the complex interactions between elements in a system. Although there is apparent order, there is never exact repetition if the system is viable. This is why human interaction cannot be understood as processes in the way they were used in manufacturing, but as patterns.

Patterns that are more repetitive are normally called routines or habits. However, those routines do not cause our behavior. Instead routines are emergent patterns. They emerge in what we do. They continue to be sustained only as long as they are present in our everyday interaction.

The American sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) distinguished between two types of objects: physical objects and social objects. While a physical object may be understood in terms of itself, a social object has to be understood as being composed of patterns of interaction.

Mead referred to a market as an example of a social object. The acts of buying and selling define a market. Markets cannot exist without these social activities. When one person offers to buy something, this act involves a range of responses from other people. A person making an offer can only know how to make the offer if she is able to understand the attitude of the other parties to the bargain. The ideas of buying and selling are thus always interconnected. This is why it is called a “social” object.

The routines define the object. The social object can only be found in the conduct of different individuals engaged in the social act. Thus, there is no market that can be understood as an “it”. Mead’s social objects are not things but generalized tendencies to act in similar ways in similar situations.

We find it easy to regard social phenomena as things with an independent existence. We talk about financial markets being “nervous”. We want more people to recognize patterns “to predict what is going to happen”. But patterns can only be found in the experience of interaction itself. They have no existence separate from interaction and we cannot influence the patterns as separate entities.

We can just participate in interaction – in a dull and repetitive way or in a creative and rich way.

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Thank you Jyri Engeström for opening this discussion on the 13th. of April, 2005, with  “The case for the object-centered sociality“. Thank you also Melanie Mitchell, Ralph Stacey and Keith Sawyer.

More on the subject: Venessa Miemis. Thierry de Baillon. JP Rangaswami. Article on Wired magazine. Blog post on Complexitys. Gartner on “Emergent StructuresDeb Roy in TED

The agile organization

The management approach to getting something done is to create an organization. If something new and different needs to be done, a new and different kind of organizational form needs to be put into effect. Changing the lines of accountability and reporting is the epitome of change in firms. When a new manager enters the picture, the organizational outline is very often changed into a “new” organization. But does changing the organization really change what is done? Does the change actually change anything?

An organization is 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 labour and quality of capabilities. As a result, communication design created two things: 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 the least important part of communication. Much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. Interdependence between peers involves, almost by default, crossing boundaries. The walls seem to be in the wrong position or in the way making work harder to do. What then is the use of the organizational theatre when it is literally impossible to define the “organization” before we actually do something?

What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent self-organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization let’s think about organizing. If we take this view we don’t think about walls but we think about what we do and how groups are formed around what is actually going on or what should be going on. The role of management is then to define tasks and outcomes but not to say who does what. The new task for managers is to make possible a very easy and very fast emergent formation of groups and to make it as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable tasks, without knowing beforehand who knows.

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 contexts, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause for interdependence and group formation? I like the mental picture of an organization without walls, rather like magnetic fields defined by gradually fading rings of attraction.

These contexts create transparent, permeable boundaries between them, not walls. Instead of the topology or organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live social graph of interdependence and accountability. Our thinking about organizations is very much based on the old expensive and low-quality communication. The reality today is very different. Communication as the key driver in organizing is both high-quality and cheap. One of the biggest promises of social media is easy and efficient group formation!  It is just our thinking that is in the way of bringing down the walls.

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Contextual Leadership

Information overload and distractions have been understood as something that knowledge management takes care of. The task of knowing what to pay attention to has been tried to solve through corporate guidelines. Companies have also worked on information processes to mine nuggets worth the attention of knowledge workers. None of the approaches have really helped because it is really not about knowledge management, but about leadership, understood very differently than before.

Our attention is a result of the filters we use. These filters can be a mix of habits, media and tools. Increasingly these filters are social. They are the people in our network who we recognize as experts. Our most valuable guides to useful bits of insight are trusted people, people whose activities we can follow to help us advance and make sense.

Leading, then, is not position-based but recognition-based

There can hardly be a follower without a leader. A lot of management research has focused on the leadership attributes of an individual in the hierarchical organization. Leading and following in the traditional corporate sense have seen the leader making people follow him or her through motivation and rewards. The leader also decided who the followers should be.

Leading and following when seen as a two-sided relationship, not as attributes of individuals, follow a very different dynamic. Leading in this new sense is not position-based, but contextual and recognition based.

People, the followers, decide who to follow, why and when. The leader is someone people trust to be at the forefront in the area, the context, which is temporally meaningful for them. People recognize as the leader someone who inspires and enables them in the present. Another difference from traditional management is that because of the diversity of contexts people necessarily link to, there can never be just one “boss”. Thus, an individual always has many leaders as a default state. You might even claim that from the point of view taken here, it is highly problematic if a person only has one leader. It would mean attention blindness as a default state.

We are now at the very beginning of trying to understand leadership in the new contextual, temporal, framework. The relational processes of leading and following should be seen as temporal and responsive, not only on the Internet but also inside companies.

These patterns can be restricting or enabling. Knowledge work is not about acquiring facts or consuming information. It is about associations. Links are more important than information. Knowing in the brain is a set of neural connections that correspond to our patterns of communication. We don’t only connect with people; we link with topics, with contexts. The challenge is to see all the filters and linkages as communication patterns that are either keeping us stuck or open up new possibilities. We need new skills of dynamically connecting to people, topics and places. This is a growing challenge for our tools. Social media tools have developed tremendously on the publishing and sharing side. The next developments need to take place on the sense making side.

Following is at best a process of learning through observing and simulating desired practices. It is about growing the network and filtering at the same time. Leading is doing one’s work in an inviting and transparent way and being reflective. Leading is thus helping people link to information, filter information and to make sense of the world.

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Thank you Stephen Downes