The problem of emergence

Andrew McAfee’s Sloan Management article defining Enterprise 2.0 is available for download, so I took the opportunity to reread it, after a recent chat over coffee with Jordan Frank of Traction Software.

Enterprise 2.0 is Now Free

The article, at least.  MIT Sloan Management Review, with support from IBM, is making a set of ‘classic’ (thanks!) articles freely available to all comers. So the full text of my original SMR article “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration” can be downloaded here.

I don’t know if this is a temporary or permanent arrangement, so I’d suggest acting quickly.

One of McAfee’s central arguments is on the importance of emergence in successful Enterprise 2.0 initiatives. Here’s the way he puts it:

Second, the technologists of Enterprise 2.0 are trying hard not to impose on users any preconceived notions about how work should proceed or how output should be categorized or structured. Instead, they’re building tools that let these aspects of knowledge work emerge.

This is a profound shift. Most current platforms, such as knowledge management systems, information portals, intranets and workflow applications, are highly structured from the start, and users have little opportunity to influence this structure. Wiki inventor Cunningham highlights an important shortcoming of this approach: “For questions like ‘What’s going on in the project?’ we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what’s not important about what’s going on in the project. What’s important about the project is the stuff you don’t anticipate.” [p.25]

In an accounting or ERP system, the system’s designers specify all aspects of workflow, database design, and information structure in advance. Users are expected to select from among pre-defined choices and enter only such data as the designers have provided for. In designing a system for emergence, the designers leave a number of these decisions open; waiting for users to fill in the blanks. So, for example, instead of locking down a taxonomy for categorizing documents, the designers might provide a tagging system to allow a folksonomy to emerge from the idiosyncratic choices of each user.

The attraction of emergence is twofold. One is the realization that conventionally structured approaches have generally failed when tackling knowledge intensive problems. Knowledge work and knowledge workers don’t mesh well with the structuring techniques appropriate to industrial work.

The second is the perceived success of emergent approaches behind current Web 2.0 success stories on the Internet. It’s easy to see the power of emergence in such examples as flickr, facebook, and technorati.

Transplanting those experiences inside the boundaries of the organization is no simple task. What works at the scale of the public internet may not generate sufficient momentum within the confines of a single organization. Moreover, Internet success stories ignore or gloss over the failures and also-rans. Failure in the market is tolerated in ways that don’t translate well inside organizations. 

You want the energy and creative outcomes that can come from a successful emergent approach, but you can’t simply rely on unaided market forces to fuel the process. “Unaided” is the key notion. Emergent successes in the market benefit from scale and viral strategies, but they don’t happen by accident. For starters, there is a marketing strategy and plan that exists in parallel with a technology implementation plan.

Enterprise 2.0 efforts within organizations also need a marketing plan to accompany their implementation plans. Like any marketing plan, this plan must identify and characterize its target market of potential users. In particular, the plan needs to identify those potential users who are most likely to benefit from the new capabilities and whose successful use of the technology will be interpreted as an endorsement to be emulated.

Is a marketing plan, by itself, sufficient to allow the other aspects of an Enterprise 2.0 implementation to emerge from use? Appropriate scaffolding and careful seeding of content will prove more useful. A complete taxonomy, for example, may overwhelm a small set of potential early adopters. On the other hand, an empty tagging system will prove too much of a blank slate for users more accustomed to the structures of conventional systems. Providing a sample of suggested tags or categories coupled with some live content can point users in the right direction.

Supporters and early adopters will also benefit from coaching and mentoring on how to use selected technologies to accomplish their goals. This coaching would focus on working out strategies for how to use the technology to accomplish specific business and organizational goals. This requires a different kind of engagement between the implementation team and the target user group. In particular, it entails introducing the user population to key design questions and issues that would typically have been dealt with by the implementation team.

In some respects, “emergence” is a fancy organizational development word for “messy.” The more our systems must deal with the complexities of the real world, the messier they must be to accommodate that messiness. Large scale organizations in general, and IT organizations in particular are not generally comfortable with messiness. Calling it emergence helps. But the fundamental need is to acknowledge that it is more useful to learn as we go and build our systems accordingly, than it is to force fit these systems into structures that cannot contain them.



Pushing for simpler knowledge management

Dave Snowden’s blog Cognitive Edge has rapidly become one of my top sources for insight into the subtleties of managing knowledge in the organization. Earlier this summer, he packaged up some of his insights and advice on the connections between learning and knowledge that reflect his bias that “narrative material, anecdotes, pictures, fragments of stories is more valuable than structured documents and closer to the way we naturally share and create knowledge and learning.” [Learning lessons or lessons learnt? ]

For example, here is one of his action recommendations:

Learning lessons or lessons learnt?

  • Make capture continuous and a part of the job, not a post job after action review. The more capturing stories is part of the way we do things around here, the better it is. The other advantage is that you can then see trends emerging in the way that people index the story material which allows early intervention. This sort of switch is key to moving from a retrospective and codified set of documents, to a dynamic narrative based learning ecology.

We need to be learning lessons continuously, not documenting lessons learnt.

If many earlier approaches to knowledge management were technologically over-engineered, Snowden is essentially arguing for the power of simplicity.

Quechup is rotten: don’t accept invites

I got caught by one of these. My apologies to any of the (fortunately) small number of people in my gmail address book who might have been subsequently spammed by me.

Quechup is rotten: don’t accept invites

As blogged here yesterday:

While you were Burning / vacationing / spacing out offline this Labor Day weekend, many folks online were hit with invitations from a social networking service called Quechup that anally rapes your address book, and violates user trust by spamming all your contacts.

Now that people are coming back from the Labor Day holiday, expect a bunch of invites — I’ve received a dozen just this morning. Delete ’em if you know what’s good for you. Link to one of many first person accounts, Link to another. And another, and another (punch line: the spam blast created by Quechup caused Google to suspended that victim’s Gmail account).

True Names

  True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier, Vinge, Vernor

Vinge is a mathematician turned computer scientist. True Names is one of those stories that gains additional relevance for me because of its influence over many of those who went on to develop the technology for real that Vinge dreamt up in his fiction. This particular volume makes the story readily available again and surrounds it with a collection of interesting essays on the influence this story had during the formative days of the net. The story stands well on its own, but the essays are also worth your time.


  Daemon, Zeraus, Leinad

I came upon Daemon courtesy of a rave recommendation from Rick Klau. I’d have to agree with Rick that

It’s not enough that Leinad Zeraus (the author – a pseudonym? I don’t know) gets all the tech details pitch-perfect, or that the plot is intriguing. It’s the implications of the myriad technological improvements we’ve experienced in the last few years that Zeraus foresees that makes this book such a mind-bender. Is it far-fetched? Yeah. But only in the aggregate: each component on its face is completely reasonable… and as he starts to stitch together where he thinks things might end up, things get scary.

Good storytelling can be one of the best ways to wrap your head around the implications of the technology change we are immersed in. But that depends on finding storytellers who combine the talent for story with a willingness and ability to understand the pertinent technologies. Zeraus qualifies.

Highly recommended.

The Halo Effect

  The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, Rosenzweig, Phil

Phil Rosenzweig isn’t terribly impressed with the average business book. The bigger the best seller, the more likely Rosenzweig is to be concerned. This isn’t simply sour grapes on the part of another business school professor wishing he could command the speaking fees of a Tom Peters or James Collins.

Rosenzweig’s fundamental concern is with the disconnect between what constitutes solid and defensible research and compelling, but ultimately misleading, storytelling masquerading as research. The bulk of Rosenzweig’s efforts focus on dismantling the arguments claiming to explain the successes (and failures) of high profile organizations. He makes important points about just how hard it is to make connections between actions and outcomes in competitive organizations. The “halo effect” is the problem of starting with a collection of winners and trying to ascertain what factors explain victory after the fact. While you can always construct coherent stories looking backwards, you can’t distinguish between good stories and true stories. Even if you could, it isn’t clear what action advice you can actually extract.

Somewhere about three chapters into this effort. Rosenzweig has killed the horse. Rather than turning to the question of what to do about the problem, he opts to mutilate the carcass for several more chapters. If you stick through to the end, his advice is reasonable but comes off as too little, too late. The stories he would have us attend to are of managers like Robert Rubin and Andy Grove who appreciate the inherent contingency of most business decisions. These are managers who think in terms of risks and probabilities, who attempt to shift the odds in their favor when they can, but understand that they are always compelled to act on incomplete information.

If you are interested in how organizations perform and in how their managers learn to make more effective decisions, this is certainly a book you should read. There is a website for the book and Rosenzweig also has a blog there, although it doesn’t appear to be updated frequently.

Beloit releases its annual mindset list for entering college students

Since I am hitting the road later today to take my eldest off to Drake University to begin his college experience, this year’s list is particularly relevant.

How This Year’s Frosh Will Make You Feel Older

Beloit releases annual “Mindset List” to help professors understand the worlds (real and virtual) of their newest students.

More on knowledge management as learning support

Greg Lloyd at Traction Software also picks up on the same JP Rangaswami post that I did yesterday. He offers several additional examples of the value of making knowledge work visible as a simple tool for supporting on the job learning. Here’s one of his many useful insights. Go read the rest.

Learn by watching – Then do

Learn by watching – Then do
Blog446:  August 14, 2007 7:22:00 PM EST, Posted by Greg Lloyd

Each project’s serial file was nothing fancy. Usually it was a few file drawers with incoming and outgoing correspondence, briefing slides, q&a memos, contract actions and meeting notes, all top bound in chronological order – full contracts, formal specs and other deliverables were filed separately. In pre-email days, the project serial file was a pretty accurate snapshot of our interactions with the outside world interleaved with internal notes and memos. We all kept our own date stamped lab notebooks for private jottings.
A day or so of close reading and the chance to ask a few pointed questions to the original project engineer (“You said WHAT to Captain K??”) usually got us up to speed on the pulse of each project – not just the formal status and deliverables. We learned to use the project file to refresh our memory on details before and important meeting or decision – or just to reflect and review the bidding. We learned to use each other’s project files to keep track of dependencies and learn how to handle problems. …
I know that an electronic form of serial file can replace the old paper trail, since that’s what I use every day. The TeamPage blog + wiki tool lets everyone look over my shoulder – and vice versa – as we tear off in different directions and do our work as individuals or teams.
I rarely need to read any one project in real time, but I know that I can come up to speed quickly, search across all projects, and dive in if I need to. If someone asks for help or sees an opportunity, they can post it if it’s not urgent; add a tag to anything that needs quick action; or IM a permalink if they need me to look at something now. What I can do, all of Traction’s employees can do – only the “Board of Directors” project is private. Board pages or posts – including monthly financials – are cross-tagged to make them visible to all hands when the dust settles.
There are days when I wonder whether one of the fundamental impediments to the take up of blogging and wikis within organizations is, in fact, their utter simplicity.

Knowledge management = creating environments for learning

One of the recent additions to my feed subscriptions is Confused of Calcutta by JP Rangaswami. Recently, he’s been thinking about Facebook and its potential role in Enterprise settings. Today’s installment has an interesting riff on the nature of knowledge management. It dovetails nicely with some of the things I’ve had to say about visibility and knowledge work.

Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 5: Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is not really about the content, it is about creating an environment where learning takes place. Maybe we spend too much time trying to create an environment where teaching takes place, rather than focus on the learning.

Since people want to learn by watching others, what we need to do is to improve the toolsets and the environment that allows people to watch others. It could be as simple as: What does my boss do? Whom does she talk to? What are her surfing habits like? Whom does she treat as high priority in terms of communications received? What applications does she use? Which ones does she not use? When she has a particular Ghost to deal with, which particular Ghostbuster does she call?