Social objects in the enterprise: Part 3


Given the depth and nature of conversations on this subject, I think I’d better let this one run for a while. Many of you have commented in different ways, by writing in, by talking to me, by commenting on this blog, or on Facebook or Twitter, or even by writing blog posts and pointing me towards them. Thank you everyone, I really appreciate it. It helps me learn, it is one of the reasons I write here.

[For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, this is now the third post in an emergent series on Social Objects In The Enterprise. The first two can be found here and here.]


Amongst the links, tweets and comments there were some posts and documents worth sharing with all.

For example, Todd Barnard pointed me towards the original post by Jyri Engestrom on Social Objects; I realised that while I referred to him repeatedly, I didn’t actually share the link, an absolute must-read. So thank you Todd. Similarly, while the terms “systems of engagement” and “systems of record” may be quite common now, Geoff Moore wrote extensively about them a month or so ago, in a paper entitled Systems Of Engagement and the Future of Enterprise IT. My thanks to John Mancini of AIIM for alerting me to this.

There are many influences for the rest of this post, key amongst them being Esther Dyson (who’s often mentored me without always knowing she’s doing it), Hugh Macleod (who introduced me to the work of Jyri Engestrom), John Seely Brown (for making me think about how information flows and how organisations really learn), Steven Johnson (for bringing “emergence” into my understanding), Howard Rheingold, Stewart Brand and Amy Jo Kim (for helping me gain some perspective on virtual communities), John Hagel (who, with JSB and with Lang Davison, continues to influence me about flow, non-linearity and patterns) and Clay Shirky (who keeps making sure I think hard about what’s happening in the firm, and in the world at large, by foisting “rules” upon me that give me a fresh and worthwhile insight. I am still working through the implications of cognitive surplus in the enterprise).

The ideas I’ve inherited as a result of spending time with many of the people named above, and by reading what they’ve written, have all tended to be absorbed in a framework whose foundation was laid by The Cluetrain Four: Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Chris Locke and Rick Levine. Tom Malone’s The Future of Work and Ricardo Semler’s Maverick were early influences as well; Sean Park, an erstwhile colleague at Dresdner Kleinwort, helped me enormously as well, particularly with the discussions we’ve had over the years about Carlota Perez’s work.

Why am I sharing all this and making this post sound a bit like an introduction to a book? Because I think people learn by “getting inside other people’s heads”. Because I think that in future, quite a lot of organisational learning will take place this way, as the cost of discovering roots and catalysts and influences, of sharing them and of being able to augment them, reduces sharply.

Some more links

This is almost a bibliography in reverse; what I’m doing here is linking to a few earlier posts of mine you may find useful in making sense of the rest of this post:

Some of them date back over five years; none of them is essential reading for you to absorb the rest of this post; but for those of you who’re interested, I believe it will help you.

The role of social objects in the enterprise

(a) Assumptions

There are some core assumptions underlying my writing all this, I think it’s worth laying them out. First, that what passes for work in most enterprises is knowledge work. Second, that there is a war for talent when it comes to hiring knowledge workers. Third, that enterprises are changing from being hierarchies of customers and products to networks of relationships and capabilities, that human and social capital are gaining in prominence. Fourth, that the way we work is also changing, from stocks to flows, from the static to the dynamic, from the linear to the non-linear. Fifth, that there’s a new generation in the workplace, with newer still to come, born after the internet, trained in the web, equipped with always-on ubiquitous tools that can read and write text and sound and image and film.

And finally, we’re in a global social, political and economic environment that we’ve never really experienced before, where the pace of change is vast, and where knowing what to do isn’t a simple thing. An environment where the spectrum and continuum of enterprise is undergoing radical change, with some heading towards the hyperglobal low-touch model, some towards the hyperlocal high-touch variant, and where the in-betweeners, the “nationals”, don’t know what to do: they’re stuck in the same place countries and governments are, seeking to figure out their role in the new global structures.

(b) Rationale

Against the backdrop of those assumptions, it is not difficult to put forward an argument about the need to move from process-based thinking to to patternbased thinking, with greater reliance on immediate information, with more emphasis on data-driven and event-driven activity.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at this post by Thierry de Baillon on Moving Beyond Work as Usual in A Complex World, along with a post he refers to, Venessa Miemis’s Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Part 1: Pattern Recognition. [My thanks to John Hagel for bringing the de Baillon post to my attention, and for reminding me of the Pattern Recognition post by Venessa Miemis].

We have to start thinking about social objects in the enterprise as having two primary purposes: to collect patterns, via the metadata generated around the social object; and to collect pattern recognisers, via the communities built around the social object.

Chris Locke, when I first met him over a decade ago, spent time explaining to me the importance of “organic gardening”, a catchall for the role played by interests other than work in building community amongst the people at work. What he said resonated with me, particularly with what I’d learnt from phenomena like the WELL.

People who congregate electronically around digital social objects form relationships with each other as a result of that congregation; there are birds-of-a-feather-like effects, the bringing together of people with similar interests, though not necessarily similar views on those interests.

These people who are brought together tend to avoid the herd-instinct problem primarily because of this, the tendency to congregate around interests rather than views on the interests. Politics rather than the red-or-blue of party politics. Football rather than the red-or-blue of Manchester or Liverpool. Religion rather than the red-or-blue of Catholic or Protestant. Technology rather than the red-or-blue of Google or Microsoft.

Because they come together with a commonality of interest but a diversity of views, the likelihood of Linus’s Law increases: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. So when such people collaborate, the quality of collaboration tends to be high.

Then, when you bring in the Clay Shirky concept of “cognitive surplus”, the potential for radical change in the enterprise emerges. People working together to correct the raw data and information bases that underpin the technical infrastructure of the firm, the extended enterprise, the market, the economy.

Social objects will also themselves become repositories of metadata related to relationships and information flows and collaborative activity, increasing the amount of information available about the actors and activities, and thereby reducing the likelihood of friction and tension between collaborators a la Gregory Benford’s Lawpassion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.

My next post will be about examples of social objects in the enterprise. In the meantime, please keep the comments coming.


11 thoughts on “Social objects in the enterprise: Part 3”

  1. @gregory benford wow, what a surprise to see you here. thanks for the comment, it made me realise that I’d had finger trouble when writing the post last night, there were a few lines missing from my last edit. I hope the edit now conveys my meaning more accurately.

  2. Benford’s Law reveals how engagement systems can provision or block collaboration. Social objects in the enterprise need Facebook granular like controls for sharing to enable collaboration at the user level. M-generation is using consumer internet information systems now. Current business systems, even systems like Sharepoint generally need an admin to allow sharing.

    Geoffrey Moore mentions overlaying engagement systems on systems of record, inevitably this will be tried, and somehow it may muddle through and be successful. But I think the point of JP’s exploration on Social Objects in the Enterprise is to throw light on new thinking, that may leap frog over layers of legacy.

  3. Hi JP,
    Been following your blog. Its been sometime since BT. But wanted to let you know that your inspiration has defined the next phase of career. I am building social engagement and sale ecosystems for media clients (so we come full circle here in your inspiration). Check out Send me an email [email protected] so that we can stay in touch. If you are in the NY area, would love to catch up.
    Sudev Balakrishnan

  4. JP,

    There is another way of understanding human social relationships that has very deep roots in post-Cartesian thinking, from Giambattista Vico through William James, Heidegger and Bakhtin to many practitioners in our time, including that of a rising generation of family therapists.

    On this view, relationships pivot (or pirouette) around “moments of common reference” (this expression belongs to my friend and colleague John Shotter). Such moments are emergent, forming in the intra-actions between people. Deep connections arise as I discover an aspect of my own experience reflected and refracted in that of another person. But powerful and energising as these glimpses can be, they are also evanescent, and easily lost in the onward rush of daily imperatives.

    Why this matters is because the “striking moments” that enable us to make sense of things and to achieve things together are not given objects, but potentialities. My work is therefore around the creation of the conditions that encourage such potentialities to arise and be recognised and made use of by the protagonists concerned. So the ‘surrounding circumstances’ of the conversation and its conduct become very important.

    I think this a view of human intra-action that is still unfamiliar to knowledge management advocates. I have admired (and have commented on) your willingness to embrace and experiment with (immerse yourself in) each new relational tool as it appears. But I would also encourage you to consider the possibility of important social pivots, or events, for which there are still no tools. And because I think they are something more like ‘events’ (or perhaps ‘affordances’, as someone else has suggested here) I would not use the word ‘objects’ to describe them. Thinking of them as physical entities is, I think, misleading in the way that management theorists of the past thirty years were distracted by thinking of organisations as things.

    All best

  5. As I understand it, social objects are tools which have a function of promoting the creation and sharing of moments of common reference (?)

    Fascinating series of posts, I look forward to more :-)

  6. @ted thanks, will make an effort to think differently here. It shouldn’t be that hard, digital social objects have no physical construct, so I’m halfway to your affordance approach anyway

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