Aggregative or emergent identity? Rethinking Communities.

November 21, 2007

There is a lot of talk about communities and networks not only within KM, but in many other areas. I want to explore some new ideas here, and it is early days in that exploration, bringing teams and crews into the equation. I see an atomistic and individualistic set of assumptions behind most of the conversations I witness on communities and networks. This contrasts with a more collectivist or system focus on roles and identities that comes if we look at teams and crews. I am beginning to think that we need to get more focus (in organisational work) into teams and crews and shift away from some of emphasis on communities and to a lesser extend networks.

Now I need to say upfront that there is not a great deal of consistency in way in which people talk about communities and networks. There is also the odd argument to the effect that they mean the same thing, or some polemic (which I do not support) that communities have been replaced by networks. My take on that issue by the way is that while all communities are networks, not all networks are communities.

The one thing which is common about commentators on both communities and networks is that they focus on the nature of connections between individuals. Main line facilitation focus is on equality of individuals in participation, and there is a growing (and to my mind worrying) tendency to use the language of counseling and therapy in art luddite end of the facilitation community. In this connection I recommend looking at this post by Aiden which raises some issues here in a novel way. In effect most of the material I read in articles and the blogosphere, and most the presentations I witness at conferences fit within the dominant atomistic assumptions of anglo saxon tradition: the individual is seen as primary, with communities understood as aggregations of individual self-interest and needs. You get a related theme in network conversations which maintains the concept of exchange in understanding network interactions.

Now by interest here is to shift from thinking about individuals per se as the primary unit of analysis and instead look at identities, and collective capabilities as emergent properties of interactions within and between those identities. That is a bit obscure, so let me explain it in the context first of teams, and then crews before coming to some preliminary conclusions.

In a prior age everyone talked about teams and team effectiveness. The Belbin test in its original useful form identified seven orientations that needed to be present in a team. I used that every six months for seven years with one business I ran and we had some great learnings from it, in contrast with the evil Myers Briggs approach to putting people into little boxes, and belittling their potential in the process. In effect and individual was, within the team a collection of orientations that existing not in the individual in isolation, but in individuals as a result of their interaction with other members of the team, the history of that team and the context of their work. If one person left, you didn’t necessarily look at replacing that person, but you looked at the orientations, or balance of the team in consequence. If for example that individual was the only one with a primary completer-finisher orientation (one of the Belbin roles and the name speaks for itself), then it was likely that individuals with that as a secondary orientation would start to change their interactions with the team before you could achieve any replacement. In effect with were treating the team as a complex system, not as an aggregation of the qualities of the individuals.

Now I think we need to bring back some of that team thinking within an organisation (in the net and social computing environments the situation is radically different and this would not work). But we also have another model that we can look at using namely that of a crew. To illustrate this think of the crew of a plane. You have a pilot, a navigator, and engineer, a chief steward etc. etc. Whoever occupies that role has specific training related to that role, and through that training and experience has a set of expectations of other roles that are independent of the particular qualities of the individual.

Now there are two critical aspects of crews that are worthy of attention here:

  • When the crew assembles the individuals go through a set of rituals (for example the pilots checklist) which instantiate the requirements of that role in the individual. They also frequently wear uniform which adds another ritual to the process.
  • The crew is only expected to perform for a limited period, and then moves into a layoff period before it reassembles (but almost certainly with different individuals). This limited period is key to the success of the collective capability of the crew and the subordination of individual qualities to those of the role and the role interactions.

Now I think that starting to take the concept of crews into a wider organisational role would give us a new and highly functional capability that would exceed that of any current community. We already use them in military and medical environments amongst others so it’s not that revolutionary an idea. Let me speculate on some possible developments here:

  • What if we focused less on creating great leaders, and more on identifying and training leadership crews? There would still be a pilot, but that is a very different form of leadership.
  • How about IT (or any other function for that matter) project teams becoming crews rather than assemblies of skills? In effect take the skills up a level of assembly to create something more flexible?
  • Where we have to work between organisations, how about defining the interfaces between the organisations in terms of crew roles? Allowing us to rapidly create cross silo capability without negotiation?

That’s three ideas, there are others. I am opening up this theme here not as a fully developed proposition, but as an initial exploration of what could be an interesting opportunity. More in future blogs, all ideas welcome.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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