Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Knowledge diversity

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on April 9, 2010

Today I would like to discuss something about knowledge. The first thing I would like to mention about knowledge, is that there are many understandings about the concept. This post does not try to explain knowledge, nor my view of knowledge. It is a concept that is difficult to grasp. Many research has shown that knowledge is difficult to transfer either, for various reasons. Knowledge is often partly codifiable, and partly (perhaps mostly) tacit. Many companies have tried to codify as much tacit knowledge as possible, assuming that this codified ‘knowledge’ is easy to transfer and easy for others to internalize it. This not only feels unrealistic, research has shown this as well.

Acquiring knowledge is just not possible from just reading books, blogposts, manuals, documentation, etc. Acquiring knowledge is learning and experiencing from codified information and takes much time participating in the practices and getting your hands dirty. Inspired by John Tropea’s post, (and Harold Jarche’s, Rob Paterson’s and Tony Karrer’s as well) I would like to elaborate on that some more. Context is important in knowledge management (is it possible to manage knowledge? or is it outdated? what is it anyway? aren’t we just talking about learning? well, food for thought and perhaps another story…), even as knowledge creating and eventually decision-making. This is very well outlined and written by Chun Wei Choo in his book ‘The Knowing Organization’.

I’d like to explore the concept of ‘Knowledge diversity’ here. Not only because knowledge is experienced in such a diverse way, but because many knowledge workers (I hate these words) are operating in an environment where many disciplines come together. In a place where you are surrounded by people who have different skills than you have, it is less important to share and transfer all that knowledge (if possible at all), it becomes more important to know where to find specific knowledge, if you do not have the skills or resources nearby. If your network is vast and becomes vaster, you might be able to locate resources that can help you out.

The question I ask here implicitly (well, I just externalized it in a way I suppose) is how to organize yourself in an environment where knowledge is located at many places (scattered), and where that knowledge is diverse. You can be quite sure that the person or persons you need are out there, so it should become easier to locate these resources whenever you need them. Is this ‘knowledge management’ (again, a very diffuse term)? Or is it a step to self-organization in an environent where the required ‘knowledge’ is out there?

Assuming that such a scenario is desirable, the next question would be how to reach such a situation. However tempting to explore the latter, I think the former deserves some more attention. Therefore I should be somewhat conservative, make a step backwards and ask:

Are we in an environment where knowledge is diverse (considering people, location and type of knowledge), and is it important/desired to be able to locate this knowledge somehow?

I hope this blogpost leads to making this question better, more relevant, or even obsolete, and can help me to a next step: organize yourself in an environment where knowledge is located at many places (scattered), and where that knowledge is diverse.

An introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 7, 2009

The last six months we had a student from the University of Amsterdam as an intern, Bob Stukart, who did research on innovation in online communities. The aim of the research was to determine how the potential innovative output of innovation-aimed firm-hosted online communities is affected by sociological factors. For us this was relevant, because at Favela Fabric we foster innovation and collaboration. Our moderators try to facilitate this process by various strategies. One of the strategies we use is intervention, and this research contributed to this. By studying the effects of particular behavior on interaction, knowledge is created about possible interventions that may be applied to limit inhibiting behavior and facilitate creative behavior. This knowledge about consequences of particular behavior may also be valuable with regard to knowing what and how things should or should not be said by particular users. Moderators can use this knowledge for the management of such communities. This way the potential innovative output from such communities could be enhanced. His research of course was scientific as well, and this brought him to the following research question:

How do interpretive schemes, facilities and norm behavior affect innovation-related behavior in innovation aimed firm-hosted online communities?

Now I was very much taken into the research with him because I was his supervisor during this time. And that brings me to the most influencial theory which was used, the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens, which is quite abstract. I will save the results of the research of Bob for later, this post will introduce the structuration theory. The last weeks I mentioned the importance of structure, but not too rigid, such as in the post ‘Coordinated Chaos‘. The structuration theory of Giddens (1984) can help us here I think. Structure is defined by Giddens as rules and resources, organized as properties of social systems.

Giddens' duality of structure

Giddens' duality of structure

The structuration theory of Giddens is a sociologic one. The relationship between the individual and society is of central concern to this theory. Social phenomena are neither the product of structure or agency alone, but of both. Objective social structures are defined by properties of society as a whole and autonomous human agents are defined as properties of the individual (Giddens, 1984). Giddens contends that structure and interaction are a mutually constitutive duality. This duality is somewhat comparable to the reification – participation duality from the Communities of Practice framework of Wenger.

If we look at the figure above, there are three dimensions of structure, which are signification, domination and legitimation. The three dimensions of interaction are described as communication, power and sanctions. The means by which structures are translated into actions are called modalities, which are interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. These modalities can explain why and how interaction is affected. Without going too much in detail, the first dimension refers to production of meaning (e.g. a person with a white coat in the hospital has the role of a doctor), the second to degrees of power (e.g. a police officers’ uniform enable them to fine somebody who broke the speed limit) and the third to societal norms (e.g. formal clothing during most interviews).

In short, structure is something that can be set, it’s organized at the beginning. According to Giddens, they are allocative and authorative resources, and social and formulated rules. Modality can be seen as the tools, it makes interaction possible, and can be influenced along the way. The result is that social interaction, for example on communities, is influenced by structure and the three modalities interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. The interpretive scheme translates structure into actions.

The research of Bob focuses on how this modalities can be made more concrete by the use of creativity and roles. I believe the structuration theory of Giddens helped him a lot during his study. And I think although quite abstract, the theory might help us as well if we talk about online collaborative spaces, or Enterprise 2.0. I think I will end this post here, as an introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens. And maybe we can discuss this theory here. For example, could it be helpful when designing online collaborative spaces?

Parts of this post were extracted form the thesis of Bob Stukart. A future post will zoom in on his study and the results.

Coordinated chaos

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 22, 2009

Why do some social media initiatives make it, and others not? The success can’t be assured a priori. Take the example of FriendFeed. I never used it, but the technology was outstanding people say. It was the first service that made use of realtime updates for example. Of course, for the founders things turned out quite well, because Facebook acquired it recently. For open social networks, mass is needed. People can choose their service freely, and positive network effects strongly influences who will win or lose.  The more people you know use Facebook, the more likely it is for you to use it too, and to abandon FriendFeed for example. You’re not really locked-in like you are with using Microsoft Windows and Office, although that latter lock-in is declining with the advance of free web-based alternatives.

YinYangIt is different for corporate social networks. First, it is less social. Not everybody in your life can be connected, just your colleagues. Second, there are mostly no alternatives available. The company chooses to introduce an Enterprise 2.0 application, custom made or out of the box. It’s there just for the company. Third, for the most people, it will only be used during working hours, not very much in the weekends. Fourth, it serves different purposes, like more effective collaboration, not just sharing cool things or experiences that are very funny. However, when people share those it’s a sign they feel comfortable out there. Fifth, there are even more differences. All these differences are a given, and are important when designing and introducing a corporate social network.

Traction Software explains it very well on their blog. INNATS. It’s Not Not About The Structure. Structure is important, but too much structure is a problem, as well as too less structure. Hence Not Not. Starting from scratch is not a good idea, but reinventing the wheel over and over again isn’t either. The right amount of freedom to be able to express your creativity, to find the right information in the chaos, and coming back for more on a regular basis because it contributes to your job and the tasks you have, that’s an important factor for success of a corporate social network.

Setting the scene is what it’s about. Or better, knowing scenes a priori that could be the starting point of a flourishing corporate social network. You never know if it will flourish, but it pays to look for the right balance between coordination and chaos. Like with open social networks, positive feedback can make it happen faster once the right balance is found. And the initial state of the network has great influence on what wll happen later on, like the butterfly effect (great movie btw).

Participation

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on August 13, 2009

This post is about participation. The comments on the last posts inspired me to have a look in that direction (thanks Tim and Stephen). Earlier, I mentioned the theories of Etienne Wenger about communities of practice. Some key elements are meaning, participation and reification. For a detailed summary on communities of practice I refer the blog of Tim Hoogenboom, a recommended read. Here I will try to focus on participation. The following is an introduction from Wenger, where he describes the assumtion on which the communities of practice theory is built:

Communities of Practice presents a theory of learning that starts with this assumption: engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are. The primary unit of analysis is neither the individual nor social institutions but rather the informal “communities of practice” that people form as they pursue shared enterprises over time.

Participation

This assumption correspondents with the thoughts of Stephen Billing, that you cannot design or manipulate the organization-wide patterns that emerge from these interactions – you can only participate yourself as a human being. I agree, designing an organization does not result in something foreseen, but people can respond to an organizational design such as a vision and strategies. A context is created for people to respond to, and to participate in. This duality of design and ‘the practice’ both influence each other. This alignment is constantly renegotiated because circumstances change, the formation of people change, and people learn.

I believe that participation is the most important variable in his framework. Participation is about communication, interaction, experience and the like. Participation is the process of taking part and also to the relation with others that reflect this process, as Wenger puts it. Participation is a starting point, when communication and coordination is settled. Self-organization is a process as well, as my definition points out, or more probable, my current definition. Maybe participation is a candidate to make it to the next version of the definition.

Wenger uses the term participation to describe the social experience of living in the world in terms of memberships in social communities and active involvement in social enterprises. It is both a personal and social process that combines doing, talking, thinking, feeling and belonging, and involves the whole person, including the body, the mind, emotions and social relations. Participation is quite complex.

Why do I make participation so important? I really believe that self-organization can not completely be designed, because it’s a process that depends on both the organization and people. This process maybe can be described similar to participation. Wenger always uses dualities in his framework. Participation and reification is one of them. The can be seen on their own, but are also interrelated and influence each other. Maybe I have to look for such dualities as well when I try to find answers for supporting self-organization and finding ways  to imbed online collaborative spaces in organizations to empower employees for self-organization. Perhaps it will be easier.

Can Luhmann help me?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 6, 2009

In the previous post I mentioned Luhmann for the first time. As his systems theory was of initial inspiration for starting this quest, I will try to elaborate on that now. Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist, or, more striking, a social theorist, and his systems theory is very interesting to say the least, but also very difficult to grasp, not only because he has written all of his work in German.

trinityimage_350

Model of autopoiesis according to Maturana and Varela (1)

So how can his theories help me in my quest? Luhmann’s core element in his theories is communication, not people, which is fundamentally different from traditional social sciences. Communicative actions of people are constituted (but not defined) by society, and society is constituted (but not defined) by the communicative actions of people. Therefore, society is people’s environment, and people are society’s environment. His theory also states that systems evolve from their environment by chance and have no understanding of how other systems perceive their environment. This process is also known as autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, see model on the image¹), which literally means self-creation, and is closely related to self-organization but also has some recursive elements. Now his theories are not only too theoretical and abstract for now, but also tend to be too comprehensive and raises new questions such as the double contingency problem. Therefore I will try to focus on how his theories or parts of his theories can help me.

I think the concept of communication as a core element can help me. By focusing on communicative action of people and their societies, we’re talking really about an open system. An open system is a black box that itself changes its internal organization as a response to changes in its environment. When these changes in turn have an effect on the environment, a positive feedback loop is established.

To answer the question in the title, Luhmann can partly help me. By seeing the society as Luhmann states it as the environment, it helps me to give direction to cope with self-organization. It helps to see the communicative actions of people and their changing environment as an open system, which reinforce and influence each other. I think I have to focus more on this reinforcement or influence. Basically this is a continuously ongoing negotiation of meaning. Negotiation of meaning is based on the tension (or duality) between reification and participation (Wenger). That makes things less abstract because it enables me to take the context of this research into account. Probably more about the negotiation of meaning in the next post.

¹) This model of autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela) covers the complete spectrum of living systems – from the smallest organisms and animals through to communities such as social insects right through to advanced human societies.

Measuring self-organization

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 3, 2009

Talking about self-organization is very often very theoretical. Many existing theories are interesting and are necessary to understand self-organization, for example stigmergy, autopoiesis, the rules of engagement (Wenger), empowerment, swarm intelligence, collaboration and so on. But what is also needed is to find modes or levels of self-organization (thanks Tim). That is more difficult to find out. It is difficult because self-organization is an emergent process, it is very difficult to influence the dynamics of the system or to plan things a priori. What perhaps is possible is to predict certain behavior, but that has its limitations.

erm0811_fig2What can be said about human behavior is that they tend to follow some trends. That can be seen with buying products, listening to certain kinds of music, living lifestyles or following political thoughts. These behaviors can be classified as social. The same can be said about self-organization. It is an emergent process, but an emergent social process as well. Perhaps the only factor to apply with these processes is to influence human behavior. For example, if some people tend to buy certain products, other people can be influenced by that behavior and buy the same. This phenomenon is also known as positive feedback. If enough people believe that something is true, their behavior makes it true, and observations of their behavior in turn increase belief. I think the current predominant public opinion about the various crises is a good example.

But the problem remains. How can an increase in organization be measured if there are no outside forces? Should it be measured from the inside instead? Measuring an emergent process can perhaps only be done while it is happening, in real-time. If that is true, monitoring of processes is extremely important. So while monitoring, what can be considered important to monitor? Social interactions between individuals is  probably where to begin with. Where the system does not have direct influence on behavior, individual behavior does. People respond to behavior of others, where the behavior of all people is not controlled by outside forces, by the system so to say, but by themselves. Autopoiesis and the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann can point me in some right directions here probably.

Interactions between people can have various reasons to occur. Not too long ago I read that the majority of communication between people is gossip. But when measuring self-organization in online collaborative spaces, people do have a shared practice. I think that gossip plays a less important (but not one to underestimate) role here. I think I will follow Tim’s tips and have a look at Wenger again. Luckily, he’s sharing the same practice at the moment by writing down a great summary of the communities of practice theory. That can point me to the right directions perhaps.

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