Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: science

The ten commandments of digital work

Lately I have had a series of conversations with a group of leaders of global high-tech companies. It became very clear during my conversations that their vocabulary reflected a fresh, new way of thinking about work. The executives emphasized that the key to success in the new digital economy is likely to be a new position for knowledge professionals and a wide social acceptance of more sustainable values.

What could this new position look like?

Once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized to a given enterprise are assets that are at risk in the very same way that financial assets are at risk. If one can’t continue for some reason, the value of context-specific knowledge and competencies may be much lower somewhere else. Human capital then follows very much the same logic as financial capital and should be treated accordingly.

There is, however, one major difference. Human capital is by definition always social and contextual. The capabilities of the members of a team are worth more together than when applied alone. With context-specific human capital, the productivity of a particular individual depends not just on being part of a community, but on being part of a particular group engaged in a particular task. The contextual and social aspects of business matter much more than we have understood.

The ten principles of digital work, the new standards, that the leaders acknowledged:

  1. informed free choice, rather than compliance, is the basis for decisions
  2. active participation, rather than passively accepting instructions, is the basis of growth and development
  3. work activities are carried out within a framework of personal responsibility and goals for self-direction rather than direction from outside
  4. activities are carried out in a transparent way with the goal of distributing the cognitive load of work rather than work being based on reductionist principles and social isolation
  5. one is responsible for one’s own actions rather than being responsible to someone else
  6. a worker is engaging in complex, responsive activities with others in contrast with engaging in closed repetitions of the same activity
  7. the network, rather than offices or organizational hierarchies, is the main architecture of work
  8. productivity is a result of creative learning rather than doing more of the same. Increasing the quality and speed of learning matter more than increasing the quantitative output of work
  9. knowledge work can be understood as investments of human capital following the same logic we have used to understand financial investments. Workers should share the responsibilities and possible upsides that used to belong only to the investors of financial capital.
  10. knowledge work is about interdependent people in interaction. Intelligence, competence and learning are not any more about the attributes and qualities of individuals but about the attributes and quality of interaction

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The impact of technology on industrial jobs.

Complexity, patterns and links

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 people to choose what happens in their organizations – or in their countries. We live in a complex world. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable.

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. There is absolutely no linearity in the world of human beings.

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 and seen as neurotic in social life. For example, a failing heart is typically characterized by increasing loss of complexity.

A pattern is something that emerges 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. This conclusion is important for us. Novelty emerges in a radically unpredictable way. Creativity is seldom the end result of a repetitive process.

The Internet changes the patterns of connectivity, transforms our understanding what “local” is, and makes possible wide participation and new enriching variety in interaction. By relying on the interactions of millions of people instead of a few experts/managers to classify content on the net, Google democratized scientific citation indexing. To be able to manage the increasingly complex organizations of today, the same kind of democratization needs to take place in the corporate world. Companies are transforming themselves from industrial mass production to creating value in networks of mass communication.

Transparency of tasks is the corporate equivalent of publishing academic articles. Responsive linking, rather than predictive linking such as in corporate hierarchies and process charts, acts as a measure of relevance, control and value. This has served the academic community well. It made Sergey Brin and Larry Page billionaires. Now is the time to do the same in the corporate world.

The Google lesson for management is, that the more work is based on responsive, democratic processes of relating and the more organizing is an ongoing process of communicative linking, the more value we can create!

It is now time for the sciences of uncertainty.

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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.