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

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).

Interview with Jordan Frank from Traction

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 15, 2009

TeampageThe recent discussion on ‘Self-organization defined‘ where Jordan Frank from Traction Software commented on, triggered me to ask him some questions on the Teampage product in relation to self-organization. And as you can notice from the title of the blog, I’m interested in online collaborative spaces as well. Luckily, Jordan was so kind to answer my (many) questions. This post in an interpretation of some of the topics we discussed.

When I asked Jordan to explain Traction in maximum 100 words, he said: “Traction TeamPage is an enterprise social software platform. While TeamPage offers the wiki, blog, tagging, discussion and document management features people seek in a social software or collaboration platform, TeamPage goes beyond traditional expectations to deliver critical functionality that is need by most, if not all, enterprises. Simple examples include social tagging across differently permissioned spaces, content moderation model, a view/query model that lets you easily organize pages around your use case or work objectives, and an audit trail that goes beyond edit history”. The video below explains some more.

I’m really impressed by the loosely organized pieces of information in Teampage. One example is the manner in which it does not type content so finely that a given page can be a Wiki page or a Blog post or a Comment – rather, each entry flows into the blog-stream and may be assigned a Wiki page name or may have a relationship which makes it appear as a comment. Another example is the treatment of every paragraph as an object which can be tagged, linked to or commented upon. This solves a ‘problem’ I run into in my daily life, by having to choose when to use a wiki, blog, comment, tweet, or resort to an e-mail or whatever, the place (or silo, see a great story about Silo Smashing and Sharepoint) unnaturally confines the content, or the conversation. That’s the promising aspect of Google Wave as well, I think. Jordan thinks a little different of Google Wave:

I don’t think Google Wave is the holy grail in this respect. I see it as a protocol for interaction and threading. While it greatly improves item level discussion versus email, it won’t necessarily span workspaces or offer anything close to the capabilities that TeamPage does. But we can use it to great advantage – much better for capturing synching external conversation and internal history. Should be fun to implement. We are making heavy use of Google Web Toolkit in our next interface.

Clients of Traction Software use Teampage for a number of purposes such as for project management, intranet sites, market research, competitive intelligence, communities of practice and as a knowledge base. Jordan says:

The system easily organizes around use cases rather than shaping the workspace based on the technology used to implement it. As one example, rather than having a ‘blog’ and a ‘wiki’, an HR space may have a ‘Policy’ section and a ‘Questions’ section. That space may also be moderated, which may be a requirement for the organization – otherwise a less capable wiki just wouldn’t be allowed.

When we talk about self-organization, it is very important to set some constraints, or to remove them, all in order to let people ‘organize’ themselves easier. That’s what the consensus on the ‘Self-organization defined’ topic is. Translated to software or online collaborative spaces, I asked Jordan how this can be done in Teampage.

You can set constraints by providing templates, a starting set of labels (tags) and sections. Sections are like portlets in a space. A Project management team may have sections for meeting notes and issues, for example. Each section may be associated with article/page template. So, a meeting agenda template may launch from a meeting notes page section. If we talk at having freedom for the users of the software, there is any freedom you would expect in any other blog/wiki/tagging environment. The starting sections and labels in a template are just that, a starting point. A person in charge of the space can enforce some controls, or leave it fairly open.

Defining self-organization is not very straightforward. That’s one of the reasons that the earlier blogpost generated so much discussion. When I asked Jordan to his understanding of self-organization, he said:

In my context, it’s enabling individuals to organize themselves and their content without constraints that they don’t want. This acknowledges a need for constraints that may be helpful. This acknowledges that an organizational structure (be it top-down or matrix) may be necessary or simply helpful.

Key is to make use of existing organizational structures, and play with constraints. Keep them, make them or bypass them where necessary. Structures can always change, and Jordan explains this with a sports analogy, when I asked him about his earlier statement that self-organization often works better when there is some starting structure. What did he mean here?

I mean that a blank white page is very intimidating, and doesn’t necessarily assist team play. To use a sports analogy, Zone defense is a bit less structured than man-on-man. Zone defense requires constant adjustments and on-field co-ordination. So, there is a structure indicating an area a player defends at the start, but the structure may change as a play is executed and the players self-organize to adapt. Out of 10 types of activities, a project team may discover that their most pressing need is to document requirements and discuss issues. You may structure a space, initially, around these two use cases and you may go as far as gaining management backing (or mandate). At any time, individuals may go beyond the starting structure by posting other types of content, but they start by creating some gravity and a consistent process for documenting requirements and resolving issues.

It’s great that Teampage is very flexible concerning creating a starting point, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m really impressed by the loosely organized pieces of information in Teampage. But still, software alone is not going to make a difference. In my view, it’s an important part of a greater process. How do people use the software, and how is it going to make their (professional) life easier, more efficient, more fun, in other words, what is needed to help both the company as their employees (and everybody these people work for) to benefit? What is needed besides software? And where can software help to fulfil those needs? Is it part of a company’s culture? I think I will end here with these questions in mind……

Purpose of collaboration: collaboration

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

Root SpiralWhy do people collaborate? To achieve goals (or to generate whatever type of output) and then quit? No, people collaborate in order to keep collaborating. Time is being invested to be able to invest more time together. Of course, the quality of the time spent on collaborating and the quality of temporary output will influence the probability that collaboration will continue in this formation in a positive way. If people like each other and like the process of collaboration together, people are likely to continue to organize themselves together. That makes collaboration an important purpose of collaboration. This corresponds to one of the important findings of Mark Elliott, which says:

Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative output. [..] Another caveat to the second primary component, creative output, is that the output may take the form of an ongoing process instead of a final conclusion. An example would be an intimate relationship—the parties involved may collaborate very closely towards the successful continuance of the collaborative process.

If we translate this to collaborative software, it should therefore not just be goal-orientated, but collaboration orientated as well. Multiple types of output during the process of collaboration can be good, there is not just one single output that’s acceptable. That said, there must be an initial purpose to start the collaborative process in the first place. Why do we start collaborating? I think it’s the best suited strategy if many people are involved and needed to create output, to generate possible solutions to problems, when people can choose to enter or leave the collaborative process, when access to the process is open to all collaborators (in a stigmergic way), and when new problems can come to surface during the collaborative process. The latter enables the continuation of the process.

In practice, the most important thing is to get the conversation started. Once it is started, it is easier to have it continued. So how do we get the process started, and have it continued and even sustainable at online collaborative spaces as well? So who do we start with? Just lead-users or as many people as possible right away? What are the traces that are set in the beginning? What are barriers to enter or how do we remove those barriers? What are the triggers for people to embrace the common subjects? What kind of output are we after? When can people step out of the process and can others step in? When is it self-sustainable?

All above questions are valid, probably hundreds more are. But it all starts with the same problem, how is the conversation getting started? Is it a big-bang or is it evolutionary? After that, in short, my pledge on collaboration: The journey is the destination….

Organic organizations

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 1, 2009

emergenttreeMany discussions have passed the past month about organizations. We all agree that organizations are complex. Some say it are complex systems, others that it are complex constellations, and again others that it are complex social arrangements. Organizations are complex for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that humans are involved. Individual human being which all have unique characteristics and behavior. Behavior that never can be predicted completely, which is tried to be controlled in the past but it’s inevitable impossible to control and undesired if you ask me. To let human beings flourish in their daily life is difficult, not the least because of ourselves. But it can do no harm to not control people. Human behavior is so unpredictable, so unique, so evil and so delightful all at the same time, that’s a given. I will not explain the nature of humanity, not only because I can’t, but our behavior seems to me that it can be quite organic. Like all living organisms, humans are autonomous, have emergent characteristics, can adapt, evolve and learn, all gradually.

When you agree that the most important assets of an organization are us humans as living beings, the most important characteristic of an organization could be that it’s organic. The funny thing is that the term ‘Organic organization‘ exists for about 50 years, but was never proven to exist. It has some similarities with concept of autopoiesis. Wikipedia explains:

For an organization to be organic, people in it should be equally leveled, with no job descriptions or classifications, and communication to have a hub-network-like form. It thrives on the power of personalities, lack of rigid procedures and communication and can react quickly and easily to changes in the environment thus it is said to be the most adaptive form of organization.

However, I think it helps to think as organizations as organic, because it’s too difficult to understand the dynamics of human behavior. And even if we could understand it, we could never act to it, or manage an organization in a way that could take full advantage of human behavior. I also think that the explanation of Chris Rodgers on organizational dynamics, design and development are a very good starting point to understand the diversity of an organization.

We probably all agree on what is important for employees, and on the long term for an organization, is employee happiness. Employees that are happy on their job, are more valuable, more responsible, more motivated and by their positive attitude help the organization be more profitable, what’s good for all employees. Again, that is simplistic put, but organizations, like human beings, are too diverse and complex to understand, but the state of the core assets of organizations should be considered the most important. Maybe even independent on what the goals of the organizations are. Maybe the organization should change it’s goals depending on the people that are with it, because the formation of employees will change continually. Can we learn something from this point of view?

Participative management

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 25, 2009

RipplesThe post ‘Self-organization defined‘ generated so much discussion, it has fed me with many new insights. Thanks so much. Your visions about self-organizing, participation, management, organizations, emergence and others are well argumented and show deep understanding, and luckily you don’t always agree. I hope I was not the only one who learned from the discussion.

One of the things that made me think was that self-organization is something we just do. It can’t be managed or empowered. Employees always self-organize, albeit with given constraints and power relations. Stephen rephrases part of my problem statement with saying:

How can we change the constraints and power relating so that different patterns will emerge from the self-organization?

One of the directions we should be looking at is the concept of participative management. And that makes me think of the framework of Wenger again, which is always about dualities. Of course he applies the framework to organizations as well. For example, this is how Wenger describes the dimensions of organizational design:

  1. participation and reification – trade-offs of institutionalization
  2. the designed and the emergent – two sources of structure in organizations
  3. the local and the global – combining local forms of knowledgeability
  4. fields of identification and negotiability – institutional identities as key to organizational learning

All dualities are interesting and can be discussed thoroughly, but regarding the post where I tried to define self-organization I will give the most attention to the second duality, the designed and the emergent. An organization is the meeting of two sources of structure, the designed structure of the institution and the emergent structure of the practice. One can question whether the structure of the practice can be designed, or if constraints and rules can be designed, or if the constraints are the structure. Anyway, one of the questions Wenger asks himself here are what the obstacles are to responsiveness to the emergent. In other words, what keeps the emergent from being acted upon? Or how can emergent patterns be recognized?

One of the things we should investigate is the concept of participative management. For example at Semco, they believe that Semco is different from most companies that have participatory management because employees are given the power to make decisions. Even ones, with which the CEO wouldn’t normally agree. That is of course their vision, but I believe that managers that participate not only in the processes he or she is required or expected to do so, but in other processes as well, influence the constraints of emergent behavior by others. These processes or practices can be on the work floor, on other departments, or wherever in the company in order to participate and know more about other aspects of the company.  By doing that, these other employees get to know more of management problems and opportunities as well, which can stimulate more emergent behavior, or if you like self-organization, or more initiatives from the self. Does that influence culture (thanks Paula for mentioning Zappo) as well? Can it be called designing by participation? Does it create conflicts that recognizes problems? Does it foster innovation? Does it create more responsibility? These are other questions that pop up by writing this down.

Open space

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on August 18, 2009

This quest focuses both on self-organization and online collaborative spaces. So far, the first has gotten the most attention. In this post I will address the latter subject. Open space falls within this category and is very much related to self-organization as well. Open space, or Open Space Technology (OST), is a method to work with large groups of people, varying from 10 to 1,000 and even larger. The creators of this method claim that by using this method, it will be easier to solve complex and controversial problems. They also claim that it works best where other traditional methods fail. It’s a self-organizing process as well, participants construct the agenda and schedule during the meeting itself. The following are the four principles of the method:

Open space principles

Open space principles

  1. the participants are always the right people
  2. what happens, is the only thing that can happen
  3. it begins whenever it begins
  4. when it’s over, it’s over

These principles are very open ended, and the method claims that this is why it is so effective. There is no need to prepare upfront, just a theme is announced. When practiced, people gather is concentric circles, depending on the size of the group. There is just one facilitator that enables the session can take place. People can identify issues or opportunities related to the theme and can apply to discuss these topics. Many groups form, and when you feel you can’t contribute you can just leave and join another group. These discussions can last for a few hours. Afterwards these groups can continue online. There are some online solutions available as well, such as OpenSpace-Online, but there probably are more.

What can we learn from open space? Well, personally a lot. It’s quite new for me so I have to dig deep into this. But I can see opportunities when we take the problem statement into account. This method definitely supports self-organization, and organizations seem a very realistic target. But the key to success are as always people and their behaviour. The four principles seem quite easy to understand, but when working with large groups, other factors that our counter-productive will play a role as well. Does anyone know of people that have some experience with this method or have experience themselves? You are very much invited to let me know and help me learn about this method.

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.

The democratic organization

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on August 10, 2009

Last week I stumbled on a presentation of Netflix about their company culture. Almost instant I felt the people that made this ‘reference guide on their freedom and responsibility culture’ was very much inspired by the story of Ricardo Semler about his company Semco in his book Maverick which I’m reading at the moment. It is indeed a very inspiring book. Both companies seem to have found ways to empower employees to think and decide by themselves instead of being managed and judged by others, usually a higher level of management. At Semco, you can decide your own working hours, your own clothes, there are very little to no rules that prevent you from doing what you think is best, many can set their own salary but all salaries are known to everybody else, and so on.

The employees sort of organize themselves. They are given to power and trust to do so.  Everything is very democratic, everybody has a say in what should be decided on the workplace. The most existing organizational structures are outdated according to Semler, especially classic hierarchical organizations. Semler really changed the organization which was first led by his father. Of course, this change did not became reality very fast, because Semler himself made many mistakes at first, and many employees that stood in the way were fired. But eventually he learned and the employees learned, and now it’s a very successful company.

If we look at the problem statement for this quest, one of the important parts is ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?’ I think we can learn so much from theory, but we can learn so much more from real examples such as Semco. Employees at Semco really have the power to self-organize, and they feel and know they are trusted to act like it. Trust is very important. Another related value which seems important is freedom. Freedom to decide when you arrive at work, what your salary is, and so on. At Semco it seems that the given trust and freedom results in being responsible for delivering high quality products. It really benefits the company.

When I have  finished reading the book, I will write another post about it and what I learned from it. At this point it is interesting to show the presentation of Netflix. Some values are very similar to Semco, but others are very different as well. What is inspiring, is that both companies seem to be very different from existing organizations.

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.