to fox and to hedge

A decade ago the phenomenon of the online social experience didn't even exist. Now it’s matured from being labeled as a fad, to being branded as a type of media, to finally becoming a relevant, useful part of the organizational enterprise. So -- what’s next? From where I sit -- the next phase will be when organizations start integrating the power of tacit knowledge inherent in the “people-participant” side of social with the explicit knowledge found in documents and databases into a “meta community of practice”.

This is pretty exciting for those of us who always wondered, “How EXACTLY was that decision made -- and what were the conversations that lead to it?” The actual cadence of decision making will be captured and made part of the record. Let’s explore what this would look like.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Most enterprise efforts involve four parts: people, polices, technology and risk. For purposes of this article we are going to focus on the two most compelling: people and technology. Let’s start with the people side -- or more precisely -- the “how people think/decide/participate” aspect. It’s crucial to consider how people think before overlaying their participation in communities and decision-making. Philosopher, Isaiah Berlin theorized that there were two types of thinkers: hedgehogs, who view the world through a single, defining concept, and foxes, who draw on a range of experiences to frame their ideas. The actual reference is to a poem by Greek Poet, Archilochus which can be summarized as:

Two companions, a fox and a hedgehog were walking down a county path. Every so often they would encounter vicious wolfs. The fox -- having speed, nimbleness and brains -- would lead the wolves on a chase away from the path. Eventually the fox would return to his companion, out of breath -- but having lost the wolves. The hedgehog, having a spiked coat, just hunkered down when threatened by wolves. When they gave up he would return to the fox.

Now, let’s consider how can communities be architected to take advantage of both foxes and hedgehogs? These two archetypes are essentially at opposing propensities when it comes to making decisions. The hedgehog theorizes broadly and assumes differences are not the same as similarities. The fox insists on precise defining and incorporates a lot of improvisation into their thought process. When an organization is attempting to make a decision both of these thinker-types add a lot of value to the practice.

The dialoging/discussion aspect of social media can be rendered to appeal to both. And -- more importantly -- glean the tacit information in their heads. Foxes can take advantage of running multiple conversations at once in order pursue numerous approaches to decision making. Hedgehogs can use new data from opinions to refine their original model.

Communities of Practice

A community of practice (COP) is a group of people who share an interest in something they do -- so to learn how to do it better -- they interact regularly. COPs usually focus on sharing best practices and creating new knowledge to advance the practice. COPs are also environments where these activities take place. COPs really appeal to participants because they offer a shared context, connect people and capture and diffuse existing knowledge.

Say for example an IT department wants to deploy a COP to augment a technology platform roll-out. They might use their ECM for documentation, a wiki for knowledge-sharing and email for conversations. This approach may suit their needs BUT there’s an even better way. This approach is actually based on the forensic accounting process. In forensic accounting, the firm works from documents and data as the information source BUT the conversations, discovery and Q&A that lead to a decision NEED to be part of the record. Viewed through this lens, our IT department might architect their Meta COP thusly:

  • An ECM system is used to house documents, act as the records management system of record and serve as integrative middleware for the Web portal.
  • A Q&A component is integrated so that discussions may occur around projects and documentation, answers and participants can be rated and ranked using gamification features.
  • The documents and conversations will ultimately reside in the records management system so that the process of decision making is captured.

Remember the technology is just the box in this scenario. It’s the integration of foxes, hedgehogs and technology is what makes the COP truly Meta. Perhaps the Meta COP is the realization of Harvard’s Andrew McAfee’s vision of enterprise 2.0. He theorized that enterprise 2.0 will be “the use of emergent social software platforms, free or unnecessary structure that support many systems and forms of data.” Meta COP delivers on that promise while offering the added benefit of tacit knowledge.

Image courtesy of kvitka (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Another great Samuelson article to check out is Emerging Trends for Enterprise Technology.