[Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Social Enterprise and the Big Shift. The first post provided an introduction and overall context; the second looked specifically at collaboration, working together; the third looked at optimising performance, enjoying work, working more effectively. The fourth, Doing By Learning, looked at how work gets done in the enterprise, and provided the context in which such flows should be seen. This post delves into the subject of flows in detail, and introduces the concept of enterprise social objects. In later posts I will look at the social objects in detail, and then move on to filtering and curation. The last three posts (in the series of ten) will look at innovation, motivation and radical transformation.]
This is not a post about workflow. We’ve had workflow. And, while everything was stable and predictable and change was glacial,workflow was enough: institutions focused on unit costs, they made use of scale within experience curves. Size mattered. First-mover advantages were high. And money begat money. Monopolies formed regularly; regulators formed to control those monopolies; the two went into standoff; and innovation died.
This is not a post about process either. We’ve had process. Again, process was great when change could be prevented. The day before yesterday, as part of the Alan Turing centenary celebrations organised by the ACM, Alan Kay appears to have reminded people about what he said four or five decades ago: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. He also appears to have referred to the amendment he made to that phrase much later, when he said: The best way to predict the future is to prevent it. It’s a sad truth but true. Standardised processes work best when there is no change.
There was a time when industry participants had such control over the market they could prevent change. Monopoly and complacency work together to militate against change. If you prevent change, you prevent invention. You prevent innovation. Sometimes you can pretend that change has taken place by using lipstick assiduously on those of porcine persuasion; sometimes that even works; but that’s not sustainable.
This is a post about collaborative flows, the flows that make up the Social Enterprise.
Implications of Doing by Learning
I wasn’t sure I should write this section; I know that a number of readers will object, and they may even stop reading this post, and perhaps even this blog, as a consequence. I mulled over it for quite some time: while there are shock jocks and trolls around, this blog has been about encouraging active engagement and participation. But, having thought hard about it, I have come to the conclusion that I must share these thoughts, that they are important and germane to the subject under discussion. You have been warned.
One of the key tenets of the Industrial Age (and of the theory-of-firm models that emerged as a result) is the division of labour. [As long as my readership in the UK and India exceeds that in the US and Canada, I can and will spell labour that way!]. The principles of division of labour were built on the concept of specialisation. And specialisation is a classic “knowledge stocks” concept. As we move from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows, from the experience curve to the collaboration curve, these principles will come under intense pressure.
This is not a new thing. We have been experiencing a blurring of lines between professions for some time now, driven by the move from stocks to flows. Professions used to be founded on a number of tenets: a code of honour, the values and ethics that bound the professionals together; the knowledge stocks that were gained during extended periods of formal study; and the experiences that augmented those knowledge stocks. We will still have professions in the future, but they are likely to be less dependent on the knowledge stocks — instead, my sense is that there will be a deepening, an enriching, of the codes — the values and ethics — that made that profession tick. I cannot help but feel that these professional codes have weakened over the past century, and that trust has been undermined as a result. This trust will have to be regained by the doctors, the lawyers, the financiers, the teachers, all of us who built our worth on knowledge stocks and experience curves while allowing some of the core values (upon which the professions were founded) to decay. Hippocratic oaths. Innocent until found guilty. Freedom of expression. Learning not teaching. Word is bond. That sort of thing.
If you’re interested in the implications for such professions, a good place to start is Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions, already approaching a quarter of a century in print.
The fundamental differences between workflow and collaboration flows
This is important. If there is one idea I want you to take away from this post, even if you stop reading it shortly, it is this: the way we work has changed fundamentally. Root and branch.
Let me try and explain. Workflow is like trains. Every company had its own train set. Little engines and carriages and cabooses; perfectly formed lines and switches and signalling; miniature stations and marshalling yards. The whole kit and caboodle. And trains “flowed” around the system. Always on the lines. Linear. Well-behaved. A system entire of itself. Isolated. But no matter, especially if you operate a monopoly or near-monopoly. What was important was that the trains ran on time. Safely. Sometimes.
Workflow worked exactly like the train sets. Formal fits and starts. A series of static pieces tightly coupled. Coupled only where coupling was possible. But always tightly coupled. Change was a nightmare and considered unnecessary. Faster horses.
Workflow tends to have clear start and end points. Timetables. Efficiency experts. Clipboards. Clocking in and out. Journeys with limited variability, limited choices. All rigorously controlled “for the sake of everyone’s safety”. You know what I mean. [No matter that we've had glorious failures in all these industries dominated by process. It couldn't possibly be the fault of the rigid processes.]
Customers were important, but needed to know their place. The trains were in charge. In fact, if you looked carefully, you’d find that during the golden age of trains, the trains had more rights than the customers. Not that long ago, the laws and bye-laws of British Rail were patently clear:
- the ticket I bought did not guarantee me a seat
- the ticket I bought did not guarantee that the train would run on time
- the ticket I bought did not even guarantee that a train would run
- in fact, the ticket I bought wasn’t mine to keep, even that had to be given up on demand
Those were the days. Days when process was king, workflow worked. And people were kept in their place. It was possible to connect the different train sets up, if everyone used the same standards and protocols. This didn’t always happen, but proliferation was relatively low for the most part. Most of the workflow you see is like trains, relatively standardised, a challenge to integrate across systems, but not impossible. There were occasional failures at scale, akin to the design of electrical plugs and plug-points around the world. To think we consider ourselves to be civilised while living in adaptor hell.
Workflow, like trains, worked in well-defined, closed systems.
Enough about workflow. Collaboration flows, on the other hand, are like rivers and oceans. No rails to go on. No clear start and end points. Free to entry to all comers, regardless of the size of the vessel. Timetables existed, but they were looser. Boundaries existed, but much of the space was “public”. Of course there were regulations and laws, but they were more suited to a global environment, since the majority of the space was public.Vessels could and did come in all shapes and sizes and power and capacity. The barriers to entry were low. Regulations were more like the commons, designed to ensure that multitudes could participate without let or hindrance. The challenges were in dealing with blockages, with pollution, with selfish use, with the “tragedy of the commons”.
If you can imagine traditional workflow to be about trains and collaboration flows to be like rivers and oceans, I have succeeded. I will go to bed happy.
Rivers and oceans also work. They don’t need connecting up, they’re already connected up. People do make journeys on them, but the start and endpoints are infinite, granular.
Collaboration flows, like rivers, work in open, inclusive environments. A dammed river is called a lake, not a river. However you market it.
I thought I would just write a footnote on this originally, but decided to make this more prominent. The rivers versus trains analogy also allows a better understanding of safety and security.
There was a time when brigands and robbers and pirates abounded everywhere. People have been accosted by brigands on horseback. Wagons and stagecoaches have been plundered. Cars have been held up at gunpoint. There’s even been a Great Train Robbery. As long as people have used different forms of transport to go from A to B, and as long as the “cargo” they’ve transported has been perceived as valuable, there’s been a market for attacking the transport.
When we speak of piracy in the context of physical goods, the underlying assumption is that we’re talking about ocean-based piracy. And there is some, particularly off the coast of Somalia, but not restricted to that. Yet, despite the “dangers” of piracy on the high seas, if we take US overseas trade for example, over 99% of US overseas trade by volume, and over 64% of the trade by value, used ocean-going transport, according to the US Bureau of the Census.
So despite the perceived dangers of piracy on the high seas, ocean shipping remains the primary basis for trade. Why is this? Because people have understood the risks, know how to deal with them, how to mitigate them. How to cross the oceans safely and securely.
So it is with the internet. So it is with the public cloud. So it is with the flows of the Social Enterprise, based on the internet and the public cloud.
What actually happens in the flows
I hope I’ve moved you some way from your prior conception of flows, since it would have been based on workflow. By now you would have just about started feeling comfortable with the view that workflow is static and linear and based on tightly coupled stocks of knowledge and division of labour, while collaboration flows are dynamic and nonlinear and based on loosely-coupled flows of knowledge with limited (and declining) division of labour. But you aren’t there yet, because I’ve worked at taking away a long-standing and faithful friend of yours without really explaining the replacement. So here goes.
As the Cluetrain guys said, markets are conversations. The oceans and rivers of collaboration flows include all these conversations. The conversations themselves are manifestations of relationships, some bilateral, some multilateral. Sometimes they lead to transactions, surfaced by the capability as seen in the context.
What are these conversations? There’s nothing special about them. Here’s a loose classification of the types of conversations one would see in the workplace:
- Questions needing answers (Hey, how do I do this? Here’s how. Where can I find this? Here it is. Who really knows this? Here’s who)
- Sharing of experiences (I just installed this app, and it was *useless*. Here’s why. I just read this book and it was *fantastic. Here’s why)
- Feedback (I really found your answer helpful. I couldn’t have done this without you.)
- Social filtering (I rate this answer more than the others. I think you should see this so I will +1 it or Like it or RT it.)
- Status reporting (I’m here doing this, I’m there doing that)
- Alerts potentially needing action (If THIS then THAT, coming from a litany of sources)
You get my drift. Normal everyday conversations; people asking each other about what and where and how and why. People sharing their experiences. People giving feedback. Alert and response systems. Normal everyday conversations.
These conversations have been going on for aeons. But there’s one major difference. And that is this: the conversations are recorded. Persisted. Archived. So they’re auditable. Searchable. Findable. Besides this, there are other significant differences:
- The conversations are made visible immediately , in real-time
- They come wrapped in context, auto date and time stamped, author identified, location mapped, topic tagged
- The context can be enriched by other participants
- They’re channel- and device-independent; conversations can start in one medium, move to another. They can start on blogs, move to twitter, move to synchronous sound.
- They’re time- and space-shiftable. Synchronous and asynchronous. Mobile in design.
- They work on “publish-subscribe” networked models rather than broadcast and hierarchy
By now you should be getting a flavour of what collaborations flows are. They’re how people learn: they consist of the questions and answers and feedback loops and pointers and alerts. Work is done as a result of that learning, as the enterprise builds and extends its capacity to learn, and to keep learning. The lessons used to be in the stocks of knowledge. Now the lessons themselves are in the flows of learning.
This learning tends to be manifested through instances that use digital objects that get embedded in the conversations. Documents. Presentations. Links to web sites and video and audio. Proposals and orders and bills and invoices and payments. Ideas. Complaints. Every one of these things is an “enterprise social object” around which learning takes place.
The social objects attract commentary. Comments, ratings, further links and references. The “hyperlinks that subvert hierarchy”, another Cluetrain classic. The rolling stones of the enterprise social objects gather the moss of commentary. The ability to gather the moss and make sense of it is part of the ability to learn.
I shall spend more time talking about the enterprise social objects next time round. In the meantime, this earlier post of mine, and the series in which it was placed, should help you chew on the idea.
Let me now close with a summary of the characteristics of collaborative flows.
The characteristics of collaborative flows
- Inclusive rather than exclusive, low barriers to entry
- Nevertheless, associated clearly with identity, not anonymity
- Designed for sharing, for community
- Secure: full audit log, archived, persistent, searchable, retrievable
- Instant, real-time
- Yet shiftable in time and place, so that asynchronous work can be performed
- Carrying contextual metadata cheaply
- Embedded with enterprise social objects that themselves attract commentary and revision
- Able to operate in and across multiple channels
- Subscriber- rather than publisher-powered
- Built to internet and public cloud standards
- Transparent, inspectable
- Built to make use of communal ability to learn rather than individual stocks of knowledge
I hope, by the time you’ve read my next post, you’ve begun to get a real feel for collaborative flows within the social enterprise. [And I hope to have learnt where my thinking has gone astray via your comments and your criticisms)