09 March 2009

The Valence Organization: More Than Simply Org2.0

danah boyd, that is dr. danah boyd, newly of Microsoft Research, has posted her "crib notes" for MSR's Tech Fest. Like pretty much everything danah posts, they are well worth a read (and if I happen to land the summer job for which I applied, several of danah's papers will certainly be on the reading list). Her brief history of social media sites post-Friendster provides a wonderful context; her examination of the generation gap between the UCaPP and fogey generations is pretty much spot on - although I tend to be a little more explicit about construction-of-identity vs. personal-branding uses for Facebook et al. And she does seem to confirm my belief that Twitter is indeed the Facebook-for-fogeys.

However, the paragraph that really resonated with me and my work is this one:
For the technology crowd, Web2.0 was about a shift in development and deployment. Rather than producing a product, testing it, and shipping it to be consumed by an audience that was disconnected from the developer, Web2.0 was about the perpetual beta. This concept makes all of us giggle, but what this means is that, for technologists, Web2.0 was about constantly iterating the technology as people interacted with it and learning from what they were doing. To make this happen, we saw the rise of technologies that supported real-time interactions, user-generated content, remixing and mashups, APIs and open-source software that allowed mass collaboration in the development cycle. We saw half-baked ideas hit the marketplace and get transformed by the users in an elegant dance with the developers. This was a critical disruption to the way in which technology was historically produced, one that rattled big companies, even those whose agile software development cycles couldn't cope with including all consumers as active participants in their process.
Now, take that paragraph and replace all the references to products and technologies with organizations and valence relationships. It might sound something like this:
For the management crowd, a Valence Organization is about a shift in control and involvement. Rather than hierarchically structuring an organization, functionally decomposing objectives into individual tasks, and obsessively controlling both the performance and behaviours of workers, for the nominal benefit of consumers, and the actual benefit of investors – all of whom (workers, consumers, and investors) are, in actuality, disconnected from management decisions – the Valence Organization is about active participation, true collaboration, and continual emergence. These concepts make all of us nod our heads as if we actually understand, but what it means for managers, consultants, and theorists is this: Valence Organizations are about constantly iterating, evolving, recursively and reflexively combining and recombining proto-organizations as people interact with each other and learn from what they are doing.

To make this happen we yet need to see a shift in vocabulary that supports balancing true bond-forming relationships, giving up the perceived necessity for control in favour of collective and actively shared responsibility, and decoupling status and privilege from the ability to contribute and be rewarded for contributing. We saw unsustainable organizations collapse under their own mismanaged laissez-faire or greed-motivated impetus, or both, all based on either adhering fast to, or attempting to explicitly reject (and thereby ironically acknowledge), the dominant management discourse that has underpinned organizational practice over the last century. What is rattling big and small companies alike these days is the inherent inconsistency between the effects of being ubiquitously connected and (therefore) pervasively proximate (UCaPP), and the ingrained, socialized need to maintain 100-year-old (or 400-year-old, depending on your sense of time) ideas of bureaucracy, administrative control, hierarchy, accountability, functional decomposition, the primacy of measurable goals and objectives, and fealty to the once-powerful bottom line - even if they are considered so-called best practices one way or another.

The critical organizational disruptions required to sustain and thrive in a UCaPP world represent themselves as understanding the effects of complexity, feedforward processes, environmental sensing, the importance of balancing valence relationships, the power of ba, and the action theory of effects (that augments Argyris & Schön's espoused and in-use theories of action). These more-UCaPP effects on organizations are rattling even those whose nominal beliefs in relatively more democratic or inclusive management practices can't cope with the velocity or ferocity of change effects, "including all consumers as active participants in their [previously exclusive internal] process."
Thanks for the inspiration, danah!

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