This Is Not A Social Network

It is a medium that connects, conveys and spreads a social network. It has moments of brilliance, hours of banality, and wondrous conversations sometimes slide into noxious platitudes.

It is the perfect debate -- Marshal McLuhan, who told us that the medium is the message, versus Magritte, who, as pictured, proves that isn’t exactly right. The medium and the message are not separate, but neither are they exactly the same thing (and yes, I have been reading John Green, and if you haven’t, do. Even the movie is good, though, of course not as).

McLuhan presciently explained (or tried to) the complex relationship between message and medium, persuasion and commerce. Magritte famously defended the caption to his pipe painting (which for those of you who took Spanish instead of French, translates as “This is not a pipe”), saying that while it does in fact resemble a pipe, it can’t, in fact, be stuffed and smoked.

So: Twitter is not a social network (or a pipe) but a representation of one (not a pipe, but a network).

Only a fraction of the depth and vitality of human relationships and interactions can be conveyed on Twitter -- or any other social network. While it is a priceless fraction, it is not enough to capture the energy and inspiration human connections build. The technology is not the network.

Digital Workplace - Pipe or Portrait?

Another place we can examine the edge between the thing and how we represent it: organizations. Organizations are groups of people -- and other stuff like resources, knowledge and processes. They are formed to do work that generates profit or other societal benefit (and ideally both). An internal social network can be a medium for creative and constructive collaboration across large teams of people. It can hasten learning and discovery, and provide the many types of support -- emotional, professional, creative and intellectual -- that improve the capacity of each individual and the organization to achieve its mission.

That said, the digital workplace is the avatar of the organization, not the organization itself. [Note that I have argued the opposite many times. This is a subtle point, this not being a pipe, but a critical one. In some contexts, “pipe-iness” is a useful and meaningful model. In others, it's critical to recall that it cannot, in fact, be lit. Or perhaps it can -- discuss.]

Can We Separate Hierarchy and Authoritarianism?

I’m not really bad. I’m just drawn that way.” – Jessica Rabbit

Hierarchy is another workplace construct worth putting into the McLuhan/Magritte tumble. Hierarchies are associated with calcified, inflexible organizations driven by fear and dedicated to the status quo – doomed to fade like giant dinosaurs of yore. It's true that many hierarchies once looked like this (and many still do). But are these things essential elements of hierarchies or a result of how hierarchies have been used?

Twentieth century hierarchies were modeled on the cultural remains of feudalism. Centuries of European culture taught that privilege is divinely conferred to superior people. This idea was toppled in theory (but not always in practice) by the American and French revolutions, and the unpacking of its true meaning has been an ongoing process lo these last 250 years. As the enlightenment hits 21st century capitalism we’ve been inclined to try and ditch the hierarchy.

Twentieth century hierarchical organizations were designed to fulfill the aspiration of that century: to be as powerful and regular as an engine. To take the labor of the masses and apply it to scale the will of its leaders. They were management constructs designed to make things consistent, polished and scalable. The core defining assumption was that knowledge and skill flowed from top to bottom. Feedback was not important and too difficult to get. The leader was the leader because he was better, smarter, more gifted than all the others. We know that this is simply not true (unless you’re an Ayn Rand person. Or a creationist).

Things have changed. It is now a mainstream idea that knowledge and insight should flow in both directions. Even the military does it. Our current ideal of leadership is one that brings their teams into their quest.

There was another idea from the 17th century called Reductionism. It’s the idea that if you keep breaking things down into their constituent parts, you will eventually understand the whole. Hierarchies are one way to represent this. This is the idea that brought the enlightenment, science, engineering, industry, manufacturing and nearly our entire scientific, social and economic structure. Until quantum physics and complexity theory proved that you really can only take that so far.

But the fundamental nature of a reductionist hierarchy is that it takes something large and complicated (a problem, a body of work, or a mass of people) and organizes it through a divide-and-conquer approach. It takes things and breaks them down into parts small enough to cope with.

In the “bad-old days” this meant breaking it down into groups of people small enough to control through authoritative communication, where mangers could be held strictly accountable.

But in the emerging “good-new days” this may mean doing some other interesting stuff. It may be breaking the problem into pieces small enough that collaborative learning, action and decision making are easy to achieve and sustain, supports specialization, while avoiding isolation, and can be connected to create greater levels of learning and agility. Google has been experimenting with eliminating hierarchy -- but decided to bring it back. Turns out managers were actually helping. Zappos is attempting to reinvent hierarchy with “holocracy” which is essentially a hierarchy not of people but of teams focused on solving specific challenges.

We (that is to say Euro-American, secular intellectuals) now recognize large classes of problems that cannot be broken down in this way (complex or wicked problems), and network constructs that create elegant solutions outside of the divide and conquer paradigm (often called “emergent” solutions).

The thing is, that complex problems and emergent solutions -- and the networks that enable them -- have not replaced the problems that reductionist divide and conquer work well for, but joined them. Most organizations need to solve both kinds of problems.

The role, purpose and execution of hierarchy has changed, and must continue to evolve. There are limitations of hierarchies. Some problems will never be solved by them, and some people will never be happy in them. I believe we’ll see more variation in how organizations are uh, organized over the next decade than we saw in the last century.

We will begin to understand the role of scale on hierarchy and networks, and improve our understanding around the nature of learning and networks and decision making.

Representation or Thing

I have three loosely related points here – three things to examine – are they one and the same – à la McLuhan, or are they not – à la Magritte:

  1. The platform of love that Rachel Happe observed at BIF10 is only weakly present on Twitter -- without which I’d never have met Rachel.
  2. The digital workplace is only the avataristic (no, not atavistic) representation and projection of the organization across space and time. (Though to say it is “only” is to profoundly undervalue this representation and projection. The pipe’s picture has a purpose. Imagine if every time we wished to talk about a pipe we had to actually have one in hand, stuffed or otherwise.)
  3. Hierarchies are wrongly accused as the sole source and cause of 20th century depersonalization and calcification in the enterprise. Reframed, they make the emergent creativity of newly embraced, respected and connected individuals actionable and efficient through the power of divide and conquer. They are simplifications. They are the representations of what we have learned. But not the things themselves.

OK. That’s a bit thick, and perhaps a bit much.

The best is yet to come.