All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

Available via Amazon

Work is changing. Speed and flexibility are more in demand than ever before thanks to an accelerating knowledge economy and sophisticated communication networks. These changes have forced a mass rethinking of the way we coordinate, collaborate, and communicate. Instead of projects coming to established teams, teams are increasingly converging around projects. These “all-edge adhocracies” are highly collaborative and mostly temporary, their edge coming from the ability to form links both inside and outside an organization. These nimble groups come together around a specific task, recruiting personnel, assigning roles, and establishing objectives. When the work is done they disband their members and take their skills to the next project.

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Reading :: The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2ed

Posted by: on Jan 12, 2016 | No Comments

The Social Psychology of Organizing
By Karl E. Weick

I finished this book about a year ago, and ever since, I’ve been dragging my feet about reviewing it. Since I read a lot of books, I always seem to have another one that I could review instead, and they tend to be (a) easier or (b) more directly related to what I’m doing. But today I’ve decided to buckle down and knock this one out.

It’s not that Weick’s book is especially long: It’s 294pp with the index. But it’s dense. It’s also very Weickian, which means that the author tends to back into his dense points.

For instance, in the first sentence, the author tells us that “This book is about organizational appreciation” (p.1). We must wait a couple of pages to find out what organizing is: “a consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviors. To organize is to assemble ongoing interdependent actions into sensible sequences that generate sensible outcomes” (p.3). Understanding these two sentences takes considerable unpacking.

One part of that unpacking has to do with plans. Weick takes the same position that Lucy Suchman did in Plans and Situated Actions (and perhaps this is where she got it—I don’t have my copy of Suchman with me—or perhaps she got it from Cohen and March, whom Weick cites here). Plans, in his reckoning, “are important for organizations, but not for the reasons people think” (p.10): they are symbols that “negotiate a portion of the reality that then comes back and rearranges the organization”; they are advertisements that persuade externally; they are games that test a person’s commitment to a goal; and they are excuses for interaction, putting people in contact about current rather than future circumstances (pp.10-11). “Plans are a pretext under which several valuable activities take place in organizations, but one of these activities is not forecasting” (p.11). And this point leads into a second thing about organizations: “there is not an underlying ‘reality’ waiting to be discovered. Rather, organizations are viewed as the inventions of people, inventions superimposed on flows of experience and momentarily imposing some order on these streams” (pp.11-12). Like plans, organizations are fictions that allow us to conceptualize reality, not independent phenomena—according to Weick.

But calling plans fictional doesn’t mean that causality is fictional. Rather, causality and interdependence are major themes. Weick distrusts ethnographic thick description, the upswing of which he attributes to Watergate (p.38; recall that this 2ed was published in 1979) and the effect of which he believes to be volume of description rather than understanding. Rather, Weick wants readers to evoke and test minitheories about interdependent relationships. For instance, he suggests that readers go to a college campus, count the statues and busts of famous people, and determine how many are donors vs. national heroes. “On the basis of this observation alone, predict the answer to each of the following questions:

  1. Will the college have open or closed library stacks for undergraduates?
  2. Will the faculty be listed by rank or alphabetically in the college catalog?
  3. Will more space in the alumni magazine be devoted to necrology or to current activities of living alumni?
  4. …” (pp.60-61)
He lists ten questions. The point isn’t just to test relationships, but also to test the implicit theories that the guesser has about interrelationships (p.61). “What is found is secondary to the incipient reasons for expecting to find it. It is the reasons that are important to uncover, because they may supply the grit for a better set of ideas about organizations” (p.62). 
Those better ideas tend to involve interdependence, which can be mutual or sequential (p.68). Weick demonstrates how one might draw causal loops, and he argues that “any causal loop that has an odd number of negative signs counteracts deviations” (p.74). (It is not clear to me how one conceptualizes the units that make up these diagrams.)
Moving on. Weick argues that organizational structure is equal to interlocking behaviors (p.90). Social structure is created, not through common ends, but through common means (p.92). “Once the members converge on interlocked behaviors as the means to pursue diverse ends, there occurs a subtle shift away from diverse to common ends. The diverse ends remain, but they become subordinated to an emerging set of shared ends. This shift is one of the most striking that occurs in group life and it is exceedingly complex” (p.92). 
Later, Weick draws an analogy between organizing and natural selection. He argues that organizing has four elements:
  • Ecological change: “Ecological changes provide the enactable environment, the raw materials for sense-making” (p.130).
  • Enactment: Enactment is variation, and can include bracketing as well as producing ecological change (p.130).
  • Selection: We impose maps of past structures on new situations in order to impose order (p.131).
  • Retention: We store “the products of successful sense-making, products that we call enacted environments” (p.131). 
Beliefs, he adds, “are cause maps that people impose on the world after which they ‘see’ what they have already imposed. One of the aims of this book is to equip you with lots of beliefs so that you’ll see some of what is talked about here, or at least you’ll see enough that you’ll be able to amend the mistakes that inevitably must litter any attempt to understand human beings” (p.135).
And perhaps that’s a good place to stop. The book is challenging and interesting, but as the above paragraph suggests, it provides a way of thinking about organizations that continually questions its own interpretations. In a sense, the book is attempting to teach a methodology—sense-making—and at the same time apply the criticality of sense-making to itself. The principles of the methodology are somewhat clear, but the application isn’t, because Weick refuses to lock down interpretations and thus denies us the hard-and-fast rules that tend to underpin methodologies. Consequently, to me, the book seems more allusional than methodological; it’s thought-provoking, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure what one can do with it beyond critique. And that, I suppose, is why I have been sitting on this review for so long.
However, I know that many use (or at least refer to) Weick’s sense-making approach, so they have been able to (or at least seem confident that they can) apply it more effectively than I have here. 
In any case, although I am unsure how to apply the book methodologically, it’s certainly thought-provoking. If you’re interested in organizations, or just in a substantial social psychology-based challenge to ethnographic approaches, take a look.
In Blog

Reading :: Common Knowledge?

Posted by: on Jan 5, 2016 | No Comments

Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
By Dariusz Jemielniak

How does Wikipedia work? I don’t mean the software, which seems simple enough, but the social system that produces a seemingly inexhaustible body of knowledge. I’ve poked around the back end and seen the revision history and chats; I’ve read some scholarship on dispute resolution and collaboration; but I haven’t really looked into the emergent social system that makes the whole thing tick.

Dariusz Jemielniak has. He’s a professor of management, an ethnographer, and an active Wikipedian. Drawing on that background, he combines first-person narrative and careful study (including an appendix on his methodology) to provide an inside look at Wikipedia as a social system. In this social system, Wikipedians nominally work within an egalitarian, meritocratic system enforced by rules embedded in software; yet Wikipedia has evolved mechanisms of social control and status that create tensions with this overarching goal (Ch.2). Jemielniak carefully chronicles these mechanisms, noting how Wikipedia’s consensus-driven process sometimes leads to intractable conflicts and at least four kinds of conflict trajectories (Ch.3).

Wikipedia’s social controls Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, include liquid surveillance: all actions on Wikipedia are recorded and can be used in later disputes, and thus “although Wikipedia is a free and egalitarian community, its members are closely controlled, in some aspects to an unprecedented extent” (p.86). “Wikipedia resembles a Panopticon (Foucault, 1977) or an open-space office: everybody is watched by everybody else, and all actions remain on the record, forever” (p.91). He adds that “Common sense outweighs procedures, and users are expected to do what they believe is good for Wikipedia, using their best judgment, rather than following the letter of the law” (p.96)—but that freedom entails permanent ambiguity, which itself can be a coercive element.

Since Wikipedia rejects credential checking in favor of merit based on Wikipedia activity, Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, trust is instead invested in procedures. Those procedures are instantiated in an “astonishing” set of formalized rules: “Apparently, trust or credential control is substituted with precise behavioral scripts and formalization of discussion rules” (p.120). As Jemielniak argues in Ch.6, “Wikimedia communities are chaotic and rely on adhocratic principles,” and “Adhocracy in this case is not incompatible with bureaucracy” (p.127).

All in all, Jemielniak provides a meticulous and thought-provoking overview of Wikipedia as a social system. For those of my readers who study rhetoric, he overviews the rules of argumentation and the conditions of persuasion in this system, drawing on contemporary scholarship in digital ethnography as well as management theory. For those not in rhetoric, Jemielniak’s insights extend into the social system and provoke thought on how a nominally egalitarian system works in practice. Take a look.

In Blog

Reading :: Designing Delivery

Posted by: on Jan 5, 2016 | No Comments

Designing Delivery: Rethinking IT in the Digital Service Economy
By Jeff Sussna

Jeff Sussna and I follow each other on Twitter via a mutual contact, and I’ve been impressed by his insights. His 2015 book is even better. Although it’s tackling something that I don’t do—the development of software as a service (SaaS)—the insights are well aligned with topics I covered in my own 2015 book. That’s because Sussna isn’t just talking about development, he’s talking about how SaaS makes sense in the context of larger changes in the economy.

Sussna lays down this marker in the Introduction, where he argues that quality in software development must be understood in terms of “how well the service helps its customers accomplish their practical goals and satisfy their emotional needs” and thus “the entire organization must align itself with users’ goals. Only when it has a holistic understanding of itself and its relationship with its customers can an organization successfully co-create value with them” (p.xxi). Thus SaaS involves “continual repair” because “Co-creation implies that users contribute to defining solutions through using them. In the process, they generate new problems for designers to solve” (p.xxii).

With this foundation, Chapter 1 examines the turn to post-industrialism, in which the pervasiveness of computerization leads to a shift from products to service; from manual labor to knowledge work; and from stability and continuity to change and innovation (p.3). Sussna systematically examines these transformations, emphasizing co-creation (cf. Lusch and Vargo’s 2014 book; he goes on to discuss their concept of service-dominant logic in Ch.6). He also discusses the shift from complicated systems (many moving parts, arranged in navigable and hierarchical structures; p.9) to complex systems (in which simple components have fluid relationships with many other components; p.10) and the issue of emergence that arises from complex systems (that is, characteristics that exist at the system level but not at lower levels; p.10). Complex systems, he notes, are prone to cascading failures (p.11).

Based on this foundation, in Chapter 2, Sussna discusses necessary changes in control due to the shift to post-industrialism. Cybernetics, he says, is a model of control through conversation (p.26); autopoesis, or self-production, provides a way to understand how systems self-produce and self-regulate (pp.30-31). The implication is that “living systems co-create reality through circular influence,” via conversation (p.35). One example he gives is that of Lean Startup, in which a minimum viable product is rapidly iterated via continual feedback (p.35).

Given Ch.2’s insights, he says in Chapter 3 that IT’s new mandate is “serving as a medium for digital conversation” (p.41). He thus argues that post-industrial businesses must “self-steer through empathetic conversations,” and he advocates a combination of Agile, DevOps, cloud computing, and design thinking (p.42). The rest of the chapter describes and relates each.

The rest of the book brings in other concepts (such as Jobs to be Done, Service-Dominant Logic, and OODA) to flesh out what post-industrial SaaS development looks like. Since development is focused on self-steering through empathetic conversations, it becomes inseparable from branding and marketing.

All in all, this little book takes a broad scope and pulls eclectically from varying sources in order to pull together a coherent vision of SaaS. Despite its eclecticism, its argument is coherent and well thought out. If you’re interested in SaaS, or just what the future of work looks like, I recommend Designing Delivery.

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Reading :: Get Backed

Posted by: on Jan 5, 2016 | No Comments

Get Backed: Craft Your Story, Build the Perfect Pitch Deck, and Launch the Venture of Your Dreams
By Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis

I wish I had had access to this 2015 book before I taught last fall’s Writing for Entrepreneurs course. It’s a beautifully produced book that promises to teach you how to “craft your story,” “build the perfect pitch deck,” and “launch the venture of your dreams.” Essentially, it’s about how to undertand and craft a pitch deck (Part I) in order to effectively argue for venture funding (Part II).

In Part I, the authors note that example pitch decks are in short supply since entrepreneurs are reluctant to show them; this book presents several and contextualizes them in terms of how long they took to get funded, how much funding they got, and what the sources were. But the authors also discuss the genre at length so we can understand how it fits in the overall argument and how it interacts with other genres (such as the elevator pitch).

Near the beginning of the book, the authors explain that “Pitch decks do three things: they get people to understand, they get people to care, and they get people to take action” (p.10). They say that there are two kinds of pitch decks: one for assisting presentations and one for standalone reading (p.10). Pitch decks are customizable, and in fact the authors encourage us to develop “a whole archive of slides to draw from and sequence for each meeting or presentation” (p.15)—slides that are modular but yet must consistently yield coherent arguments. Their “essential 10” slides include:

  • Overview
  • Opportunity
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Traction
  • Customer or Market
  • Competition
  • Business Model
  • Team
  • Use of Funds (p.15)
These are similar to, but not the same as, Guy Kawasaki’s “Only 10 Slides You Need in a Pitch.” The authors provide 1-2 pages of detail on each slide, including multiple examples from real pitch decks as well as descriptions and guidelines. 
After describing these 10 essential slides, the authors discuss how the pitch deck must tell a story. In fact, they say, there are at least three ways that you will use a story in the pitch deck:
  • a narrative arc to create coherence across slides
  • an explanation of one or more individual slides
  • a reservoir of topics for discussions and Q&A (p.39)
They suggest that you’ll typically use four story types:
  • the origin story
  • the customer story
  • the industry story
  • the venture growth story (p.40)
Together, these four story types can be layered in the pitch building blocks to create a unified arc (and coherence) (p.52). 
In subsequent chapters, the authors give advice on design (Ch.4) and text (Ch.5). By the time we get to the examples of actual pitch decks (Ch.6), we have the tools to interpret and critique them.
That’s Part I. In Part II, the authors discuss how to get backed, starting with a primer on startup financing (Ch.8) and an overview of the five funding sources (Ch.9). Although I was less interested in this section, I was impressed by how clearly the authors laid out the basics of financing and sources—that is, the activity and the audience in which the pitch had to be rhetorically successful.
Overall, I was impressed by the book, and I walked away with a much more thorough understanding of how the pitch deck works and what it accomplishes. The book is a good guide, coherently bringing together advice about the pitch deck that up to this point I’ve had to piece together from websites and other scattered pieces of information. If you’re interested in a primer on the pitch deck and funding, I highly recommend it.
In Blog

Reading :: Team of Teams

Posted by: on Dec 13, 2015 | No Comments

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
By General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

Former Army General Stanley McChrystal became a household name when he was profiled by Rolling Stone. That’s also when he lost his job, after one of his aides was quoted denigrating the Vice President. Arguably his resignation had to happen, since the military needs to display respect for its civilian chain of command. But it was also a loss: McChrystal had intelligently reformed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during his tenure of commander.

After his resignation, McChrystal taught courses at Yale and started the McChrystal Group, which is “a leadership and management consultancy composed of a diverse mix of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors.” The group provides consulting services that help these stakeholders to manage complexities using the “team of teams” approach that McChrystal devised for JSOC.

Team of Teams is the McChrystal Group’s calling card. It was a NYT bestseller. And it lays out the basics of the approach. McChrystal cites people such as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, John Boyd, and Henry Mintzberg, people who should be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. Drawing from these sources and from his own experience as JSOC commander, McChrystal describes a flatter organizational structure that emphasizes command without close control; constant mutual adjustment; and cultivated associational links across silos. The lessons of the book are provided along with detailed examples from McChrystal’s time in JSOC.

None of the lessons in the book will be much of a surprise to those who have read the source materials. But the book discusses these lessons in a popular narrative mode, drawing us along and summarizing its lessons at the end of each chapter. The book is a lot more readable than Boyd, certainly.

If you’ve been steeped in the readings above or in other 4GW readings, this book won’t have a lot to teach you. But if you’re new to the application of organizational networks in complex multidisciplinary environments, and you want a gentle introduction, this book could be it—especially if you’re coming from a hierarchical or bureaucratic environment. See what you think.