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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The characteristics of work 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 where you needed to be at during predetermined hours. The industrial era also created the shareholder capitalism we now experience. In the network economy, individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or low cost social platforms and relatively cheap mobile, smart devices, can now create information products.

The production of information goods requires more human capital than financial capital. And the good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Because of the Internet, work on information products does not need to be co-located. The infrastructure of work does not resemble a factory but a network.

Decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before.

Work systems 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. The architecture of the Internet is based on loose couplings and modularity. Modularity is the design principle that intentionally makes nodes of the network able to be highly responsive.

The Internet-based firm sees work and cognitive capability as networked communication. Any node in the network should be able to communicate with any other node on the basis of contextual interdependence and creative participative engagement. Work takes place in a transparent digital environment.

As organizations want to be more creative and knowledge-based, the focus of management thinking should shift towards understanding participative, self-organizing responsiveness.

The Internet is a viable model for making sense of the new value creating constellations of tomorrow.

But something crucially important needs to change:

ToriThe taken for granted assumption is that it is the independent employer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing what is done and by whom. The employees of the organization are not seen autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent entities. People are resources.

Dependence is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is getting the daily tasks that are given to you done, or at least out of the way. 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.

In contrast to the above, 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 here 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 chooses her fellow workers based on her network, not a given organization. The aim is to do meaningful things with meaningful people in meaningful ways utilizing networks and voluntary participation.

It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions and choices of individuals. This view of work focuses attention on the way ordinary, everyday work-tasks enrich life and perpetually create the future we truly want through continuous learning.

The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of organizing. The main motivation of work is not financial self-interest, but people’s different and yet, complementary expectations of the future.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work/tasks to where the right/willing/inspired people are, no matter where on the globe they may be.

Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Most importantly knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric. Through mobile smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we can also create new opportunities and a better future for millions of presently unemployed people.

It is possible!

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The big move we are in the midst of is towards an economy that is more centred on information products than physical products. Examples of this are financial services, professional services, the online game industry and software.

The second transformative change is global access to relatively cheap and relatively high quality communication networks

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 also largely owned by the end users – the workers who have their own smart devices.

The characteristics of the new economy are different from what we are used to: the production of physical goods was (financial) capital-intensive, leading to centralized management structures and the shareholder capitalism we have experienced. The production of information goods always requires more human capital than financial capital. It is much more about finding brains than finding money. The good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Work on information products does not need to be co-located because of the Internet. If the task at hand is inviting and compelling, human capital investments can come from any part of the network.

This is why decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before. The architecture of work is the network and the basic unit of work is not a process or a job role but a task.

Our mainstream management and organizational approaches 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 widely distributed value creation and ubiquitous connectivity.

The opportunity we have is in new relational forms that don’t mimic the governance models of industrial, hierarchical firms. We are already witnessing the rise of very large-scale cooperative efforts that create tremendous value. Coordinated value in these cases is the result of uncoordinated actions by a large number of individuals with different goals, different values and different motivations to take part.

In the networked economy, information products and services can now be created and co-created in a human-centric way, by voluntary, interdependent individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or very low-cost social media.

Technology does not determine social and organizational change, but it does create new opportunity spaces for new social practices. Some things are becoming much easier than before and some things are becoming possible, perhaps for the first time.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed intelligence. The organization is not necessarily a given entity or hierarchy any more, but an ongoing process of organizing. The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. Work was a place. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the (willing) people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Work is what you do, and most importantly what you want to do!

Knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric.

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The post is a shortened version of my lecture today at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, Aalto University, School of Science.

Thank you Jochai Benkler and Bent Flyvbjerg


The mainstream ways of thinking about management are 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 people to choose what happens in their organizations – or in their countries. We live in a complex world. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable.

Complexity refers to a pattern, a movement in time that is at the same time predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. Healthy, ordinary, everyday life is always complex, no matter what the situation is. There is absolutely no linearity in the world of human beings.

Human patterns that lose this complexity become repetitive and rapidly inappropriate for dealing with life. 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. For example, a failing heart is typically characterized by increasing loss of complexity.

A pattern is something that emerges through the complex interactions between elements in a system. Although there is apparent order, there is never exact repetition if the system is viable. This is why human interaction cannot be understood as processes in the way they were used in manufacturing, but as patterns.

Patterns that are more repetitive are normally called routines or habits. This conclusion is important for us. Novelty emerges in a radically unpredictable way. Creativity is seldom the end result of a repetitive process.

The Internet changes the patterns of connectivity, transforms our understanding what “local” is, and makes possible wide participation and new enriching variety in interaction. By relying on the interactions of millions of people instead of a few 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. Companies are transforming themselves from industrial mass production to creating value in networks of mass communication.

Transparency of tasks is the corporate equivalent of publishing academic articles. Responsive linking, rather than predictive linking such as in corporate hierarchies and process charts, acts as a measure of relevance, control and value. This has served the academic community well. It made Sergey Brin and Larry Page billionaires. Now is the time to do the same in the corporate world.

The Google lesson for management is, that the more work is based on responsive, democratic processes of relating and the more organizing is an ongoing process of communicative linking, the more value we can create!

It is now time for the sciences of uncertainty.

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The nature of the relationship between customers and firms has changed dramatically. For over a hundred years, companies have assumed that consumers are an undifferentiated mass. Lately, we have moved through different degrees of market segmentation. Today, we have reached a point where the latest interaction technologies are creating an entirely new dynamic between the firm and the people we used to call consumers. Tomorrow firms will compete in making unique customer experiences possible.

The traditional approach was that the firm created value and then exchanged it with its customers. This firm-centric view of value creation is now being replaced by customers’ contextual experiences and co-created value. Value is created in interaction, but outside the corporate firewall. Even if a company is dealing with a very, very large number of customers, the firm must focus on one customer at a time.

We are in a world in which value is determined by co-created experiences – all a bit alike but all a bit different.

During the still (mentally) prevailing industrial era, most firms were vertically integrated. It was only around twenty-something years ago that firms started to source components from outside, from suppliers on a large scale. Today it is natural to rely on global supply chains. This is because the business goal is to access the most competent, knowledgeable sources and paradoxically, at the same time the lowest-cost producers. Access to resources and resource allocation is today by default multi-vendor, crowdsourced and global.

The changing relationships with customers and vendors are the main drivers behind the new ecosystems for communication and participation.

These trends also explain the situation we are in at the moment. The network is the architecture of work. People need to communicate and participate in order to invite contributions and to co-create unique experiences. It is about the relational view. It is not necessary to own the contributing parties. Capacity to connect and cooperate is what is needed. Cooperation is the new competition.

The world we live in today is in many ways the polar opposite of what we have been used to. The management challenge in the era of social media is to invite and combine the contributions of many in order to participate with one (at a time).

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Thank you C K

Technology does not determine social and organizational change, but it does create new opportunity spaces for social innovations like new employment forms. Partial employment for young unemployed people is becoming much easier than before, and truly global task-based work is becoming possible, perhaps for the first time in history.

The opportunity today is in new relational forms that don’t mimic the governance models of industrial, hierarchical firms. We are already witnessing the rise of very large-scale efforts that create tremendous value in a very new way. Coordinated value in the cases of helping Haiti or building Wikipedia type of platforms is the result of uncoordinated actions by a large number of individuals. People with different goals, different values and different motivations take part and co-create together.

The characteristics of 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 where you needed to be at during predetermined hours. The industrial era also created the shareholder capitalism we now experience. Having a great idea, or simply wanting to do something, was not enough to get one going. You needed a lot of money. In the network economy, individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or low cost social platforms and relatively cheap mobile, smart devices, can now create information products.

The production of information goods requires more human capital than financial capital. It is more about connecting with brains than connecting with money. And the good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Work on information products does not need to be co-located. The architecture of work does not resemble a factory any more.

This is why decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before. The architecture of work is the network and the basic unit of work is not a process or a job role but a task.

Our management and organizational thinking is derived from the era of tangible goods production and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mindsets are not helpful in a world of widely distributed ownership of means of production/smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity.

“A corporation/employer exists to make money and the employee goes to work for the employer to make money.” Almost all economic theories have made the same assumption: the employer – employee relationship is necessary to make work possible.

We have taken that relationship as given. The other taken for granted assumption is that it is the independent employer/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 autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent entities. People are resources.

Dependence is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is getting the daily tasks that are given to you done, or at least out of the way. 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.

In contrast to the above, digital work has 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 here 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 chooses her fellow workers based on her network, not a given organization. The aim is to do meaningful things with meaningful people utilizing networks and voluntary participation.

It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions and choices of individuals. This view of work focuses attention on the way ordinary, everyday work-tasks enrich life and perpetually create the future through continuous learning.

The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the IT-network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of organizing. The basis of work is not financial self-interest, but people’s different and yet, complementary expectations of the future, conditioned by their accounts of the past and developed skills.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the people are, no matter where on the globe they may be.

Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Most importantly knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric. Through mobile smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we can create new opportunities and a better future for millions of unemployed people.

It is possible!

.

Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin and Yochai Benkler

Why do I have to cooperate?

September 23, 2011

Somebody recently asked me: “Why do we have to cooperate? I know my job. If I do my job and everybody else does his, we will be fine. The people I work with every day know what to do. I don’t get it why I need to be communicating with those other guys.”

Today’s organizations are complex systems that require continuous, responsive coordination to be effective. Work is much less repetitive than before. Job roles and work instructions can never be complete descriptions of what needs to be done. Work is not separate actions but connected tasks. It is all about links. Who needs to connect can never be fully  planned in advance. Interdependence is contextual, situational. In order to be successful, the constantly changing people forming the organization have to be able to connect effortlessly.

The days when we could just do our own thing are over.

When it comes to understanding the organizations in which we work, most of us understand best our own jobs and the work groups we have been part of. As a result from individual, reductionist scorecards, most people are ignorant of the larger network in which they work. When problems arise, this unawareness of how things affect one another often leads to short sighted and suboptimal solutions. Issues are resolved in favor of just one point of view.

When the circle of involvement is larger many changes occur. When people see where they fit in the bigger picture they are able to see the interdependencies and are able to respond much, much faster to changing conditions. Our research shows that transparent processes are more than four times faster than corresponding processes where people just see their own part.

Any one person or any one function cannot meet today’s challenges alone. We need a community of people who willingly participate and provide their insights to address the increasingly interdependent issues. Cooperation is necessary because one person no longer has the answer. Answers reside in the interaction, between all of us.

The challenge today is engagement. Widening the circle of involvement means expanding who gets to participate. It is about inviting and including relevant, new and different voices.

The unfortunate misunderstanding is that engaging people requires managers to let go. As managers contemplate to widen the circle of involvement they sometimes believe that it means to have less ability to provide input based on their knowledge and experience. Paradoxically, engaging more people requires more from managers than the current management paradigm. Instead of being responsible for identifying both the problem and the solution, they are now responsible for identifying the problem and identifying the people whose voices need to be heard. Who else needs to be here? How do I invite people who do not report to me? How do I invite people from outside our organization?

Success today is increasingly a result from skillful management of participation: who are included and who are not, who are excluded.

Another misunderstanding is that productivity will suffer if larger numbers of people are involved. The new social platforms and interaction technologies have dramatically reduced the cost of participation. Temporal communities can be formed to solve a problem or to tackle an opportunity easier, cheaper and faster than ever before – if people are invited and if people want to engage.

We all have the experience of teams discussing among themselves about what is working and not working. People often degenerate into blaming the parties that are not present. “If only the other group would get their act together!” This kind of thinking never produces learning, responsiveness and agility. Bringing more people into the conversation is essential. When you widen the circle of participation, you widen the solution space.

“If there are enough eyeballs, all problems are shallow” as Linus Torvalds put it

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More on the subject: Lessons from wikipedia. A HBR blog post by Gartner.

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