Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: Cooperation

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.

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.


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.


The wiki way of working

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The magic power of transparency and links

Eugene Garfield founded the Institute for Scientific Information in 1960.  His pioneering work was in citation indexing. This allows a researcher to identify which articles have been cited most frequently and who has cited them. Garfield’s studies demonstrated that the number of citable items, i.e. the number of papers, together with the frequency of their citation, meaning how many scientists link to the paper, is a good measure of scientific success. The system effectively measures quantity and quality at the same time.

The whole Web is a densely interconnected network of references. It is no different from the practice of academic publishing and citation indexing. Links on the Web are also citations, or votes, as the founders of Google realized. The observation of Larry Page and Sergey Brin that links are in fact citations seems commonplace today, but it was a breakthrough at the time Google started on September 7, 1998. What Google did was essentially the same as had been done in academic publishing by Eugene Garfield.

But at this time, relevance and importance were measured through counting the number of other sites linking to a Web site, as well as the number of sites linking to those sites. What Google has proved is that people’s individual actions, if those actions are performed in a transparent way, and if those actions can be linked, are capable of managing unmanageable tasks.

Cooperation and collective work are best expressed through transparency and linking.

The mainstream business approach to value creation is still a predictive process designed and controlled by the expert/manager. This is based on the presuppositions that we know (1) all the linkages that are needed beforehand, and (2) what the right sequential order in linking and acting is. Neither of these beliefs is correct any more.

The variables of creative work have increased beyond systemic models of process design. It is time to learn from the Internet

By relying on the unmanaged actions of millions of people instead of experts/managers to classify content on the net, Google democratized scientific citation indexing. To be able to manage the increasingly complex organizations of today, the same kind of democratization needs to take place in the corporate world. The transparency of tasks is the corporate equivalent of publishing academic articles. Responsive linking, rather than predictive linking, as in hierarchies and process charts, acts as a measure of contextual relevance.

Complex, creative work requires new approaches to organizing. The Google lesson for management is that the more work is based on responsive processes of relating and the more organizing is an ongoing process in time, the more value we can create!


On the perceived relevance of academic papers.

What Supercell can teach us about the future of work

The new landscape of work is alien territory for most of today’s business leaders and business schools, but things are already moving towards a new world.

The new landscape consists of the network as the architecture of work and work as coordinated action between non-co-located but interdependent people. The astonishing thing is that we can find an existing, efficient, working model for this kind of digital work. It is games.

The game environment may be the next productivity suite available for digital work. Adopting the best qualities of games could help firms to meet the pressing challenge of highly mobile and distributed work.

What, then, can be learned from these games?

The pace of games is normally very fast and requires fast decision-making. Decisions are typically based on incomplete information and are always iterated as more data become available later. You can’t take a lengthy pause to strategize and to weigh up the options. The culture needs to embrace changing decisions, learning and adopting constant corrections to the course that was initially chosen.

Acting is always based on uncertainty. You can’t succeed in an uncertain environment without trial and error, without taking risks. You can’t embrace risk taking without accepting failures. Here the game environment is fundamentally different from most corporate cultures. Frequent risk taking and confronting risks routinely help players to learn to keep paradoxes alive calmly and to live efficiently with continuous change.

Management in games is often temporary. People switch roles. They direct others one minute and take orders the next. Management is a task. It is not a position, or part of the identity of an individual. Companies often identify people as leaders because of the high level of potential they show early in their careers. That model may not work in the future. The growing complexity of business means that no single leader can handle all the different challenges any more. Treating management as a temporary state and a task can be the new model of the future. The whole assumption that leadership resides within an individual may not be correct at all.

Getting the network environment right for cooperation is imperative. Efficient digital environments make information open to all of the players, all of the time. This information includes quantified-self type statistics and trend information for reflexive work. Real-time status updates on operations make planning the next move easy.

The mainstream corporate approach to knowledge management has assumed that thinking and doing are separated. In the game environment a player is expected to act on information, without waiting for instructions from a boss. The most interesting thing in the game environment is that it allows people to take responsibility, to assume leadership as and when needed.

The widespread adoption of game mechanics for coordination and taking responsibility would require a dramatic change in mainstream organizational culture. However, the games are here today and the generation that has grown up playing the games is growing up and joining corporations.

They are going to be the drivers of the change towards a more creative, productive and more fun work environment.


Winning games

In most games who wins and who loses is the whole point of playing. It would be hard to imagine a more unpopular outcome in a reality TV series, than an announcement that all the players ended up as winners! It is, of course, beneficial that better-motivated and more enterprising players take the place of the lazy, the incompetent, and the unmotivated.

But zero-sum thinking and the winner-takes-all philosophy do not serve us any more. As there are more losers than winners in our games losers multiply as winning behaviours are replicated in the smaller winners’ circles and losing behaviours are replicated in the bigger losers’ circles.

The biggest problem is that as losers are excluded from the game, they are not allowed to learn. The divide between winners and losers grows constantly. This is why, in the end, the winners have to pay the price of winning in one way or another. The bigger the divide is, the bigger the price that has to be paid. The winners end up having to take care of the losers, or two totally different cultures start to form, as is happening today in many developed countries and cities.

Psychologically, competitive games create shadow games of losers competing at losing.

The games we play have been played under the assumption that the unit of survival is the individual, a team of people or a company. However, the reality is that the unit of survival is the players in the game being played. Following Darwinian rhetoric, the unit of survival is the species in its environment. Who wins and who loses is of minor importance compared to the decay of the (game) environment as a result of the competition.

We need a new concept of games in the creative economy. The players and their contributions in the real world are, and should be, too qualitatively different to be compared quantitatively. Unless all the players are comparable and want the very same thing, there cannot be a genuine contest.

Zero-sum games were the offspring of scarcity. In the era of creativity and abundance, new approaches are desperately needed.

As there simply cannot be pre-existing rules for every conceivable situation that might arise, we have to move beyond seeing the players and the rule-makers as separate parties. Real-life games are too complex to be governed totally from outside. We need participation based on values- and strong ethics  as a prerequisite for taking part.

The players have the responsibility not only for adhering to the existing rules, but also for developing the rules further – specifically when the game (environment) decays as a result of the actions of the players.

In creative games the winners would be all those whose participation, comments and contributions were incorporated into the development of the game.



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