The Nature of Social Collaboration

April 12, 2006

by Dennis Sandow & Anne Murry Allen

In Reflections, the SoL Journal on Knoweldge, Learning and Change
Volume 6 Compilation 2005

This is a great article about how work gets done and where value is created.


First, however, a snippet from Pulse, The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things, by Robert Frenay, to warm you up for a change in how we see the world:

Even so, it’s just ten thousand since we worked out how to get more food energy by grouping plants into farms. Farming made possible the cultural and intellectual hubs known as cities, which in turn gave rise to industry. And with each step—the rise of farming, the growth of cities, the industrial revolution—a radically different culture emerged. Now we’re entering another great transition

"Organizations are in the midst of a significant transformation as knowledge and innovation — fundamental in the creation of intellectual property — become important sources of capital in a rapidly changing world economy. A philosophy from the biological sciences is replacing the philosophy of the physical sciences that dominated the industrial age."

Harkening back to Gregory Bateson, we're viewing the world shifting from

  • focusing on the parts to focusing on the whole
  • focusing on categorization to focusing on integration
  • focusing on the individual to focusing on interactions
  • focusing upon systems outside the observer to fcousing on system that include the observer

"The distinction between formal and informal systems maintains the tension between management hierachies and self-organizing employee networks. We believe this tension is unnecessary and impedes organizational performance. Instead, we would like to make one distinction of importance to the company — value-creating social systems. Value-creating social systems are the assocations of employees, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders that share the purpose of creating business value."

The authors follow the principles of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, who believes that knowledge is doing. Learning comes from reflection. Social Learning is our collective reflection. Create an environment (I might have said learnscape) that nurtures social learning and greater organizational performance is assured.

Within a social network, you'd got to listen to learn. This entails treating everyone as a legitimate participant. Listening taps into the flow of knowledge through the social system. To show others you're listening is to show them you understand them. Openness, collaboration, knowledge, and innovation result from this mutual understanding (which Maturana would call love.) HP's explosive ink-jet cartridge business brought Maturana in for a two-day tete-a-tete with several hundred

If collaborative social systems are the natural way to go (as is the case everywhere but at work) and they also foster innovation, why isn't more of this stuff in evidence? Because we're in the midst of a "transformational period in the history of our perception." We're chucking the model that likened organizations to machines: never changing. In its place, we see organizations that are continually growing. (They're alive!)

Management used to focus almost exclusively on change; now we must look at conservation, too. It was once assumed that performance came from individuals; now we see that it takes a village.

The bottom line is to focus on value creation, something that's accomplished by the collaboration of groups of people in social networks. Reflect on that one!

Perception = what we can do, not what we can see.

In a Commentary following the article, Peter Senge writes a paragraph I'd love to steal for my book:

While it has become acceptable in recent years to talk about "the formal system" and "the informal system," to laud the importance of "communities of practice" and social networks in knowledge creations and innovation, the matter of how we are with one another — and the consequences for how our businesses operate and the results they product in the world — remains laregely undiscussable.

Senge was right on the mark when he trumpeted the need for systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline. I, for one, didn't get it back then. I'm glad I do now. This entire line of thinking dovetails perfectly with Verna Allee's philosophy on creating value networks.


And here's another relevant snip from Pulse:

Using lessons drawn from nature, a new generation of designers, scientists, engineers, academics, farmers, philosophers, city planners, business leaders, and public officials from every continent is quietly, and with no common plan, creating a global

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