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A manager recently voiced his concerns: “Most employees prefer being told what to do. They are willing to accept being treated like children in exchange for reduced stress. They are also willing to obey authority in exchange for job security.” That is the way we have seen it: managers inspire, motivate, and control employees, who need to be inspired, motivated, and controlled. These dynamics create the system of management and justify its continuation.

If we want to meet the challenges of the post-industrial world, this relationship needs to change. The workers changing their role is often seen as a matter of the extent to which the managers are willing to allow it and give up responsibility. In reality it is as much a matter of how much the workers are willing to develop their (management) capacity and take more and wider responsibility.

The dysfunctional relationship between managers and employees creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a systemic failure in creative, knowledge-based work. What is tragic is that neither side normally understands the predictability of what is going on. The pattern is a mutually reinforcing self-destructive process that manifests itself as a steady decline in the authority of management and productivity of work.

A few researchers have started to dispute the assumption that the present system of management is a fact of life that will always be with us. It may be time for us to question whether the recent problems created by bad management are isolated and should be tolerated. Or to ask whether the fault is in the system itself and not in individual managers?

Luckily, management theory and practice are slowly starting to catch up with the dramatic changes brought about by the loosely coupled, modular nature of creative work and the ideals of social business.

A social business does not behave in the way our dominant management thinking assumes. What is it, then, that has changed?

Organizations are always assemblies of interacting people. The reason for an organization to exist is to simplify, support, and enrich interaction.

At present, there are three types of organizational cultures depending on the type of management and the alternative mechanisms for the coordination of tasks. The different task interdependencies accordingly place different and increasing burdens on our communication practices .

I call these the administrative culture, the industrial culture and the creative, social culture.

G18The administrative culture, which is found in most governmental organizations is about function-specific independent activities. Two functions or tasks are independent if it is believed that they don’t affect each other. The most important communication exists between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker. The principle is that the execution of two independent tasks does not require communication between the tasks. The architecture consists of black boxes that are not coupled directly, but in an indirect way by higher-level managers, who coordinate the work. Work as interaction is mainly communication between hierarchical levels.

The industrial culture of process-based organizations is about dependent and sequential activities. Manufacturing work is about dependent tasks. Being dependent means that the output of one task is the input of another. The reverse cannot normally take place. In sequential dependence, those performing the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task. Since the process architecture is typically quite clear, management coordination is mostly about measuring and controlling whether the execution conforms to the planned requirements. The architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. Work as interaction is a sequential process with one-way signals.

A creative, social culture is different. It is about loose couplings and modularity, about interdependent people and interdependent tasks. Two people/tasks are interdependent if they affect each another mutually and in parallel. Interdependent tasks call for peer-level responsiveness and coordination by mutual adjustments, not coordination by an outside party such as a manager.

Most of the information that is relevant will be discovered and created during the execution of the task, not before. As a result it is not always possible for a manager and a worker to agree on a coherent approach in advance. Nor is it normally possible to follow a predetermined process map.

The basic unit of corporate information in creative, social work is not content in the form of documents but interaction in the form of conversations. Knowledge is perpetually constructed in interaction. Work as interaction is complex, situational communication between loosely connected nodes of the network! The structure of work resembles the structure of Internet.

The three cultures and corresponding architectures 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 fixed or not. In most creative work, and always in a social business, any node in the network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual interdependence and creative participative engagement.

As organizations want to be more creative and social, the focus of management theory should shift towards understanding participative, self-organizing responsibility and the equality of peers. It is a systemic change, much more than just kicking out the bad managers and inviting new, better managers in. It is not about hierarchies vs. networks, but about how all people want to be present and how all people want to communicate in a way that was earlier reserved only for the people we called managers.

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Eric Brynjolfsson video on TED. Steven Johnson video on peer networks. Gary Hamel interview.

Business and complexity

April 9, 2013

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Up to now, we have seen the world around us as systems that, we thought, could be described and understood by identifying rational causal links between things: if I choose X, then it will lead to Y. If, on the other hand, I choose A, it will lead to B. We are accustomed to drawing boxes and arrows between those boxes. We try to model the world as predictable processes based on knowing how things are and how they will be. We want to be certain, and we think we are.

Management thinking is based on the sciences of certainty. The whole system of strategic choice, goal setting and choosing actions to reach the given goals in a controlled way depends on predictability. The problem is that this familiar causal foundation cannot explain the reality we face. Almost daily, we experience the inability of leaders to choose what happens to them, to their organizations – or to their countries. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable. We live in a complex world.

Complex systems are, as their name implies, hard to understand. Social systems, like organizations consisting of people, are accordingly complex and hard to understand. There is no linearity in the world of human beings. There are no arrows and people are not boxes, or fit inside of boxes. This is why our thinking needs to develop from the sciences of certainty to something more applicable, the sciences of uncertainty, the sciences of complexity.

Complexity refers to a pattern, a movement in time that is, at the same time, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. Chaos theory explains how these patterns form. A parameter might be the flow of information in the system. At low rates, meaning no input or more of the same input, the system moves forward displaying a repetitive, stuck behavior. At higher rates and more diversity the pattern changes. At very high rates the system displays a totally random behavior. The pattern is highly unstable. However, there is a level between repetition/stability and randomness/instability. This level where simultaneous coherence and novelty are experienced is called the edge of chaos.

Classical physics took individual entities and their separate movement (trajectories) as the unit of analysis in the same way we have analyzed and rewarded individuals. Henri Poincaré was the first scientist to find that there are two distinct kinds of energy. The first was the kinetic energy in the movement of the particle itself. The second was the energy arising from the interaction between particles. When this second energy is not there, the system is in a state of non-dynamism. When there is interactive energy, the system is dynamic and capable of novelty and renewal.

Interaction creates resonance between the particles. Resonance is the result of coupling the frequencies of particles leading to an increase in the amplitude. Resonance makes it impossible to identify individual movement in interactive environments because the individual’s trajectory depends more on the resonance with others than on the kinetic energy contained by the individual itself.

We are the result of our interaction. We are our relations.

The conclusions are important for us: firstly, novelty always emerges in a radically unpredictable way. The smallest overlooked variable or the tiniest change can escalate by non-linear iterations into a major transformative change in the later life of the system.

Secondly, the patterns are not caused by competitive selection or independent choices made by independent agents. Instead, what is happening happens in interaction, not by chance or by choice, but as a result of the interaction itself.

The new social technologies have the potential to influence connectivity and interaction as much as the sciences of complexity are going to influence our thinking. The task today is to understand what both social business and complexity mean. The next management paradigm is going to be based on those two, at the same time.

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John Hagel on “harnessing the power of randomness” and “resilience

Economic growth is about value added. In manufacturing adding value was a transformation process from physical raw materials to physical goods. Economic growth is still today about value added. The difference is that the generic, homogeneous raw materials of the industrial era are now unique ideas and the transformation process is an iterative, interactive, non-linear movement, rather than a linear, sequential chain of acts.

The worlds of manufacturing-based added value and creativity-based added value require very different skills. Before the Internet and smart devices, most professional occupations required individual competencies that in most cases had accumulated over years. This experience base, often called tacit knowledge, was used to retrieve answers from memory and to independently solve situations arising at work. Knowledge was situated in the individual. In order to help individuals cope with the challenges of everyday life, individual competencies needed to be developed. This is why our whole education system is still based on independent individuals learning and, as a consequence,  knowing.

The cognitive load of work has increased as a result of manufacturing giving way to creative, knowledge-intensive work. The content of work is changing from repetitive practices to contextual, creative practices. This makes the individual experience base, by default, too narrow a starting point for efficient work. Experiences can be a huge asset but experiences can also be a liability, creating recurrence where there should be novelty and innovation.

Maxill1Creative work is not performed by independent individuals but by interdependent people in interaction. A new way to understanding work and competencies is unfolding: knowledge that used to be understood as the internal property of an individual is seen as networked communication. This requires us to learn new ways of talking about education and competencies. What is also needed is to unlearn the reductionist organizing principles of industrial work. Work is communication and the network is the amplifier of creativity.

People have always networked. Scholars depended largely on correspondence networks for the exchange of ideas before the time of the universities. These communities, known as the “Republic of Letters” were the social media of the era, following the communication patterns of today astonishingly closely. The better-networked scientist was often the better scientist. The better-networked worker is today usually the better worker. The better-networked student in the future is always the better student.

The main difference from the time of the Republic of Letters is the efficiency of our tools for communication, meaning thinking together. A “man of letters” may today be a man of tweets, blog posts and Facebook, but the principle is the same: the size and quality of the network matters. What matters even more than the network, is networking, the way we are present and interact. It is time to acknowledge the inherently creative commons nature of thinking, creativity and economic growth.

Life is a temporal pattern of emotional and intellectual interaction. We are our interaction.

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Noam Chomsky interview.

Pattern recognition

March 22, 2013

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Social sciences are concerned with understanding and representation of what is going on and what has happened. Earlier, social scientists took great leaders and their personal characteristics as the topics to be explained. Context and time did not matter. More recent approaches to the study of social phenomena can be summarized as trying to understand temporality; the processes of becoming, live movement in time, which, in the world of business, either gives rise to viability or makes us slowly, or rapidly, obsolete.

The life stream of individuals is the new focus area. Life streams are also called social activity streams. The term “lifestream” was coined by Eric Freeman and David Gelernter in the mid-1990s to describe a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary; every document created and every document received is stored in the lifestream.

In management studies, the questions of becoming, remembering and forgetting are not only new concerns. They are the essence of modern knowledge management, especially in the time of Big Data, when “it is cheaper to keep than to throw away”.

There is a fear of memory loss in business, but there is also the opposite fear, that memory produces practices in the present that should best be forgotten.

Anthropologists claim that reproduction of the past is easier than change. This often leads us into situations where the past is no longer an adequate guide to the present, leading to a situation where an information asset turns into a liability.

Knowledge-intensive work takes place in communication. The process of knowing is the process of communication. The most important knowledge management challenge is to understand what takes place in that interaction: what is being discussed? What is not discussed, what is silenced? Who is included in the conversation, who is excluded? The most important measure, however, is how the common narrative develops, how fast, and where to.

This is why an organization should be seen as a pattern in time, a lifestream, a continuing story without beginnings. Everything we do is built on what has happened before. New people join this narrative and people leave. The patterns that emerge do so because of what everybody is doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. Work is dynamic participation and influencing how the story develops.

Without understanding and visualizing where we come from and where we are heading, it is impossible to know whether we move at all, whether the flurry of daily activities is actually keeping us trapped in repetitive patterns without any progress. The same people having the same conversation again and again, as often seems to be the case.

Our past, together with our intentions for the future is present in the daily, mundane actions and interactions that often pass without notice. A lifestream is the ongoing reference point and visualization of progress in place (a map) and time (a calender). It is the means for pattern recognition to help create the future we truly desire.

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More on the subject: Euan Semple on Patterns. Doc Searls Weblog. Big Data and pattern recognition.

Many organizations are trying to ease into the social business environment. They take parts of the agenda in piecemeal fashion following an “easy steps” logic. Often this, in the end, means some additional communication tools inside the organization, or additional content through some additional new channels for customers.

Nothing really changes what comes to the way people work together.

The way in which companies organize themselves and define their boundaries has essentially been determined by the way in which communication between people is planned and access to information is designed. The classic organizational structure was based on the assumption that a manager or worker could have rich interaction and exchange of information only with a limited number of predetermined people.

Our mainstream management theories are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost/low-quality 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 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 largely owned by the workers, the individuals, who themselves own the smart devices, the machines of work.

Strange flowers 3The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the machines were. In knowledge work, the machines are where the people are. The logic of ubiquitous communication makes it possible for the first time to distribute work to where the willing people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs, but about tasks and interdependence between people. You don’t need to be present in a factory, or an office, but you need to connect with, and be present for other people.

Work is communication and cooperation, and there are so many new ways to do that.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed contributions. As a result, the organization is not a given entity or structure, but an ongoing process of organizing. The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational resilience can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are vertical and/or horizontal arrangements, that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction.

Information is the power plant that has the ability to change the organization. When information is transparent, people can organize effectively around changes and differences, around customers and new opportunities. Different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization.  The easier the access that people have to one another and to information is, the more possibilities there are.

Rather than thinking of organization as an imposed structure, plan or design, organization arises from the interactions of interdependent individuals who need to come together. Sometimes people stay together for a long time, sometimes for a very, very short time. This is because any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person, team, function, or a firm.

The focus of industrial management was on 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.

What comes to the productivity of work, these may be the most important points on the social business agenda. The really big objective of social business is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center.

Success today is increasingly a result from skillful 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.

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More: the trend from routine to nonroutine work.

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Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few powerful people that others implement. Instead, what emerges is the consequence of the choices of all involved in the whole interconnected network, “the connective“, as Stowe Boyd puts it. What happens does not follow a plan or a design. It is about self-organization.

The problem is that we believe that the unit of work is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of managers. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do. But connected, interdependent people can never simply do what they like. If this happened, they would very soon be excluded. Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. Cooperating individuals are not independent.

Inside companies the logic is thought to be different. According to the present approach to management, organizational outcomes are first chosen by a few top executives and then implemented by the rest. Here, planning and enactment of the plans are two separate domains that follow a linear causality from plans to actions. From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes emerge in a way that is never just determined by a few people, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. For example GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”.

Here, emergence means that there is no linear causal link from a plan to the execution of the plan. What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning as pointless, but means that the long-term future always contains surprises.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction, because designs and plans exist only in the ways people make sense of them and take them up in their local situations.

Learning organizations cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or organizational charts. We need to move towards temporality to understand what is happening in time. An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. An organization is a pattern in time. Sometimes these patterns get stuck, or they are repetitive and dull; sometimes they are rich, inspiring, and full of energy. What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that developing things always means developing people. “All learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow.” Doing and learning then mean the same thing.

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work is not the independent individual, but interdependent people in interaction.

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Thank you David Weinberger, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin

More on the subject: the GitHub generation, Sugata Mitra. Video: “Knowledge in a MOOC” Steve Denning on complexity. The mundanity of excellence.

The quantity and quality of knowledge workers output is correlated with the amount of well-being they get form their work. For this reason the quality of working life has received increased attention lately. We were asked to study well-being in the context of knowledge-work and social business. Here are the first findings:

The most important thing that came up was that participation in relevant decision-making needs to be increased at the same time as social technologies and transparency are introduced. If this is not done successfully, other changes, such as improving communication practices, are only temporary and less effective. At every level of the organization, the quality of a person’s working life is proportional to that person’s participation, first and foremost, in the making of decisions by which she or he is affected.

The need for such participation is unsurprisingly also related to the age, competence and educational level of the individual. The younger, more educated or more competent the worker is, the greater the need to participate is.

Managers cannot be successful anymore unless they understand the difference between “power over people” and “power with people”. Power over is the ability to get people to do things they would not do voluntarily. It is thinking that is based on the (outdated) motivational theory of rewards and punishments. Power with is the ability to connect people and purposes. It is about co-creation and cooperation: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people, in meaningful ways.

Strange flowers 2Everybody we interviewed recognized several examples of decisions that were diluted or compromised because those who had to do the implementing did not buy into the rulings. Educated people do not respond well to commands or to somebody who tries to exercise dominance through the power their position gives them. Hierarchy does not work that well any more. Managers must depend on the willingness of their subordinates to act voluntarily.

Managers who want authority for its own sake do not fit well into knowledge-based organizations.

A very interesting development we studied was the principle that managers cannot retain their positions, or be appointed to them, without the approval of their subordinates. In one global organization we worked with, managers cannot be appointed unless they have been interviewed and approved by those who will be the subordinates or the future peers of the appointee.

Just as subordinates can make their managers look bad, they can also make them look good. This means that managers cannot hold their positions without the approval of both their bosses and their subordinates.

In industrial settings, and in principal–agent hierarchy structures in general, this did not matter. Subordinates were dependent on the managers, never the other way round. As a consequence many managers now lack support from their subordinates resulting in low productivity and slow learning.

In knowledge work, managers create the subordinates, and, at the same time, subordinates create the managers. Equality and efficiency are not opposites; in fact, they become more and more closely connected as the educational and competence level of the workforce increases and as knowledge work becomes the norm.

The social revolution continues. This revolution, as many before it, may be about equality.

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On power and status. “Power over and power with“.

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