Weltanschauung for social computing

March 12, 2007

I am not sure what provoked it, but over the weekend Euan let fire with The 100% guaranteed easiest way to do Enterprise 2.0?, for those to lazy to click on the link this is the recipe:

  1. Do Nothing
  2. Get out of the way
  3. Keep the energy levels up

Now this has attracted support, including one from Tim O’Reilly: btw, I am not sure if Euan is more pleased about that comment or David Miliband listing him on his blog role, but hopefully we can keep his feet on the ground! Ross Dawson takes sides by reporting a debate between Euan and Andrew McAfee and coming down on the side of Andrew (and even calls Euan’s post dangerous in the comments to his blog entry. In effect his argument is that social computing software is being over hyped in the same way that Knowledge Management software was in an earlier generation.

I want to take a slightly different angle on this. I think it is true to say that for many in social computing, Enterprise 2.0 or whatever, there is now a strong ideological element that might best be described as libertarian and at times over evangelical. It argues for the supremacy of individual choice and denies any centrally determined system. If you read the blogs there is very definitely an in-group and an out-group between people who are said to get it and people who do not, and are as a result, sad, behind the times etc etc. This is a common human phenomena, as old as the hills and children playing on streets. Its not surprising that it gets picked up by the advocates of social computing. Neither is it surprising to see Ross take the stance he does given his role as a strategy consultant. He is not as directive as Hubert, and instead seeks to occupy the middle ground; the voice of reason. That aside, I find the connection to knowledge management interesting, but Ross’s and Andrew’s take on it deeply mistaken. I would summarise that difference as follows:

Knowledge management was a theory or rather a Weltanschauung supported by dysfunctional technology, while social computing is increasingly functional technology with out any clear theory or way of looking at the world.

Now I have previously posted on an approach to building on line communities based on directed informality and will not repeat that advise here, as I see no great reason to alter it. However I do want to look at what I think are some of the essential differences, cite (and criticise) another attack on Euan’s posting and then conclude with a suggestion how a direction for handling the conceptual aspects of social computing.

So what are the essential differences?

  1. Social computing developers make no pretense to be building enterprise wide software. In fact I think the phrase Enterprise 2.0 is poor, although I am not surprised to discover it originated with a Harvard Professor. I much prefer the term social computing
  2. Social computing is not about selecting a tool based on pre-determined criteria, it is about allowing multiple tools to co-evolve with each other, people and environments so that new patterns of stable interaction form, and destabilise as needed to reform in new and contextually appropriate ways.
  3. social computing tools can be picked up without training, culture change programmes and all the panoply of the modern consultant. If you don’t believe me compare the amount of time and money that is wasted creating corporate templates for communities of practice or mediated on-line communities with things as simple (and free) as Yugma and Ning. I mention these as I set them up and started using them in half an hour this morning. I never used IBM’s CoPs system ….
  4. Corporations need to learn to live within and without the firewall. Their staff already do. I had few virus attacks after I left IBM, despite using Windows, with Skype and all sorts of other programs that I did within. I updated the operating system as changes came through and had good anti-virus software. Of course I have now seen the light and have an Apple Mac, so I have even less problems. Applying techniques designed for high levels of security onto social interactions is a mistake, and to allow the freedom of social computing where corporate date needs to be secure would also be foolish.

Now I think all this, and more, evidences that social computing is about a very different Weltanschauung. I make no apology for the german by the way, there is no english equivalent as there were none for Cynefin. It is a voluntary world. I for one aim to avoid Second Life for as long as I can (the South Park episode on World of Warcraft should be a warning for everyone here). That aside, I am increasingly creating step by step in context, and with the capacity to change, a richer KM system within the world of social computing than could ever have been designed or implemented in the way people tried to create KM systems. I have been saying for some time that if social computing tools had been around a decade ago, KM might have become something other than an adjunct of the IT department.

So I would like to support Euan, I would also suggest reading his post carefully. He does not advocate just leaving things alone. The third point says it all, and you have to get people enthused, get the early adopters to use the tools. Its a lot harder letting things evolve, than designing something based on an ideal approach. Naturalising approaches are always to be preferred to the idealistic top down approach that characterises most management initiatives.

Of course we could deal with social computing tools using the tired old cliches of all previous technologies. One of the criticisms of Euan comes from this perspective, and from a surprising source. One of my RSS feeds is from the 21st Century Organization. This collective blog picks up on Euan’s post, but sees it (somewhat patronisingly I thought) as merely an inspiration, advocating as

….. essential (and not so easy) ingredients for ensuring an organization creates value from adopting any new technology include

  1. Changing individual mindsets
  2. Rethinking business models
  3. Adopting analytics to measure value creation
  4. Promoting new skill sets
  5. Changing reward systems to incent both participation and collaboration.

Now I think is deeply flawed and respond in the same sequence:

  1. The oldest excuse in the book is that people’s mindsets need to change to conform with designed ideal, this is a nonsense. Evolutionary approaches to systems mean that mindsets and systems allowed to evolve change each other. Trying to change mindsets, even if it could be morally justified just does not work
  2. Rethinking business models is sort of OK, if you don’t do the rethinking before you have put the technology in place. You need in a very real way to to allow your business model to evolve in parallel with technology adoption.
  3. Adopting analytics to measure value creation
  4. Promoting new skill sets
  5. Reward systems, linking social obligations to targets and promotion criteria are the single most stupid thing that anyone can do in KM or any other system reliant on social interaction. People will always share with people in the context of proven need, but to share in anticipation of that need will not happen. All that happens if you create a reward mechanism is that people game the system. Its another excuse (like the culture was wrong) for an ill conceived approach

What amazes me is that this list could have been produced anytime in the last 100 years (and has been). If it was really the cause of so much failure, don’t you think someone would have got it right by now? It contains the assumption that if a designed system fails it is somehow or another the fault of the people who are expected to use the system, rather than the approach of those who did the design in the first place.

Finally we come to the Weltanschauung word again. I think one of the issues with this is that people are writing about social computing as a social system, using the language and methods of social science. In practice I think we have here an environment and tools which form a complex adaptive system, or rather systems. Some practices are creating strange attractors, stabilities that limit future possibilities, some practices are teetering on the edge of a catastrophic change. Maybe we should do back the the natural sciences, rather than the social sciences to provide an understanding of what are an emergent phenomena? That might also help us overcome the ideological aspects and the dangerous cult of the individual. A complex system just is and agency can change from the collective to the individual. Complexity is also the science of uncertainty and with it goes what I call the paradox of control. If you aim to influence, but not design evolution you have more control than if you attempt to design an ideal system.

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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.

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