a triple operating system

Governance, business, and learning models are moving from centralized control to network-centric foundations. For instance, coalition governments are increasing in frequency, businesses are organizing in value networks, and collaborative and connected learning is becoming widespread. In these cases, collaboration (working for a common objective) and cooperation (sharing freely without direct reciprocity) flow both ways.

There are advocates for a dual operating system to deal with the complexity of the networked era: one that is hierarchical and another that is networked. This may make more sense than an elaborate 8-step model but the duality misses an important connection between structured work and cooperative networks. That space is the community of practice, which is neither project team nor professional network. Networks provide new ideas and perspectives from their diverse weak social ties. Work teams often have to share complex knowledge, and this requires strong social ties. Communities of practice are the bridge between these two, where we can test new ideas in a trusted space. This trinity is not three separate operating systems. It is one, that without the others is ineffective.


This networked organization trinity is based on the Triple-A organization, as proposed by Valdis Krebs. It is structured to take advantage of the complexity and noisiness of social networks, allowing information to flow as freely as possible, and affording workers the space to make sense of it and share their experiences and knowledge. The underlying concept of the triple operating system is that organizations and their people are members of many different types of networks, communities of practice, and close-knit collaborative work teams.

The triple operating system supports both collaborative and cooperative behaviours. That framework is one of overlapping networks, communities of practice, and work teams. It differs from the traditional organization chart in that it incorporates relationships outside the organization. Like the web, it is about talking to one another. What I see with my clients is the challenge of connecting social networks, with communities of practice, and with work teams, while also maintaining privacy and security. The triple operating system shows the need to communicate (and learn) across these boundaries.

Essentially, networked organizations need to operate differently.

  • Individuals must be supported in interacting with diverse social networks, as part of their work, to enhance the possibility of serendipitous connections. This is the practice of PKM.
  • Communities of practice must be supported as safe places to test out new ideas. This is where HR and L&D departments can play a significant role.
  • Working on complex or creative projects is the realm of human activity in the network era, as this work cannot be automated. These teams are effective as temporary negotiated hierarchies that can be reformed as the situation changes.
  • Every worker is involved in all three of these spaces continuously, therefore working and learning are not separate activities.
  • Knowledge flows from implicit personal knowledge and is socialized while learning with communities or working in groups. The organization can curate knowledge from the flows of discussions among its workers and codify it in systems of record.


To let knowledge flow, people first have to become responsible for their own sense-making. This reverses the existing practice of corporate training that is designed centrally and distributed through the hierarchy. Personal knowledge mastery (PKM) is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. People can learn more and connect to diverse knowledge networks outside the organizational walls. The first step is connecting to external knowledge networks, a key part of PKM. Increasing connections, developing meaning, and improving autonomy are necessary skills in the network era. PKM ties these into an easy to understand framework: Seek > Sense > Share.


With every worker actively practicing PKM, seeking new knowledge and making sense through experimentation, then communities of practice can form to promote knowledge-sharing. Professional communities of practice connect the work being done with the ever-changing external world. They are an essential safe place to fail. Organizations need to support and reinforce existing communities, not build these as if they were project teams. People only share complex knowledge with others whom they trust. This takes time.


Hierarchies can be temporary agreements to get work done, but the general organization structure has to be much more flexible, enabling self-directed work teams. A structure of loose, mutually agreed-upon, hierarchies within strong networks can help build the networked organization. With the individual as the primary operating unit, each person needs to master sense-making and then people have to organize in communities to make sense together. They cannot wait to be told what to do, which is why ‘awareness’ is essential. A guiding principle is that collaboration must happen at the organizational level, not the process level. This means everyone has to be connected to the overall mission, and not just focused on their part (job). Goal oriented conversations, especially in communities of practice, keep people and the organization connected.

One challenge for traditional organizations is that a core aspect of PKM is critical thinking, or questioning assumptions, which may be threatening to command & control management systems. But as Valdis Krebs states, “Awareness and alternatives are useless without the ability to take action on them.” Finally, giving up control, and promoting self-governance, is the essence of the trinity model that enables action.

Network Thinking

Networks enable organizations to deal with complexity by empowering people to connect with whom they need to, without permission. Network thinking means that anyone can connect to another colleague, and the default permission to get access to information is public. Networks are in a state of perpetual Beta. Unlike hierarchies, they can continuously change shape, size, and composition, without the need for a formal reorganization. Our thinking needs to continuously change as well.

Hierarchies were essentially a solution to a communications problem. They are artifacts of a time when information was scarce and hard to share, and when connections with others were difficult to make. That time is over. Markets, competitors, customers, and suppliers are already highly connected. The Internet has done this. It is why an enterprise based on a triple operating system is more like the Internet, and less like a tightly controlled machine.

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