Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Changing Word Cloud

On many blogs, and some websites, you might notice a segment off to the side with many different words displayed varying in type size and boldness. These are word clouds that give an indication of the prominence of certain words or tags on that site.

 

I have been building my own mental word cloud from speaker presentations at my executive peer group meetings and from continually scanning the Internet. My mental radar tends to pick up words that indicate changes in societal norms that affect organizations and how they operate internally, or interact with their external environment.

 

For example, about seven years ago I attended a small conference of early pioneers in what was then being called video blogging during a blizzard in New York City. Some of the founders of the Vimeo.com video sharing system where there and just starting to patch together an early version of the system. Interacting with the people involved in that conference and the related e-mail discussions made me aware of the emergence of the word authentic. It was very important for these video bloggers that their work be authentic to contrast with the corporate videos that were then the norm.

 

Use of that word has spread tremendously, and it has been used to contrast with official “propaganda” from businesses or government or the shallowness of political statements. Authentic and open often come together, or are expressed as transparency.

 

Growth, an always worshiped concept, is being questioned by the word sustainable. Now we might be more likely to hear discussion about sustainable growth, or growth may be put aside entirely and the question may be purely “is it sustainable?”

 

The question of growth is sometimes addressed in another form by asking is it scalable? Usually this applies to software and Internet services in terms of the number of users or the amount of data, or both. The scale of systems, and the number of people that can be accommodated, is stretching far beyond our previous limits. As an example, a recent experiment at Stanford University offered open access to an artificial intelligence course, which eventually had an enrollment of 140,000 people.

 

The concept of collaborative activities seems to have a steady and continuing impact on our expressions of how we should work together. The students of the Stanford course very quickly self-organized into many study groups using existing Internet services like Meetup.com and Facebook. Collaboration involves sharing information and expertise, which sometimes clashes with how we were molded in school. We could not share our answers or our homework because that was “cheating”.

 

Engagement is looking to replace the old process of buy-in. Engagement comes before the decisions are made, while buy-in is the process of selling a decision that has already been made, usually by an elite and relatively small group. And engagement is usually a collaborative activity that involves systems that must be scalable to accommodate larger groups of people than has been the industrial age norm. To have trust in such interactions there must be transparency and authenticity.

 

These changes threaten industrial age hierarchies. There is more need, and available systems to support, broad group conversation. This is particularly difficult for organizational hierarchies that look to have official positions and pronouncements. Using Facebook to have conversations with customers, while being authentic and not simply repeating the company position, can be very challenging and risky.

The Occupy Wall Street movement illustrated how some of these concepts have come together to affect societal expectations and norms.

Occupy Wall Street participants were questioned by traditional media to determine their positions and demands so that the media could test them to see if the public would buy-in, but there was no spokesperson and no position paper. There was a mismatch of expectations about industrial age processes versus emerging information age processes. Engagement via conversation was the norm, and not just locally, but on a global scale. This USA action is part of a global conversation that Time Magazine recognized this year with its “person of the year” cover story.

 

So, do any of these words appear in your personal word cloud? Do you think they have any lasting significance? Have you noticed any other words slipping into our global dialogue that indicate shifts in our thinking?

One word that I am watching is the concept of a curator as it is now being applied far beyond its normal usage in the art world. Let’s see if it becomes more prominent this year.

Bursting the Beltway Bubble

My friend Harry Stevens, cited in a previous item, shared an idea that might be worth further discussion in this era of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I assume this is an original idea with Harry, but I am not sure about that. I gladly give him credit, because he often had ideas that blossomed many years after he planted the seed.

The level of “legalized corruption” in our national electoral politics is becoming more and more evident, as are the distortions it causes. Jack Abramoff, the corrupt, and corrupting, lobbyist, who is promoting his new book after getting out of prison, makes crystal clear the depth and level of corruption in Congress.

What Harry proposed might just make it a little more difficult for lobbyist to lobby by removing the “lobby”. He proposed that in this day of electronic communications there is no longer a need for all of our congressmen and senators to gather in Washington DC. The Pentagon has the capability for all types of secure communications and this may be the time to put them into use so that our elected officials can stay home in their district or state. If our 435 congressional representatives and 100 senators  are at home in their districts, they are not as easy to corral in a “lobby” in Washington DC by the K Street influence peddlers.

Let me list some of the differences, both positive and negative, that this change in congressional operations might cause:

– The federal government could free up a lot of office space in Washington DC.
– Our elected officials would save money by not having to have two places of residence, one in DC and one in their district.
– They would stay closer to their constituents and have more daily contact with the concerns of the people they represent.
– If they were to be entertained by a lobbyist in their district, there would be a higher probability of their constituents being aware of this activity.
– We would not have the risk of a deliberate, or accidental, catastrophe disabling our government because all of our officials are gathered in one place .
– Congressional and Senate hearings could be spread around the country giving elected officials opportunities to see more of the whole country that their decisions impact.
– Extra efforts would have to be made for face-to-face contact in order to build the levels of communications and trust that are necessary for political bargaining.
– There would be new challenges for the media and the Washington “Bureau” of many media organizations might have fewer staff members.

So, could we burst the Beltway bubble, that isolation and sense of self-importance that can infect our leaders when they are inside the Washington Beltway? What do you think the impacts of such a change would be? Is this a way to decentralize an excess concentration of power and spread it more evenly across the country? Could we all have more access to our elected officials if they spent more time back home?

What do you think?

Who Is That in the Video Talking about Network Organizations?

Thanks to Jeff Tintle, president of THRIVE Media  I have my first Internet video interview.  Jeff produces a number of magazines including Lehigh Valley Entrepreneur TV

Hierarchy, Networks and Tyranny

A friend and former business associate, Harry Stevens, or more formally Dr. Chandler Harrison Stevens, was an early pioneer in the use of online communications and processes for having greater participation. He conceptualized, and with the technical expertise of a partner, George Reinhard, created a software product for group communication called Participate. This all happened in the early 1980s and started on a public computer service called The Source.

Somewhere in that time Harry wrote a short poem that captured his thoughts about the power of online networks and the possibilities they provided for society. As you read it below, note the shift from industrial age mechanical metaphors to information agent computer metaphors.

THE NETWORKER’S CREED

I’d rather be a node in a network,

Than a cog in the gear of a machine.

A node is involved with things to resolve,

While a cog must mesh with cogs in between.

A cog in a niche can never question

An instruction from a superior.

It does what it’s told and seldom acts bold,

Except when bossing an inferior.

A node’s a crossing of lines of action,

And in the center there is inner peace,

Where choices are born and memories form

Mutual respect makes tyranny cease.

As I read this again after not having looked at it for a number of years, and as I think about it in terms of current social movements in many countries assisted and enabled by the Internet, I’m fascinated that even back then Harry was thinking about the power of these tools to impact tyranny.

Do you note the shift in values that Harry expresses as we move from hierarchy and mechanical metaphor to network and computer metaphor?  Much of what Harry expresses is about greater freedom. What lines speak to you about greater freedom?

Occupy Wall Street and Positional Leadership

I’ve been looking at the Occupy Wall Street movements through the lens of a network organization and feeling that traditional print and television media view it through the lens of a hierarchy.

 

The people on the street talk about it being “leaderless”. Viewed through the lens of a hierarchy that makes no sense, but from a network perspective it means there are no “positional” leaders. There certainly still are leaders, but that leadership is more likely based on energy, expertise and initiative then someone being given, or appointed to, the position. This is a situation of naturally emerging leaders versus designated leaders.

 

Because of my work with business executives I hear the changing demands being placed on businesses in an information-based economy. Expert speakers address my business groups and talk about the need for greater collaboration, flexibility and initiative in today’s business environment. There seem to be a lot of people involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its connected nodes in other cities who are demonstrating those qualities in great abundance.

 

There is a website called occupytogether.org created by two people who felt that there would be a need to make others aware of similar expressions of protest in other cities. No one told them to do this. No one authorized them. They just took the initiative. This is what has been preached in many businesses under the expression “it’s better to say you’re sorry then ask for permission”. Hierarchies may advocate that behavior, but they really have a difficult time adjusting to that kind of initiative. For a network it’s very natural.

 

Take a look at my note that contrasts hierarchies and networks in terms of characteristics. Do you see any other characteristics that apply in this situation?

The Military and Networks

A number of months after the 9/11 attacks I wrote my first op-ed item for a local newspaper. I explored the implications of calling this group of terrorist the Al Qaeda network. We did not call them the Al Qaeda bureaucracy or the Al Qaeda Army. We called them a network. I speculated in my newspaper item about the challenges of the traditional military hierarchy dealing with this new organizational form of a network.

Approximately 5 years later I stumbled upon a copy of the military counterinsurgency manual that had been recently produced by General Petraeus. I was intrigued to find a whole section that dealt with network organizations and how to understand them. The diagram below is one illustration from that section:

Counter Insurgency Manual Diagram

Counter Insurgency Manual Diagram

 

The military had learned that network organizations, terrorist or otherwise, are about relationships. The traditional organizational chart was not the tool that would help them understand a network organization.

Sometime in the mid-1980s I was exploring ways to represent a network organization. Since I studied electrical engineering, I was familiar with the idea of networks, but had not thought about them in an organizational sense until I was first introduced to that concept in April 1985.

I started trying to make a model. I tried using ping-pong balls and straws and strings and other such items, but I was not satisfied. I finally assembled a series of small plastic eggs of different sizes and colors and connect them with a series of rubber band of differing elasticity. I then had a three-dimensional model of a network that I thought more accurately reflected what I was learning from a new professional group I was part of called the Electronic Networking Association.

The plastic eggs represented individuals with the colors representing different personality types or learning styles. The rubber bands represented the relationships with the elasticity representing the strength of the relationship. With this more dynamic, three-dimensional model it was easier to get a sense of what would happen if one individual in a network attempted to move in a particular direction. The relationships would either bring other members of the network along in the same direction or they would show the strains of someone attempting to move in a way that was not followed by other members of the network.

Having a model that was three-dimensional and dynamic felt more appropriate. A two-dimensional paper diagram can fool our thinking into perceiving an organization as something that is static and not dynamic. Computer graphic modeling techniques could perhaps better represent that today than my makeshift model, but I am not really sure if I have seen anyone do that yet. I would like to see someone create a piece of software that could model organizational relationships as both three-dimensional and dynamic. I would also like to see such software be able to be used by a group of people planning an organizational change in an interactive process.

Have you seen representations of network organizations in other forms? Do you know of software that can be used to model organizational dynamics and change?

Hybrid Organizations – Part Hierarch, Part Network

It has been my observation that when society transitions from one set of concepts to another we often use hybrid, or bridging, concepts to help us in that transition. For example, we currently are talking about e-books, which are a hybrid of something old, “books”, and something new, “electronic”. We know we’re inventing something new here, but we don’t know what it is going to look like yet.

 

What I’m calling a hybrid organization is a similar bridging concept, like my hybrid car. My hybrid car is a step toward an electric/electronic vehicle – an e-vehicle. How, and if, we get to fully electric vehicles and the  infrastructure necessary to support them is still undefined, but many people are bringing forth their ideas and products as steps to create a more concrete definition.

 

I believe we are in a similar process in terms of creating network organizations. Many people are working on the Internet tools that can become the infrastructure for supporting network relationships and organizations. Social networks are a part of this process.

 

One of my beliefs about the value of a network organization over a hierarchy is that it can scale to larger size. In an era of increasing globalization we will need organizations of sufficient size to span the globe and potentially have millions of people involved in the organization. Hierarchies with their need to add additional levels as they increase in size become less responsive, because things have to move through channels or chain of command, which continues to lengthen.  Go back to my Shaky Pyramid post and think about what that diagram looks like as you keep on adding more layers.

 

In terms of scaling think about Facebook. It currently handles something in excess of 750 million users. To support all those users it has about 2000 staff members, or one staff member for each 375,000 users. Now imagine that every one of those users was part of the same organization and not simply using the system for chitchat. What if instead of Facebook it was “No Book University” with a global learning community of 750 million people?

 

Perhaps in that light, we could see Facebook as a hybrid organization, a small hierarchy that creates and manages the infrastructure and a very large network organization of learners, facilitators and teachers. Can you imagine that scale of a learning organization with these tools? Now try imagining what the organization chart would look like for a hierarchical organization that might have that same scale. Do you think it’s possible for a hierarchy to function at that scale?

Image of a Network Organization

Connecting Minds

At the same time that the drawing for the “shaky pyramid” in the last post was created, this drawing was made to illustrate a network organization. In both cases I was pleasantly surprised by the artist’s choice for illustrating these ideas, based on very sketchy information that I provided.

 

In a very real way this illustrates the electronic connection, and energy flow, that is the Internet. It is a way of connecting minds, which is illustrated here by only having people’s heads.

 

This diagram also makes apparent in graphic form some of the characteristics of a network organization when comparing it to a traditional hierarchy as illustrated in a previous post.  It is more apparent that in this form there are no “rigid levels” as there are in a hierarchy.  It is not “position” based. Rather it is a “relationship and bandwidth” oriented.

It is also obvious it is more about “brain” than it is about “muscle”.  I recall reading an article that critiqued the state of Pennsylvania, where I live, because people tended to talk more about someone being “a hard worker” or “working hard” than “working smart”. To me working smart implies more learning and more education – more brain power – while working hard implies more physical effort and muscle.  Does this way of expressing ourselves lead us to undervalue education and learning? Would our public support for education be much stronger if more of our informal conversation was in admiration of people who work smarter?

The Shaky Pyramid of the Hierarchical Organization

Looking at the Hierarchical Organization from the Outside

When I first started to learn about, and think about, alternative organizational forms, one of my explorations was to have an artist produce some images that I used in public presentations. This is one of illustrations which the artist generated, and that got me thinking about the hierarchical organizations that I had worked within.

 

The guy at the top has a great view. He can see further out than anyone else, but his head can be in the clouds. He really needs to keep everybody else in line or his position is at risk. The folks at the bottom are well grounded, but have very little freedom. If they should all decide to leave at once, the pyramid is in jeopardy, which is why unions are so powerful, sometimes.

 

Some people look like they can only deal internally with others in the pyramid, while others might be able to see or communicate with people outside the pyramid. Moving forward is a real challenge of coordination otherwise things could get very shaky.

 

What other thoughts does this illustration generate for you, based on your experience in hierarchical organizations?

From Owner Managers to Networks

How the corporation evolved - March 3, 1986

This diagram is from Business Week magazine. It is another illustration of organizational evolution, here with the focus on the Corporation. This diagram predates the time when the Internet began to get major public attention around 1994. It illustrates how computer technology enables network organizational forms.