Archive for September 2007

How does social networking carry over to organizational behavior?

September 24, 2007

GK Van Patter recently asked the question:

What is the impact of consciously or unconsciously importing on-line interaction dynamics into organizational cultures?

Is that importation inevitable? How is that importation impacting organizational cultures today?

What do you think? Good question? Where do we start?

Online interaction dynamics might refer to styles of work and time organization, meeting management, distribution of information,structuring of departments and line accountabilities, task assignment and project management, management style. I would suggest all of theseare affected by our experience and learning from social Web interaction. Bonnie Nardi et al wrote in First Monday back in 2000 how organizational knowledge dynamics were changing due to people relying on “intensional networks” for problem-solving versus identifying local experts and contributors in the organization itself. Organizations, as Cluetrain Manifesto aimed for, are becoming more porous and less secretive, extending their knowledge networks through virtual networks of team members.
Another example that comes to mind is how our attention spans in organizational discourse are mediated by the Web multitasking experience. While it may be a blessing that some meetings are shorter now (in product teams due more to Agile than anything else), my experience has been that less ground is covered. I”ve been involved as a consultant in several projects where significant issues are missed and surface later (sometimes months) because of the fragmented, bullet-listing style of meeting and project management. To some extent this may draw from our everyday experience of paying less and less attention to more and more things online. Then carrying over that impatient mindset to the world of F2F social interaction.


One participant made reference to Karen Stephenson’s work in online interaction, trust, and organizations. The finding of how people backstab in competitive environments using BCC to inform undisclosed third parties of their direct discussions with people is a bit disturbing. I’m sure some of this is cultural and perhaps related to organizational size and type as well. Not being an insider anymore, I have little insight into this dynamic – but its a bad trend and one that makes me grateful for being a consultant for hire and not one that has to worry about insider politics.
Personally, I’d prefer the social knowledge network measure of the number and depth of email discussions to external consultants and non-paid advisers. In other words, how often are people in large organizations using their intensional networks for local problem solving?

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Cylons are in the pipeline

September 19, 2007

The push for strong AI must have a spiritual basis, because after trying and failing to achieve “AGI” from Turing to Neural Nets, most researchers learned something about the human beings they were attempting to model. If it could be done, as Battlestar Galactica warns, we would burn many of our bizarre biases and belief systems into their firmware. Cylons are monotheists, after all, just like people in most other organized belief systems.

The Singular Question of Human vs. Machine Has a Spiritual Side
Wall Street Journal (09/19/07) P. B1; Gomes, Lee

There are people who believe there will one day be a point of “singularity” when human intelligence is overtaken by machine intelligence, and they speculate that a new, super-intelligent organism cross-bred from man and machine could be one of the monumental developments this singularity could bring about. cylon-evolution.jpg

Lee Gomes writes that singularity advocates talk at length about the need for Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which is seen as a key singularity milestone. Yet he says AI researchers have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to achieve this goal since the 1950s. “There is a schism between the AGI and the AI worlds,” Gomes notes. “The AGI faction thinks AI researchers have sold out, abandoning their early dreams of ‘general’ intelligence to concentrate on more attainable (and more lucrative) projects.” Gomes agrees with this assessment, but while AI researchers insist that the revision of their approach was unavoidable given the naivete of their earlier ambitions, singularists are undaunted in their belief that new approaches will yield AGI breakthroughs.

Gomes entertains the notion “that the discussion of singularity involves a sublimated spiritual yearning for some form of eternal life and an all-powerful being, but one articulated by way of technical, secular discourse,” and he perceives significant intersection between singularists and proponents of “life extension.” He adds that the popularity of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program among singularists reflects a desire for a messianic figure from space, which seems to again indicate that the need for spiritual enlightenment through advanced technology is a running theme among the singularity set.

Full Article

Buber on social networking

September 16, 2007

OK, not really, but I got your attention – I am rereading Martin Buber on dialogue, where he takes on the problem of “monologue disguised as dialogue.” a false dialogue of abstracted opponents. More than anyone else I’ve read, Buber reminds usof the inherent and deep human need to connect.  And in distinguishing between dialogue real and false, he’s speaking to a fatal flaw / human need underlying all of our attempts to perfect online social networking. Because a lot of his ideas are so underappreciated now, they are worth recovering in the new contexts of the dissociating online world we spend half our lives in.

Buber spoke about the relationship of human beings to one another, the importance of true dialogic encounter, the power of the here and now, and the threats of the modernity to psychological health or wholeness. Dissociation was a critical concern of his, back then in the 50’s when people typically had (or lived as thought they had) just a single identity.

“Vital dissociation is the sickness of the peoples of our age.”

Dissociation with the real world of human lifeworld was a predominating concern for Buber, and other pre-postmodern thinkers: Maslow, R.D. Laing, Carl Rogers, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Fromm, Krishnamurti. Just because we have socially adapted to embrace our dissociation as a way of celebrating the fragmentation of contemporary life does not mean we have evolved into it. Human beings become partial identities, fragmented souls, if starved of F2F encounters and genuine communication. Consider your own experience –  which of our own virtual interactions lead to real interpersonal connections (beyond the instrumental)?

In Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, Maurice Friedman goes on: “These organic forms — the family, union in work, and the community in village and town — were based on a vital tradition which has now been lost. Despite the outward preservation of some of the old forms, the inward decay has resulted in an intensification of man’s solitude and a destruction of his security. In their place new community forms have arisen which have attempted to bring the individual into relation with others; but these forms, such as the club, the trade union, and the party, ‘have not been able to re-establish the security which has been destroyed,’ ‘since they have no access to the life of society itself and its foundations: production and consumption.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’ p. 157).

Buber wrote this in 1954 – so how much further have we (socially and intrapersonally) dissociated since then? Do we even care, do we have any way of assessing our essential disconnection, even as we evermore frantically connect online?

Back to tech – First of all, small-scale networking is highly intentional – wikis, invited lists, social network services like Ning, Web and email groups. But I’m uncomfortable with the large-scale social networking services, even though I use some of them. Not with the tech, which is cool enough, but with the meaning of the experience and the “meaning of the network.” These are not values-neutral services.  OK, LinkedIn is fine for keeping track business connections, especially the weak-tie relationships that are easy to let slip by. A blue-suit values system, useful but not all that inspiring.

As a professional, MySpace is not worth my time, and Facebook – well, I’m not even going to get started. Its not just that the scale and reach of Facebook creeps me out, or the total loss of personal privacy you give up, allowing their corporation to locate any information on the web someone tags about you and associates it with Facebook. Even if you consider its value as a “terrorist network” search tool as purported by some, based on its CIA links and Gilman Louie investment, its not that. Its this:

– Do I really want to create an online identity that represents “me” to a million people I don’t need to be in touch with? And then to maintain and upgrade that identity on a persistent basis based on its inherent values system, its distracting features, and its communities that don’t help me personally?

– What if my identity is not static enough to fit their context-free model? In my genuine experience I”m not really the same, consistent person to everyone. Any self-simulacrum removed from its context seems ultimately unsatisfying and phony.

– What if the very idea of my online Self is something I wish to have control over, to assert and retract my self-presentation when and as I want? At least LinkedIn is just an online resume service – I don’t know what Facebook will do with my identity once I’m tired of it. Will people find me in 5 years after I’ve left the service and ask where the old Peter Jones went to?

– What if its becomes the new “permanent record?” Do I trust these guys with my personal data?

Yes, we are all postmodernists now. We have learned to thrive in the temporary autonomous zones created by a shared life of the mind. But I prefer to do my Facebooking live, F2F.

On Seeing Design as Redesign

September 5, 2007

Peers in design practice understand the name “Redesign Research,” and get it. At least I think they do. Clients get it as well. And a slogan since 2001 that “All Design is Redesign.” I have found few other designers willing to join me on this – perhaps people think its a marketing slogan, but it really describes a de facto design philosophy. Simply put, design is a set of skills and perspective on problem-solving the wicked problems of ill-formed contexts with structures and materials. The target of design work/thinking is a problem space involving (usually) human activity in a context of work or everyday life. These contexts are pre-existing and carry with them people’s pre-understanding about what’s relevant and useful. Therefore, most design seeks to improve the interactions and materials in these pre-existing contexts. We aim to redesign FROM and TO a space of needs, uses, desires, and affordances. If the context is poorly-framed, you end up with services that fail, marketing with no connection to reality, and products with no markets. Designing to a useful or playful context is redesigning the activities in that context. Designing as redesign, in this sense, is powerful and intentional designing.

Design is not about original invention – most inventions are poorly designed and require incremental improvements to adapt an original vision to a context of use. Such products will fail adoption if the designers miss the opportunity to design for usability and effectiveness. Design is not about innovation either – innovation involves significant disruptive invention or targeted improvements in a meaningful context of activity – their form, materials, usability, and aesthetic values are designed aspects, but not the innovation itself. Innovation is not alway redesign – but design is.

Design Addict published an article earlier this year: On Seeing Design as Redesign: An Exploration of a Neglected Problem in Design Education by Jan Michl. Originally published in the Scandinavian Journal of Design History (2002). Here’s where Michl makes a compelling case for “all design is redesign:”

But although in one way it is correct to say that designers start from nothing, in another sense it is equally correct to maintain that in practice they can never start from scratch. On the contrary, it can be argued that designers always start off where other designers (or they themselves) have left off, that design is about improving earlier products, and that designers are thereby linked, as though by umbilical cord, to earlier objects, or more correctly to their own or their colleagues’ earlier solutions – and thus to yesterday. In other words, what the word design holds back is the entire co-operative and past-related dimension in designing that makes designers’ individual creative contributions possible. Nor does the word design satisfactorily capture the fact that design activity is never really complete with the final product because all products are by nature makeshift solutions, and as such can always be improved.

Then there’s ReDesign Design as well …