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

The inevitable instability of systems

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 2, 2013

Sometimes we tend to believe in the stability of systems. Systems are sometimes designed, think about road- or rail systems, or sometimes they are discovered, like stellar systems or the behavior of ant colonies. We design for the best, making it as robust as possible. Or when we discover them, we are amazed about the complexity of it. In most cases, we just don’t understand them with the universe as we know it as the best example.

Why is it that we tend to think that systems need to be stable? Cant’t we just accept that everything where energy (or another flow) is involved is by definition unstable? Sometimes a system appears to be stable, but in time it will become unstable and ultimately it will collapse. Road systems will collapse because too many cars drive on them, because there is not enough construction, or because they become superfluous. Stellar systems are unstable because they will collapse with others or they faint away (no more energy), and ant colonies will disappear.

My understanding is that every system that is created at some point will disappear at another point, and that energy is the fuel that is needed to create and maintain it, but that energy will also destroy it. Without energy a system is dead (maybe stable?), therefore it is inevitable that a system is unstable by definition. So the only stable system might be a dead system. Characteristics of a system are structure, behavior and interconnectivity, all three influence each other resulting in change in those characteristics. While a system exists, those three characteristics influence and change each other. At one point a minor change can start the disruption of the system.

Stable vs. unstable

By accepting that systems are per definition unstable, can we design better systems? Let go of control, and accept that the end of one system can mean the beginning of another. Or by letting two systems collapse in a controlled manner, this can mean the start of a new (and perhaps better) one. If we bring this philosophy into organizations (or economies), what can we learn from this? Can we develop new design principles that respect the temporal nature of systems? What is we always include a scenario of the end of the system while we design it? I think this would be a lot better. Think about the current banking issues. Banks collapse, and we try to ‘save’ them. It is basically a quick fix without thinking things through. We think this system is needed, but we haven’t thought through alternatives, and certainly did not think about what to do when this system might fail at some point, certainly not when this system was introduced.

The banking system is not needed for humanity. At some point it seemed a good system for us, and it still might be for some time despite the huge financial injections. But this system is not there forever, and we have seen it’s weaknesses. One of the best example of a temporary system is the democratic system. By definition we accept that they are unstable, and we’ve built in rules to make sure it will collapse quickly. It is not the most efficient system, but it is a system that renews itself on a regular basis. While the democratic system itself can collapse as well, we do not try to make it efficient and stable. That would bring us to dictatorship, which is efficient but has it’s disadvantages.

So, maybe more questions than answers or solutions, and maybe questions that were asked many times before, but some questions need to be asked again and again. Last but not least: systems are interconnected not only with itself, but also with other systems. Let’s not forget that one while designing systems. Instability of one system might be needed (or even crucial, think about day and night, rain and drought) for the stability of another.

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How do we make the shift from individual to group social capital?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, social network analysis by Bas Reus on June 13, 2013

Social capital remains an ambiguous term. The last decades it is used often, and often for different meanings. Recently, Chris Jones also mentioned it and raises great questions. Sometimes I also refer to social capital, but I learned to use the term with care, or at least explain what you mean by it when you mention it. You could avoid the term completely because of the ambiguity, but I prefer to keep using it.

Because it is being used for multiple meanings, but always related, I like to use it by combining at least two versions of the term. For example, The fact that it can refer to the social capital of a person (whatever exact definition you would give it) and for a group, makes it a multilevel concept. Somehow, the social capital of all persons in a group combined and the social capital of the group seem to be similar, but it’s really not. Making the step from one level to another must be done with great care.

This can be the basis for new challenges in research. Oh, Labianca and Chung (2004, 2006) did a great job with this challenge. In a way, because a group is made up of people, the individual social capital of these people is related to the social capital of the group. Under what conditions can the group perform? What is needed in terms of closure in the group, and bridging with other groups? What is the role of the individual people that are member of a group? What about people that belong to multiple groups?

In my current research, I focus on behavior of people in online groups. I look at people who form bridges between groups, distinguishing between the number of people that form the same bridge. We found some solid results there, which creates questions about what this means for the group or groups. So perhaps I need to make the step from the individual to the group, and probably social capital will be included in such research.

Below you will find my presentation for the Sunbelt 2013 conference in Hamburg last month. These are my first baby steps in the world of social network analysis research, and to me, (group) social capital is still a holy grail somehow…

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Attending the Sunbelt 2013 conference in Hamburg

Posted in social network analysis by Bas Reus on May 22, 2013

This week I’m attending my first conference as a PhD candidate. It’s called Sunbelt 2013, and because it is in Hamburg and it rains non-stop, it better could be named Rainbelt. Nonetheless, this is the place to be this week for network researchers. And as I’m studying social networks, I’m glad to be here as well.

As a newbie, I can see it’s definitely a place where people meet old friends, make new friends and where it’s fun being part of it. Especially when on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights the drinks are included.

Yesterday and today I attended a workshop on dynamic networks and the software program ORA presented by Jürgen Pfeffer from the Carnegie Mellon university. A great tool, and when you are looking at temporal data, I think it’s essential. Probably a tool I can use in the near future.

Starting this afternoon, and continuing until Sunday morning, there are sessions where everyone can present their work. There are so many parallel sessions, that you will miss most of them because you have to choose carefully which ones to attend.

And as far as going into town and see what Hamburg has to offer, there is limited time for that as the Sunbelt program is very full, and I have to prepare for my presentation on Saturday morning as well. I will talk about people who bridge online groups by being an active member in multiple groups (which is slightly different from what you read behind the link). The data for the research comes from the online community we support at one of our clients from Favela Fabric, where I work.

At the picture below you see my view at the moment, it looks kind of silent and peaceful, but it’s getting busier every minute.  Now I will continue to prepare my presentation while I still have some time…

View from the west wing building 2nd floor.

View from the west wing building 2nd floor.

Overlapping communities by multiple group membership: quantum behavior in social networks

In social network analysis, a network often looks quite simple, when you zoom in to a certain section. People are nodes, and they are connected to other nodes. Sometimes a connection means friendship, but it could also refer to advice giving, dislikes, knows, etc. etc. I’d like to see a connection as “works together with”, and nodes as people in a certain context, for example a large organization. In organizations  nodes often belong to a cluster of nodes resulting in closed networks or clusters where ties are strong, and some nodes connect clusters, making them brokers. These ties are less strong. These networks are often visualized as a snapshot in time for sake of simplicity, and more often than not are overly simplified for readability purposes. Where people in organizational settings used to be member of one or two work-groups, nowadays with the rise in online collaborative spaces this membership is much more dynamic and volatile. Membership is much more voluntary than it is designed, groups emerge and dissolve faster and easier, and resources (knowledge, skills) come more from members themselves instead of the organization. Especially in the online world, albeit in organizational settings, this is and will be the case more often (well, in knowledge intensive organizations that is).

The above results in people being member of more groups than they were before. This can be as a core member in one or more teams, and it can be in the periphery in other teams. In social network terms this results in overlapping communities. There appear many bridges not made up of two different people (nodes), but a single node is forming a bridge by being a member of two or more communities at the same time. This is coined as a “structural fold” by Vedres and Stark (2010) as opposed to a “structural hole” coined by Burt (1992). To me, the “structural fold” is in abstract terms comparable to quantum mechanics. Where atoms in quantum-land can switch positions instantly (well, not exactly, but it can appear that way), people can too, when working with online collaborative tooling. It is common for many people to work at more than one project at the same time, dividing their time on different projects, not always knowing beforehand where to work on at what moment. That makes it possible to bring in knowledge and situations from one project to another almost instantly and by the same person. In network visualizing, there is a world to discover here. When a person connects two groups by being a core member for both, visualization could be relatively easy with Venn-diagrams. However, with more simultaneous multiple group memberships, and with more nodes in the network showing the same behavior, visualizing would be very challenging. I found the image below that illustrates what I’m referring to. The majority of the nodes are member of more than one group at the same time. With these numbers the visualization is good to interpret, but with growing numbers this will be a problem. Try to visualize overlapping communities with more than 10.000 people and hundreds of communities.

vantage-cots

We see nodes being connected to other nodes, and being part of multiple groups. In this simplified example it is quite easy to interpret. In a global and large organization this would be quite problematic. Maybe when we add dimensions things would become easier. However, when introducing the quantum behavior as I just mentioned would introduce new difficulties when visualizing. Perhaps we have to let go of a person being a single node, a person can be many nodes at once. Person 1 can be at different ‘places’ simultaneously, and when a person is in which position is unknown, and perhaps irrelevant. The same is the case for person 2, 3, … n-2, n-1 and n. Showing and integrating their networks would be a great challenge. Maybe we can learn from current quantum visualizations. Nodes circling or jumping through network space via hidden dimensions. Although I wouldn’t be too happy when the controversial string theory would enter the social network space… Bottom line: a picture tells a thousand words, but that’s not always enough.

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Social capital measures in dynamic social networks?

Posted in social network analysis by Bas Reus on August 22, 2012

I’ve been reading literature about social network analysis (SNA) lately for my research. A lot is written about SNA. About analyzing, about measures, about SNA in organizations, and many more. However, many research does not address the value of the potential (or past) changes in the network, it especially addresses the value (social capital) of a snapshot of the network, the value of the existing social ties. Think about measures like density, distance, centrality, bridges, structural holes and weak ties, or, more qualitatively, trust, norms, power and autonomy.

In my view, it is not complete to study social networks as static. They were formed sometime before the analysis, there are reasons it became that way. It’s a bit like the universe, it changes continuously with changing nodes, relations and meaning of the relationships between nodes. Analysis of a network is always a snapshot in time. How the network will or can evolve is at least as interesting and important, because that will determine a snapshot at a later moment. The (social) reality that we live in now, is determined by the earlier realities, and the current reality will influence the possible future realities. Therefore we cannot deny the dynamic nature of a social network.

Now, can we determine the possible future directions of a network, for example in organizations? Can we identify what determined the current state of a social network? With the advance of online communities, and the vast amount of recorded data of relations and communication between people, perhaps we can. What network characteristics in the past influences the current network as it is? We can look at new entrants (nodes) which brings new opportunities, new knowledge, new relations over time. We can also look at nodes that disappeared (left the company) or changed position (got promoted). We can look at changing goals of individuals, departments or the company, and we can look at changing outside conditions (legislation, competitors, drastic events). There are many more things we can look at.

Not everything that we can identify in a social network snapshot is because of chance or fate. We probably can point to events in history that influenced the current state of the network. People made changes in their network themselves, or outside events triggered changes. Events can also be gradual, like the growing of a particular group within a network, that caused some change elsewhere in the network, which is an important asset in the current state.

So I’m thinking about looking for social capital measures in dynamic social networks, in the context of organizations, by comparing multiple snapshots in the past. It can hopefully be used to explain how networks work, and how they can evolve by making possible scenario’s, and what is needed to go for a preferred scenario. Do you think this would be interesting?

From social capital to social fabric

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 16, 2012

Recently I’ve been reading about topics like social capital and knowledge from a network point of view. Networks (in organizations) are quite an interesting point of view, because it represents the ‘real’ flow of information, knowledge, advice, ideas, gossip, etc. Some networks form naturally, being intrinsic of nature, and some are being formed extrinsically. A little bit of both would be the best for an organization, because not all networks would be beneficial in such an environment. With the progress of online possibilities, both can be accomplished. How to ‘design’ online networks is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and how they develop is unique in every situation, but both can be guided to some extent. Both design and emergent processes determine the structure of the network.

An interesting article I’ve read recently was “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice” (Wasko and Faraj, 2005). What are motivations for people to exchange advice and ideas to others that they don’t know? It’s interesting, because it’s what we see all the time. I’ve learnt a great deal from people who left a comment on this blog, most of them (you) just leave a comment based on common interest, not afraid to share their expertise, no expectations for reciprocity or feeling obliged, but just eager to have a conversation on a subject that is a shared interest. So my thesis from experience is that sharing is a good thing, not only here but in organizations as well.

What happens on blogs like these is completely voluntary. Time is available in abundance. In organizations, the situation is a bit different. One of the reasons is time, which is a scarce resource at work, and must be justified to a great extent. It can take a long time for valuable networks to develop, therefore it makes sense to speed up this process a bit, and make it justifiable to spend the scarcely available time on. Typically, organizations are organized in a way that people who need to (or have been told to) work together, are located close by. Organizations are familiar with the concept of designing the organization, like an organization chart and locations of employees. For a great deal, this behavior is copied to an online environment. While this can have disadvantages (eg. showing off), it is an opportunity to speed up the process. It makes sense to walk on two tracks here, the designed, and the evolving. Or does it…… Am I getting a little bit of track here?

My point is that social capital in organizations should be fostered, so it can develop more quickly and become more sustainable. Social capital points to the collective capital of a constellation of people, also known as a (social) network. While people can leave the network, the social capital still remains. The better the network is formed (determining on the purpose), the better the organization is equipped for changes in the network. The advance of enterprise social networks is an enabler for this capital, but it won’t happen automatically. (I dislike the term ‘enterprise social network’ when it’s used for a product, because it has a false promise in it.) A network only becomes social when it has acquired social capital over time. It becomes sustainable. Its structure is solid. Its fabric becomes social.

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The importance of philosophy

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 13, 2011

Inspiration to write about something can sometimes be hard to find. That’s what’s happened to me this year. For whatever reason, writing on this blog didn’t happen at all. Fortunately inspiration is best found when you’re not looking for it, thanks to Chris Jones while mentioning his latest blogpost. Chris wrote about science and philosophy. He argues for a common ground called complexity. Interesting post, I would recommend anyone to read it fully. It was this post that made me think about the importance of philosophy in many fields. My reply on Chris’ post was the following:

Science is timely, philosophy is timeless. What’s true now in science can be false tomorrow. That’s a fact. In philosophy there is no true or false. What’s true in situation A, can be false in situation B. Differences in culture, beliefs, age, etc. defines what’s true or not in philosophy, and in general this diversity in thinking is considered a richness for many of us. It enables us to change perspective and rethink theories or ‘facts’ that can lead to other conclusions. In many cases it can even change the current state of science (think radical, for example the concepts of time or gravity). So science benefits from philosophy, like many fields of interest benefits from philosophy. Without philosophy, science would not progress. So therefore I would argue that science, like many other fields is a dependent of philosophy.

Because Chris put science and philosophy next to each other in a picture, like they represent two separate modes of thinking, that made me think. When you place philosophy on the right (like in the picture), then the left part is not only science. I rather would place philosophy in the center as it represents our ability to think (both left and right in the brain), and science as one of the many satellites around philosophy. Science is a product of our thinking, philosophy is the process of thinking. But what about art?

I use the term process because in philosophy, there is no common ground, no result. Only the topics are shared amongst them. Many philosophers disagree on the big questions in life. Religion, existence, free will, reason, ethics; these are the big topics that make philosophers think. The ambiguity in philosophy between many philosophers’ thinking is key to make progress here. The seeming inefficiency by disagreement is actually very effective. It’s the only way we can think from different perspectives, making it possible to advance in science, technology, political issues, human rights and so on. In that sense, philosophy is at the center of everything we can imagine. There would be no science without philosophy, neither would there be religion or ethics.

Philosophy is the process of thinking. Wisdom and knowledge (to name a few) the result. In that sense, you cannot argue that philosophy is in our right brain, or science on the right. I would compare it with the duality introduced by Wenger: “The negotiation of meaning involves the interaction of two processes, participation and reification, which form a duality“, where reification is the result of the process of participation, making the abstract more concrete.

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Sharing and buying, what’s our currency?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on December 30, 2010

Discussions about new currencies in this age of sharing are not new. Many have done research about other means of value compared to money as we know it. During the rise of the internet, we exchange value more easily without the need of money. And then there is this other characteristic what really differs from money: abundance. Nowadays there is an abundance of knowledge, an abundance of people who know how to find people for specific needs, or willing to share experiences, ideas or knowledge about numerous subjects like travel, product reviews, music or even business experiences. The latter is rather difficult for many people. Sharing is all good they would say, but about personal stuff rather than professional. Why share all your knowledge about foreign markets, while you’ve spent all your working life to build it up?

That question is an interesting one to answer. Why would you do that? And if you would, with whom? It can represent your competitive advantage, an advantage that you would like to keep intact. As with many seeming threats, it’s better to seek for ways to use the ‘threat’ as new chances, because if you’re not the one who’s willing to share, others will. So as a knowledge leader, someone who really is good in some specific areas, it can be a good strategy to position yourself that way. There are enough examples of ‘knowledge leaders’ that make use of channels to share their knowledge where it can be copied easily. Books are not the only way, the internet provides faster and wider spreading of the valuable information. Protecting the knowledge is not needed when you want it to be shared. It’s your new marketing channel. 37signals is my favorite example here, they try share their knowledge and strategy as much as possible, and with result.

Another interesting characteristic of sharing is its value. Knowledge (is every form, such as experiences or market knowledge) has value. Value for the sender and it’s recipients. But real value is created when people come back to the sender with unexpected responses which can lead to new insights, new ideas, or combinatorial innovation. See what happens in forums like some on LinkedIn, for example. People find each other, discuss topics, and collaborate which is good for all participants and spectators.

Sharing knowledge is not the same as giving up competitive advantages. In an age where sharing is easy, you’d better use it in your advantage. Of course, first things first, you still need enough money to make a living, but on top of that we exchange more and more without the intervention of real money. So you can ask yourself what our currency really is. It seems to shift more and more away from money as a medium of exchange, to an exchange of knowledge, experiences, which builds relationships and trust, and spurs innovation. 1+1=3. Above post is the result of sharing thoughts with a colleague about being open or closed about you business experiences, and at the same time an argument for trying to share as much as possible to encourage new ways of value creation.

Some interesting reads on this subject:

Internet altering your mind: a response

Posted in philosophy by Bas Reus on September 30, 2010

Some weeks ago, a friend pointed me to an article in The Guardian: “How the internet is altering your mind“. How interesting this article is, it does not tell how the internet is altering your mind. Only that it’s kind of rewired. Of course all experiences and new situations alter your mind. The article addresses an issue with the book The Shallows (Nicolas Carr), which claims that the amount of time we spend on the internet is changing the very structure of our brains – damaging our ability to think and to learn. And does it matter? Every moment your brain changes, your subjective history is in the making constantly.

I believe this statement of Carr is just a generalization of the human kind. We don’t become more shallow, we just are already. At least, the majority of us, depending on the definition and context you prefer to use. Arthur Schopenhauer would argue that most humans are so dependent on how they are perceived by the outside world, and on what they possess, they can not quite live with themselves on their own. They need stimulus from outside. Free time is a struggle for them, and they get bored easily. That could be an important consideration. When you are part of the network, so many stimulus can come near you from outside, you are distracted by them constantly. If you allow them to come that near. In boredom, you would allow them more than when you don’t feel emptiness, when you are thinking about new ideas or being creative. Boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence, argues Schopenhauer, you feel you need to kill time.

So the internet is able to fight your boredom, if you are connected and so bored with what you do at the moment. Exactly what the Carr predicts ironically in his book, that you probably won’t read it to the end. His book is too boring for the majority of the people, only some can make it to the end. Too many other stimulus occur in between. Carr argues that all these cry-outs for attention makes us addictive for new possible interesting activity. Checking e-mail, Facebook and Twitter compulsively makes our attention span short, and that’s a bad thing. According to Carr. To me, this is just an expression of social human behavior. We have to learn how to spend the available time so it won’t feel stressful.

Schopenhauer argues that social behavior is for not intelligent people. It’s something for animals that have a consciousness, that separates them from lower organisms. What intelligent people, or even geniuses (his terminology) separate from animals is the ability to be independent of others, they can have a great time with their mind alone. They don’t need social behavior, it even gets in their way. Luckily the great majority of the people are not geniuses, but creatures that show social behavior. And the internet is an environment where social behavior can be performed.

The internet is still in its early stages, so I think people are still using it not very efficient. In that Carr is right, attention is being spread on too many events, which makes it quite shallow. However I believe the internet will evolve to an environment that is not shallow, but allows are social behavior to flourish, at every moment of the day. It will be more integrated with the current ‘offline’ life. And human behavior won’t change that fast, technology does. Start reading a book on philosophy on the internet or on an iPad for a start, how shallow would that be?

The complexity of complexity

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on June 24, 2010

A recent discussion on Twitter on complexity triggered me to write this post. Clearly, it is a subject that is being interpreted in many (3?) ways. Complex, chaos, simple, complicated, anarchy, all terms that are being compared in order to try to understand what they (should) mean. Some argue that you can use axes and create a spectrum, where all these phenomena can be plotted upon. Others disagree with the language used, or that these levels exist for complexity. And then there are other misunderstandings or misinterpretations. For example, complexity and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are not exactly the same. We’re talking about the complexity of complexity.

Good for us humans, our thinking and behavior is quite complex as well. We are able to understand complex matter, albeit when looking back. We are used to think in linear ways, especially when we try to predict things to happen. In retrospective, we are capable of understanding things (events, behavior, etc.) that can be called complex. The most important attribute of complexity is non-linearity. Quite interesting finding, when looking back to understand phenomena it seems linear, looking ahead to the future, expect non-linear behavior. Is that complexity? No, it’s just uncertainty. Quite different things. And when looking back, uncertainty is gone, one outcome emerged in favor of many, at the time possible, outcomes.

Now I’ve almost lost myself in the above paragraph. Of course, complexity is related to uncertainty. However, the range certainty-uncertainty does not classify complexity, nor does predictability. In my view, complexity can not be classified, influenced or whatever. Complexity is an attribute of the behavior of a whole, where many actors are somehow involved and influence each other.

To me, complexity is not about systems. It’s about social phenomena. We can talk about the ‘problems’ of complexity and complex behavior, rather I’d talk about the opportunities. Dave Snowden understands this very well. Like I’ve said before regarding emergence, I’d like to say the same about complexity. It’s time to accept and embrace complexity, and to develop methods to get the most out of complex social phenomena or behavior. To be able to develop these methods it is important to understand complexity, however, I think we should not try to understand complexity fully. Our understanding will become better sooner or later, but we have to deal with it now. That’s inevitable.

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