The wiki way of working

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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

2The 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!

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On the perceived relevance of academic papers.

 

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.

TaivasActing 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.

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Winning games

December 20, 2011

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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