Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

“...we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature” 
Metalogicon, John of Salisbury, 1159
A modern interpretation of the western metaphor about the dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants is that each new discovery that is made builds on previous discoveries. In the context of enterprises and collaboration, one can say that each person who creates value builds on the value created by other people. Each individual and team is a dwarf, and the giants whose shoulders they stand upon is the workforce as collective, past and present. The stronger the workforce operates as a collective and the better it keeps any past contributions alive, the taller and stronger are the giants, and the more value an individual and team can create. This certainly holds true not only for the performance of individuals, but also for the performance of teams and collaboration efforts.

The Collaboration Pyramid that I introduced a couple of years ago is a model that is intended to show what areas need to be addressed for an organization that wishes to become more collaborative. The model consists of 8 layers, but another way to use the collaboration pyramid is to divide it into three bigger layers: community building, cooperation, and collaboration.

Let me briefly walk you through the three layers.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have the community layer. The community is the enterprise seen as a group of individuals that share the same purpose, vision and values. It is about shared attitudes and behaviors within the enterprise, or the culture if you like. It is also about the individual’s ability to be seen, participate and be recognized, all of which are fundamental for developing a sense of belonging, identity, and self-confidence.

After that, we have the cooperation layer. Cooperation is about people enabling each other to do something, for example by providing a person with information or other resources that make the person more able to perform a task. Cooperation can be seen as the opposite of selfishness and competition. People help each other out for some mutual benefit.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the collaboration layer. It is about a team of people that work closely together to achieve a certain goal. It can be a permanent team, like a production unit at an assembly line, or temporary team, like a project team. The team would most likely have a formally appointed leader, someone who is responsible for the planning, coordination, follow-up, and communication within the team as well as the world outside the team.

There is a strong dependency between the each of these layers, and it starts with community building as illustrated in the onion diagram above. For people to cooperate well, they need to belong to the same community. For people to collaborate and perform well as a team, they need the cooperation of other people in their community.

It becomes more obvious that the performance of an individual or team depends on the cooperation by individuals and teams from the community as a whole when it takes place in a dynamic, unpredictable, and complex environment. There isn’t necessarily a much weaker dependency in a more static, predictable and simple environment, but under those circumstances many of the dependencies can be anticipated and managed, something which is done by creating and maintaining structures such as a bureaucratic organization, processes, and systems. Even if something out of the ordinary happens, there is likely a procedure to follow and structures in place to ensure that the procedure is followed in the right way. But when the environment that the organization is more dynamic, unpredictable, and complex, then more and more of the work that needs to be carried out cannot be anticipated. The appropriate structures cannot be defined and set up in advance, and they cannot be as rigid or introduce a lot of transaction costs. The structures have to quickly emerge as needed, and then dissolve just as fast as they emerged.

For enterprise-wide collaboration to happen, the community building and cooperation must stretch beyond any barriers such as organizations, time, and place. Groupthink, organizational silos, and structures cannot be allowed to limit the ability for one or several organizations to collaborate efficiently and effectively as enterprise. If the enterprise as a whole is not one single community, and if people don't cooperate freely within and cross organizations involved in the enterprise, then enterprise collaboration will fail.

I would be happy to hear what you think. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

What Is Wrong With The Hierarchy?

In a world where things changed less frequently and when there was plenty of time to react on new information that emerged, where markets did not emerge by themselves and change shape by themselves, it was possible to centralize planning and make long-term detailed plans and execute the plans over a period of several years. Organizational hierarchies and command-and-control style management were the solutions implemented to get the information from the top to the bottom of the pyramid and ensure that execution plans were followed. Things are different today, as organizations have to be prepared for the unexpected, and readily adapt to new conditions. They might still have an overall strategy and plan, but they need to be prepared to change it at any point in time. They need to accept that the only feasible strategy they can have is to respond to change fast enough and good enough, and that it requires them to level out information asymmetry and distribute the power of decision-making to everyone who might ever need to make a decision.

A Major Problem With The Hierarchy

In a hierarchical organization, most of the information that answers key questions about the management and operation of the enterprise (what, why, how and when) is typically produced and aggregated at the top and then distributed downwards throughout the different levels and branches of the hierarchy. The information must often pass each level of management on its way down until it reaches the intended receivers. Each such level is an "information tollgates" that have the responsibility and mandate to communicate the relevant information to appropriate receivers further down in the structure. In doing so, they can often select which persons they think should receive the information, how they should receive it, when they should receive it, and what they should receive. A major drawback of this way of distributing information is that the probability is quite high that information needed by an individual further down in the pyramid does not reach her. There can be many different reasons behind such a consequence. Management might be unaware of the need of the individual co-worker, which means that she does not receive the information she needs at all. They might have misunderstood her need, which means that she receives the wrong (insufficient, incomplete, inaccurate...) information. Or perhaps for some reason they might not want her to receive the information she needs, which means that important information is filtered out, or that information gets distorted along the way.

It is also quite obvious that this is not the shortest or most efficient way for information to travel and that even if the coworker receives the information she needs, it is likely that it is not received in time. All these things can be avoided if there is a more direct communication and interaction between the sender and the receiver. But the hierarchic organization allows management to maintain control of the information and how it flows. The information asymmetry gives each level in the hierarchy power to influence and manipulate the decisions and actions of others, much like. It wouldn’t pose a problem if everybody always has the greater good of the organization before their eyes, putting all personal interest aside. But anyone who knows human nature also knows this is nothing but a fallacy.

The Power of Networks Is Being Distributed

Since the dawn of time, primates have relied on social networks to help the whole group with their environments. This of course applies to organizations as well. First of all, information disseminates easier and faster through networks than through hierarchies. This makes it possible for us to gain access to and act upon new information faster. We have the ability to be more responsive. Second, the lack of bureaucracy and hierarchy encourages communication and interaction. This makes it easier for us to share more information continuously. If we put these two things together, networks can help both individuals and groups of individuals make better decisions faster — decisions that benefit the whole group.

Informal networks have always been important, if not to say critical, for accessing information, making decisions, and ensuring commitment to implement the decisions in organizations. They are different to the formal structures that perform these functions in organizations as they lack structure, arise spontaneously, and develop and change organically as people interact with new people and build bonds of trust between each other. Informal networks are often seen as problematic as they by-pass the formal structures for communication and decision-making, in a hidden way that cannot be controlled by management. Still, without those informal networks most organizations would not function.

Until recently the power to build and maintain strong personal networks and become part of informal networks has been possessed by the people within an organization who held formal positions in the hierarchy, such as managers, or people who had as their jobs to meet a lot of people, such as sales people. Their positions allowed them to allocate the time and resources to build their personal networks and be part of informal networks within their organizations, influence the decision-making. Enterprise social networking platforms now offer anyone in the workforce to build stronger personal networks inside the organizations they work for. The power of networking is available to anyone who finds it in their interest to build and maintain their personal networks by providing open spaces for starting and joining conversations across any barrier such as organizations, locations and positions. This power that was previously only available to the "business elite" consisting of sales people, managers and experts, can now be utilized by the anonymous and disconnected worker.

A Threat To Middle Management

What we are seeing now is a shift from hierarchy to the network as the primary organization system for an enterprise. In the light of this, it is easy to see that middle management is becoming irrelevant and displaced, and that it is there we will find the greatest resistance to change, trying to maintain status quo. To understand this, one needs to understand the force they are resisting; social networks. To start with, social networks are flat. Everyone in an enterprise social network solution is typically presented as being on the same level, even though there is often a reference to an individual’s position in a hierarchical organization. But these titles are less important in a social network than in real life. What is more important in a social network is the person behind the title and whom that person is connected to. This, together with the fact that people often are more comfortable with contacting people they do not know virtually than in real life, makes the barriers to contacting someone higher up in the hierarchy of an organization much lower. It enables important information to be communicated from grass-root level to top management and vice versa in a fast, undistorted, frequent and in a timely manner. This is also the "threat" of social networks to hierarchical organizations, and middle management in particular. It is not a threat to the business itself, rather an opportunity, but it is threat to those in the middle of the management pyramid who build their positions on their formal right to make decisions and distribute information from the top and down, and vice versa. This is pretty much the primary function of a lot of people in the middle of the pyramid. As this function is becoming less important and sometimes obsolete, it poses a threat to those managers who are not really good coaches, mentors, visionaries, sales people, networkers and so on.

An Big Opportunity For Top Management And The Organization

Top management, on the other hand, can benefit from social networks in many ways. By bypassing the cumbersome hierarchical communication structure and communicating directly with individual coworkers, they can practice a much more agile and proactive leadership. They can get access to vast amounts of uncensored information from any corner of the enterprise and interact directly with coworkers from which you need additional information. The information that is made available to them is unfiltered and undistorted, and with the help of information technology they can access and filter out important information that is flowing through the social networks to spot trends, capture important signals, and increase their awareness about the health of the business. In a sense, the emergence of social networks, and the means to distribute and aggregate information within those networks can be seen as "social business intelligence". Social networks put content in context of other content, but what is even more important is that they put content in context of people. And it happens in real-time, allowing top management to take the temperature of the organization. They can act on problems or issues before they escalate and grow worse, and spot and take action on opportunities they otherwise never would have known existed.

There are definitely great opportunities for organizations to capitalize on social networks. But an organization has to find out a way to deal with those individuals in the middle of the pyramid that do not like being flattened out.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Most popular posts and articles from 2013

Photo: Lund University Main Building, December 2013

Yes, it's that time of year again...here are my most popular (read and/or retweeted) blog posts and articles from 2013.

Top 3 posts this blog

  1. 3 major trends in knowledge work
  2. Designing a Social Business
  3. The 6 Pillars of The Digital Workplace

Top 3 contributions for CMS Wire

  1. The Enterprise Collaboration Tipping Point
  2. Time to Break the Habit of Internal Email
  3. 6 Things to Expect from Your Intranet

Syndicated and republished posts

My blog posts are syndicated and republished with my permission to a few places, such as the following:
Zyncro republished the post “The 6 Pillars of The Digital Workplace” on their blog and also translated it to Spanish and French:

Friday, December 6, 2013

The State and Future of Enterprise Collaboration

More than a year ago, in an article for CMS Wire, I wrote that corporations are starting to ask themselves the following questions:
 ”Now that we all have the tools, what shall we do with them? How can we use them to change the way we work? And even if we see the use cases and want to change our ways of working, how do our work environments encourage and enable us to do this?“
I think this pretty much sums up where a lot of corporations are today; they have implemented new communication and collaboration tools, but they still have a lot of work to do ahead to figure out how to use them to develop better ways of working, as well as how to create good conditions for information workers that supports the change process.

Without a doubt, the importance and availability of social, mobile and cloud technologies will continue to increase. What will change is the focus; corporations will be shifting their focus from implementing tools to how they can make productive use of the tools and make change happen inside their organizations.

Photo: The “flying machine” consisting of  45 helium-filled weather balloons that was used by Lawrence Richard Walters, an American truck driver, when he took flight on July 2 1982, reaching an altitude of over 15,000 feet.

As we are soon moving into 2014, it can be a good idea to take a look at some recent research related to Enterprise Collaboration. Below, I have put together links to some of the research studies I have come across recently, highlighting some findings from each piece of research that I found interesting. I hope you will as well.

To start off, here are some interesting findings about remote working in a recent study from Virgin Media Business:

  • 7 in 10 organizations believe their employees would be far happier at work and more productive given the ability to work from home and on the move
  • 40 per cent of those surveyed said that they often overhear staff complaining about being tied to their desk. 
  • Organizations are being held back and nearly half are reluctant to introduce more choice because of security concerns
  • The technology they’d most like to see introduced into the workplace is wireless access to files over a 3G network, closely followed by the integration of voice and data over a single network
  • An overwhelming majority of CIOs and business decision makers agreed that giving their staff devices that could answer email, send files, make calls and communicate with others via IM on the go would boost employee engagement.

 “Social Business: Shifting Out of First Gear” from Deloitte:

  • Social is becoming more important across all industries. All respondents place increased value on social business and none reversed the course.
  • Change isn’t happening very fast. The top three tings that impede progress is:
    1. A lack of an overall strategy (28% of respondents)
    2. Too many competing priorities (26%)
    3. Lack of a proven business case or strong value proposition (21%).
  • More socially mature business are building momentum by applying social tools and technologies to specific business challenges and assessing the impact. To spur the effort, company leaders are cultivating new modes of communication and new patterns of dialogue. Sometimes that means modeling the behavior long before the tool is launched

A survey by IDG Research Services carried out on behalf of Jive:

  • The paper notes that enterprise collaboration software differs from its consumer cousin because it needs to integrate with the existing IT environment, protect the privacy of the users and corporate data and provide the tools the business needs
  • Improving productivity and internal communication now far outrank any other reasons for using social tools at work, with 72 percent of respondents each
  • 2/3 of the respondents complain determining ROI is difficult and nearly half are not currently measuring it in this respect.

"2013 Wisdom of Crowds® Collaborative Business Intelligence Market Study" from Dresner:

  • Top mechanisms for collaborating with business intelligence (BI) insights in 2013 are still email, face-to-face meetings and telephone calls.
  • In a larger organization when they say they want to collaborate, it’s really about driving greater efficiency within their internal organization. And they are more likely to be physically co-located with their peers and share information via face-to-face meeting.
  • In a smaller organization collaboration really means collaborating with external constituencies. They are more likely to leverage file sharing. 
  • Microsoft SharePoint is the most widely used framework, followed by Google Docs and Dropbox, which tend to be used more often in smaller organizations. 
Three Keys to Successful Digital Transformation” from Apigee:

  • This research uncovers three empirical patterns for successful digital transformation. An enterprise must make and broadcast company-wide commitment, appoint a senior leader with four key transformation leadership skills, and build capacity to experiment
  • Among Leaders 83% have “explicitly and formally” named a person to lead digital transformation; 79% report that digital projects are a company-wide priority.
  • Companies that implemented company-wide digital initiatives more than a year ago have already seen an impact on employees (73%), customers (80%), and their portfolio of products (77%)—almost two-thirds of these businesses have seen impact in all three areas.
"The Evolution of Social Collaboration within the Enterprise" from Avanade:

  • A majority are using social networking tools in the workplace, they may not be leveraging tools that have genuine enterprise collaboration capabilities yet
  • Currently the majority of IT decision-makers (87%), business leaders (67%) and end users (68%) report using enterprise social networking technologies, but most lack true enterprise collaboration capabilities
  • While time-savings and productivity are among top benefits of these tools reported by users, the top benefit across decision-makers and employees is much softer: more enjoyable jobs.
  • In the next 12 months, more businesses plan to adopt enterprise social collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint or Salesforce Chatter than popular social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. This is the opposite of today’s adoption rates, where use of popular social networking technologies far outranks enterprise social collaboration tools.
  • More than one-quarter (26 percent) of decision-makers say there is a lack of training to explain how to use such tools, and the same percentage (26 percent) report a lack of IT department resources to implement them.
"Becoming a Social Business: Integrating Social Software Assets Throughout the Enterprise"from IDC:

  • Organizations will not integrate disparate social networks in the short term as other areas of business investment will take priority. 
  • Organizations will start to target online communities as a way to incentivize ongoing conversations and to connect disconnected social networks inside and outside the enterprise.

Findings from the Aberdeen Next-Generation Communications (NGC) study, September 2013:

  • Companies that had identified business collaboration as their top business goal saw significant business performance improvement compared to organizations that did not prioritize collaboration 
  • The business value of a well-executed ESC plan is no longer so elusive...but many of these business benefits do not happen for companies that take a laissez-faire or ad hoc approach to workplace collaboration. Laissez-faire collaboration happens when IT groups allow employees and departments to self-provision their own collaboration environments. 
  • Aberdeen's research shows that the best return on ESC investments come from an official ESC plan that is endorsed by executive leadership.
Research from Harvard's Department of Psychology published in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds that there is a deep relationship between cooperation and social networks:

  • There is a deep relationship between cooperation and social networks. If you allow people to re-wire their social networks, cooperation is sustained in the population.
  • People are more likely to form connections with people who are cooperative, and much more likely to break those links with people who are not.

Finally, here are some highlights from a study from University of British Columbia saying that social networks make us smarter.

  • The secret to why some cultures thrive and others disappear may lie in our social networks and our ability to imitate, rather than our individual smarts.
  • A larger population size and social connectedness are crucial for the development of more sophisticated technologies and cultural knowledge.
  • Groups with greater access to experts also retained their skills much longer than groups who began with less access to mentors, sustaining higher levels of “cultural knowledge” over multiple generations.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Designing a Social Business

Knowledge work is in may ways different from the transformational and transactional work that organizations have tried to automate and improve with information technology over the past few decades. A colleague of mine said, that as knowledge workers, we don't follow a process; we follow a cloud of activities. In other words, we are creating the process as we go along. To do that we need to use our creativity, we need to look beyond the standard ways of doing things, and we need to ask a lot of questions. This is something completely different to how it is to work at a production line in a factory, where workers are supposed to follow predefined and highly repeatable processes and procedures. There, asking questions and questioning rules is often out of the question, as it has the potential to disrupt operations.

As knowledge workers we often find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Workload and complexity at work is increasing, while we at the same time are expected to produce more, faster and faster. And adapt to new conditions. Not only that, we are expected to be creative and innovative as well. The problem is that our organizations haven’t been designed for knowledge work under these conditions. Most organizations have been designed for efficiency and economies of scale, not for enabling collaboration, creativity and autonomy. Too often, knowledge workers are just cogs in a big machinery. Organizations fail to get the full potential out of their knowledge workers.

Network-based collaboration is the only way to deal with the increasing complexity, speed of change and uncertainty that organizations are facing. Unfortunately many executives and decision-makers don't make the same connection. They tend to forget that collaboration is the reason why their organization exists in the first place; an organization’s sole purpose is to bring together people with certain talent, skills an expertise to work together on a specific enterprise. During the 20th century much of this collaboration has been encoded, hidden, automated and steered in our processes, systems and formal (and static) organizational structures. Most of the collaboration that takes place in a large enterprise today is running in autopilot mode following predefined paths. However, in a dynamic, competitive and unpredictable environment we can't rely only on the autopilot for collaboration. Many organizations need to become more agile, innovative and productive to survive in this environment, and for that to happen collaboration must happen more freely – with more flexibility and also at greater scale if needed – proactively initiated and driven by the right people.

When the role of technology was simply to automate manual tasks and remove the need for human labor, the technology didn't need to be designed to fit humans. If they were to keep their jobs, they had to adapt to the technology instead of the other way around. This is why, in my opinion, social business isn’t about tools, features or platforms. Rather, it is a way to design information systems and other systems so they fit with human nature and leverage collaborative human behaviors. Thus it should influence all service design and will be an integral part, a characteristic, of most business services. There are five principles in particular that should guide the design of all business services:

  1. Openness. We need openness to get access to information that we might have use for.
  2. Transparency. We need transparency to be able to discover it.
  3. Participation. It needs to be possible for anyone to participate, because that’s how we can deal with any kind of problem or opportunity,
  4. Dialog. We need dialog to ensure that communication is effective, that we quickly can reach mutual understanding and take action.
  5. Recognition. We need recognition, to reward and motivate people to contribute and keep the wheels of collaboration and innovation spinning.

For a truly social business, these principles should guide not only the design of technology solutions and services, but also leadership, performance models, organizational structures, and physical work environments. We have yet to figure out exactly how to do this, but the important thing is to start exploring before its too late.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The 6 Pillars of The Digital Workplace

The business environment that knowledge-intense businesses operate in is anything but static – it’s changing faster and faster, and in new ways. It’s becoming more and more unpredictable. This means that businesses can’t do long-term planning the way they used to. Instead they have to be prepared for change, becoming agile enough to quickly adapt to new conditions and situations.

At the same time knowledge work and the contributions of knowledge workers are becoming increasingly important for businesses. There is also a big potential in improving the productivity of knowledge work that they have to address. Yet there is a tension, and often conflict, between agility and productivity. How do we as knowledge workers remain productive, or even increase productivity, when we need to adapt to new conditions all the time? We often find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Workload and complexity at work is increasing, while we at the same time are expected to be more productive. Add to this that we need to adapt to new conditions. Not only that, we are expected to be creative and innovative as well.

The greatest enemy here spells c-o-m-p-l-e-x-i-t-y. Not only does it hamper knowledge worker productivity, but it is also causing exceptions to happen more frequently; exceptions that are both costly and hard to deal with. No manual or procedure can help us deal with these as each exception is different from the other and needs to be treated in its own special way. To deal with it we have to improvise.  Collaborate. Think outside of the box. The problem is that our organizations haven’t been designed for this reality. Most organizations have been designed for efficiency and economies of scale, not for enabling collaboration, creativity and personal responsibility. Too often, we are just cogs in a big machinery.  Even if we know what is wrong, and what can be done about it, there simply isn’t any support from the organization to help us act.

Many knowledge workers even lack such basic things as a complete set of good quality tools to do their jobs. Too often, IT decision makers find it convenient to silence their cries for new and better tools by buying a feature-rich product from a big vendor. Then they just to drop it on the users out-of-the-box, without any guidance or support, and without customizing it to fit their needs. The problem is that they already have this huge pile of complex products to deal with. It suddenly becomes up to each and every individuals to figure out how to use all the tools, and how they should fit together. It doesn’t take long before they have become painfully aware of the glitches that exist and all the friction that imposes on their work. This technology-centric approach adds complexity instead of reducing it, instead of making things simpler for knowledge workers.

It is clear that we need a new and better approach for boosting knowledge worker productivity, and that this approach must, by necessity, take a holistic grip on our digital work environment so that unnecessary complexity can be reduced or eliminated and knowledge workers can be empowered to be more productive, innovative and agile. The Digital Workplace is an emerging concept that provides a holistic view of the knowledge worker’s digital work environment, and in this post I will briefly outline what I see as the six pillars of the Digital Workplace.

1. People-Centric

To empower knowledge workers to be more productive, agile and innovative, it is essential to apply a people-centric approach, as opposed to a technology-centric approach. We need an approach that helps us simplify how we interact with each other, and other things our environment. Any new tool needs to be introduced in a way that it fits with the users, their tasks and the situations they find themselves in. Ultimately it should be invisible, helping us achieve our goals without any friction at all.

2. Mobility

The idea of working from anywhere, using different devices and as the situation requires, isn’t new. What is new today, is that we finally have a way to implement this idea in a way that actually works.  Today we don't need to bring a dishwasher-sized phone to the golf course. Instead we can actually hold our entire digital workplace in one of our hands.  What this essentially means is that the digital workplace revolves around individuals and follows them wherever they go. It’s not tied to a building that we go to, or a certain place. It’s not available only during office hours

3. Services

What the digital workplace should do is to help us to get our jobs done, in different situations, by providing the services that we need. And these services are all tied together in a coherent user experience, with ubiquitous access to all information we might need, allowing us to work seamlessly together from anywhere.

4. Simplicity

Since we have gotten used to using great software as consumers, we no longer accept crappy software at work. Commercial services need to be our benchmark when designing the digital workplace and its services. Most importantly, the services need to be attractive and easy to use, since this is what drives adoption and therefore also change in how we work. The Digital Workplace must simplify all kinds of interaction for knowledge workers, and simplicity is the key design principle for achieving this. We need to remove anything that doesn’t add value, and make sure to enhance anything that does. Ultimately, the services should be more or less invisible, helping us achieve our goals without any friction at all.

5. Social

Social is not simply a technology – it is a way to design technology so that it fits with human nature and leverages collaborative human behavior. Thus it should influence all service design and will be an integral part, a characteristic, of most services. Not only individual services but the entire digital workplace must, as the rest of our work environment, be designed according to social principles such as openness, transparency, participation, dialog, and recognition:
  • We need openness to get access to information that we might have use for.
  • We need transparency to be able to discover it.
  • It needs to be possible for anyone to participate, because that’s how we can deal with any kind of problem or opportunity,
  • We need dialog to ensure that communication is effective, that we quickly can reach mutual understanding and take action.
  • We need recognition, to reward and motivate people to contribute and keep the wheels of collaboration and sharing spinning.
All other structures in our organizations need to align with these principles as well, from incentive models and management practices to our physical work environments.

6. Continuous

The only feasible way to realize the Digital Workplace is to start with a vision and some guiding principles and then explore potential paths to get there, taking one step at the time. Instead of betting everything on one card, and perhaps failing miserably, we should make many frequent and small bets. Then we get the opportunity to learn from every mistake we make. We evaluate, learn and adjust things as we proceed.

A key reason for introducing change in a step-by-step approach is to make it easier for people to adopt these changes. That way they can also change their ways of working to something better. This is the essence what we are trying to do – to improve ways of working, and thereby increasing knowledge worker productivity. If we don’t achieve this, we have achieved nothing.  We have just valuable wasted time and resources.

Therefore, we must make change our number one priority, from the vision and onwards. Nothing else is as important, and we need to find answers to questions like these ready from the start. If we do, our chances of succeeding are pretty good.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Our future relies on our social networks

Harold Jarche’s excellent post “The social imperative”, where he tells a story of how a group of baboons became healthier and less stressed by cooperating, inspired me to think and write a bit about what role social networks play for our ability to cooperate as humans, as well as to survive as a species. As Harold writes, recent research shows that evolution is on the side of those who cooperate:
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

In the post Harold points to the limitations of hierarchical organizational models for dealing with large-scale levels of complexity. He refers paper called Complexity Rising by Yaneer Bar-Yam in which Bar-Yam writes that “hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases” and that they “must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.” Harold’s conclusion from this is that “we need stronger networks and looser hierarchies”, given that our social networks are the infrastructure for increasing lateral interactions and thus our ability to deal with complexity.

When discussing online social networks and the phenomena of social networking, we need to look at the bigger picture and the underlying need for social networks instead of just dismissing these things as hype or nonsense, using trivial arguments such as "I'm not interested in hearing or seeing what other people ate for breakfast". The concept of social networks is of course not a new thing. Social networks are the very core of being human, a thing that separates humans and other primates from other species. What is new is that we have extended our capability to build and sustain our social networks using information technology, for example online social networking platforms.

Humans, like other primates, are highly social animals. We have also proven to be very successful at adapting to different and changing environments, despite the fact that we aren't highly specialized in anything. We don’t have very developed senses, nor do we possess enormous strength.  We can’t run very fast and we certainly can’t fly (by ourselves, that is). Therefore, one might say that our as humans specialty is our ability to quickly adapt to different environments, and our social networks play a very central part in this. Besides the more obvious benefits of cooperation such as sharing of food and protecting each other from predators, our social networks allow us to quickly disseminate information across the group so that we can quickly adapt to a changes in the environment.

As a side note, plenty of research support the idea that we humans and other primates have evolved our complex cognitive skills as we have adapted to life in large social networks. Even the relative brain size of primates has been correlated with social group size, suggesting that adapting to the complexity of social groups is a key reason for the larger, more complex brain of humans.

Humans invented physical tools to extend and enhance our physical abilities. We invented the written language and communication technologies such as the letterpress, the telegraph and the phone to extend our ability to communicate with each other. We invented trains, planes and automobiles for faster transportation, and the invention of aviation gave us the ability to fly. More recently, we invented the computer and other devices such as the smartphone to extend and enhance or cognitive abilities. With online social networks, we are back at the core of being human – our ability to adapt to different environments by cooperating as a social group, and the cognitive skills we develop as our social networks grow in size and complexity. The greater the challenges we face, the more we need to extend and enhance our social networking, communication and collaboration abilities. Our social networks, and thus the means we have to support these (such as online social networks and social technologies in general), are key ingredients in any approach to deal with challenges we need to face ahead.

Therefore, the importance of Harold’s closing remark cannot be overestimated: “Becoming more social is not just a new business driver but also a societal imperative.” In my opinion, no words are big enough when describing how important it is to develop our ability to deal with complexity as a social group. Borrowing the words of Esko Kilpi, our social networks aren’t just the “the architecture of work”, but also the architecture of society and the foundation upon we need to build our future.

Photo: My own photo of a group of Baboons near Cape Point in South Africa