Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Management

Disrupting Unemployment

The concepts that govern our thinking and language in relation to work are not just semantic entities, but influence what we perceive and what we think is possible or not possible. Usually we are not aware of how these concepts prime our thinking. We simply think and act along certain lines.

A seminal concept related to how we perceive work is the division of labor, the notion of work as activities separated from other activities, as jobs. The industrial management paradigm is based on the presupposition that activities are the independent governing factors of creating value. The organizational structure of jobs comes first. Then an appropriate system of co-ordination and communication is put into effect. The scheme of interaction conforms to the planned division of labor as a secondary feature.

What if the increasing global competition, the Internet and the huge advances in communication technologies made it possible, or even necessary, to think differently? What if interaction was seen as the governing factor? The smartphone has now become information technology’s key product. Surely, then, it has an impact on the way we work. As jobs and communication are mutually dependent, it means that if there are changes in interaction, so the activities will change.

In the mainstream conceptual model of communication (Shannon & Weaver 1948) a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate back into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough. The meaning is in the words.

Amazingly, our conceptualization of value creation has followed the very same model. Companies transform ideas into offerings that are delivered to customers. At the receiving end, the products translate back into the same value that the company has created. The meaning is in the product.

Management scholars have lately made interesting claims saying that although the product is the same, different customers experience the value potential of the product differently. They say that it is in fact wrong to say that companies create value. It is the way the offering is contextually experienced and used that creates value, more value or less value. The bad news is that our present conceptualizations of work make it very hard to do anything about it. The good news is that for the first time in history we can do something about it. Companies can connect with users and be digitally present when and where their products are used.

Tor Arne

But we need a new conceptualization of communication if we want to have a new conceptualization of work. Luckily, there is one. A completely different approach to communication exists. The alternative view is based on the work of George Herbert Mead. This model does not see communication as messages that are transmitted between senders and receivers, but as complex social action.

In the social act model, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning of the gesture can only be known from the response, not from the words. There is no deterministic causality, no transmission, from the gesture to the response. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning of the gesture is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning of the gesture is contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one social act, from which meaning emerges.

Gestures call forth responses and products call forth and evoke responses. Value lies not in the product but in the (customer) response. Accordingly, work should then be conceptualized as an interactive process, a social act, because the value of work cannot be known in the separate “job” activity or be understood through the capabilities of the worker.

If we subscribe to this relational view, it means that people and actions are simultaneously forming and being formed by each other at the same time, all the time, in interaction. Perhaps in the future it will not be meaningful to conceptualize work as jobs or even as organizational (activity) structures like the firms of today. Work will be described as complex patterns of communicative interaction between interdependent individuals.

All interacting imposes constraints on those relating, while at the same time enabling those people to do what they could not otherwise do. Enabling and energizing patterns of interaction may be the most important raison d’être of work.

The relational view is a new conceptualization of work, potentially opening up new opportunities to disrupt unemployment. Perhaps it is time to change the focus from creating jobs to creating customers – in new, innovative ways. To quote Max Planck: “If you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change.”

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Thank you Katri Saarikivi

Social business and the changing theory of management

A manager recently voiced his concerns: “Most employees prefer being told what to do. They are willing to accept being treated like children in exchange for reduced stress. They are also willing to obey authority in exchange for job security.” That is the way we have seen it: managers inspire, motivate, and control employees, who need to be inspired, motivated, and controlled. These dynamics create the system of management and justify its continuation.

If we want to meet the challenges of the post-industrial world, this relationship needs to change. The workers changing their role is often seen as a matter of the extent to which the managers are willing to allow it and give up responsibility. In reality it is as much a matter of how much the workers are willing to develop their (management) capacity and take more and wider responsibility.

The dysfunctional relationship between managers and employees creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a systemic failure in creative, knowledge-based work. What is tragic is that neither side normally understands the predictability of what is going on. The pattern is a mutually reinforcing self-destructive process that manifests itself as a steady decline in the authority of management and productivity of work.

A few researchers have started to dispute the assumption that the present system of management is a fact of life that will always be with us. It may be time for us to question whether the recent problems created by bad management are isolated and should be tolerated. Or to ask whether the fault is in the system itself and not in individual managers?

Luckily, management theory and practice are slowly starting to catch up with the dramatic changes brought about by the loosely coupled, modular nature of creative work and the ideals of social business.

A social business does not behave in the way our dominant management thinking assumes. What is it, then, that has changed?

Organizations are always assemblies of interacting people. The reason for an organization to exist is to simplify, support, and enrich interaction.

At present, there are three types of organizational cultures depending on the type of management and the alternative mechanisms for the coordination of tasks. The different task interdependencies accordingly place different and increasing burdens on our communication practices .

I call these the administrative culture, the industrial culture and the creative, social culture.

The administrative culture, which is found in most governmental organizations is about function-specific independent activities. Two functions or tasks are independent if it is believed that they don’t affect each other. The most important communication exists between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker. The principle is that the execution of two independent tasks does not require communication between the tasks. The architecture consists of black boxes that are not coupled directly, but in an indirect way by higher-level managers, who coordinate the work. Work as interaction is mainly communication between hierarchical levels.

The industrial culture of process-based organizations is about dependent and sequential activities. Manufacturing work is about dependent tasks. Being dependent means that the output of one task is the input of another. The reverse cannot normally take place. In sequential dependence, those performing the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task. Since the process architecture is typically quite clear, management coordination is mostly about measuring and controlling whether the execution conforms to the planned requirements. The architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. Work as interaction is a sequential process with one-way signals.

A creative, social culture is different. It is about loose couplings and modularity, about interdependent people and interdependent tasks. Two people/tasks are interdependent if they affect each another mutually and in parallel. Interdependent tasks call for peer-level responsiveness and coordination by mutual adjustments, not coordination by an outside party such as a manager.

Most of the information that is relevant will be discovered and created during the execution of the task, not before. As a result it is not always possible for a manager and a worker to agree on a coherent approach in advance. Nor is it normally possible to follow a predetermined process map.

The basic unit of corporate information in creative, social work is not content in the form of documents but interaction in the form of conversations. Knowledge is perpetually constructed in interaction. Work as interaction is complex, situational communication between loosely connected nodes of the network! The structure of work resembles the structure of Internet.

The three cultures and corresponding architectures differ in the degree to which their components are loosely or tightly coupled. Coupling is a measure of the degree to which communication between the components is fixed or not. In most creative work, and always in a social business, any node in the network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual interdependence and creative participative engagement.

As organizations want to be more creative and social, the focus of management theory should shift towards understanding participative, self-organizing responsibility and the equality of peers. It is a systemic change, much more than just kicking out the bad managers and inviting new, better managers in. It is not about hierarchies vs. networks, but about how all people want to be present and how all people want to communicate in a way that was earlier reserved only for the people we called managers.

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Eric Brynjolfsson video on TED. Steven Johnson video on peer networks. Gary Hamel interview.

People, purposes and participation

The quantity and quality of knowledge workers output is correlated with the amount of well-being they get form their work. For this reason the quality of working life has received increased attention lately. We were asked to study well-being in the context of knowledge-work and social business technologies.

The most important thing that came up was that participation in relevant decision-making needs to be increased at the same time as social technologies are introduced. If this is not done successfully, other changes, such as improving generic communication practices, are only temporary and less effective. At every level of the organization, the quality of a person’s working life is proportional to that person’s participation, first and foremost, in the making of decisions by which she or he is affected.

The need for such participation is unsurprisingly also related to the age, competence and educational level of the individual. The younger the worker is, the greater the need to participate is.

Managers cannot be successful anymore unless they understand the difference between “power over people” and “power with people”. Power over was seen as the ability to get people to do things they would not do voluntarily. It is thinking that is based on the outdated and false motivational theory of rewards and punishments.

Everybody we interviewed recognized examples of decisions that were diluted or compromised because those who had to do the implementing did not buy into the rulings. Educated people do not respond well to commands or to somebody who tries to exercise dominance through the power their position gives them. Hierarchy does not work that well any more. Managers must depend on the willingness of their subordinates to act voluntarily. Managers who want authority for its own sake do not fit well into knowledge-based organizations.

Power with is different. It is the ability to connect people, purposes and participation. It is about co-creation and cooperation: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people, in meaningful ways.

In industrial settings, and in principal–agent hierarchy structures in general, this did not matter. Subordinates were dependent on the managers, never the other way round. As a consequence many managers now lack support from their subordinates resulting in low productivity, dismal creativity and slow learning.

Just as subordinates can make their managers look bad, they can also make them look good. This means that managers cannot hold their positions without the approval of both their bosses and their subordinates.

In modern work, leaders create the followers, and, at the same time, followers create the leaders. It is about power with. Equality and efficiency are not opposites; in fact, they become more and more closely connected as the educational and competence level of the workforce increases and as knowledge work becomes the norm.

The social revolution continues. This revolution, as many before it, may be about equality.

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On power and status. “Power over and power with“.

The management of the social business

The division of labor reduced organizational effort and the cost of work in factory production. The division of labor also increased the quality of work through specialization. This led managers to focus on the efficiency of activities that were separated from other activities. Organizational design was seen as the planning and execution of a collection of independent, but connected jobs forming the workflow system.

Connections were based on top-down command-and-control and horizontal, sequential processes. In both cases the action of one part was meant to set off the action of another. Interaction was understood as one-way signals, a system of senders and receivers, a system of causes and effects.

In the cause-and-effect model of communication a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough.

Physical tasks could be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks could be divided by assigning people to different, smaller and fairly independent parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is not possible to find independent parts because intellectual tasks are by default linked and interdependent, creating a totally different work environment. In this new work, communication is not talking about work, but work is communication between people.  This is why a social business follows a very different model of causality.

In this model of complex causality, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning can only be known in the gesture and response together. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning may be contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one act. Neither side can independently choose the meaning of the words or control the conversation. Thus you can never control communication.

The cause-and-effect model of management presumes, accordingly, that leadership potential resides within an individual person, who is the cause. From a social business standpoint the individualistic view is fundamentally misleading. One cannot be inspiring or energizing alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition. An inspiring person is only inspiring by virtue of others who treat her this way. A good decision is only good if there are agreeable people around. Mutually recognizing and mutually supporting relationships are the sources of progress. Actions always emerge in a network of relationships – in co-action instead of cause and effect.

Any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person or one team. Instead of division of labor and the vertical/horizontal communication design, the managerial focus should now be in synchronous co-action and enriching interaction. Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being.

Social businesses are about interdependent people working in complex interaction

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Markets, networks and management

The claim is that the best way to understand complicated systems is to investigate the workings of each of the parts. If a car does not start, the mechanic looks for the problem and finds a dead battery. In a similar way a doctor finds a wounded muscle. The idea is that the best way to understand life is to investigate the workings of the parts separately from those of other parts.

In the economic world, the concept of markets is based on the same idea: autonomous sellers and buyers engage in discrete transactions where each agent is independent from the other agents and each transaction is separate from other transactions. The unit of analysis is the individual agent.

Network scientists have recently made very different claims. They say that all human systems are connected and that connected systems cannot be understood in terms of isolated parts. The study of isolated parts offers little help in understanding how the parts work in combination and what emerges as the result of network connections. The notion of emergence is central. Their aim is to discover emergent patterns: is it really so that individual greed turns into a pattern that can be called public good, as proponents of free markets have suggested following the rhetoric of Adam Smith?

The suggested unit of analysis is now communication and emergence, not entities.

This changes many of the beliefs we have taken for granted. The first change deals with the assumption of a knowing individual, the basic idea of Cartesian philosophy. The individual was understood as having a knowing mind. Individuals were thus treated as if they possessed properties such as expert knowledge. On the bases of her personal properties the knowing individual is then understood as the designer and controller of an internal and external world.

The perspective of network science views knowledge as socially created and socially re-created not as stuff of the mind that can be shared and stored by individuals.  Knowing is a process of relating. From the network-based, relational perspective knowing is viewed as an ongoing and, never-ending process of making meaning in communication.

Management literature typically emphasizes individuals and locates explanatory power in their personal properties. Leaders are the sources of motivation, control and direction. The manager’s perspective is taken for granted as setting the limits of action and what is thought of as right or wrong.

Management theory is based on the same Cartesian assumptions of the self as subject, the other as object and relationships as influence and manipulation. This is why the present management thinking severely restricts what is thinkable and doable in the world of networks.

The potential of social media cannot be realized without a very different epistemological grounding, a relational perspective. Independently existing people and things then become viewed as co-constructed in coordinated networked action. Accordingly, the role of management is different, opening up new possibilities: power in networks is about “power to” or “power with”, and not “power over”.

The emergent pattern changes when the local interactions change. Self-interest in the network economy looks different from self-interest in the market economy; individual success is likely to take place through enriching relationships and being part of networked interaction aiming to facilitate both the individual and the collective effort.

Cooperation is the new competition.

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Thank you Dian Marie Hosking for great conversations

More: Reid Hoffman interview.

Management at the time of social media

A manager recently voiced his concerns to me: “Many employees prefer being told what to do. They are willing to accept being treated like children in exchange for reduced stress. They are also willing to obey authority in exchange for job security.”

That is the way we have seen it: managers inspire, motivate and control employees who need to be inspired, motivated and controlled. These dynamics create the system of management and justify its continuation. If we want to change the system, both parties would need to transform themselves simultaneously.

The workers changing their role is often seen as a matter of the extent to which the managers are willing to give up responsibility. In reality it is as much a matter of how much the workers are willing to grow their capacity and take responsibility. The problem is that most management education is targeted at managers, not at workers. When employees are not given opportunities to develop and act responsibly, they are in the worst case infantilized and stripped of initiative. They lose their capacity for self-control and self-management. The inability of employees to act responsibly then creates a justification for managers to do so for them.

Historians claim that management emerged as a profession as a result of the rise of slaves in agricultural labour. As the number of slaves increased, the owners created a privileged class of foremen/managers drawn from the ranks of the slaves. The task was to control them and to make sure they did not run away.

The number of managers grew during the time of the Babylonian Empire. They were also mentioned in the Hammurabi code of laws. Aristotle made reference to the need for management not only to control slaves, but in the household to control domestic servants, animals and women.

The tasks of management evolved into motivational issues as a result of the steady decline in the motivation and loyalty of slaves. Successful motivation was typically built on fear together with dreams of upward mobility and sometimes identification with the owners. From this perspective, management and involuntary work always belonged together. What made employees slaves was the fact that they did not have a voice in their work process. The place and time of work was forced on them. They were not viewed as human beings, but as an instrumental resource. One might claim that slavery, in this sense, has not died. It lives on in new clothes.

A few researchers have started to dispute the assumption that management is a fact of life that will always be with us. Perhaps it is time for us to question whether the recent problems created by bad management are isolated and occasional and should be tolerated. Perhaps the problem is a much larger systemic challenge than just kicking out the bad manager and inviting a new, better manager in. Perhaps the problem is not at all employee compliance or management incompetence. What if it is the system itself that is problematic, as it separates employees from responsibility and leaves organizations unable to fully utilize the potential of human beings.

The dysfunctional relationship between managers and employees creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a systemic failure. Both sides are trapped in a negative, self-reinforcing loop that they just want to get out of as soon as retirement is possible.

What is tragic is that neither side normally understands the predictability of what is going on. The pattern is a mutually reinforcing self-destructive process that manifests itself as a steady decline in the power and authority of management. The process is accelerating: young professionals don’t want to be managers any more.

Luckily management theory and practice are slowly starting to catch up with the dramatic changes brought about by the ideas economy, cloud computing, interactive, task-based work, Internet-based connectivity and smart devices.

For the first time in history it is not profitable to simply think that managers manage and workers work. Creativity and the need for intrinsic inspiration and risk taking demand individual responsibility and rich interaction between interdependent, equal peers. Top-down, one-way communication or separating thinking and acting don’t produce results any more.

In the past we located intention, or thought, apart from or before the action. We assumed a world of cause and effect where the outcomes of our actions can be known before actions are taken. Now we know that intentions arise as much in the actions and outcomes cannot be fully known in advance. This is why a new, different, view of management is required to serve the creative, learning-intensive economy.

It is time to rethink the principle that individual managers are blamed when things go wrong and rewarded when things go right. The rest of us used to be allocated to passive roles when it comes to responsibility, coordination of actions and communication.

That has changed forever!

Thank you Paul Graham, Doug Griffin, Mary Parker-Follett, Kenneth Cloke, Kenneth Gergen, Joan Goldsmith and Riel Miller

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Gary Hamel video on this topic