September 2, 2014
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.
More information: Learning rewires the brain.
June 4, 2014
The Internet can be seen as the combination of two much earlier innovations. The first was the telegraph, which allowed information to be transmitted electronically. With the advent of the telegraph, people could communicate instantaneously across long distances, which was unimaginable before that time.
The second innovation was the computer, which allowed information to be processed and stored with unimaginable speed and almost limitless storage capacity. Both the telegraph and the computer solved huge problems by themselves, but combining the two facilitated truly new and transformative social innovations that led to the network era we now live.
Our present understanding of the logic of networks is largely a result of the work of Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz, who connected the research done by Mark Granovetter and Stanley Milgram.
Following their findings, let’s think of people instead of computers and links of acquaintance as telegraph lines connecting them. This social world has not been designed by anyone. It has evolved through countless connections between chance and choice: people meeting people. Our social network is neither ordered nor random, but something in-between.
The potential of the network we are part of is mostly invisible to us in our ordinary social lives. We can only see as far as those to whom we are directly linked. We do not normally know, or think about, the people our friends know. But in a network-science sense these people are important to us. The friends of our friends act as ties that sew the larger social network together. They are the shortcuts to people far away. They make the world small for us. You typically have strong links to family members, friends and co-workers. The weak links, the connections of our connections, and the people we have met only once or meet very seldom, are bridges between worlds. An example of this may be the person from New Zealand whom you met at a conference a few years ago. Without that link you might not be connected to anyone in New Zealand. But because of it, you are linked in two steps to his friends and in three steps to everyone they know. This is called a small-world network.
Order, design, strong links and local proximity have been the leading principles of the world of work, but what if easier and more valuable work were in effect based on dynamic connections and interaction with people in the larger network? Finding these people is now possible with the help of digital social networks. The small-world geometry offers a way to see order and design in these apparently disordered networks. Digital, purpose-driven proximity may replace local proximity in the future world of work.
But the way we work needs to change. As people do their own thing, they also need to act as links for others. That is the new role in all work. People need to be fluent in connecting, curating and re-publishing.
What kind of technology would enable this to happen? I don’t believe the future of digital work is built on platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn.
The “Blockchain”, the engine on which Bitcoin is built, is a new distributed consensus/authority system that allows transactions, or other data, to be securely stored and verified without any centralized authority at all, because the entire network validates them. Those transactions don’t have to be financial and the data doesn’t have to be money.
The future of work may be built on connecting small-world networks and the Blockchain technology. The network is then the market and commons for exploration, coordination and value creation without any central authority. The importance of Bitcoin may not lie in digital currency. It represents a novel form of network-based organization.
This kind of work, I think, may be unimaginable today.
Thank you Rob Wile, Mark Buchanan and Mike Hearn
More: The future of Blockchain.
April 27, 2014
The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “it” to happen. The mainstream approach is that an arrow, or arrows, can be drawn. There is a variable, the “it”, that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. Causality means that X causes Y. If there is more X there will also be more Y. This is the if-then model of management. In organizations, a familiar explanation for success is that a particular manager or a particular culture caused it.
But there is something significant happening today. Scholars are increasingly pointing out the fact that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is much too simplistic and leads to a very limited or even faulty understanding of what is really going on.
Cybernetics recognized a much more complicated causality. In this kind of system the arrows, the links, between cause and effect can be distant in terms of time or place. The system can be highly sensitive to some changes but very insensitive to some others. For the first time, it was understood that it is a non-linear world.
Complexity challenges the assumption of earlier systems theories that movement in time can be predictable in the sense that X causes Y, or that the movement follows some archetypes. The modelling differs significantly from all previous systems models.
Complexity means a different theory of causality.
The most important insight is that it is often not possible to identify specific causes that yield specific outcomes. Almost indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force. And afterwards you can’t trace back, you can’t find the exact butterfly that flapped its wings. There is no trail that leads you to an independent variable.
The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature of all complex systems. It is a dynamic in time that is called paradoxically stable instability or unstable stability. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.
In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how absolutely all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. None of the elements cause the end result independently. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather, the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was just one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response.
The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings complex relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these relationships.
Complex relationships cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or network charts. Unhelpful or wrong models and metaphors are often a big obstacle to moving our thinking forward after the technological constraints are gone.
We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time.
An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. There is no inside and outside. An organization is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time. Industrial management was a particular pattern based on specific assumptions about communication, causality and human psychology.
Recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to what mainstream economics would have us believe. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.
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.
Looking at communication, not through it, what we are creating together.
Thank you Ralph Stacey, Ken Gergen, Doug Griffin, Jim Wilk, Marko Ahtisaari and Katri Saarikivi
April 15, 2014
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.
New architectures of work
We have examples of 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.