Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Stowe Boyd

The wiki way of working

Physical tasks can normally be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks can be divided by assigning people to different smaller parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is much harder to find parts that make for an efficient workflow. Intellectual tasks are by default complex and linked. Knowledge work is a social construct.

The machine metaphor led to the belief that if we can only arrange the parts in the right way, we optimize efficiency. The demands of work are different now: how efficient an organization is reflects the number of links people have and the quality of the links they have to the contexts of value, the things that matter.

How many handshakes separate them from one another and from the things that matter most? We are beginning to see the world in terms of  relations.

We have examples of new social architectures that redefine some basic beliefs about work and cooperation between people.

At the moment the wiki is the best departure from the division of labor and workflows. Wikis let people work digitally together in the very same way they would work face-to-face. In a physical meeting, there are always more or less the wrong people present and the transaction costs are very high. Unlike email, which pushes copies of the same information to people to work on or edit separately, a wiki pulls non co-located people together to work cooperatively, and with very low transaction costs. Email and physical meetings are methods which exclude. They always leave people out. A wiki, depending on the topic, the context and the people taking part, is always inviting and including. The goal is to enable groups to form around shared contexts without preset organizational walls, or rules of engagement.

In 1995 Ward Cunningham described his invention as the simplest online database that could possibly work. An important principle of the wiki is the conscious emphasis on using as little structure as possible to get the job done. A wiki does not force a hierarchy on people. In this case, less structure and less hierarchy mean lower transaction costs. A wiki always starts out flat, with all the pages on the same level. This allows people to dynamically create the organization and, yes, also the hierarchy that makes most sense in the situation at hand.

People work together to reach a balance of different viewpoints through interaction as they iterate the content of work. The wiki way of working is essentially a digital and more advanced version of a meeting or a workshop. It enables multiple people to inhabit the same space, see the same thing and participate freely. Some might just listen, some make comments or small edits, while others might make more significant contributions and draw more significant conclusions.

New work is about responsive, free and voluntary participation by people who contribute as little, or as much as they like, and who are motivated by something much more elusive than only money. Society has moved away from the era of boxes to the time of networks and linked, social individualism. Being connected to people, also from elsewhere, is a cultural necessity and links, not boxes, are the new texture of value creation.

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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!

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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?

The foundations of social business: pull communication

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In mainstream thinking, managers are understood as the prime originators of what happens in their businesses. The central concern is how the active manager/subject gets the passive follower/object to act in ways that reflect the manager’s perspective. Management continues to see communication in terms of influence and manipulation.

The social business view sees relations and communication as conversational processes of meaning making. It is a movement of thought on the basis of multiple perspectives that you invite or you pull. A person, when networking, would be subscribing to contextually relevant topics and people. Push transforms to pull.

Interaction starts with recognition. It is about granting attention to people and information and making room for them in our lives.  Leading and following in the traditional corporate sense have seen the leader making people follow him through motivation and rewards. The leader also decided who the followers should be.

When seen through the logic of social business and social tools, leading and following have a very different dynamic. Leading in this new business sense is not position-based, but recognition-based. People, the followers, decide who to follow and what topics to follow.  You pull information from someone you trust to be at the forefront in an area, which is temporarily meaningful for you.

Another huge difference from traditional management thinking is that because of the diversity of contexts people link to, there can never be just one source of information. Thus, an individual always has many topics and people that she follows. 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.

Pull communication is at best a process of active following, creative learning through observing and simulating desired practices. Leading on the other hand, is doing one’s work in a transparent, inspiring and reflective way.

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Thank you John Hagel, Stowe Boyd and Stephen Downes

More on the subject: Stowe Boyd.

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.

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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.

Communication as crowdsourcing

Communication constitutes reality. Communication is said to be the primary process by which human life is experienced: how we communicate creates and forms our experiences. Accordingly social life consists of dynamic interaction processes rather than stable structures. Therefore the way we communicate is of great interest. Where then do our communication-related habits come from?

We saw communication as a process of senders and receivers. The mass audience was seen as passive receivers and easily influenced by the media. The audience today is very different. Individuals have access to modes of communication that, just a few years ago, were available only for people working inside media channels. Most importantly the mathematical theory of communication, the concept of senders and receivers is not only unhelpful, but has been proven to be plain wrong in human communication!

Two distinct modes of communication have emerged and spread since the invention of the telegraph. The first mode was private point-to-point communication that was meant to connect people. The original telegraph was the classic example. It’s more developed form, the telephone, made synchronous communication between individuals on a global scale one of the defining technologies of the modern society.

The second mode was the public broadcasting of content. These two approaches to communication were advanced significantly by a series of innovations resulting in media technologies being perhaps the most socially disruptive developments of the past century, but the basic division into the two modes of private point-to-point and public broadcasting has remained essentially the same until now.

Thomas Edison filed a patent claim in the autumn of 1888 for a device, which, according to him “does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” The kinetoscope as it was called, carried a long spiral of tiny images that could be viewed in a moving sequence by turning a crank and peering through a magnifying glass. Edison’s vision of this new technology was quite quickly taken over by people who saw motion pictures not as a personal experience but as a publicly broadcasted mass media.

In the US the primary financing for radio and TV broadcast stations came very quickly from airtime used for advertising. In other countries, different models emerged. In Europe radio/TV was funded largely through license fees paid by radio/TV set owners. This model was grounded in the belief that radio/TV is a political voice that should serve the interest of the “people” and not the interest of making a profit.

The broadcasting model of communication was now turned into the property of either advertisers or politicians.

This was because of the inherited way of thinking about people’s actions. We have two major ways of understanding why people behave the way they do. On the one hand, there is the causal explanation. People change because of external forces. People can be influenced, educated, motivated or even forced to change their behaviour. This is the causal thinking of mainstream management theory: I send you a message and you act. I steer you and your use of time.

On the other hand, there is the assumption of agency based on response-ability and responsiveness. Instead of seeing the audience as an undifferentiated, passive mass, we understand the audience as a network of people, forming small groups and larger communities. The commercial and political interest to broadcasting was a result from the belief that the media can mold masses. In contrast to earlier thinking, the society is today seen to consist of numerous differentiated communities, each with own values and interests. All media content is interpreted within the community according to social sense making within the group. The individuals are influenced more by their peers than by media. Meaning is not in the message, but is produced in interaction. Different people will understand what they view and read in very different ways.

A new, third form of communication in the digital, networked world combines broadcasting and point-to-point. The means of broadcasting are today available for individual people. They are not only the property of institutions. The audience for this new form of private broadcasting is not a passive mass, but the emerging, active communities that the individual wants to reach and connect with.

In it’s most basic form, responsive communication involves a three-part relationship: an initial broadcasted gesture from one individual, leaving it free who in the audience acts on the gesture, a voluntary response to that gesture by another, and resulting crowdsourced activity. Meaning here does not reside solely in any one of these parts but in the relationship of all three.

The passive audience view suggested that people are easily influenced by the media. The active audience view thinks that people make active decisions about how to aggregate, and how to respond. The mass society theories subscribed to the passive conception of the audience and public broadcasting. It is time now to subscribe to an active, responsive notion of the audience and the possibility of private broadcasting.

A transformative, third mode of communication is here.

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Thank you Robert Friedel, Kenneth Gergen, Stephen Littlejohn, Stowe Boyd, Doug Griffin, Clay Shirky, Kim Weckström and Jeff Jarvis

More on this: confused of calcutta and Using communication tools as a form of “co-presence” (The New York Times). Changing communication patterns.