Thanks again for another informative and thought provoking read Sam, and for continuing to work out…
Jeff Piestrak

Knowledge Management in Social Labs — Part II

On Signals, Knowledge Creation & Experiment Accounting

Hi Jeff Piestrak,

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

Stigmergy is a new term to me, but the concept is familiar from my study of ecology. I really liked this explanation from Wikipedia:

Stigmergy is a form of self-organization social network. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other.

I read into the Stigmergic Systems website a little as well, which was an interesting read from where things were 14 years ago! Of course, since then, Amazon did actually release ‘Mechanical Turk’ which he referenced.

I definitely feel like the digital space holds potential, however I feel like this possibility lies in the ability to rapidly create, search and find ‘signals’ related to the problem we’re currently trying to solve.

Whilst I don’t have a depth of knowledge about Stigmergy yet, what I understand would be something along the lines of:

  • A signal is left in the environment based on an action which has been taken.
  • That signal is received, which triggers a further action, and a further signal is left.

This ‘breadcrumbing’ of single-meaning signals could be scaled up to more complex signals to give greater context about the result of the action, not just that it was undertaken. Thinking out loud — the simple form is already present as a communication system in the human world, especially used where communication should be covert — be that the ‘intelligence community’ (spies), or terrorist cells.

The discussion of signals and information transfer makes me think of a recent article from Hagel & Seely Brown in HBR which I read as a provocation against the formulation of explicit knowledge into Knowledge Bases. Instead they offer:

Without diminishing the value of knowledge sharing, we would suggest that the most valuable form of learning today is actually creating new knowledge. Organizations are increasingly being confronted with new and unexpected situations that go beyond the textbooks and operating manuals and require leaders to improvise on the spot, coming up with new approaches that haven’t been tried before. In the process, they develop new knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in specific situations. We believe the old, “scalable efficiency” approach to knowledge needs to be replaced with a new, more nimble kind of “scalable learning.”

I’m intrigued by what would happen if we combine these ideas (or perhaps Stigmergy already has done this), and think about how we would design communication systems for contemporary social labs. This jumps to mind after my work to design an information stack for a lab in Chicago.

If I was to take these concepts, I would make some tweaks:

> Signals for rapid coordination between the Secretariat & Lab Hosts

One challenge of most Labs is the extreme information overhead. There’s decisions being made at strategic and tactical levels which will fundamentally shift the direction of a Lab, which need to be responded to. I wonder if Signals can be used to reduce this overhead? If there is a common understanding of a process that needs to be followed, signals that a stage of work is complete would be a more effective way of triggering the next action, instead of visualising the whole backlog of work and constantly checking in whether tasks have been completed. In this case, instead of a traditional Agile board, perhaps a simplified ‘traffic light’ system might be developed?

> Scalable Learning process for Secretariat & Lab Hosts

Likewise Secretariats are constantly dealing with the emergent nature of Labs. Instead of working from codified practices and protocols, they will always be required to generate new knowledge together, and find ways to efficiently signal the outcomes. This surfaces our thinking at Lifehack about not only building experiment culture, but also creating a framework for ‘experiment accounting’.

I’m going to keep mulling on this and thinking about how we could build better communication & collaboration systems, in order to make social labs more self organising, especially at the Lab Team level.

I believe there’s huge possibility for community-centric organising to learn from social labs approaches to making things happen, however I also believe that social labs have much to learn from the organic nature of community organising initiatives. I think these ideas would really flourish in social labs which are more rooted in communities.

I’m going to tag in some people who might be interested in this thread:

Chelsea Robinson, Hamish Lindop, Cari Caldwell, Simone Reeves, Nathan Heintz, gina rembe, giulio quaggiotto, Jesper Christiansen