Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Social graph

The Social Graph of Work

The approach of the industrial era to getting something done is first 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 typically 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 still 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 acceptable 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 labor and quality of capabilities.

As a result, organizational design created two things: the process chart and reporting lines, the hierarchy.

In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of people, 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 new management task is to make possible the 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 purposes, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause of interdependence and group formation?

It is a picture of an organization without walls, rather like contextual magnetic fields defined by gradually fading rings of attraction.

Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are still often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live social graph of networked interdependence and accountability. One of the most promising features of social technologies is the easy and efficient group formation that makes this kind of organizing possible for the first time!

It is just our thinking that is in the way of bringing down the walls.

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Network design

In a typical large organization everybody is a long way away from everybody else. As a result the individual perception of the world is narrow and confined to a small group of immediate acquaintances.

That did not matter in factory-type of settings because physical tasks could be broken up. Bigger tasks could be divided by assigning people to different, smaller, fairly independent parts of the whole. Hierarchies made sense as a way to modularize work. The worker did not need to communicate with many people. The downside was a lack of flexibility. Reconfiguring a hierarchy always created a mess for a long time. And if you had a lot of interaction going on in a hierarchical structure, with many steps going up and down, it was slow and prone to misunderstandings.

For intellectual tasks, it is much harder to find parts that make for an efficient division of labor. Intellectual tasks are by default linked and complex creating an increased need to interact. Knowledge workers are often put in a position where they have to negotiate some understanding of what they face. The same event means different things to different people. The cognitive opportunity lies in the fact that as we don’t all select the same things, we don’t all miss the same things. If we can pool our insights in a creative, enriching way we can thrive in the complex world we live in.

New technologies give an organization the ability to reconfigure its form any way it desires. We are not confined to any one structure any more. The smartphone revolution has changed the logic of the network. The Web is no longer about linked pages but about connected purposes. We want to do something – with the help of information and other people. Often this means wanting to learn and respond in a situation.

Most often we seek two things: information and interaction.

For information the best structure would be a random, contextual network. A random network has the shortest possible path lengths. An example of this is performing a search. The key measure here is path length. That indicates how far everybody is, on average. The path length measures how many steps a piece of information has to go through between people. To create short path lengths in a typical hierarchical or process based structure you would need to know almost everything and everybody included in the hierarchy/process chart.  You would need to have access to information that we typically don’t have. Hierarchies and process charts are thus not efficient ways to organize knowledge work. They are not transparent enough.

For interaction, the challenge is engagement. Widening the circle of involvement means expanding who gets to participate. It is about inviting and including relevant, new and different voices. The measure is built on the social graph: how many of your friends know each other?

The network design principles successful organizations follow are: ( 1 ) shortening the distance between two randomly picked files/nodes/people; ( 2 ) getting more people who you know personally, to know each other.

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