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

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:

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Heterarchies

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 1, 2009

Many discussions about change in organizations are about the demise of hierarchies and the rise of the networks. Sure, this is a trend that can be seen, but there are not many organizations without hierarchy, and I don’t think hierarchies will diminish completely. On the contrary, hierarchies have a valid function and purpose, there are familiar and relatively simple. However what we do see, is that organizations become flatter, layers are becoming thinner or even removed, and people connect more with other people by means of technology.

Karen Stephenson acknowledges this as well, and comes with an interesting point of view: heterarchies (PDF link to article). The heterarchy consists of at least three separate hierarchies that have their own responsibilities, but must collaborate to achieve a collective good that is too complex to achieve on their own. She defines the heterarchy as follows:

A heterarchy is an organizational form somewhere between hierarchy and network that provides horizontal links permitting different elements of an organization to cooperate, while they individually optimize different success criteria.

What she seems to say, is that hierarchies have their disadvantages that are removed by networks, but either the latter doesn’t work in reality or is too complex. She’s seems to search for something is between, the best of both worlds.

According to Stephenson, it is important to have these different hierarchies engaged. Key is collaboration instead of competition. Partnerships between organizations as you wish, or between business units within large corporations. And she admits that this is not easy at all. When you try to map a large organization as a heterarchy, you have to find connectors. The table below compares the market, hierarchy, network en heterarchy on some features. It focuses on its strengths.
Heterarchies according to Karen Stephenson
I am not looking for a proper definition of heterarchies, or whether you agree with Stephenson or not (well, I’m curious for that of course), but I am more interested in how you can identify people or hubs in an organization that is a connector to other parts of the organization, but not in a hierarchical way. This identification can make such organizational forms less complex. But how do you map these people? Are they certain types of people, who you can trust? Do they have to have certain positions in an organization? Stephenson suggests the following steps:

  1. Send out a survey where people identify other people that you think are innovative, have integrity, work hard to achieve goals, that you depend upon, and ask people who should be surveyed as well.
  2. Find connectors by means of  interviews. People that score high on the surveys can be persons to ask questions to validate the survey.
  3. Connect connectors so they can exchange information, knowing that they need each other. They can connect organizational silo’s and collaborate instead of compete.

According to Stephenson there are three types of connectors, or actors in these heterarchies, hubs, gatekeepers and pulstakers. Hubs know a lot of people and act as facilitators, gatekeepers are critical connections between networks and help people to focus, and pulstakers are asked for their opinions and guard the integrity. So if you can map an organization more like a network, or like Stephenson, as a heterarchy (I’d rather call it the informal connections), what’s next? How can these hubs or connectors be more of use to the organization, how can their strengths be utilized better?

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.

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.