embracing perpetual beta

Michelle Ockers has been working hard at incorporating social learning in the workplace, as her posted case study shows. After reading, finding perpetual beta, Michelle asked me to elaborate on a few points. These are her questions, and my attempt to address them.

1) What are practical steps to create post-hierarchical organisations, particularly in regard to how to distribute power?

We finally have the technology, so that even business no longer needs to be run as a tyranny. Jonathan Gifford examines how Ricardo Semler changed his company, and describes 10 ways that democracy can be promoted in an organization, beginning with small, symbolic changes that make a big difference.

“Semler ended random searches aimed to prevent petty theft of stock. He took away ‘the big time clock at the main gate’ and introduced many smaller time clocks; employees were ‘requested’ not to clock-in their colleagues.

He eliminated dress codes. Manual workers, who were given work overalls, were invited to choose the colour of these overalls (petroleum blue: smart, but good at disguising the most typical workplace stains). Executive parking spaces were done away with.

‘Democracy,’ writes Semler, ‘begins with little things like neckties, time clocks, parking spaces and petroleum blue uniforms.’”

Another approach is to deploy Trojan mice (small, well-focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way). Deploy several at a time, then observe what happens. Cajole and nudge them and then add or remove as needed. Many attempts will fail so there’s little use in reinforcing these. Then take another look at the entire field (company or ecosystem), and see where else you might deploy more mice. Repeat.

2) How can we function effectively in a networked world, including how to be a great Connector or Catalyst?

Connectors are people with many relationships who find it easy to talk to people. The challenge for the organization is to use these skills to improve knowledge-sharing. Connectors can be identified through observation, interviews, or social network analysis. To become knowledge catalysts, connectors need to have good curation skills. They have to know how to add value to knowledge and discern when, where, and with whom to share.

Experts have deep knowledge on a subject but many lack the skills to synthesize what they know in order to share it with a broader audience. It is critical that experts share their knowledge so the organization can make better decisions. This is a leadership responsibility. Expertise in a closed room is of little use in a connected enterprise. Experts need to develop skills in working out loud and other sense-making practices. Connectors can help them but first there has to be something to share. Getting experts to share in a meaningful way can take time but first it requires a supportive environment and some basic skills, like PKM.

If an organization wants to get meaningful results by adopting PKM practices, but does not see how this can be implemented throughout the organization, then an initial pilot should identify two groups: Connectors and Experts. Help these people improve their PKM skills. Get Connectors to add value and be more discerning. Get Experts to simplify in order to share. It will take time and practice but the benefits will be an organization that can use more of its knowledge to make better decisions. Catalysts may emerge from this group. More Catalysts in the enterprise may also significantly improve innovation because it is inextricably linked to both networks and learning.

We should be asking everyone in the organization what ideas they have had and what have they done to test them out. It might get us away from measuring and doing things that should be automated in the first place. Automation is not a bad thing if we know what to do with the extra time it provides. Organizations need more innovation catalysts. Learning is a real-time activity within the flow of work, and when embraced by the organization, can develop innovation catalysts. But catalysts will disturb the status quo.

“Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change or creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive.” – The Starfish and the Spider

Augmented by technology, knowledge catalysts cooperate through their networks to solve complex problems and test new ideas. But this only works in open and transparent environments. So the first step is always to open the organization and remove barriers to knowledge-sharing. Innovation is not about smart individuals, but rather is a distributed network activity,  which is why it is critical for enterprises to nourish their knowledge networks.

3) How can we facilitate / support the development of healthy networks and communities within an organisation and beyond organisational boundaries?

In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation is a driver of creativity. Stephen Downes clearly explains the difference.

“collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.

cooperation means ’sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …

You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*”

Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. If workers only collaborate they will miss out on serendipitous connections made through cooperation. As a result, innovation may actually decrease. This is what happens when you slavishly adhere to process improvement models like Sick Stigma and ignore how humans relate in networks and communities. Supporting cooperative actions, that may not have an impact on short-term profit, will enhance the potential for long-term benefits to the entire business system.

4) How can those of us not in senior roles influence those who are to embrace the idea that we are in the networked era and to act to create post-hierarchical organisations?


Mavens (Experts) exhibit the greatest intellectual capital while Connectors have the most diverse (creative) networks, and Salespeople (Catalysts) get things done (action). However, Experts are often not as trusted in comparison to Connectors as they can lack the intimacy skills of Doers, Connectors and Catalysts (Salespeople). Many experts are very deep into their field and may be less interested in the general trends. Consider that people who popularize research, like Malcolm Gladwell, are often much more successful than those whose research their books are based on.

Experts need champions, like Connectors, but Catalysts also need to find and connect to Doers. Network leadership can emerge from the Doers. Consider a social business initiative. We know that the main advantage of using social media is increasing speed of access to knowledge. We also know that very little of the knowledge we use on the job is stored in our heads, so there is a clear, logical reason for being more transparent and connected in our work. However, we also know that changing practices and developing a new sharing culture takes a lot of time and effort. Finding and engaging trustworthy people in the network may be a good place to start. The critical role may be the Doer, the most trusted of all, and the future leader in a networked organization.

6 Responses to “embracing perpetual beta”

  1. François Lavallée

    More on trojan mouse :
    My last employer (1998-2005) was a victim fo such mice…. mice I introduced eagerly over the span of several years but more intensely between 2003 and 2005.
    The concept of pursuing the insertion of the mice in a purposeful fashion does work. I started having voluntary bi-weekly training sessions for supervisors and managers ( around 100) in preparation for an important government inspection. These “meetings” would be based generally on a short management (Like Blanchard’s One-minute manager) or compliance (Documentation practices in a sterile environment) training video.
    Unbeknown to all was the underlying goal I was pursuing , namely general education on compliance and management, which at the time I felt had to be connected.
    This is a long time before I started reading Minztberg, Senge, Jarche, Pfleaging et al!!
    I constantly adapted the content and the format to make these participants learn, discuss and share insights.
    Although the group changed from one meeting to the other, the fact that these managers were able to connect and share was the real benefit. The process became the goal!
    I was convinced that the free and very random interactions would create the desired impetus necessary for us to succeed.
    These “meetings” were easily organized, required little content (video) and were based on my faith that the mere fact that these very competent people were in the room together was enough to make “something” to happen.
    The experts came to acquire more knowledge…. but they shared theirs.
    The connectors came simple to talk and meet some other people but they ended up learning more than expected.
    The catalysts came out with a slew of great ideas and a few names to get these ideas executed.
    Random and numerous.
    And it worked!

  2. Michelle Ockers

    Thanks for replying to my questions Harold. Reflecting on your responses and my experience it seems that while I am not in a senior role, there is still ample opportunity for me to contribute to creating effective networks within my sphere of influence. There are small, symbolic changes I can introduce in the teams and communities I am part of. I can use Trojan horses to try different ways of working and observe what happens. I can continue developing my PKM practices and supporting the spread of PKM in my organisation. Most of all I can act as if I am in a network (which I certainly am, even if part of that network is still embedded in a hierarchical framework) – co-operating at every opportunity, and acting as a catalyst and connector.


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