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What does it mean that digital technologies are increasingly a part of...
Over the past few years, Gordon Ross has become a good friend, and we were on a panel at SxSW together two years ago with Dave Gray and Megan Murray. He’s among the most articulate and deeply studied practitioners and thinkers in the theory and practice of social tools, today.
About Gordon Ross
Gordon Ross is an OpenRoad partner and the Vice President responsible for strategy and professional services for ThoughtFarmer. He’s spoken at Enterprise 2.0, OpenGovWest, Social Intranet Summit, SXSW, and World IA Day conferences, and is a frequent blogger on the theory behind social intranets.
Gordon earned a BA in Communications at Simon Fraser University, has taught IT project management and e-business courses at SFU and lectured at BCIT and the Vancouver Film School. He’s passionate about the ideas surrounding communications, complexity, ethnography, service design, social network analysis, theory of technology, urban planning, and the how the collision of these ideas can help make work better and organizations thrive.
Stowe Boyd: When people talk about the adoption of tools, what does that mean? Is there a one size fits all meaning for user adoption?'Why should social connection be contemplated as a universally good thing? At some point, the limits of my attention and ability to pay attention to all of those social connections fall over.'
Gordon Ross: When most folks in our industry talk about adoption, they’re referencing a basic awareness of Moore and the TALC (technology adoption lifecycle) (Crossing the Chasm) which is based on Rogers (Diffusion of Innovation).
The first chapter of Rogers is pretty lucid. “Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among members of a social system.” And he goes onto define the “innovation-decision” process (which can yield in adoption or not) to be “the process through which an individual (or other decision making unit) passes from first knowledge of an innovation to forming an attitude toward the innovation, to a decision to adopt or reject, to implementation of the new idea, and to confirmation of this decision.”
I think what’s fascinating about the Rogers work is that in his eyes, diffusion is how the innovation is communicated, but it’s a special kind of communication about new ideas, information, and uncertainty. He’s pretty specific about his definition of uncertainty in this context too; “the degree to which a number of alternatives are perceived with respect to the occurrence of an event and the relative probability of these alternatives.”
So adoption is the decision to use something, but not actual use in terms of classical diffusion research; a critique he made of the limits of the research work in the 80’s. And that, I think shapes a lot of our change efforts. If the target of your work and efforts is to alter the attitudes towards the software, rather than the usage of the software (if you can even separate the two), your stance is different when it comes to persuasion, reducing uncertainty, cajoling, coercing, etc., said possible users…
Rogers says it better than I do: “Persuasion (and diffusion) researchers often give allegiance to the view that their dependent variable is to change attitudes rather than overt behavior. Diffusion researchers have been more oriented to the dependent variable of adoption (a decision to use and implement a new idea), than to actual implementation itself (or to studying the consequences of innovation).”
So I quote this stuff at length simply because it’s such a robust and long standing set of definitions around adoption. It’s predicated on a bunch of assumptions (that technology and organizations are discrete entities in the first place; challenged by Latour, Orlikowski and other sociomaterialists…), but it’s a great starting point for anyone who wants to contemplate the subject.
SB: But in practice we are really talking about using the tools and getting the value as the measure of adoption, right? That’s what we’re after, not a sociological decision point, but the point of advantage from using tools.
GR: Agreed. In terms of adoption as decision vs. adoption as usage post-decision, it’s post-decision that owners, leaders, or managers of businesses care about. The outcome. The effect. However, it is interesting to contemplate that diffusion as a form of communication about that decision (the decision is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the desired outcomes of usage) is how Rogers originally frames up the expression. What if someone adopts it and “uses it wrong” after all (according to whom?).
SB: Since social tools enable social connection, adoption is not just about the minutes people spend using the tool, but the value derived from the connections, right? My expression for this is ‘I am made better by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections.’
GR: Sure, if adoption is individual and diffusion is the process by which adoption occurs across a social system, then yes, the assumption that underpins much of our industry’s value proposition is that the more diffusion, the greater the value of the innovation. This is backed up by the mathematical truisms proposed by the network laws (Zipf, Reed, Beckstrom & others). Beckstrom’s Law is worth quoting because it describes the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” sentiment:
The value of a network equals the net value added to each user’s transactions conducted through that network, valued from the perspective of each user, and summed for all.
Network value grows exponentially, not linearly.
So the mathematical value (total number of all possible connections in a network as the network adds one more node increasing in a power function, not just +1) is one thing.'The value of any new node in a network — and in social networks, a node is a person — can be characterized as the increase in network-wide parallelism caused by the connections the new node establishes. - Boyd's Law
But why should social connection be contemplated as a universally good thing? At some point, the limits of my attention and ability to pay attention to all of those social connections fall over. Perhaps it’s Dunbar Number. Perhaps it’s something else. But if I’m connected to *every single other node* in my 10,000 person company (and so are they) all the time, we’re probably having a hard time getting things done. Clearly more is not better.
The value of being able to (but not always constantly being in that hyper connected state) of shortening the distance between two randomly picked people inside the organization and increasing the cohesion / conviviality / sense of community amongst those people (h/t Esko Kilpi) is that this works to enhance the ability of an organization to recognize opportunities and challenges and coordinate appropriate responses quickly and effectively (h/t Rob Cross). The affordance of a network approach makes possible but does not determine this ability. Of course, it also affords a bunch of possibly less desirable behaviours too (just like email affords both good & bad behaviours simultaneously, our new tools are just the same).
Manuel Castells gives us 3 reasons why networks kick ass in our current organizational situation (my words, not his):
…networks became the most efficient organizational forms as a result of three major features of networks which benefited from the new technological environment: flexibility, scalability, and survivability.
Flexibility is the ability to reconfigure according to changing environments and retain their goals while changing their components, sometimes bypassing blocking points of communication channels to find new connections.
Scalability is the ability to expand or shrink in size with little disruption.
Survivability is the ability of networks, because they have no single center and can operate in a wide range of configurations, to withstand attacks to their nodes and codes because the codes of the network are contained in multiple nodes that can reproduce the instructions and find new ways to perform.
These properties and qualities are important today, because the world is a complex place filled with lots and lots of uncertainty that organizations have to navigate.
SB: Castells’ three reasons are a dynamic explanation of the increased resilience and agility of companies that adopt networked organizational forms, which is part of the new form factor of work, along with the head shift involved in learning how to work through them, as Kilpi and Cross suggest. You left out Boyd’s Law (see this):
The value of any new node in a network — and in social networks, a node is a person — can be characterized as the increase in network-wide parallelism caused by the connections the new node establishes.
GR: You’re taking a run at the value of any node with Boyd’s Law; Reed, Metcalfe and Beckstrom take a run at the value of the network. The two are just different parts of the same equations, no? You’ve isolated a different variable of interest to focus on.
In principle I think these models/laws/etc. are coherent. In reality, the heterogeneity of a network (all nodes are not equal to begin with) and the complexity of the ties (how do you measure what constitutes a tie) and the movement over time (we’re good at SNA as taxidermy, but watching it move across time scales strikes me as computationally and conceptually still pretty difficult) would suggest that we’re in still in the early days of understanding the value of networks and therefore, intervening in them to change their behaviours in ways that yield advantage (productivity, efficiencies, etc.).
SB: As you may know, my final question is always about Socialogy’s central theme, which is the application of scientific understanding to business management and operations. What does science offer to the understanding of social tool adoption?
GR: I’ve been puzzling over the “scientific understanding” aspect of this project since you started going on this. It somehow signifies that you’re privileging a way of knowing and way of organizing our knowledge in the world. I had written a comment on your website about this point, but I can’t find it for the life of me…
SB: That’s because I turned off Disqus comments here at stoweboyd.com.
GR: If what you’re asking is how do we develop another way of observing social phenomena and in particular, the way in which organizations behave, other than the historical methods of organization studies, sociology, etc., and that they are not “scientific” enough, I’d ask why and what do you mean by “scientific”? You’ve suggested we need a “physics of people” before. If that’s because it’s metaphorically rich and through metaphor we gain an new understanding of the phenomena that we’re studying, then I’d buy that. I’m a huge fan of Gareth Morgan’s Images of the Organization and the metaphors of organization; it’s been extremely provocative and enlightening for me to contemplate organizations through those frames and lenses: organization as machine, organization as organism, organization as psychic prison, etc.
If you are suggesting that our appreciative knowledge derived through social science is not manipulative enough (not good enough to put to work and actually modify the function or behaviour of the organization) and hence we need to understand the physics of the organization so that we can control it (or at least do a better job influencing it), then perhaps I’d buy that too, but with a caveat. I think that some social scientists, Bent Flyvbjerg in particular, are pushing back against the classic “science vs humanities” debate with concepts of phronetic social sciences, which hope to go beyond just analytical knowledge and technical know-how to integrate considerations of values and power. Their goal is to create a social science that matters (they too are concerned with it not being “applied” enough), but they don’t head towards science or traditional scientific methods for the answers, they head back to phronesis and Aristotle as an entirely different intellectual virtue. It’s very pragmatic. And I appreciate that.
At the end of the day, we all crave evidence that what we’re doing is having some kind of effect. Causality in the design of technology and systems is highly desirable and valuable. But in lieu of that, messy coherence (to borrow a Dave Snowden expression) is probably what we’re going to have to settle for in uncertain contexts.
SB: My Socialogy concept is not intended to end application of social science to work: on the contrary. What I am opposed to is unsupported folklore and anti-scientific bias that’s embedded in many corporate cultures. That’s one of the reasons that women are consistently paid less than men, for example, or why it is widely believed that adding a smart person to a team will make it perform better, which has been shown to be uncorrelated with results. Consider the way that Google asked all those brain teasers in their hiring for years, and later on learned there was no link with later success in the company for those that could solve the puzzle of ‘how many ping pong balls can fit in a schoolbus.’
GR: I spent a couple of days with Dave Snowden in Kirkland WA a few weeks ago and your desire for a more thorough approach is grounded in the lack of what he’d characterize as evidence. The phronetic social scientists also want it too.
In the complex end of Dave’s ontological compass better known as the Cynefin framework, he posits that you have two dimensions of consensus and evidence, both starting at zero and increasing to high. You wind up with a space that can sometimes have high consensus / low evidence (groupthink, biases you’ve listed above), as well as high evidence / low consensus (the maverick, the heretic; an archetype I think both you and Dave enjoy playing). And of course, we’re aiming for high consensus, high evidence where we transition out of the complex/uncertain into the complicated/certain and benefit from exploitation.
Again, nothing wrong with order, certainty, and causality - it’s where we exploit and gain advantage. But we have to make our way through the consensus/evidence quagmire before we can get there. That’s where we’re at right now with all of this socialogy stuff… you’re seeking evidence towards an innovative (new) approach to a whole bunch of things and that’s admirable to be sure…
SB: Thanks for the deeply reasoned discussion, Gordon.
GR: Thank you.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
I am writing a new series at CMSWire called Social Contract, exploring the themes of our ‘social rights’ in social space online, including the nature of identity, issues related to privacy and publicy, and the relationship of the individual to companies, social platform owners, and the state.
Here’s the first two installments:
Foundations of ‘Social Rights’ in a Scale-Free World | 16 July 2013 | Our basic “social rights” are self-evident. We exist in social space, and from that arises everything else.
A New Social Contract | 9 July 2013 | We need a new social contract, one that establishes the rights of the individual in a world dominated by gigantic corporations.
I also wrote an earlier piece at CMSWire in June, not in the series but related in thinking:
Curation in the Enterprise: Imagining Increased Social Scale | 10 June 2013 | The current social business architecture — a social collaboration layer sitting “on top” of non-social functional enterprise applications, like CRM, HR, ERP, a social frosting on a non-social cake — is not going to meet the needs of 21st century business.
Karen McGuane, Don’t Let Paper Paradigms Drive Your Digital Strategy
It’s not just paper paradigms we need to avoid, it’s the paradigms of the pre-social web. Here’s a talk I gave in 2010, anticipating liquid media’s future dominance: Social Media Blur | Blogs, Networks, Streams. A quote:
Now, we are headed into the fourth phase of social media, where the growing market impacts of streams will begin to impinge on computing in general, so we will see streams become primary design elements of operating systems for computing and mobile devices. As this advance spreads, the premises of the earliest phases of social media can begin to be considered as layers in an architecture. Old school blogs and other publishing models that create static web pages will increasingly be treated as an archive, or as a source for social objects referenced by URL, but where the URL is used to fetch the content and display it in the stream, just as today photos are being resolved in Twitter clients. In the near future, all media types will be resolved in place, in the stream. This will create interesting issues with advertising revenues and other media control issues, but in the long run, ads and other metadata will be pulled along with the context-free slow media into the socially-embedded context of streams.
These are the chunks McGuane is alluding to, and the OS-based streams are finally appearing in iOS 7. It’s coming on.
Sol Lipman, Bob Gurwin
The obsessive fixation on productivity that seems to dominate social tools in the business context can be ramped down by balancing the utility of coordinating cowork with the aspirational side of cooperation.
We are doing our work as an outgrowth of our deepest drives: to find meaning and purpose through mastery of our craft and connection with those we respect. The files and tasks and comment threads are artifacts, props, like the backdrops and fake swords at the opera, or the punctuation marks in a great work of fiction. The experience is what matters, not the gizmos.
Yes, Sol is right. We need to embrace — or actually create — a new form of community, one that is undergirded by our propensity for cooperation, and social tools that move past the rigidity and inflexibility of 20th Century ‘collaboration’. We need cooperative tools, where human connection and Maslow’s transpersonal — putting the safety, strivings, and happiness of others first — is placed at the center of our ethos. As Maslow said,
The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend himself.
This is the identity that I think Sol is talking about.
Thomas Friedman is doing his ropa-dope again: blaming the victims — us — for the terrible political world we are subjected to. And all because of social networks:
Thomas Freidman, The Rise of Popularism via NYTimes.com
In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months. It’s held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and U.S. leaders grappling with their respective crises, I’m wondering if there isn’t a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.
The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?
The answer, Mr Friedman, is no.
And, oh, by the way, when you talk about the participative nature of the social web, consider the term many-to-many instead of two-way. We, the people, are involved in a conversation among ourselves, and if curmudgeons like you or our self-obsessed political leaders want to get involved with that, fine.
Friedman springs a relatively interesting term on us:
Indeed, I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It’s the über-ideology of our day. Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?
Leadership today is — as always — linked to having a following, Mr Friedman. And before you can lead the people somewhere you have to start where they are.
Friedman goes on with the craziness:
And then there is the exposure factor. Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. And, if you’re truly a public figure — a politician — the scrutiny can become so unpleasant that public life becomes something to be avoided at all costs.
Wait a second: are we all public figures now? What’s with the shift to ‘real’ public figures? What point have you made? Did I miss something?
Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, remarked to me recently: “A lot of leaders are coming under massively more scrutiny than ever before. It doesn’t discourage the best of them, but the ridicule and the constant interaction from the public is making it more difficult for them to make sensible, brave decisions.”
Oh, now I see. Because we are looking more closely at what our ‘leaders’ spassive ay and do they are having a hard time being brave. So we should go back to being a mass audience, watching TV, and not whispering among ourselves.
So it’s our fault that our fearless leaders are no longer fearless, and our fault that they can’t rein us in to work together to save the world, and our fault that we don’t have extraordinary leaders.
Yes, let’s blame social tools and the spin they have on human society. Let’s not talk about the precarious of a flattened down world that you championed, Mr Friedman, where offshoring is treated like a law of nature, and the externalization of true costs is a first order predicate in the economics that led to the econolypse we are still living in.
The problem we have isn’t that our leaders are afraid to tell the truth. Our problem is that our leaders have accepted inequity and injustice, and we, the people, can apparently find no way toward solidarity. But don’t blame social tools for our social ills: they are a lot older and deeper that Facebook and Twitter.
IBM @ SXSWi 2012: Interview with Stowe Boyd (by IBMSocialBiz)
We talked about Cluetrain, the social revolution online, work media tools, the impact on media companies, the changing way we read, and my upcoming ebook: ‘The Business Of Social Business’.
[originally posted on Get Real]
I have used literally thousands of communications tools over the past 20 years, and although there has been an increase in commmunication speed and media, we have yet to see the “nerdvana” of tools that I have dreamed about for so long.
I have long championed other media as inherently being better than email, such as instant messaging, so, as you can imagine, the tool I am dreaming out incorporates the basic metaphor of IM: the buddy list. But it goes beyond IM, as I will show you.
How can I so baldly state that other media are better than email, in such an absolute way? Simple. Email is designed as a lowest-common denominator communications system, where everyone is treated equally. All emails, more or less, are the same (leaving aside issues of rich text v HTML and so on, which is not the thrust of my argument), which is stupid. The reality is that my relationships with people — whether I know them or not, how well I know them, and how involved we are at any given time in regular communication — is foremost in my mind when involved in communications, and as a result, the various artifacts of communication should be treated differently based on the context for their existence.
Basically, email is pretty good at communicating with people when you don’t know them well, or people you don’t know at all. All you need is their email address and your emails will be treated pretty much like anybody else’s. But as a result, email doesn’t really do very much to help with the highest valued communication: communicating with the known. That’s where the paradigm of buddies, and the gated communities of instant messaging networks excel.
But even technologies that I think are more useful in remaining in close contact with your circles of friends and colleagues don’t necessarily work together very well, if at all. So I am forced to read and write emails in one tool (yes, I do email, despite my dislike for the medium), IMs in another (actually, two IM clients), and read blogs in yeat another. Coordinating appointments and to-dos that involve others is managed in yet another app. And an address book app is used as the repository of some of the information about people (like email address, IM handles, and phone numbers), while their blogs RSS feeds are stored elsewhere.
So, I decided to mockup an example of what a good unified client might offer someone like me, so I could sit in one tool all day long, choosing the appropriate communication, collaboration, or coordination channel based on the context.
The Nerdvana Client
Just for laughs, I have dubbed the mocked up client “Nerdvana” after the Dilbert strip where Dilbert proclaims, after he’s cleaned up his PC’s desktop, compacted his drive, and deleted unnecessary files, that he has reached “Nerdvana”.
Basically, Nerdvana takes the IM concept of a buddy list and extends it to include all sorts of media. I have chosen to partition my world into three groups, Inner Circle (folks I interact with daily), Outer Circle (folks I interact with regularly), and The World (everyone else). This is largely for simplicity: there could be dozens of groups. And, oh, by the way, contacts can appear in multiple groups, and groups can include subgroups with no limits on level of nesting.
In the first image, I expanded only the Inner Circle — note I did not include any icons to represent expand/contract because I am a lazy designer. I have a small number of contacts in this group, although in the real world my Inner Circle category is more like a dozen folks. Each contact has four numbers associated with them, which represent ‘of interest’ blog entries, emails, IMs, and appointments, respectively. By ‘of interest’ I mean whatever the preferences are currently set to: for example, I may have configured things to display unread blog entries, unread email, open IMs, and future appointments, to suggest only one reasonable group of settings.
Also note — since this is all in the world of conjecture, so I can get whatever I want — that the Nerdvana tool is extensible, so is possible to add on as many services as you’d like. For example, the IM service could expand to be Jabber, AIM, and Yahoo. Or completely different services could be included, like podcasts, to-do lists, geolocation, and web conferences. Presence is indicated by the green/yellow/red lights on the contacts.
In the second graphic I have expanded Greg Narain’s content, and see various categories of communications going on.
In the third graphic, I have fully expanded Greg’s content, showing the blog entry’s title, the subject line of the emails, the title of the IM session, and the subject of the upcoming appointment. This is displayed two different ways, based on two different sets of preferences or different commands used to expand the content: with and without category headers.
Clicking on any of these fields could lead to extremely variable behavior, based on what sort of client you think Nerdvana should be.
Obviously, my preference is the former: for Nerdvana to act as a primary organizing interface for existing communication tools, taking the buddy list concept as the core principle for all communication strategy, and supporting cross tool integration.
For example, your IM solution might not support the concept of an appointed time to start an IM session, but with Nerdvana you can do so:
The same technique can used to link writing an email with an appointment, or queueing up future blog entries.
Alternatively, you could imagine a structure where important communication events — such as long IM sessions, or time spent reading blog entries — could automatically be journaled on your calendar, as a means of tracking time, or simply being able to use the calendar as a way to search back for communication activities and content on a timeline basis.
I have always maintained that if you are going to dream, dream big. So I have big hopes for Nerdvana. Maybe someone out there is trying to do something along these lines — at least in part — and if so, I want to hear about it. There is lots of innovation going on in the various specialized communication areas: better RSS readers, IM clients, and innumerable social networking apps. But I haven’t seen much going on in bringing it all together, based on something like the buddy list metaphor.
I could also start in on how Nerdvana could play in an open social networking system — where the aggregation of communication channels, like blogs, IM, email, with specialized services like Flickr, Last.fm, Plazes, and so on, for photos , music, and location — could not only lead to multifaceted digital identities, but a coherent way of bringing together the disparate threads of identity into a manageable tool framework. This starts to look something like Mark Pincus has been looking into in his PeopleWeb thoughts. But I will leave that for the next installment of the Nerdvana series.