Esko Kilpi photo. Sculpture by Constantin Brancusi

Connecting the dots

In larger organizations everybody is a long way away from everybody else. As a result an individual’s perception of the world is narrow and confined to a small group of immediate acquaintances. People do things that make sense in their particular context and from their point of view.

That did not matter as much in factory-type settings because physical tasks could be broken up. Bigger tasks could be divided by assigning people to different, smaller parts of the whole. Hierarchies made sense as an easy way to modularize work. The worker did not need to communicate with many people, sometimes just the boss. The downside was a lack of flexibility and emergence of tribalism. Very rigid “us” vs. “them” cultures formed in the silos. Reconfiguring a hierarchy always created a cultural mess for a long time.

For intellectual tasks, it is much harder to find parts that make for an efficient division of labor. Intellectual tasks are by default linked and complex, creating an increased need to interact. The contexts of work and the organizational silos are not the same things any more. Tasks are not independent but connected and interdependent. Knowledge workers are often put in a position where they have to negotiate some common understanding of what they face. The same event means different things to different people. The context matters: what seems right from one point of view can prove disastrous for everybody in the long run. As Gillian Tett says, very bright people can make very dumb decisions in fragmented environments if the dots are not connected.

The cognitive opportunity of connecting lies in the fact that as we don’t all select the same things, we don’t all miss the same things. If we can pool our insights in a creative, enriching way, we can thrive in the complex world we live in.

Organizations are classification systems. We classify customers, actions, roles and people’s capabilities all the time. New technologies give an organization the ability to reclassify things and reconfigure its form in any way it desires. We are not confined to any one structure any more, whether it is a network, a system, a process or a hierarchy. It is even possible to “de-classify”, creating more dynamism.

Different purposes drive different classifications. For information efficiency the best structure would be a “random”, contextual network. A random network has the shortest possible path lengths. An example of this is performing a search. The key measure is path length. That indicates how far from each other everybody is, on average. The path length measures how many steps a piece of information has to go through between people. To create short path lengths in a typical hierarchical or process-based structure you would need to know almost everything and everybody included in the hierarchy/process chart. You would need to have access to information that we typically don’t have. Hierarchies and process charts are thus not efficient ways to organize knowledge work. They are not transparent enough.

For interaction, the challenge is human engagement. Widening the circle of involvement, connecting the contexts, means expanding who gets to participate. It is about inviting and including relevant, new and different voices. Rather than an organization being thought of as an imposed structure of separate, autonomous functions and individuals, today’s organization arises from the interaction of individuals who need to come together.

This shift in the way we see organizations changes the way we perceive competitive advantages. The new competitive edge comes from openness and interactive capacity: the ability to participate and connect. Change is not a problem or anomaly. Solutions are always temporary and contextual.

In this view, information is the energy of organizing. Or, as Gregory Bateson wrote, “information is a difference, which makes a difference”. When we see information as a power plant that has the ability to organize, we realize the power of diversity and openness across boundaries. When information is transparent, people can organize effectively around changes, customers and purposes.

Different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization. The easier the access that people have to one another and to different information is, the more cognitive and creative possibilities there are. What we have still not understood is that people need to have access to information streams that no one could predict they would want to know about. Even they themselves did not know they needed it — before they needed it. Thus information architectures can never be fully planned in advance.

No one person or function can meet today’s challenges alone. No one point of view is enough. We need a community of people who willingly participate and provide their insights to address increasingly interdependent issues. Cooperation is necessary because one person no longer has the answer. Answers reside in the interaction, between the different views of reality, between and in all of us.

Success today is increasingly the result of skillful management of participation, of who is included and who is not. Who or what is perhaps needlessly excluded from the information streams and the subsequent interaction? A common misunderstanding is that productivity will suffer if larger numbers of people are involved. The new social platforms and interaction technologies have dramatically reduced the cost of communication and participation.

Temporary, flash communities can be formed to solve a problem or to tackle an opportunity more easily, more cheaply and faster than ever before — if there is openness, if people are invited and if people want to engage. It is about distributing the intellectual tasks at hand and integrating the contributions of interdependent people. Creative, cooperative learning is the new productivity.

The management task is not to understand people better, but to understand better what happens, and what can happen between people. Our world is co-created in relations. The silos we have had are inherent to the human condition. A node in a network can also act like a silo. It is easier to create tribal behaviors in networks than it has been in more formal structures. The challenge is to be more aware of the patterns of “us” vs. “them”.

What “we” do and what “they” do has been the way to classify and make sense of the world. This separateness does not serve us any more or help us to solve the complex problems we face. We need to connect the dots.

It is time to walk in somebody else’s shoes; it is time to do things together.