Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

The future of jobs: not being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either

Just as industrial society became a society of corporations, it developed into a society of employers and employees. These were two different ways of looking at the same phenomenon, jobs. Almost all economic theories have made, and still make, the same assumption: the employer — employee relationship is necessary to create jobs. We have taken that relationship as given.

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 responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants skilled employees who do what they are told, nothing else.

The other assumption that is taken for granted is that it is the independentemployer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow. The employees of the organization are not seen as being autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent, entities. People are not really people, but resources.

We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work, and manages the timing and duration of the work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school, where the model is the same.

We should ask whether the current social construct of jobs is inevitable, or whether it is a social artefact that is over 100 years old, and should be redesigned.

Industrial workers used to do as they were told. This now creates a systemic inefficiency. Today, knowledge workers should negotiate solutions in active interaction with their peers. We also used to think that organizations outlived workers. The organization came first, and people served the organization. Today, workers’ careers outlive organizations, profoundly challenging our thinking.

We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses. The aim should not be a set of shared goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both.

We need to study the intersection of corporate strategy and personal narrative. Work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership.

This is where the biggest changes are taking place in the world of work. Instead of the industrial era’s generalizations and abstractions about what skills everybody should have, or what steps everybody should take, it is now time to cultivate a deep understanding of the context, the unique, particular situation you are in. Who are you and where do you come from? What kind of relations are the building blocks of your life?

Reflecting on your reality should be the starting point of any effort to find a job or to create work. Unfortunately, this is where we are often at our weakest. It did not matter in the past because most decisions were made for us. But now people can, and must, choose. Companies are not managing their employees’ long-term careers any more. Workers must be their own HRD professionals. With opportunity comes new responsibility. It is up to the worker to construct the narrative of (working) life, to know what to contribute, when to change course, and how to keep engaged  for much longer than we have been used to. It may be a life that is not quite like being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either. To make the right decisions, you have to develop a new understanding of yourself and what you are actually up to in life.

The new task is to choose work commitments on the basis of our own particular strengths and our own sense of purpose and belonging, not just on having some free time and wanting to earn some extra money for Uber. That is not what being independent, being your own boss, really means.

We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? Perhaps following your unique intentions, hopes, and wishes for the future, in everything you do? Instead of thinking about what employers want, you’re better off conceiving a match between what you want and what customers want.

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

Work in the Machine Age  –  Humans Need to Apply

The oft-quoted proof of the rise of machines making human work obsolete is games in which humans lose to computers. This happened in checkers in 1994. It happened in chess 1997. Now computers match humans in Scrabble, backgammon, poker, and even Jeopardy. There is still one exception, “Go”. Why is that? What is so special about Go? The game is similar to Chess in many ways, it is a “deterministic, perfect information game”, meaning a game where no information is hidden from either player, and there are no built-in elements of chance, such as throwing a die. But there are some interesting differences.

For the first move in chess, the player has twenty choices. In typical chess positions there will be around 30-plus possible moves. A typical game lasts about 40 moves before the resignation of one party.

Go players begin with a choice of 55 possible moves. This number rises quickly and soon almost all of the 361 points of the board must be evaluated. Some are much more popular than others, some are almost never played, but all are possible. That makes for 129,960 possible board positions after just the first round of moves. A typical game of Go lasts about 200 moves. As a game of chess progresses, as well as in many other games such as checkers, pieces disappear from the board, simplifying the game. Go begins with an empty board. Each new Go move adds new complexities and possibilities to the situation. The key here is the number of choices available.

The more choices there are, the harder it gets for computers.

The industrial logic was most vividly captured in the idea of the value chain. Value-creating activities were sequential, unidirectional and linear. Those performing the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task. The reverse cannot normally take place. The architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. The output of one task was the input of another. If-this-then-that. Work was algorithmic.

Workers in industrial-age firms were used to the rules that limited choices. The burden of decision making, with the consequent need to communicate and gather costly information, was minimized. Furthermore, by narrowing the scope of choices, the learning requirements for workers were limited. In part, the efficiency-enhancing contribution of mass-production was derived from these lower learning costs.

Work has been designed as a very, very simple game.

Is it then fair to draw the conclusion that the microchip may well replace the human race? Or have we just designed human work plain wrong? Could we, and should we, change the rules of our game?

The most important reason why we need a new concept of work/games is because the players and their contributions in the real world are, at best, too diverse to rank. They are, and should be, too qualitatively different to compare quantitatively as labor. 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.

The problem we face today is not in the capabilities of humans but in the outdated and limiting conceptualization of work. Work as we know it is mainly designed for machines, not for human beings.

Human life is non-deterministic, full of uncertainty, unknowns and surprises. Creative learning is the fundamental process of socialization and being a human. For a human being, the number of choices or moves in the game of life, in any situation, is unlimited. This is the very hard to copy difference between men and machines.

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Men and machines

I took part in a meeting on technological intelligence and the future of work. One of the questions raised was: “If machines can replace people’s minds in knowledge work as effectively as machines replaced their muscles in manual work, what will ultimately be left for human beings to do? Are we going to run out of jobs?” My answer was that this concern is based on a totally incorrect assumption. Working life does not consist of a finite number of things to which the human mind and human effort can be applied.

The challenges that confront us every day are unlimited. Every solution to a problem generates several new problems and unforeseen opportunities. No matter how many are solved, there will always be an infinite number ahead of us. Although modern technology has reduced the number of things that in the past had to be dealt with by human beings, it increases the complexity of the challenges that require human attention now and in the future.

Technology: robotics, machine intelligence and cognitive computing do change what people should be doing and how organizations come to be what they are. This is why we need to revisit and rethink our conceptualizations of work.

When the Industrial Revolution began, the dominant Newtonian worldview meant that there were no significant uncertainties, or unknowns, messing things up. Physical laws described what things, following a linear, rational causality, would do. Most academic experiments were constructed accordingly, and still are today. The aim was often to study the effect of one known variable on another.

Business enterprises were consequently thought of as algorithmic processes, as machines. Enterprises conceptualized as machines, like all machines, didn’t have a will of their own. They served the intentions of their creator, the owner. Employees were, of course, known to be human beings, but their personal intentions were seen as irrelevant. People were retained as long as they were needed to fulfill the intentions of the creators.

The systemic and biological conceptualization then replaced the notion of an enterprise as a machine. One often overlooked reason for this was the changing structure of ownership. When a firm went public, its creator disappeared. Owners were seen as anonymous, and too numerous to be reachable. The Industrial Revolution turned into the Managerial Revolution we are still living through today.

The Managerial Revolution changed the thinking around the purpose of the firm. Like any biological entity, the enterprise now had fitness and longevity as raisons d’être of its very own. Profit came to be thought of as a means, not an end in itself. Success came to be measured by growth. It was seen as essential, just like in nature.

The systemic view was a profound change in thinking compared with the mechanistic view. A biological organism is not goal-oriented in the sense of serving external purposes or moving towards an external goal. The movement is toward a more fit or more mature form of itself in a particular environment. An organism can adapt, but cannot leave or choose to be something else.

But humans are creative and humans can choose and you never know what they will do next.

This is why things are changing again. The sciences of uncertainty and complexity have helped us to understand that organizations are patterns of interaction between human beings. These patterns emerge in the interplay of the intentions, choices and actions of absolutely all the parties involved. No one party can plan or control the interplay of these intentions. But even without being able to plan exact outcomes, or control what others do, people can accomplish great things together.

The thing is that people can only accomplish their work in the necessarily uncertain and ambiguous conditions through ongoing conversations with each other. Work is negotiation. This is why the next revolution is dawning.

The social revolution, the human-centric revolution, is about deeply rethinking the value of human effort. An increase in value can only occur if people can do something in interaction that they cannot do alone. Social business may be more about complementarity and coordination than collaboration.

An enterprise that is conceptualized as a social business, should (1) serve the purposes, the will, of all its constituents. It should (2) enable its parts to participate in the selection of both the ends and the means that are relevant to them personally. If the parts of a system are (3) treated as purposeful, they must (4) have the freedom to choose and to act, not independently, but interdependently. This is because the basic unit of work is (5) interaction between interdependent people.

This means that the defining characteristic of a social business is the increased, non-algorithmic, variety of behaviors that is available. It is not necessarily about common goals or shared purposes any more. It is a common movement of thought that always surprises us.

The way our organizations are conceptualized has a great effect on what people do, and what they do affects the way organizations are conceptualized. Enterprises have always consisted of people who have ideas, intentions and a will of their own. Now it really matters. All people can be creators. All people are creators!

This, in the end, is what makes people different from machines.

Christmas Letter

The world of work in 2014 still consists of cultural metaphors that have guided the development of industrial firms and societies for the past 100 years. These habitual mindsets act as intellectual and emotional standards for determining what is the right way to think and what are the right things to do.

The characteristics of creative work utilizing technological intelligence in the network economy are different from what we are used to: the industrial production of physical goods was financial capital-intensive, leading to centralized management and manufacturing facilities. The industrial era also created the shareholder capitalism we now experience.

The architecture of work is metaphorically still a picture of walls defining who is employed and inside and who is unemployed and outside. 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.

In creative, knowledge-based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of people, capabilities and tasks in advance. 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 continuous 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 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.

The focal point in tomorrow’s 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 reason for the formation of groups? The architecture of work is a live social graph of networked interdependence and accountability.

New interaction technologies give individuals and organizations the ability to do this, to reconfigure agency and its form in any way they desire and can imagine. We are not confined to any one structure any more. Sometimes people stay together for a long time, sometimes for a very, very short time. The Internet is no longer about linked pages but connected purposes. We want to do something — with the help of other people and technological intelligence.

Industrial work clearly predetermined the tasks that had to be done. The technology, the machine and the ways to work with the machine were given. Creative work is very different. The first thing for a worker is to answer the questions: What am I here for? What should I achieve? What should I do next? Key questions for a creative worker have to do with how to do things and what tools to use.

Historians claim that the invention of the printing press led to a society of readers, not a society of writers despite the huge potential of the new technology. Access to printing presses was a much, much harder and more expensive thing than access to books. Broadcasting systems such as radio, newspapers and television continued the same pattern. People were not active producers, but passive receivers.

Computer literacy still often follows the same model. In practice it means the capability to use the given tools of a modern workplace. But literacy to just use, to be the consumer of, the technologies and the programs is not what we need. The perspective of the consumer/user was the perspective of the industrial age. That should not be the goal today.

In creative work the machines necessarily have to serve the workers. It is the workers who decide what to do next and how to do it. In the digital world, it is not enough if we know how to use the programs, if we don’t know how to make them.

The underlying capability of the creative era is programming to utilize technological intelligence. It is a change from using things to making things. Creating things for yourself and sharing them. Today the code is the main domain of creativity and innovations. It is a new language and the number one high leverage activity in the digital society.

The task is to combine technological intelligence and creative interaction between interdependent human beings.

What could it look like? In 1996, the chess grandmaster and then world champion Garry Kasparov, was defeated by a computer for the first time. The same thing happened again in a rematch in 1997. The new champion was the famous Deep Blue from IBM. After these world-changing events and after many subsequent matches against computers, Kasparov had the idea of re-writing the rules of the game. He came up with a new form of chess in which humans would be allowed to use computers when playing. This form of chess was named “Advanced Chess”. The key insights are that today the best chess player is not a computer or an individual assisted by a computer, but a team of people making moves and decisions in creative cooperation with one another and in cooperation with computers, in cooperation with technological intelligence.

The really big idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings these relationships into the centre. The task is to see action within complex human relationships supported by our relationship with algorithmic technological intelligence.

In 2015 it is time for “Advanced Work”!

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More on the subject: “We need to improve the interaction between humans with the support of machine learning

Designing change

Mainstream thinking sees a community on a different level from the individuals who form it. The social is seen as separate from the individuals. From a Designing Change -point of view, this would mean different plans and actions on the individual level and different plans and actions on the communal level. And this is how we often think.

Another, newer, approach sees individuals themselves as social. Both the individual and the social are then about the same thing: interaction. The main difference from the first approach is that the individual and the social cannot here be separated or even understood separately. Both our individual and organizational lives are co-created in an interconnected network.

The human mind is not located and stored in an individual. Rather, what we have called the individual mind is something that arises continuously in relationships between people, in communication. This is also how organizations are born and how they develop.

If you want to change things, you have to understand what happens in that communication. Designing change starts with studying the patterns of interaction and then influencing interaction.

Interaction starts always with acknowledgement. It is about granting attention to others and making room for them in our lives. Thus how we connect has tremendous significance. Who do I acknowledge and who acknowledges me? The modern version of hierarchies is inclusion and exclusion. Who do I talk to and who are the people I don’t talk to. Who do I listen to and who are the people I don’t listen to?

In this model, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual, that suggests a response from someone else. The gesture is also called a bid. There is no linear causality from the gesture to the response. The response is always a choice. The meaning of the gesture can only be known in 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 same gesture is contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one social act.

Do you turn towards me or do you turn away when I talk to you? Not answering is turning away. Is your response constructive although you don’t agree with me, or do I see it as destructive? The thing is that neither side can independently choose the meaning, or control the conversation. It is always co-created.

Change starts often with recognition between new people with different views and different approaches, evolving into a creative, complementary sense of consciousness. Designing change is sometimes about new connections, new people taking part. It is about new agendas, asking different kind of questions and pointing to different kinds of issues.

It is especially about analyzing how and when we get stuck in the forward movement of thought. Is it in endless advocacy, instead of collaborative inquiry? Is it in self-absorption? Is it about a “me” instead of an “us” orientation in the way we interact?

The requirement for efficient work is not necessarily to have common goals or to reach agreements. Creative work is a movement of thought that is always based on working with differences. Paradoxically you always need people who agree, but equally, you need people who don’t think like you. Thinking develops best through constructive friction and argumentation.

The most important metrics are about how the common narrative develops? An organization should be seen as a pattern in time, a continuing story. New people join this narrative and people leave. Work is dynamic participation and influencing how the story develops towards the future.

The key management role is to enhance the speed of the interactive movement of thought, often expressed as the entrepreneurial capacity for transforming ideas into customer value.

There can be no change without changes in the patterns of communication. Organizations of any kind, no matter how large or how small they are, are continuously reproduced and transformed in the ongoing communicative interaction.

The distinctive characteristic of a high productivity organization is the capacity to generate expansive, positive, emotional states. Emotions can thus be seen as the driving force behind cognition and action. There is a lot of truth in the sentence “I don’t remember what you said, but I remember how you made me feel”.

From jobs to tasks and from the value chain to the Internet

Economic theories are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost communications. These mind-sets are not only unhelpful, but wrong in a world of information products and ubiquitous, low-cost/high-quality connectivity.

New communication technologies have always had a strong impact on industries and the logistics around production. But this time, with information products, the societal changes are potentially even bigger than before.

The Internet is the first communication environment that decentralizes the financial capital requirements of production. Much of the capital is not only distributed, but also largely owned by the workers, the individuals, who themselves own the smartphones and other smart devices, the new machines of work. When computers were expensive, the economics of mass industrialization and its centralized management structures ruled them. Not any more!

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the machines were. In knowledge work, the machines are where the people are making it possible to distribute work to where they are. Architectures of work 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 predetermined and fixed or not. It was relatively easy to define in repetitive work what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labor and quality of capabilities. As a result, management theory and practice created two communication designs: the hierarchy and the process chart.

In a hierarchy the most important communication and dependence exists between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker.

Manufacturing work is perhaps amazingly not about hierarchical, but horizontal, sequential dependence. Those performing the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task. The reverse cannot normally take place. The architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. Communication typically resembles one-way signals.

Creative, highly contextual work creates a third design. It is about loose couplings and modularity, about networked tasks. In creative work, any node in the network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual interdependence and creative, participative engagement.

The architecture of the Internet is based on the very same principle of loose couplings and modularity. Modularity is the only design principle that intentionally makes nodes of the network able to be highly responsive. The logic of modularity and ubiquitous communication make it possible for the first time to create truly network-based organizations.

Creative network-based work in the future is not about jobs, but about modular tasks and interdependence between people. You don’t need to be present in a factory any more, or in an office, but you need to be present for other people.

In an economy, people essentially produce goods and services for people. Companies are theoretically intermediary organizational forms that arrange the development, production and delivery processes. Companies can perhaps be in some cases be replaced by apps? Or managers can be replaced by apps? Or perhaps the new companies look a lot like apps like Uber or Airbnb already do. Many of these new companies see themselves as market makers rather than as service providers.

The modern firm has developed into a perfect vehicle for financial contributions and as a toolkit serves the needs of financial investors well, at least in good times. As creativity and knowledge define success today, access to capabilities is at least as important for a firm as access to money. The Internet may prove to be an extinction-level event for the corporations as we have known them. In the network economy, individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing the new apps together with relatively cheap mobile, smart devices, can now create information products.

But many things need to change!

We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school where the model is the same.

In contrast to the above, creative, digital work and the Internet have brought about circumstances in which the employee in effect chooses the purpose of work, voluntarily selects the tasks, determines the modes and timing of engagement, and designs the outcomes. The worker might be said to be largely independent of some other person’s management, but is in effect interdependent. Interdependence here means that the worker is free to choose what tasks to take up, and when to take them up, but is not independent in the sense that she would not need to make the choice.

The interdependent, task-based worker negotiates her work based on her own purposes, not the goals of somebody else, and negotiates who her fellow workers are based on cognitive complementarity and her personal network, not a given organization.

The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the network. The organization is not a given hierarchy or a predictive process, but an ongoing process of organizing. The Internet-based firm sees work and cognitive capability as networked communication.

The effects of Moore’s law on the growth of the ICT industry and computing are well known. A lesser-known but potentially more weighty law is starting to replace Moore’s law in strategic influence. Metcalfe’s law is named after Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet. The law states that the cost of a network expands linearly with increases in the size of the network, but the value of the network increases exponentially. When this is combined with Moore’s law, we are in a world where at the same time as the value of the network goes up with its size the average costs of technology are falling. This is one of the most important business drivers today. The implication is that there is an ever-widening gap between network-economy companies and those driven by traditional asset leverage models. The industrial economy was based on economies of scale inside the corporation. The new focus is outside, in network economies.

The most important model is a network structure where the value of all interactions is raised by all interactions; where every interaction benefits from the total number of interactions. These are the new network businesses.

In practice this means that digital services can attain the level of customer reach and network size, required to capture almost any market, even as the size of the company stays relatively small. This is why network-economy based start-ups have such a huge advantage over asset leverage based incumbents.

The key understanding is that it is now the customers or members of the network who create value, not the network owner.

Yes, customer focus has been the dominant mantra in business. Up to now, business has focused on the customer as an audience for products, services and marketing communications. In the world of digital networks, the customer will be transformed from being an audience to an actor.

The central aggregator of enterprise value will no longer be a value chain. The Internet is a viable model for making sense of the value creating constellations of tomorrow.

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The two faces of digital transformation

Have you ever wondered why you don’t see anyone reading a book when you visit companies? We associate reading with finding information and learning, but we also include qualities such as contemplation, solitude and mental privacy when we think about books.

There is a mental framework that is used when dealing with books, and another distinct mental framework regarding information-related practices in the corporate world. Basically, you are not allowed to read a book, but you can read a document.

Documents and word processing are part of the framework of management today. Documents were born from the needs of a hierarchical, systemic approach to management. Top-down information was in the form of PowerPoint slide decks containing vision statements, Excel sheets with goals and Word documents explaining corporate procedures. Bottom-up information was used mainly to provide reports and data for managers, helping them to keep their employees accountable and to ensure the smooth operation of the business process.

Computerized word processing is associated with terms such as information flows and the sharing of information. This is not something you normally talk about when discussing a book. While a book provides a view of the contemplative mind, documents create a view of controlled content.

Are you still asking why you can read a document but you are not allowed to use Facebook?

Instead of predictive process flows, creative work follows a different logic. Work is about community-based cognitive presence. But cognition is just part of the answer. Work tomorrow will be even more about social presence. To work and to manage is to participate in live conversations. A dramatic shift is needed in the mental framework of information, communication and work. Without this changing mindset, no efficient digital transformations can be made in the corporate world. Work is communication. Conversations and narratives are the new documents.

The first face of digital transformation is about new ways to be present and new ways to communicate

You cannot design live interaction. Conversations cannot be controlled. The only way to influence conversations is to take part in them. You cannot plan in the traditional sense of specifying a structure or a process and then implementing it. As many have experienced, communities seldom grow beyond the group that initiated the conversation, because they fail to attract enough participants. Many business communities also fall apart soon after their launch because they don’t have the energy to sustain themselves.

Communities, unlike business units need to continuously invite the interaction that makes them alive.

Community design is closer to iterative, creative learning than to traditional organizational design. Live communities reflect and redesign themselves throughout their life cycle. This is why design should always start with very light structures and very few elements.

What is also different is that a good community architecture invites many kinds of participation. We used to think that we should encourage all the community members to participate equally. Now we know that a large number of the network members are, and should be, peripheral. In a traditional meeting we would consider this type of participation half-hearted, but in a network a large percentage of the members are always peripheral and rarely contribute. Because the boundaries of a live community are always fluid, even those on the outer edges can become involved for a time as the focus shifts to their area of particular interest.

Because conversations and communities need to be alive to create value, we need an approach to management that appreciates passion, relationships and voluntary participation. Rather than focusing on accountability, community design should concentrate on energizing, enriching participation.

The new structures and new designs are about communities continuously organizing themselves around shared contexts, meaning shared interests and shared practices. The focus of industrial management was on the division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

The really big objective of the social side of digital transformation is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center. Success today is increasingly a result of skilful participation: it is about how we are present and how we communicate. Through new technologies, applications and ubiquitous connectivity, we have totally new opportunities for participation and communication – potentially changing the way we work together.

The customer of the industrial age was seen as a recipient of value, or a consumer of value. Enterprises also viewed customers through the lens of a fairly uniform set of features, leading to customers being seen as having relatively uniform needs. But even commodity products are always a bundle of use contexts, buying patterns, complementary goods and delivery options. Just because a product is a commodity doesn’t mean that customers can’t be diverse in the ways they use the product. Different customers use products that are manufactured in the same way, with the same product features, differently. This is why customers are today understood to be active contributors to value creation. Without their part, the value of the product could not exist.

Companies used to have no mechanisms for connecting with the end users in order to understand and influence what was going on. Digital technologies are now changing this. When a customer teaches a firm what she wants or how she wants it, the customer and the firm are also cooperating on the sale of a product, changing the industrial approach to sales and marketing. The marketing and sales departments used to be the customer’s proxy, with the exclusive role of interpreting changing customer needs. Internet-based business necessarily transforms the marketing function and sales specialists by formally integrating the customer into every part of the organization. The customer of tomorrow will interact with, and should influence, every process.

As the goal is to create more value together, a critically important new element is embedded computing, the integrated intelligence that is attached to the “things”, the offerings, the products.

It is about creating new software code. It is about two new digital layers for all products: (1) an algorithmic layer, which can mean sensors or location and usage data allowing totally new kinds of data analytics and (2) a network layer.

As the customer’s need set is expanded beyond the pre-set features of the physical offering through software, the definition of the product changes and becomes more complex. The more complex the product, the more opportunities there are for the company to learn something that will later make a difference.

The value of the code may determine the value potential of a product more than the physical product itself. The effectiveness of an offering is related to how well it packages the learning from past activities and how it increases the users options for value creation. A product or a service should be pictured as a node in a network with links to other use cases, supplementary services and complementary features surrounding the product. The more relevant the links are considered to be, the richer the product will become. The task today is to visualize the product in the broadest sense possible.

The study of isolated parts offers little help in understanding how connected parts work in combination and what emerges as the result of network connections. What new relational technologies are making possible for manufacturing industries is a much, much richer repertoire of potential futures than what we were used to in a traditional industrial firm.

The ability to create value in a remarkably more efficient and resource-wise way corresponds to possibilities for interaction with other relevant parts and actors. If interdependent links are few, poor, or constraining, the activity and value potential will be limited.

Interestingly, the same principle applies both to things and to human beings!

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More: The product is the medium.

From productivity to social innovations

The printing press constituted a true revolution in communication. But what really happened as a wider consequence of that revolution? Let’s try to reconstruct the circumstances that preceded printing. We know that there was a strong, although very divergent scribal culture before the printing press. The cultural texture was quite thin outside monasteries, libraries, and cities such as Bologna. That led to a heavy reliance on the vocal transmission of information, on storytelling.

The information culture was half-spoken, half-written.

The influence of the scribe was greatly enhanced because of a complementary character, the copyist. At first, the shift from script to print produced a social culture that was not very different from the culture produced by scribes. The writer – printer process was not very different from the scribe – copyist process, if looked at from the outside. Of course there was a huge increase in the output of books and a drastic reduction in the man-hours required to turn them out.

The first change was a remarkable increase in productivity. But then, the communications revolution of print caused remarkable changes in information-related practices that led to even wider social changes.

The well-informed man had to spend a part of each day in temporary isolation from his fellow men – reading. Another development was the Sunday papers replacing church going.  Sermons used to be coupled with news about local and foreign affairs. The new media players handled news gathering and circulation logistics much more efficiently.

The most noteworthy social change took place on the community level. To hear, you have to come together. To read encourages you to draw apart. The notion that a society can be regarded as a bundle of discrete units supported the principle that detached people can be represented through a system of disconnected political parties. The reading public was very different from the one before. It was not only dispersed, it was very atomistic and individualistic. As a result, the present political system was born.

Learning, which used to take place through vocal interaction in groups, was now the activity of a solitary, independent individual. The picture of the student in the library reading room was transferred to classrooms and the architectures of education.

According to some researchers, print silenced the spoken word. The orators of Rome gave way to the men of letters. Written text was now about facts and talk was cheap.

From this point on, people have tended to see information and communication technologies as two separate domains, not only for technological reasons, but because of the historical developments described above.

We are again going through another revolution in communication. The way the written word is used on Twitter or on Facebook is much closer to the vocal transmission of information than to writing. Through closely combining communication and information technologies, we are creating a much richer cognitive tapestry than the present separate ICT-systems are capable of.  Second, instead of drawing apart, we can now come (digitally) together. The culture is again half-spoken, half-written. The printing press separated information and communication. The Internet and the new social technologies are causing the two to converge.

The first change is again a remarkable increase in productivity, but again, it does not end there. The real promise of the Internet is in the new information-related practices and the social innovations that are still ahead of us.

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The brain, the Internet and the future of work

It is not uncommon to think that knowing is something that goes on in the brain. Perhaps astonishingly, the evidence that it is really so is not quite clear. Some scientists have recently expressed doubts. The mind, they have argued, is not a thing to which a place can be allocated. Intellectual life is essentially social and interactive, they say. Life is carried on through communication between people. These researchers claim that interactions are not secondary by-products of thinking. They are the primary sites of that activity.

The structures of the brain and the Internet look the same. In the brain there are neurons that link as a result of being active at the same time. This firing together creates a connection that increases the strength of their connection. On the Internet there are servers and people that are linked in temporary interaction, sometimes as a result of being inspired and interested in the same topic. This short-term communication sometimes leads to a longer relationship increasing the strength of the connection. No neuron links with all the other neurons at the same time. No server links with all the other servers at the same time, and no one person interacts with all the other people at the same time. So all communication is always contextual and local, whether in the brain, in an organization, or on the Internet. However, local here does not mean spatially local. The nodes in local interaction can be physically located far away, in different parts of the world. The Internet redefines what the local, in local interaction, means.

We often think of individuals as independent and self-contained. The view suggested here sees individuals as nodes of the complex networks they form, co-creating themselves and the reality in which they participate.

Our social interactions play a role in shaping our brain. We know now that repeated experiences sculpt the synaptic connections and rewire our brain. Our relationships gradually frame the neural circuitry. Being chronically depressed by others or being emotionally nourished and enriched has lifelong impacts. This is of course unwelcome news to someone whose relationships tend towards the negative but it also points to where the possibilities for repairing the situation might be. And they are not inside a person’s head.

We can no longer see our minds as independent and separate but as thoroughly social. The human mind is not located and stored in an individual. Rather, what we have called the individual mind is something that arises continuously in relationships between people.

This is why we need to focus on communication practices in addition to, and perhaps even instead of, communication technologies. Communication starts with acknowledgement. It is about paying attention to others and making room for them in our lives. Our attention should be on questions such as who is talking and who is being silenced, who is included and who is being excluded, who I acknowledge and who acknowledges me?

In a corporate context, an organization is still metaphorically 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 fine 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, management practice created two communication designs: the process chart and reporting lines.

In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are already the least important part of communication. At the same time, much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. The variables of creative work have increased beyond systemic models of process design. It is time to learn from the brain and the Internet.

What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization as a structure, let’s think about contextual communication. If we take this view we don’t think about walls but about connections and how groups are formed around what we actually do. The new task is to make possible very fast linking and thus to make it as easy as possible to get the best contributions from the whole network.

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? These contexts should create transparent, permeable boundaries between them, not walls. Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live graph of interdependence and accountability. Yes, accountability, because the interaction itself constrains and not only enables the people in the interaction.

Changing the way we communicate is the way we change organizations. Changing the conversation is not a major programme or change process. It is about understanding and influencing participation. It is sometimes about new connections, new conversations, and new people actively taking part. It is often about asking different kinds of questions and pointing to different kinds of issues.

The human brain has more than 100 billion neurons. There are around 3 billion Internet users at the moment. So we are still far away from the cognitive potential of the brain when it comes to possible link combinations of communication between people. But this may be humankind’s most valuable untapped resource!

On any scale we choose to look at things, there can be no change without changes in the patterns of communication.

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More information: Learning rewires the brain.

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