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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.

Patterns and social objects

February 27, 2011

Complex systems are, as their name implies, hard to understand. The main difference between the sciences of certainty and the sciences of complexity lies in the different causal frameworks they are built upon.

Up to now, we have seen the world around us as systems that, we thought, could be described and understood by identifying 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 lines between the boxes. We try to model the world as predictable processes that we can control.

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 leaders to choose what happens to their organizations – or to their countries.

We live in a complex world. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable. If a system’s long-term behavior is unpredictable, goals can still be set, but there is no certainty that the actions taken are going to realize them.

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. 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. For example, a failing heart is typically characterized by loss of complexity.

Human interaction cannot be understood as predictive processes but as patterns

A pattern is something that unfolds 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. However, those routines do not cause our behavior. Instead routines are emergent patterns. They emerge in what we do. They continue to be sustained only as long as they are present in our everyday interaction.

The American sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) distinguished between two types of objects: physical objects and social objects. While a physical object may be understood in terms of itself, a social object has to be understood as being composed of patterns of interaction.

Mead referred to a market as an example of a social object. The acts of buying and selling define a market. Markets cannot exist without these social activities. When one person offers to buy something, this act involves a range of responses from other people. A person making an offer can only know how to make the offer if she is able to understand the attitude of the other parties to the bargain. The ideas of buying and selling are thus always interconnected. This is why it is called a “social” object.

The routines define the object. The social object can only be found in the conduct of different individuals engaged in the social act. Thus, there is no market that can be understood as an “it”. Mead’s social objects are not things but generalized tendencies to act in similar ways in similar situations.

We find it easy to regard social phenomena as things with an independent existence. We talk about financial markets being “nervous”. We want more people to recognize patterns “to predict what is going to happen”. But patterns can only be found in the experience of interaction itself. They have no existence separate from interaction and we cannot influence the patterns as separate entities.

We can just participate in interaction – in a dull and repetitive way or in a creative and rich way.

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Thank you Jyri Engeström for opening this discussion on the 13th. of April, 2005, with  “The case for the object-centered sociality“. Thank you also Melanie Mitchell, Ralph Stacey and Keith Sawyer.

More on the subject: Venessa Miemis. Thierry de Baillon. JP Rangaswami. Article on Wired magazine. Blog post on Complexitys. Gartner on “Emergent StructuresDeb Roy in TED

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