Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Wiki

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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What it takes to get a job done

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 division of labour. Intellectual tasks are by default linked and complex. Reductionism does not work.

The machine metaphor led to the belief that if we only can arrange the parts in the right way, we optimize efficiency.  When the image of work was the assembly line, work could be fragmented and individual performance goals could be set for each worker. The world was all about little boxes separated from one another.

The demands of work are different now: how efficient an organization is reflects the links people have with one another and the links they have to the contexts of value. How many handshakes separates them from one another and from the things that matter? We are beginning to see the world as relations.

When we talk about relations, we often take examples from nature: murmuration and bird flocks.  The V shape of a bird flock does not result from one bird being selected as the leader, and the other birds lining up behind the leader. Instead, each bird’s behaviour is based on its position relative to nearby birds. Ornithologists say that the V shape is not planned or centrally determined; it emerges out of simple, and relatively few, rules of interaction. The bird flock demonstrates a striking feature of emergent phenomena. But the birds do not need to figure out the rules of flight that guide how they organize themselves. These rules are genetically hardwired. Nature provides this for the birds. Birds then are not “free like birds”.

When it comes to people it is a different story. Mother nature does not provide deterministic rules for collaboration. We are free to choose, or not to choose, our own ways of doing things together. Accordingly we are ourselves responsible for formulating the principles we use to organize our life. Social systems are thus fundamentally different from natural mechanisms.

We have examples of social architectures that redefine some basic beliefs about social systems.

The wiki is at the moment the best departure from division of labor and workflows. Wikis let people work digitally together 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 or edit separately, a wiki pulls non co-located people together to work collaboratively, and with very low transaction costs. Email and physical meetings are excluding ways of doing things. They leave people out. A wiki (depending on the topic, the context) is always inviting and including. The goal is to enable groups to form around shared contexts without preset organizational walls, or rules of engagement.

Ward Cunningham described his invention in 1995 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 hierarchy on the people. In this case, less structure and less hierarchy mean less 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 hierarchy that makes most sense in the situation at hand to get the job done.

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 the 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 a small edits, while others might make more significant contributions and 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. The society has moved away from the era of boxes to the time of networks and linked individualism. Being connected to people – from elsewhere – is a cultural necessity and links, not boxes, are the new texture of value creation.

Organizations are their communicative performance.

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Thank you R. Keith Sawyer, Stewart Mader, Robert Cummings, Rod Collins, Doug Griffin, Kim Weckström, Richard Harper and Yochai Benkler

More on the subject: Center for Network Culture. The Agile Manifesto. About Ushahidis. Zen habits. Examples of wikis.

Interactive value creation

The division of labor reduces organizational effort and the cost of work. The division of labor also increases the quality of efforts through specialization. For this reason all societies and all enterprises are heading, at least to some extent, towards specialism. The assumption has been that the further the division is carried, the greater are the savings and the better the quality of the contributions. This has led managers to focus on the efficiency of activities separated from other activities and organizational design and management are seen as the planning and execution of a collection of independent activities forming the organizational system.

The function of the line manager was accordingly to be the representative of his box, his domain of action and resources. The manager enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and was accountable only for that domain. The grounding principle in practice was: “Don’t tread on my grass, and I won’t tread on yours”.

As demands for higher value and creativity are the norm today and the complexity of offerings has grown, we have begun to see that the division of labor has reached its point of diminishing returns. What managers have learnt is that the division of labor always implies a scheme of interaction by which the different divided activities are made to work together. The lines between the boxes are starting to matter more than the boxes! Complex value creation is impossible without interaction. This is because any higher-value activity involves complementary, often parallel, contributions from more than one person or one team. In fact, the more complex the offering is and the more specialized the resources needed, the greater the demand for the amount, quality and efficiency of communication, because of the inherent interdependence of the activities.

One-dimensional approaches to interaction have involved top-down command-and-control or sequential workflow-based communication, where the action of one part is meant to set off the action of another. Interaction has thus been seen as one-way signals, a system of senders and receivers (Shannon and Weaver 1948). These approaches seemed to work in simple, low-value environments, but are not creating the desired results any more. What managers have lately found out is that in the pursuit of higher value and when facing the growing demands of complex offerings the value of actions is limited by the value of the interaction. The two are mutually dependent

A system of partial activities that go into the completion of the total offering always implies a scheme of interaction among the persons concerned. If the scheme of activities changes, even somewhat, the scheme of interaction should change too. As the two are mutually dependent, it means accordingly that if there are changes in interaction, so the activities will change.

The mainstream management paradigm is based on the presupposition that activities are the independent, governing factors and the scheme of interaction conforms to the planned division of labor as a secondary feature. The organizational structure, as a number of independent activities, comes first. Then an appropriate system of co-ordination and communication is put into effect. If, however, action and interaction are mutually dependent, it means that low-quality interaction leads to activities that are poorer than planned, just as enriching, high-quality interaction may lead to higher-value activities than planned.

We need to understand how the present ways of dividing labor have been historically based on a very different communications environment than the one we are living in at present. The earlier high cost of coordination and communication is the reason behind many of the organizational forms that are taken for granted and which we still experience. The digital world we live in today is totally different when it comes to the transaction costs associated with coordination and communication and allows us to experiment with totally new value creation architectures.

The activity systems and units of activity can no longer be seen as a collection of independent activities and independent high-performing specialists. There are, however, many challenges ahead if we adopt the way of thinking of seeing interaction as the governing factor in organizations. One of the challenges is our language. That is the way we speak about work following the system of subjects and predicates. Our language of work is geared towards handling one independent factor and one dependent factor at a time: “someone is doing something to somebody”. Linear causes and effects, rather than thinking in terms of mutual interdependence and non-linearity, are built into our management speech. And yet, a situation that can be described accurately in terms of linear, rational causes and effects is the least common one in social contexts. An organization consisting of people is always a social network following a different logic – complex causality. Organizations as social activity processes are about interdependent people working in complex interaction.

If we take this 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. Instead of thinking in terms of spatial metaphors, of organizational levels, boxes and lines, this explanation focuses attention on how the actions of people create patterns in time following a very different approach to communication than the sender receiver model.

Organizations can be described as 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. Supportive, inspirational, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction are the most important raison d´être of working and being together. If we see interaction as the governing factor and see organizations and organizing as relationships between interdependent people, our methods of sense making need to change. Social interaction does not follow linear causality, seen as a system of senders and receivers, but is fundamentally non-linear, responsive and complex. Following this logic, organizations today and information-based value creation in general can only be understood if seen as complex, communicative patterns of mainly digital interaction.

Resource allocation has always been one of the main tasks of management: planning what is to be done by whom and by when. In integrated systems and with homogeneous resources, this allocation can easily be performed top-down and in advance. Planning can take place separately from action. When knowledge resources are the decisive factors of value creation and when work takes place in digital, global, decentralized environments, this top-down process is increasingly inefficient. A manager cannot know who knows best or where the most valuable contributions could come from. The solution has been so far to try to “know what we know”, and, even more importantly, try to “know who knows”. Neither of these approaches has quite fulfilled expectations. Knowledge databases have not met the situational needs of their users. Accordingly, people have not been able to explain what they know to others or even to themselves in a meaningful way

Because of the aforementioned growing needs in daily organizational life a new, different approach has to be adopted. One could even claim that a new mode of knowledge based production is now emerging in, and because of, the digital networked environments. The most important platforms for the new production systems are social media platforms.

This new production method refers to a new economic phenomenon: people from the whole network contribute pieces of their time and expertise to tasks, emergently, according to their interests, availability and experience, working in a transparent, open environment. This method has systemic advantages over traditional production hierarchies when the work in progress is mainly immaterial in nature and the capital investment involved can be distributed. For most knowledge-based products and services, this kind of production is the most efficient method of creating value from a resource allocation point of view.

The system is developed as much in a bottom-up manner as a top-down one. In a top-down system everything is created and provided by the organization to the user. The user has no or very little control over what services, information and people are available to him. Instead of forcing people into predetermined groups in the way groupware does, social media facilitate the natural formation of groups based on spontaneous, contextual needs for interaction. In social media, people affiliate through personal choice and need. Understanding this difference in community formation is crucial for building self-sustaining, dynamic communities.

A Wiki is a typical knowledge production medium, a platform for interdependent people to work in parallel interaction. A Wiki provides the most efficient way for a group of people to contribute, edit and interact with information that is meant to be shared. A Wiki can be seen as a way to create and iterate collective information, thus developing shared iterative learning. It’s about making visible what has been learnt and the road that leads to it. This leads to a better sharing of experiences, use of skills and utilization of the total number of brains in the network.

The primary goals are increasing the value and quality of information and the value and quality of interaction and at the same time lowering the transaction costs associated with information and interaction. Even more importantly, open interaction platforms such as Wikis are a medium for sharing what we would like to know next, where we would like to go, and what we would like to explore. A Wiki is a medium for continuous, creative learning. This thinking is based on a belief that everything can and should develop in iterative interaction among the network of users. In practice it means voicing questions and concerns for others to answer of their own free will: the small deviations, the small questions that we don’t normally pay much attention to or have time to explore. These are, however, the starting points for change, improvements and learning. There is a shift in thinking from sharing what we know to sharing what we don’t know.

All organizations essentially operate like Wikis. Every organization has it’s own language, resulting in a unique, iterative understanding of concepts, terms and ongoing sense making. There is always a lot of information that is continuously evolving in the “encyclopaedia” of an organization. The articles are things like strategies, customer databases, product information and manuals.

In these kinds of contexts, information artifacts that don’t connect with ongoing live conversations are often of less value, even obsolete and most probably out of date. Because of this, we are now moving away from a focus on content to a focus on conversations. Content should be seen as the by-product of conversation. Perhaps in the future of digital work IT will not mean Information Technologies, but Interaction Technologies.

This view focuses attention on the way in which daily, mainly digitally mediated communication between people organises value creation and, at the same time, creates value. An organisation should today be understood as complex, self-organising, iterative patterns of interaction, through which both continuity and innovation emerge as patterns in time.

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