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

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?

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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….

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.