Of Push and Pull

My thanks to Bob Davidson (oybay on flickr) for letting me use the wonderful shot above.

Those of you who know me well will also know that I have had a soft spot for the writings of John Seely Brown and John Hagel for some time now. [I’ve found 15 mentions of the word “Seely” alone in the past five years].  The Social Life of Information is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past 20 years. Similarly, ever since I saw the two Johns present the findings that formed the material for The Only Sustainable Edge, I’ve been tracking what they’ve been doing with keen interest.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting both of them over the years; more recently, I’ve been able to spend some quality time with John Hagel, usually at conferences we were both speaking at, sometimes even on the same panel. Which is why I feel truly honoured to have been named one of the original “edgerati” by them. They define edgerati as follows:

More about the edgerati later. Not today, other than to say that it’s a mind-boggling list of people, comprising many of my heroes both dead and alive, and to remark that it feels lonely to be one of the few large-enterprise people on it. But today is not about the edgerati.

Today is about something else. It’s about The Power of Pull, written by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. And I read a lot. As many of you know.

In a farsighted article over 13 years ago, James Gleick wrote this:

….the promotion of Push is the silliest piece of puffery to waft along in several seasons. In fact, Push is nothing more than a thinly disguised return to ideas of information delivery that the Internet has made obsolete. The failure of Push is preordained.

Gleick was talking about the push and pull of information. The Power of Pull is about much more than that. It’s majestic, momentous, almost a grand unified theory of a number of themes you will be familiar with.

The theory of the firm and the future of work

There’s an underlying theme throughout the book that touches on the theory of the firm, its raison d’etre, its structure, format and workflow. N. “Venkat” Venkatraman, a Boston professor I have a lot of time for, told me many years ago that business used to be about hierarchies of products and customers, and is now about networks of relationships and capabilities. John Roberts sought to extend that theme in The Modern Firm. Tom Malone did a splendid job of exposing us to how work would change in The Future of Work, and continues to look at this very carefully at the Center for Collective Intelligence, where I am privileged to be able to join him and support him every now and then. People interested in this subject should read the books listed above. [Disclosure: Both Tom and Venkat are good friends and regular dinner companions.]

What this book does is to extend Big Shift thinking into a detailed analysis of what it means to move from a static “stocks”-based view of the firm to a dynamic “flows”-based view, the radical compression of product/service lifecycles this represents, and the imperative to concentrate on refreshing stocks by participating in flows. [They also raise very serious questions on the whole concept of Intellectual Property Rights as a result]. I quote:

“Refreshing the stocks of what we know by participating in flows of new knowledge is fundamental to performance improvement, no matter the endeavour, both for individuals and, more broadly, for institutions”.

The collapse of old models: changes in the flow of work

Two of my other favourite East Coast thinkers, Andrew McAfee and Clay Shirky, have both been covering the collapse of old models from different perspectives. Andrew, with Enterprise 2.0, and Clay, with Here Comes Everybody, both look at the changes taking place at work and in society as a result of what Tim O’Reilly branded Web 2.0. Again, if you’re interested in this subject, you should really go out and get their books. [Disclosure: Andrew spent some time studying my department and organisation when preparing the case studies that would later become the book, and is a friend and regular dinner companion. Clay is also a friend, thought I don’t get to see him that often].

Clay’s recent thought-provoking writings on the collapse of complex business models are also worth reading in this context.

In the Power of Pull, what the authors do is to place the importance of the new tools in the context of “creation spaces”, analogous to mashing the McAfee and Shirky ideas into the area usually reserved for the agile and lean-programming people. I quote:

We believe that in the digital age, as social networking sites, powerful search engines and the like continue to exert their democratising influences, the power of pull will become the governing principle for success, and, that those who learn how to use these tools and methods most effectively are the ones who will pull their influence into a new age of higher performance and achievement, often through the use of edge practices at the core.

The book places a lot of emphasis on how learning is improved as a result of our having better sharing tools. What do I mean? Take an example from my own life, recently. On Friday night, a little over a week ago, I went for a long walk on Mount Tamalpais with Howard Rheingold and Kevin Marks. A wonderful, relaxed-yet-bracing walk along trodden and untrodden ways. The tools we have today make it easy for me to share precisely what we did (and, importantly, make it possible for me to repeat that walk with my family some other time!).

Here’s what we did, also visible from this url: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=200218344844629065129.00048465450c61e15c44f:

From transactional to relational

From a completely different angle, Doc Searls, Christopher Locke, David Weinberger and Rick Levine took the world of work apart a decade ago with The Cluetrain Manifesto, and continue to do so. They looked more closely at the relationship between the firm and its customers and the need for change there. Again, a must-read book, recently republished in a 10th Anniversary edition (in which yours truly has a guest chapter, to boot).

In the Power of Pull, the very concept of transaction costs is brought into question as part of the stocks-to-flows shift, raising the prospect that the cost of creating and maintaining relationships becomes far more important. [Here, maybe it’s my interpretation, but I felt the authors had sympathy for my view that the Dunbar number is higher as a result of technological advances, particularly in communications and their persistence, archivability and searchability].

Emergence and serendipity

Two more related themes come into play, themes introduced to me by people as varied as Steven Berlin Johnson (with Emergence), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (with Flow) and Malcolm Gladwell (with Blink).

Tellingly, the authors of The Power of Pull extend the concept of relationship- and attraction-based “spikes” in geographical skill concentration (at least one of the reasons why BT bought Ribbit in Silicon Valley rather than choose firms elsewhere. I should know: I work for BT and chair Ribbit on their behalf). They tie this relational value to improving the probability of serendipitous events, increasing both the likelihood and quality of encounters between high-performing people in such spikes.

The value of serendipity is also exhibited in examples of how learning takes place at the edge, how people apply learning from adjacencies to solving new problems. My favourite recent example is this, the train that doesn’t stop at stations:

My thanks to kottke.org for the example, which you can read about here. I just love the way that concepts I would normally encounter on a running track get transferred over to the rail track. Brilliant.

I could have chosen a series of other themes that are interwoven in the book, but then this review will have become unmanageable and unreadable. Suffice it to say that they would have included the diminishing-returns aspect of the experience curve, changing education, communities and opensource, and work-life balance.

All this is brought together in a way that is simply majestic, reminiscent of the way Esther Dyson took my breath away with Release 2.0 over a decade ago, or as Carlota Perez did with Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital a few years later.

So. In summary. The Power of Pull is a masterful book, bringing together many disparate strands of thinking over the years, placing them in a grounded, measured manner within the context of the institution. It helps us move from the decreasing-returns transaction-costs hierarchical closed model of the enterprise to an increasing-returns abundance-economy networked and open model. It helps us understand the move from stocks to flows, how the boundaries of the firm must change as a result, what will happen to firms that don’t. How the right talent is attracted, how serendipitous value is created by that attraction and consequent spiking.

As you may have gathered from this review, I’ve been following many of the trends and themes in the book in their original streams. That in turn may have sensitised me, my anchors and frames and biases may have blinded me. If this review makes you think that is the case, my apologies.

Because that was not my intention.

My intention was to HOLLER: go out and buy this book, read it and read it again before your competitors do.

Why? Because it puts a lot of things in context, eloquently and enjoyably. Because, as the authors say, something fundamental is broken and needs fixing. Because the creation-space idea is fundamental to anyone who wants to understand how platform-based services organisations work. Or should work.

So don’t make me holler any more. Go out. Buy the book. Read it.

8 thoughts on “Of Push and Pull”

  1. Narrowly focusing on Gleick’s opinion on push vs. pull, have you wondered why the industry is set on pushing “Presence” information. Isn’t it much better for me to pull your presence information as and when I need it. Of course this needs to be supplemented with the ability for me to subscribe for a specific change in your presence status. This is more analogous to real world behavior and scales well when we realize a fully distributed model.

Let me know what you think