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More Wond’ring Aloud

…. And it’s only the giving/that makes you/what you are

Jethro Tull, Wond’ring Aloud (Ian Anderson). From the album Aqualung

[Note: this is a continuation from my post a couple of days ago, linked to here. I began that post with the first line of the song, it is only fitting that I begin this one with the last. I've heard many theories as to what the song means, and whether I can even talk about the likely meaning before the watershed. I happen to like the song, the music, the melody, everything about it, rather than just concentrating on the debate about the meaning of the lyrics].

Before I launch into the post…. in the unlikely event you’re a Tull fan, go take a look at their official web site. Listen to their internet radio. Follow them on Twitter. And, if you’re like me, get tickets to see them on tour!

And now for something completely different. Oh yes, the post. Thinking about stacks and ecosystems and architectures and complexity. You’ve been a wonderful community, you’ve RTed the post, linked to it, commented on it, and the comments have given me some really rich material to digest and consider. I really appreciate it. It’s what blogging was invented for, the ability to share what Doc Searls called “provisional thoughts”, nascent, inchoate. To have those thoughts shared, commented on by peers and superiors, letting me learn. And letting me share that learning so that others may do the same. Thank you.

In like vein I want to take the debate further. Bring in two further streams of investigation, and broaden the discussion somewhat. Ambitious perhaps, but I have to try it.

Ever since I first heard John Hagel and John Seely Brown talk about it,  I’ve been thinking hard about the Big Shift, which they worked on in conjunction with Lang Davison. John H’s “succinct” post, which I link to, summarises the Big Shift as exhibiting the following characteristics:

  • from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows
  • from knowledge transfer to knowledge creation
  • from explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge
  • from transactions to relationships
  • from zero sum to positive mindsets
  • from institutions driven by scalable efficiency to institutions driven by scalable peer learning
  • from stable environments to dynamic environments

When I first looked at it, I was tempted to add “from scarcity to abundance” and “from back office to front office” and “from hierarchy to network”; but then I decided I could fold any and all those additions into the original list without much effort. I’m still thinking through the implications of that list, “I haven’t finished reading it yet”.

[An aside, to explain that allusion. A few weeks ago, the Economist reminded me of Harold Pinter's delightful poetic tribute to cricketer Len Hutton "I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another time/another time." In last week's issue, Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, Delhi, wrote in to remind us of "Simon Gray's response, when, a few days after sending him the poem, Pinter phoned Gray to check if he had received it. He replied he had, but "I haven't finished reading it yet"." Thank you Mr Basu, thank you Economist!"]

Influenced by the research behind Big Shift, I began to see the possibility that we could start proving the value of collaboration in demonstrable ROI, something that hasn’t always been easy. Which took me down the route of trying to find sensible ways of valuing relationships and capabilities, the 21st century assets that underpin the core characteristics of the shift.

And while I was deep into this, I was given the opportunity to kibitz-without-saying-anything on a long online discussion, on Gordon Cook’s amazing list (you must subscribe to the Cook Report if you’re interested in internet economics)  on some of the assertions made by Geoffrey West over at Santa Fe. I had the opportunity to spend some time mano a mano with West at TED Global this year, and obviously heard him speak about what he’s been learning re “the surprising math of cities and corporations”.

What particularly intrigued me was West’s introduction of the superlinear/sublinear construct into his ideas, empirically proven. As a long-term devotee of Jane JacobsChristopher Alexander and Stewart Brand from a buildings and cities perspective, and influenced heavily by Howard Rheingold in how I viewed all this in digital space, it was not hard to convince me that cities were living breathing spaces, complex organisms well worth studying. I was also comfortable with seeing companies in similar vein, now moving into Tainter territory again, looking at the collapse of complex societies, something I referred to in my previous post.

So what’s been going through my mind is this: when you look at large organisations, what superlinear phenomena do they exhibit? What sublinear phenomena? Can the superlinear/sublinear argument help us understand what Hagel and Seely Brown and Davison found about Return On Assets in USA Inc over half a century of published data?

As a result, soon after TED, I’ve been trying to formulate a similar argument about superlinearity and sublinearity from a systems perspective: which costs scale up faster than the rate at which a system “grows”, and which costs scale down faster? How do we measure system “growth”? Like West and his team found in the relationships between city populations and many other city measures, is there an equivalent for complex systems?

Most importantly, what is the role of collaboration in all this? How does all this tie up with the Jane Jacobs view of neighbourhoods and sidewalks and boulevards and parks? What does that mean for our understanding of stacks and ecosystems? Of course I have anchors and frames, I know what I want these answers to be, but I want to be able to prove them. Scientifically. Because the data in the research by people like Hagel, Seely Brown and West has some fascinating pointers.

The links and references that you provided me in the comments on my previous post will go a long way towards helping me figure that out. And if one or more of you figure it out first, then that’s wonderful…..as long as you share it back with all of us, in whatever way you choose.

[And now, after reading a post like this one, you know why this blog is called Confused of Calcutta. You must remember I’m a big fan of Francis Bacon, who said:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties

Posted in Four pillars .


5 Responses

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  1. Nick Gall says

    JP, Great questions as usual.

    West’s work shows that different complex systems have different scale factors. Cities have some superlinear properties, but corporations and animals don’t. How does collaboration impact scale? I don’t know all the ways, but this quote by West nailed at least one aspect of collaboration: “Cities tolerate crazy people,” West observed, “Companies don’t.” For more on West’s observations on corporations, see Stewart Brand’s blog post: http://bit.ly/nu4wrg . Here is the key finding:

    Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.’s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

  2. cliveboulton says

    JP, the scale of systems you’re looking into, perhaps requires Daphne Koller level research to understand complex domains that involve large amounts of uncertainty (Daphne is slated win the Turing award for work in Bayesian networks). A possible short cut, skim Post-genome Informatics by Minoru Kanehisa and map the Blueprint of life of living organisms information transmission back via the conceptual links between different disciplines to a blue print for Information systems. Perhaps a long shot, but I’ve read Allen, Ellison, Page have made Life sciences investments after becoming intrigued by biological systems thinking.

    http://robotics.stanford.edu/~koller/research.html
    http://www.amazon.com/Post-genome-Informatics-Minoru-Kanehisa/dp/0198503261

    “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” – Tom Peters
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/b-tal/163450213/

  3. DJ Andrews says

    autopoetic is a great word describing the ability to reproduce from itself e.g. a biological cell, as opposed to allopoetic, the creation of entity from a sum of parts e.g. car from a car factory.

  4. Stephen Law says

    Interesting how government organisations are trying to use consolidation as an ‘economy of scale’ e.g. shared servixes. John Seddon of @SysThinkReview says economy of scale is a myth left over from an industrial age and that today it is all about flow, see: http://goo.gl/MNtQR. I must admit I do like Amazon, and getting platforms to scale by enabling the customer / citizen to do things themselves is a very efficient and empowering way to do business.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Comment on More Wond’ring Aloud – confused of calcutta « In brief. David Ing. linked to this post on September 17, 2011

    [...] on More Wond’ring Aloud – confused of calcutta. … some of the assertions made by Geoffrey West over at Santa Fe. I had the opportunity to [...]



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