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

Knowledge diversity

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

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

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 or is it outdated?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

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

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

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

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

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


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……

In how many communities can you participate?

Posted in online collaborative spaces by Bas Reus on July 20, 2009

Today I would like to discuss the growing number of online communities that seem to exist. Just social communities, or commuties with a focus to work together or to innovate. Everyday new communities start, and that’s great. To have a flourishing online community, you have to have some people involved that are really contributing. Contributors (including 3% creators) make up about 10% of the visitors of online communities, according to Gartner. There are probably many people that contribute to multiple communities, depending on their available time they can put in. But the problem is, if more and more online communities exist, in how many can you participate, and as a result, how many communities can successfully exist?


I’m not trying to answer these questions here, that would probably need some real research, but I think these are viable questions. How many people will eventually be a member of any community, and how much time are they willing to invest? Is there a maximum number of communities that can exist together? Will the future tell us or can we tell something about the future? Will there always be an abundance of people who will contribute, or is that a scarce good as well?

These questions came to mind when I read the excerpt of Mushin on the P2P Foundation blog.

Where in the past there was usually enough time for societies and communities to catch up turning knowledge into understanding and eventually wisdom, this seems to be impossible today for who could keep up with the exponential growth of information and knowledge, diversity and complexity in human societies?

The expenentially growing number of communities has its drawbacks, but the environment and infrastructure of these online communities play an important role. How can you stand out as a community? Many factors play a role here. The community management team should comprise of professional people who have matured by understanding that managing a community requires equal respect for all members. That said, maybe the question in the title should be rephrased in “How can communities develop to stand out of the crowd?”

Social software, out or in?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 13, 2009

Enterprise 2.0 is a hot topic and is getting hotter every day. Since Google announced Wave lately, the topic is almost melting. Personally, I think enterprise 2.0 is quite misleading. Of course, the word enterprise is by itself misleading. Enter, or ‘in between’, and prise, that comes from ‘to take’ together forms ‘to take what is in between’. Not a very social meaning if you ask me. Especially when you think that Enterprise 2.0 is often referring to using social tools inside the firm, like on intranets. But ok, I’ll accept the term ‘Enterprise 2.0’ because it is becoming so well known and broadly used and that’s how language shapes itself.

ConnectionsSo back to the problem I have with the term. Social software used within the firm is becoming more mainstream. Many software vendors have solutions for this like Microsoft Sharepoint, Telligent Community Server and IBM/Lotus Connections. Many others have custom made solutions. But they all have one thing in common, their purpose is to enable employees to work together more efficient bymaking  collaboration, communication and sharing possible on their intranets. The latter part is where I have a problem with. How social is it when you can only be social with your colleagues? People are more and more familiar with social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This is another world compared to the closed intranets. That’s right, closed. How social is that?

My point is that the usage of social software on intranets (and extranets) is a very good development, but why is it still closed? Why isn’t it more integrated with the open networks like Facebook? The lives of the employees that make use of products like Sharepoint reach further than that, especcially on the web. For many people the distinction between work and their personal lives is getting less evident. Employees can communicate with friends or likeminded people through e-mail and social networks, even during working hours, why not through the Enterprise 2.0 solutions? Shouldn’t the social networks be more interrelated, inside and outside the company? Wouldn’t that be more productive?

Stigmergy and ant colonies

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

In this post I will explain one of the important themes of this quest. It is called stigmergy. In the previous post I already mentioned the term briefly. Stigmergy is derived from the Greek words stigma, which means a mark or sign, and ergon, which means work or action. The term is not used broadly, but is strongly related to self-organization and social beings. According to Wikipedia, stigmergy means the following (accessed July 6th, 2009):

Stigmergy is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.

AntsOk, let’s start at the beginning of the definition. First, it is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions. This happens for example by social insects such as ants. They exchange information by laying down pheromones. These are the traces they leave in the environment, and stimulates a subsequent action. Other social insects that use stigmergy are termites. They roll mud balls impregnated with pheromones, cuing others to roll further mudballs which leads to sophisticated arches and ventilation systems. Coordination is indirect, because they act only on changes in the environment. The ants self-organize, because there are no formal agreements beforehand. They just act spontaneously on changes in the system.

More generally put, the stigmergic system consists of primarily two components, a collection of agents, and the environment in which they interact. Through the agents’ modification of this environment by physical manipulation or encoding signs directly into or upon it, the environment plays the role of medium for a message which acts as a cue, stimulating further actions from agents (Elliott, 2007). This definition of Elliott is more useful for this quest. When we speak of online collaborative spaces, the Internet plays the role of the environment, and a collection of people modify the environment and interact on other modifications. The best known example of this form of stigmergy is the development of Wikipedia. People start and edit topics on Wikipedia, and others enhance them or start new related topics, which are enhanced by others, and so on. Millions of people are involved. This type of stigmergy is also known as digital stigmergy, stigmergic behaviour that emerges when humans work within digital environments.

Collective IntelligenceStigmergic behaviour works better when more agents are involved. Today, the Internet acts as a networked environment where many agents can interact, be it direct or indirect. This network of interconnected people can be compared to ant colonies in some way. Nobody is in control of the environment, and its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. This is also known as collective intelligence (Heylighen, 1999).

To return to the Wikipedia example, it shows the power of stigmergy. The availability of the medium makes it possible for interdependent agents to perform activities that are beneficial to all, minimizing social frictions and stimulating synergy, without a need for a hierarchical control or coordination, a clear plan, or even any direct communication between the agents (Heylighen, 2007). Wikipedia is the best known example, but still just an example. Many more applications exist and will be developed. My question is, should we take stigmergy more into account when designing social software?

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