Monday, 16 July 2012

Five Pieces – how mass information sharing affects us all

It is becoming quite apparent in the digital era – if it wasn’t already – that at its heart the world is an information system, and that the communications between people (and machines) are what make the world go round. If I want to get something done – anything done – I have to share information with someone or something!

Two years ago I wrote a paper on a “Theory of Information Systems”, to explore how this mass of information affects our behaviour, and through these perspectives attempt to create a deeper understanding of complex situations.

Complexity itself, after all, can be thought of as the sum of information sharing and communications between participants in a given situation. And in the digital era, every minute of every day sees more people and machines connected, and more information being shared!

Since then, Tom Swanson and I with many colleagues have been developing further and putting into practice the ideas of “Next Practice”. We plan to publish soon a set of new ways of working found to be helpful in problem solving, opportunity creation and realising change in the real, complex, post-digital world. These ways include a “Next Practice Flow”; a practical way to bring to bear a whole set of emerging techniques on understanding and navigating complexity to every day situations.

In the meantime, I thought I should share the refined “Theory of Information Systems” paper. The paper explores information systems in five pieces which, combined, seem to help create deeper understanding on complexity by exploring the relationship between information sharing and how this affects the behaviour of us all. I hope you might enjoy.

Five Pieces - How mass information sharing affects us all.pdf

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Theory of Information Systems

In 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy had its opening night at London’s Covent Garden Theatre. The play tells the tale of France’s Cardinal Richelieu, generally considered to be the world’s first Prime Minister in the modern sense of the term. During Act II, Richelieu declares the adage ‘True, This! The pen is mightier than the sword’.

For centuries, in some form or other, the adage has been widely promoted. In 1792, the soon to be US President Thomas Jefferson is reported as ending a letter to Thomas Paine with ‘Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: show that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man’.

Bulwer’s pen tells us that our behaviour as individuals and groups is fundamentally affected by the information we come into contact with. And in the new world structure of mass-connectivity, there are many, many pens!

Half the world’s population can readily communicate with each other, and the Web contains the largest accessible set of information in the history of humanity. Every day, billions of pieces of information are shared between people and machines. Communications are made; events are recorded, information is searched for, read, created and shared.

How does the mass of information we each come into contact with affect our individual behaviour? How does it affect the behaviour of a business, or a government, or a society? If we knew, could we predict what might happen, make better decisions, and better influence the outcomes we seek?

I hope to convince you that the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, that at the heart of the answer is understanding information systems, and that by applying the ideas we may be better able to understand where each other is coming from and work together to create the futures sought.

The ideas are described in this paper:
A Theory of Information Systems.pdf

I hope you might find it an interesting read, and comments are warmly invited.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The New Norm

Around half the world’s people will imminently be connected via the Internet and the pace of connectivity is rising exponentially. If Michel Foucault is right that knowledge equals power, then the Internet is the ultimate power distributor. This is the new norm.

I have written a new paper to explore some of the key facets of our new norm within which our economies and society exist.

The paper presents a set of emerging leadership techniques critical to embrace the new norm, and 5 new questions to help re-frame organisational strategy and take new action.

I hope you find it an interesting read, and as ever, comments are highly valued.

The New Norm.pdf

A word of acknowledgement - the paper brings together a number of aspects of work which have been on-going for some time, and with that the influences of many collaborators, for which I remain grateful. In addition, I am grateful for the input of David Flint and Huub Stiekema to the paper.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

6 words to save the planet

I was struck by this somewhat poetic picture of a melting ice cap while flicking through this morning’s papers:



It caused me to reflect upon the Richard Dimbleby Lecture given my Prince Charles back in July. In this lecture, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I believe the first question Charles posed was ultimately the most critical. ‘Given what we know in our heart of hearts, just what is it that drives us on to exacerbate the problems?’

It is a question which is often answered in terms of our tendency to make decisions which prioritise short term goals over long term goals. In an economic sense, Avner Offer or George Ainslie might describe this as a kind of ‘economic myopia’. Would you take £100 today or £200 tomorrow? What about £100 today or £200 in 5 years?

Or as the medical profession tends to put it, it is not the one more for the road which does for us in the end, rather it is the accumulation of many one more for the roads over the years.

The need to balance the short and the long term decision is a natural part of the tension faced by every business and government.

But there is another root cause which needs to be considered too. That is, we seem to lack the language to effectively communicate with each other about the things that affect us all.

As Charles eloquently pointed out in his lecture, ‘it turns out that the internal facing mechanistic view of the world which has brought us global connectivity is the very thing that now prevents us from understanding the external environment and the nature of this connectedness itself.’

Or put another way, the specialised language we use in each of our professions, businesses, industries and communities reinforces each of our individual world views and makes it even harder to collaborate on the global view.

If my language is that of politics, I turn to policy and legislation to solve the problems I see. If my primary language is that of economics, my problems, and solutions, are described through engineering the financial system. If my language is that of business, I address threats and opportunities through cost savings and new value generation. For the scientist, I use theory, experiment and proof. One of the most striking pictures I have found to illustrate the language and focus of many different, colliding professions is this one from the Web Science Research Initiative:



How can we create bridges of understanding between the necessary languages of the domain specialists?

However we do it, build these bridges we must. Solving shared problems requires a way to express the outcome affecting aspects of the changes in a way that many different professionals, communities and cultures can contribute to and then adopt.

It will of course come as now surprise to regular readers of this blog that we have found 6 words which can really help cross-discipline communication on the outcome affecting aspects of our shared problems. I hope we can encourage their adoption and that of other systems leadership techniques with people across disciplines working to solve the biggest problem of them all.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Human Systems

Following the recent financial crisis, a long-serving banking acquaintance of mine made the point that out of all the complexities, innovation, regulation and technology of the global financial system, the most critical aspect to understand was that the financial system is dominated at any one time by one of only two behaviours – fear or greed.

Be it financial meltdown or polar ice cap meltdown, the one common factor in the behaviour of the complex systems of business, markets, government, and society is, of course, us - the human.

As humans, it’s said that we each look for evidence to support our own view. So it’s hardly surprising that we seem to have a fair degree of difficulty separating out the individual meaning we make from what’s actually so.

It’s not just when editors from different newspapers view the same event very differently, or members of the management team interpret the operational data to show what they want it to show, where different and individual meaning occurs. Even a well known fact such as the distance between two cities, is, perhaps, less of a fact and more of a consensus of independent thinkers. The distance from London to New York is approximately 5,500 km. Fact or no?

Well, whatever perspective we each might have on the matter, rather helpfully, should we ever find ourselves disagreeing on what a metre is at some point in the future, we can always start by visiting the platinum-iridium bar at the French Academy of Sciences together. The bar has 2 marks on it denoting 1 metre (which was originally designed to represent 1⁄10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the North Pole through Paris).

From money to countries to the value of goods and services to systems of government, we’ve made everything up ourselves through the observations we make and through agreement – and, or course, disagreement.

The distinction between the information ‘outside’ that everyone can see from the individual meaning we give it is an often overlooked, yet critical to understand, aspect of human systems. Another is that a lot of the information processing we do as humans is automatic. Fortunately, we don’t have to manually sort and file all the information we come into contact with – we’d hardly have time to do anything else if we did!

However, combine automatic information processing with the tendency to assume our view represents the reality, and we face somewhat of a communications double whammy. First, when somebody speaks and we listen, our meaning making filters are already automatically set to seek out evidence to back our own views. In a sense, we’re often not really listening to the other person at all. Second, when we communicate, we can omit the really important aspects to conveying the meaning we want; aspects critical to enabling tension points to be identified and addressed, to enrol people, and to aid defining real solutions for shared problems or opportunities.

Business and societal transformation requires mass consensus. Yet sometimes it’s hard enough to get a few people to agree on how to address a mild issue.

But I believe there is innovation we can bring to human systems, to aid communication, and so help us work more smartly together.

When something happens, we, independently, make it mean something. When we communicate an idea or a plan, we attempt to convey what we mean, but the meaning made of it by the recipient is theirs alone.

Imagine, then, that we are each independent meaning makers - Autonomous Meaning Making Machines if you will. External information is all around us, and we each make our independent meaning from it.

When something happens (an event), or something is communicated (some content), our sense making filters kick-in. The meaning about the information we come into contact with for a given situation, the decisions we take and our resulting behaviour is influenced by these sense making filters.

Leveraging the information systems and communications framework of VPEC-T developed by Nigel Green and I, there are six sense making filters which have a significant bearing on how we create meaning from the information around us, and our resulting behaviours:

- Our Beliefs justify our perspectives and behaviour
- Our Goals define our perspectives and behaviour
- Policies, the ones we have chosen to adopt at least!, direct our perspectives and behaviour
- The Events we observe trigger behaviour; often we actively look for events to reinforce the perspectives we already hold, and tend not to notice events which are contradictory
- The Content we access informs our behaviour and the perspectives we make
- And our Trust relationships tend to dominate our behaviour and how we interpret information. Further, as we trust each other more, we'll tend to more authentically talk about our own beliefs and goals.

Combined with other ideas of human systems, these sense making filters help shine a light on the behaviours we each adopt, and how these behaviours combine in the behaviour of the multiple human systems we participate in as we go about our daily lives.

When we want to communicate a suggestion, plan or idea, or look to collaborate around a problem, remembering that information is relative, and holding these filters front of mind or using the six words to describe situations from the perspectives of different participants, can really help us better understand each other and convey the meaning we really want to.

By using the ideas of human systems and the six words of Beliefs, Goals, Policies, Events, Content and Trust, I believe we can find genuinely new ways to communicate; to come together and resolve the underlying tensions within the human systems in which we all participate – our business, market, government, societal systems. By tuning into our information sense makers and remembering that information is relative, new possibilities for human communication is perhaps available to us.

If you like the ideas, there’s nothing like trying them out to see how they might work for you.

If so, here's an invitation; try taking a major issue you are currently dealing with, and holding front of mind that information is relative, consider what the beliefs and goals of the other people or groups of people involved in the situation are. Beliefs tend to justify our behaviours, and goals define them, so it’s a good way to start to understand where everyone is really coming from. Think about how you might express your own beliefs and goals about the situation too, and from this place see if better collaboration or even breakthroughs on the issue can start to take place.

In the end, each of our perspectives on any given situation is ours to hold.

If we can understand better how to understand the other’s perspective, we might discover better ways to express ourselves. And if we can do that, we might get to solve more of the thorny, interesting and high-value business and societal problems together. Or if we can’t, at least we might have more certainty on what our disagreements are really all about.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Which questions are hot, and which are not?

It is said that Einstein's genius lay in asking the questions that no-one had either thought - or dared - to ask before. His two breakthrough questions were apparently 'I wonder what things look like when travelling on the end of a beam of light?', and 'I wonder how gravity works when I jump up while travelling in a descending lift?'.

Interesting questions are not just the preserve of scientists of course - Henry Ford famously said 'if I'd have asked my customers what they want, they'd have said they wanted a faster horse'.

It is well known that it's often finding the new question that drives innovation in business and genuine reform in government, not seeking new solutions to existing questions. Some of today's biggest brand names address questions which hadn't been asked before - like 'how do we get a PC in every home'? and 'how do we organise the world's information?'

The natural language of the new venture is to ask the new question. Mature organisations on the other hand face the innovator's dilemma - the paradox of challenging the very question they have spent years addressing that has made the organisation successful to this point. It is this that often drives the mature business or established government to continually seek out new solutions to the same questions they have been grappling with for a long time, rather than to seek out new questions. Innovation becomes a solutions race, not a questions race. Yet the race often switches to the wrong track as the more solutions in a marketplace, the more saturated it gets, and the more it helps perpetuate the paradigm shift to new competition embracing new markets.

It's not that solutions by themselves are the wrong things for management to find - rather, it’s a matter of balance of finding new solutions to the existing questions with seeking out the new questions.

I had the privilege of hosting an innovation session with a number of executives across private and public sectors recently. One of the things that came out in the discussion was how a major pharmaceutical asks 'no assumptions' innovation questions to inform its R&D. Imagine for a moment you are thinking of starting a restaurant. Now ask yourself what it might look like with no menus, or no way of taking money.

In this spirit, and in a small attempt to balance the amount of dialogue on innovative solutions, I wanted to share the top 3 questions which came out of the day:

- How can we embed 'no constraints' innovation?
- How can we unleash mass-collaboration across the enterprise?
- How can we better understand human systems?

Of the three, I find the last one is the most intriguing. To quote one of the executives at the gathering 'we need to dig far deeper into the human related issues of how organisations as well as markets work in order to achieve the next level of innovation'. If I were to guess which type of question might become very hot sooner rather than later, it is this one.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Trust in Motion

Trust has been a word used quite a lot recently. First we had the lack of trust in the global financial system. Now in the UK we have a lack of trust in politicians and their expenses. Stephen M. R. Covey has recently written an excellent book all about it called ‘The Speed of Trust – the one thing that changes everything’.

In the perfect storm with trust, recent events have also put the spotlight firmly on agility again, and the ability to react to events and more to the point unanticipated events has moved back up the most-pressing chart of the chief officer top ten.

Agility is one of those wonderful words where one can spend the first part of any conversation simply discussing what it means to the organisation before even getting on to how one might achieve it. Speed to market? Speed of reaction? Foresight? Adaptability? Ability to change the rules of the game yourself? Often in these situations it can be helpful to get the dictionary out, and for the purpose of the post I’d like to go with agility as being ‘quickness of motion’. But how to achieve it?

In many cultures we have a tendency to convey machine like qualities on our large-scale structures and institutions (the machinery of government, the levers of the organisation, changing up a gear etc) – and agility as a characteristic of an organisation does not escape unscathed from such a mechanistic perspective.

Often, the human aspects that can deliver quickness of motion are placed secondary to the mechanistic aspects. And where agility is concerned the executive agenda will often tend towards focusing on more complex rules for dynamic processes as opposed to human collaboration.

So where do trust and agility meet?

There are quite a few formulae for trust. I happen to like the one I came across at Gemini Consulting about 10 years ago which goes along the lines of:

Trust = (intimacy * credibility) / risk

This provides a helpful perspective on the mass of trust relationships between businesses and customers, staff in different business units, governments and citizens and of course our social networks.

If one looks at the social networks of the business - the social-enterprise - in contrast to the typical control organisational view, not only may you discover what’s really going on but you’ll also see the dynamic enterprise trust networks in action. It’s in the enterprise social networks where trust and agility live the most.

In unusual situations - times of increased risk - we tend to rely more than ever on the people we know most to get things done. If we want to be agile, engaging networks through the right trust relationships is going to win-out over engaging through the wrong ones.

But there is a twist here. As Richard Foster writes in his book ‘Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage’, rare indeed is the organisation which relentlessly abandons the products, services and skills that have brought it success. And rarer still the individual. Advantage goes to the new attacker without the legacy. Or to put it in perhaps the most famous way of all - we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

When we really need to react fast – to have quickness of motion – perhaps it is more in the speed of establishing trust between new people, new networks and new cultures where the agility is really going to come from.

Perhaps it is in the question – ‘how can I help the people in my business to form new trust networks?’ - where a management focus might lie for agility in the connected age over the more known (and ironically enough, trusted) approaches of looking for agility in the processes.

The business case to embrace mass-collaboration - or to borrow a phrase from a new acquaintance yesterday 'to unleash Web 2.0 in the enterprise' - is starting to look pretty compelling on a number of fronts, not least of which is a step toward speed of trust.