I was recently asked to provide some thoughts to a yet-to-be published book about designing purposeful flows of information and interaction. Specifically, I was asked to provide thoughts and opinions about what kinds of impact may result from the increasing presence and volume of flows of information amongst interconnected people.
Based upon our individual and collective experiences of interconnectivity over the past 15 years or so, the increased frequency, intensity and volume of flows of information may mean some kind of permanent transition from traditional hierarchical decision-making towards various emergent forms of more horizontal, more rapid and more transient exchanges of information between people and the resultant negotiations about decision-making, responsibility, accountability and ownership of the results.
The question of whether or not we are able to ‘design’ flows of information is pertinent today because the reality of living and working in a networked world is catching up with us. This new reality is catching up with us because being interconnected with each other brings with it a dependence on flows of useful information. The dependence on flows and our associated interdependence as humans are having a growing and deep impact upon the way(s) we do things.
We now live in and are surrounded by flows of information, and we need to be able to understand ..
- why these flows are happening,
- what they mean and (can) do to us and
- how to be effective in and with flows, both individually, in small groups-of-purpose and (eventually) when the flows affect the ways in which our society operates.
We know hierarchy – it’s embedded in our lives and psychology
For many generations now we have lived and worked in social arrangements that are hierarchical. It is often said that « Knowledge is power », and our acceptance of traditional social hierarchy is directly related to that maxim. In virtually all areas of human endeavour, possession of and access to knowledge is a critical compnent of social hierarchy.
Social hierarchy has grown through the ages out of the power structures of clans and tribes, which are typically directly related to the wisdom, sagacity and potency of a clan chief or tribal leader. From thise beginnings it has grown through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Post-Industrial Information / Knowledge Era. Today it is codified into the structures and operating arrangements of most aspects of modern society
As past eras have waxed and waned, the distribution and use of ‘knowledge as power’ has come to be at the centre of the notion of social hierarchy (and through evolutionary extrapolation to the modern era, organizational hierarchy). Earlier in human history, power and status as the head of a clan or tribe probably evolved as a result of both someone’s might and sagacity. Eventually the chiefs of clans and tribes and families became monarchs, and the creation of the notion of the “divine right of kings” became formalized in societies. It came to be accepted as a direct link to the ultimate power and status of the Divine. And it was the monarchs and their delegated ‘mandarins’ in the form of the leaders of religious orders (who also had a special relationship with God) who directed monks and other scribes in writing out the texts that created recorded knowledge.
A seminal event occurred with the arrival of the Gutenberg printing press. It is now recognized as the moment when the stable or slow-moving force of ‘knowledge is power’ acquired a new and additional dimension. Its invention enabled the much easier, more rapid and less expensive creation and production of books and pamphlets, which in turn resulted in a much more widespread access to information and opinion and knowledge. However, its impact on society was much resisted for many years by the existing power structures ( the monarchies and the dominant churches ). The spread of knowledge in books and eventually pamphlets and other printed forms occurred relatively slowly over several hundred years.
More recently, and for a range of reasons we understand well, our modern era hierarchy has codified and embedded hierarchy as the primary organizing principle for the protocols and methods that have have appeared in the institutions and dynamics of developed society. The dominance of hierarchy is primarily due to the wholesale adoption of Taylorism (it being a model positing efficiency as a primary objective of organized activities). Management ‘science’, modern hierarchical management, the division of labour and specialization of tasks, and other social science and engineering principles applied to the tasks and process of management are all derivatives of the core principles of Taylorism. Taylorism met its soul mate in organizational hierarchy when the two core assumptions of 1) the division of labour into sets of tasks fitted together to deliver predetermined (read “designed”) results, were codified into methodologies for work and organizational design that create, reinforce and sustain the pyramidal hierarchy that today we know so well.
Interconnectivity – hierarchy begins a major evolution towards wirearchy
Approximately 40 years ago the Internet was created. A little more than 20 years ago the Web came into being, thanks to the invention of the first browsers, which were based on the main operational aspects of the graphical user interface (GUI). Subsequently, and with accelerating intensity, we’ve encountered and begun to use in massive ways hyperlinks, easy self-publishing tools and platforms upon which people connect, engage with each other and share.
Connected people share everything and anything, including much that is uninteresting, venal, narcissistic, uninformed and otherwise not useful. But also people spend much of their time exchanging interesting and pertinent information with each other, on purpose. These exchanges happen for many reasons .. including social play, grooming, or expressing feelings, beliefs or interpretations of events. They do so in order to create responses, advance agendas, inform and educate others and themselves .. and so on. In turn, this sharing free-for-all creates hubs of interest and also new or pertinent knowledge that people can then use, whether in decisions to use or buy something, or on how to vote, etc.
Sharing generates continuous flow
The past decade has been the beginning of an historic transition in how people communicate, use information and create and use knowledge. People everywhere are connecting, interacting and generating new loci of power based on sharing information pertinent to their purposes and interests.
The now-ubiquitous hyperlinked social interaction creates an environment characterized by flows of information and a growing fluidity of activities. The relative stability and homogeneity of the pre-Internet post-WW II society is rapidly becoming a subject for wistful nostalgia for many.
Increasingly, people everywhere are interacting with each other, feeding and digesting flows of information.
Social interaction is primarily comprised of information, opinion, and beliefs. These exchanges can be seen as the basis upon which initial trust is built. However, given the evolution of our society through the ages as described earlier and the notion that ‘knowledge is power’, traditional hierarchy has come to be widely accepted as a prosthesis for trust. Leaders and senior people are assumed to have the best interests of those they lead or govern as a primary objective of the use of their authority and decision-making powers. Given the interconnected and interactive conditions that are growing in impact today, the unconscious placing of trust in the structures and operations of traditional hierarchy needs to evolve in order to become or remain effective in an increasingly complex environment.
A new organizing principle is necessary
Wirearchy is an emergent organizing principle that describes the fundamental dynamics supporting the interactions of networked people, technology and information. The working definition, which has become increasingly relevant over the past decade, is ..
“A dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.”
Why the four elements of Knowledge, Trust, Credibility and a Focus on Results ?
From research and heuristic observations as the impact of hyperlinks and connectedness have spread throughout our societies, it seems that these four elements are at the core of why and how people will organize to get things done in an era characterized by growing flows of interconnected information.
Knowledge, trust and credibility are each subjects about which many theories have been developed and books written. Defining them clearly can be a long-winded and argumentative process. However, it seems clear that they are fundamental by-products of human consciousness, sense-making and social interaction. They are critical … without them we would not have evolved to the kinds of lives we now inhabit, with impressively complex physical infrastructure and capabilities and equally impressive developments in human social arrangements.
However, if today we are saturated in surround-senses data and information flows, the opportunities are many, and always present, for misrepresentation, misunderstanding, misdirection and social control by means of carefully-crafted manipulation-by-information. Thus, it is fundamentally critical that we understand the role and force of each of these factors as touchstones for informing and organizing human initiatives and activities.
Let’s explore that assertion in greater depth by exploring the role of each as a critical element for generating and supporting purposeful flows of information and interactions between people who are seeking to create or realize some sort of objective or other.
Knowledge is a fundamentally necessary foundation which represents the fundamental raw material applied to resolving a problem. Knowledge is used to address and deepen the understanding of an issue and the challenge and opportunities it presents. Typically it leads (usually over time) to improving the tangible value generated by work or received from a product or service.
In the interconnected conditions of the networked era it is increasingly the case that knowledge is accessible from or built through exchanges between humans who are working on understanding what to do about a problem, issue, product, service, etc.
Trust is essential for any meaningful exchange (other than conflict) between sentient beings. Our arrangements for operating with each other and the set of laws that govern societies have developed throughout human hsitory to become the core response to the fundamental need for trust.
Trust is accessible through and built from seeing and experiencing the result of exchanges between humans wherein the humans involved assess the veracity and applicability of knowledge generated by the exchanges. It is developed over time by each participant assessing for themselves the intent, style and subsequent effects or results of the exchanges between the human participants involved.
Credibility results from the testing and verification of the effects and utility of purposeful exchanges between humans. Due to a commonality of purpose and the nature of problems and issues emanating from the exchanges, the need for a basic threshold of efficiency requires the use of a framework of verifiable knowledge and trust each time humans address a problem, issue/opportunity or provide products and/or services.
Credibility can be developed by exchanging with others in ways that visibly demonstrate the reliability and utility of the knowledge that an individual or process brings to the exchange. It offers others a more efficient way to assess knowledge and develop degrees/levels of trust over time. As experience with others grows over time, credibility becomes 1) a threshold of assessment and 2) a facilitating dynamic for deepening and accelerating the relevant impact of applying trusted knowledge. It is an efficiency lever.
A Focus on Results is a central characteristic of a online networked environment in which flows of information (generated by a large number of human participants holding diverse interests, perspectives, beliefs and values) creates in greater complexity. When issues, problems or opportunities are presented in a networked environment, regularly people seem to want to “cut to the chase”, and focus on what needs to be done, how it is to be done, and by when .. in actionable terms. A focus on results is the practical outcome of a network’s purpose in action.
In order to be effective with respect to seeking results, there must be a common understanding of what is the desired or required end state.. The initial exchanges between networked humans-on-purpose must seek to clarify the desired results in order to provide intent and direction to applying knowledge and effort. Thus, generating results depends upon the effective focus and alignment of humans’ efforts in combining knowledge, trust and credibility towards the desired objectives.
Making knowledge, trust, credibility and results visible
To deepen the introduction to the concept of wirearchy (posited as an evolution of hierarchy in a networked environment), it’s useful to think of using X-rays to discover the effects of networked activity on the classic organizational hierarchy (the infamous organization chart which maps out reporting relationships and structural lines of communication and decision-making). The X-ray images show what’s actually going on in terms of activities, making a visual map of the connections, sharing and dynamics of interconnected (hyperlinked) people and information.
Wirearchy as a design principle enables, guides and concentrates flows of information.
Basically, in an interconnected and hyperlinked world (henceforth the new conditions in which we live in much, but not all, of the world) the incessant flows of information increasingly define key aspects of what we do and how we live. These flows of information are occurring in a public space, and are beginning to be a key ingredient of communal, societal (and perhaps global) opinion and cultures.
Can such flows be designed ?
The short answer is yes, but in the general sense of the people involved in creating, distributing and digesting the flows using Design Thinking principles. And from another perspective, perhaps not in the sense of creating such flows with respect to stable or necessarily repeatable forms.
In interconnected conditions we can design flows in the sense that the flow(s) address a purpose and the objectives derived from the purpose. The flows (whether of human energy, pertinent information, actionable knowledge, or other forms of stimuli and data) can be directed towards and/or grouped around the purpose and the objectives define the realization of that purpose.
Wirearchy as an organizing principle comes into effect in such conditions.
Interconnected people grouped around a purpose and objectives (the thrivability of a community, let’s say) use knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on what needs to get done in order to:
- enable, and
- sustain the community’s thrivability.
The form of organization taken by any given group will be based on its purpose and (increasingly) be designed by the people involved.
The design of that form of organization will use the flows of exchange to build trust through engagement and credibility, and it will use existing and just-in-time knowledge built by the participants (extracted from the flows of information by the exchange(s) of pertinent and useful information) to address the purpose and objectives of the group.
Much of our individual and collective futures will play out in networked environments. It behooves us to learn and practice as much as we are able to in order to become more effective more rapidly.