Kakul Srivastava asks “Is the nature of identity and belonging changing in the emergent business?”

I got an email from Kakul Srivastava, of Tomfoolery. She posted this on Twitter the other day:

giving self a day to catch up on @stoweboyd posts. brain happy. G. Bateson: ‘a business is best considered as a network of conversations’

Her day led to a few questions that Kakul emailed to me. Here’s the first one:

Is the fundamental nature of individuals changing in this new world (less of a need for alliance, belonging, affiliation, more transient definitions of self, increased satisfaction/dissatisfaction)?

Here’s a start of an answer to that.

There is a diffusion and shift of affiliation, belonging and identity in the emergent business context, relative to what has come before.

The transition to a context where people in general have more connections, but a smaller proportion of strong ties, means that affiliation is diffused.  While a person might cowork with a larger constellation of people, fewer of those coworkers are likely to be connected to each other. This is the nature of loosening the network, even while increasing the degree of connectedness for each individual. So the individual’s world is larger — more connections, more innovative ideas flowing past — but it may be perceived as more discontinuous, since longer periods of time pass between communications with loosely connected colleagues.

One aspect of the shift of affiliation is where individuals are choosing who to follow rather than being situated in a role with predefined close connections, which is the case in the conventional postmodern business. So, for example, you [Kakul] and I have a close connection only because of the level of the respect we have for each other, based on a mutual appreciation. It is not based on the length of our relationship, or the frequency of our interactions. However, I know you share the sense that there is a deep resonance in our thinking. This is outside of the normal business relationship, and is based on affiliation around values and the orientation of our self-identities to our work, and our shared awareness of purpose and meaning that arises from pursuing that work. This is the sort of affiliation that will define emergent business: A smaller proportion of strong ties (although maybe more in absolute numbers), and those ties based on choosing who to follow, which is the most important decision in a connected world. And, as in the case of our interactions, more of those choices are likely to be with people that we aren’t officially “working” with. You and I are not working at the same company, we aren’t working on a project together in any conventional sense. I am pursuing my investigations, which has led to us colliding, while you are working on Tomfoolery, pursuing your own ends. But we both are both doing our own “work” as the foundation of this relationship.


Imagine that I learn a creative technique while working with someone, like scenario-based future thinking. In that exercise I become aware of approaches to fleshing out scenarios that are less intuitive for me, like using narrative to explore the views of product users. As a result, months later in a different setting when I am in a different group that is blocking on a creative task, I can dredge up the technique, and come at the problem narratively instead of through systems thinking or metaphorically, which are more natural for me. And that shift to a different model of the problem changes my perspective, and even the weighting of values in my thinking. In a real tangible way, I am a different self when I adopt new patterns of thought.

One way to characterize this shift is this: in the collaborative business, people affiliate with coworkers around shared business culture and an approved strategic plan to which they subordinate their personal aims. But in a cooperative business, people affiliate with coworkers around a shared business ethos, and each is pursuing their own personal aims to which they subordinate business strategy. So, cooperatives are first and foremost organized around cooperation as a set of principles that circumscribe the nature of loose connection, while collaboratives are organized around belonging to a collective, based on tight connection. Loose, laissez-faire rules like ‘First, do no harm’, ‘Do unto others’, and ‘Hear everyone’s opinion before making binding commitments’ are the sort of rules (unsurprisingly) that define the ethos of cooperative work, and which come before the needs and ends of any specific project.

The sense of self in those working in cooperative settings may be — but doesn’t need to be — more transient, although people in the emergent business setting are shifting contexts more frequently, working in different settings, and that may make it easier to express different aspects of self at the ‘same time’. Like working with one scene of people as a futurist, and as a chef in another. This is considered ‘moonlighting’ in a collaborative world, but merely two shades of working in the cooperative, emergent world. And the offset of the closeness that came from being part of a collaborative team is the breadth of experience that comes from participating in many cooperative teams (although team is the wrong word: maybe cooperative constellations).

Put another way, self may become more discontinuous in the emergent business, allowing us to express more of the whole person, instead of being expected to be the same at all times, to hold only one set of perspectives, ever. To the extent we are open to diversity in the workplace, we need to allow individuals to be diverse, in their selves, as well.

Here’s one practical example of this diversity. Imagine that I learn a creative technique while working with someone, like scenario-based future thinking. In that exercise I become aware of approaches to fleshing out scenarios that are less intuitive for me, like using narrative to explore the views of product users. As a result, months later in a different setting when I am in a different group that is blocking on a creative task, I can dredge up the technique, and come at the problem narratively instead of through systems thinking or metaphorically, which are more natural for me. And that shift to a different model of the problem changes my perspective, and even the weighting of values in my thinking. In a real tangible way, I am a different self when I adopt new patterns of thought.

But in other contexts — for example, a slow-and-tight collaborative business where values are more constrained, and more tightly linked to long-term strategic goals and to a more static corporate culture — people may find fewer possibilities for flexibility. Not that people wouldn’t use narratives in a scenario process, but they might not go so far as to reconsider their values, because the company’s underlying cultural matrix might not allow questioning of its basic principles. But in the emergent business, company culture comes second to the ethos of fast-and-loose cooperation, including a more relaxed notion about the centrality and continuity of self. This is related to the concept of multiphrenia, a concept explored by Kenneth Gergen, and about which I have written before:

Stowe Boyd, Multiphrenic Identity

We invest ourselves into relationships that are shaped by the affordances of the tools and the particular social contracts of the contexts. Through these relationships new and perhaps unexpected insights into others and ourselves arise. And we participate in dozens of these social environments, possibly with non-overlapping constituencies, each focused on different aspects of the greater world: entertainment, food, news, social causes, health, religion, sex, you name it. We become adept at shifting registers, just like polyglots shift from Italian to Corsican to Catalan without even thinking about it. We are multiphrenic.

And the benefits of this multiphrenia, this ability to network different selves, are exactly the benefits that polyglots realize: the ability to rapidly shift lenses through which to view the world differently.

Cooperative tools need to become ‘engines of meaning’

Had a discussion yesterday with Kakul Srivastava of Tomfoolery.com, formerly of Yahoo, Flickr, and Tiny Speck. Got a peak at Tomfoolery’s coming products, but there are some UX changes coming in the near term, and I still have only played with it for a few minutes, so an actual review will have to wait.

What I want to share is an idea that I’ve been stewing on for some time — years, actually. Somehow these ideas crystalized in the discussion with Kakul.

The subject is following. I believe that any cooperative tool — one that is really designed to support a fast-and-loose style of work, and not just another collaboration tool — will have to rely on following as the central mechanism of messaging. Following is a pull mechanism: the potential recipient of information opts to receive messages from people (and other information producing agents). The default mechanism in collaborative tools is membership in groups, teams, spaces, or other defined contexts: belonging. That is a push model, since the creator/owner of the context has to invite the user, and in order to receive any messages from the context at all, the user in essence has to sign up for a long list of things, including symmetric visibility with the other members.

So, I believe that one of the differentiators of the coming generation of cooperative tools is this: while they will support contexts and belonging, other and better mechanisms of supporting messaging through following will be supported.

I reviewed Azendoo recently, and suggested that some of that product’s features put it in at least past the border between collaborative and cooperative tools (see Azendoo is one of the first cooperative work tools). I wrote about Azendoo’s ‘topics’, which at first glance seemed like just another term for a context, but then I realized they’d done something unique:

Users define topics in the workspace as a means of organizing content, and as a way of managing visibility. In most solutions we see some sort of context — a space, project, or group — to which people are invited in order to symmetrically share access to some store of information and conversational streams. However, if you are not invited you can’t see anything going on inside those closed contexts.

Topics are different. They act as a context and as tag to be followed, at the same time. For example, I can create a topic that people can follow like a tag in Twitter, and all public postings made by members of that topic can be seen by anyone following. This support an open follower style of interaction within a business setting.

[…]

Azendoo topics are like light: they are both waves and particles. Both a closed, private context and an open, public stream. I believe Azendoo is one of the first to implement this model, and I have been waiting for this breakthrough. Azendoo is one of the first of what will prove to be the next generation of social business software: cooperative work tools.

Talking about the possibility of overload with Kakul, I had an insight regarding the possible filtering of followed streams using tags. So, imagine that I am following a colleague, Bette, on an imaginary cooperative tool, Koan. Koan (let’s imagine) implements a user tag-based filtering. So I could tag Bette with ‘Jones project’, ‘social business’, and ‘NYC’ and then messages that match those tags would surface in my stream.

This requires the Koan system to be very knowledgeable about tags, and to be able to cluster them, like Flickr does, in order to infer things that I would like to see. So when Bette tags something as ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Times Sq’, Koan should pass it along to me. And, following in the footsteps of Azendoo, anything public, or private that I am privy to, regarding the Jones project, I should see. And if she has some breaking news about Yammer or Tomfoolery to share, the social business tag should suffice to pull that information into my stream.

Note that these ‘search tags’ must be interpreted liberally, and not limited to looking just at the explicit tags offered up by Bette. In particular, tags and terms of other users, commenting on Bette’s messages, would be important, even if I am not following them.

Years ago, in 2006 and 2007, I advanced the idea of ‘groupings’ as a replacement or extension of groups. I made the case that all the people using a tag or searching for it represent a ‘grouping’ which has similarities to a group or a context, but which is very different. No one has to invite me to use the tag ‘social business’ or to search for it. I opt to do so without the tag being ‘owned’, and participation in the grouping is very unlike membership in a group. There may be reasons to allow people to define tags that are ‘private’, meaning they define contexts, but I bet in the future the proportion of closed tags will decrease as part of the explosion of connection as we move to a cooperative world of work.

[Incidentally, it was in a Twitter discussion of these ideas, back in August 2007 where Chris Messina proposed the idea of Twitter channels, similar to IRC chat tags, for which I offered up the term ‘hash tag’.]

The Azendoo topic acts like a context and a tag at the same time, but doesn’t include the fuzzy logic that I envision will be necessary for actual serendipity to happen. With that fuzziness, I could decide to follow ‘social business’ and discover people who I don’t know arguing about a new release of Dachis software. And that acceleration of serendipity, that increase in coincidensity, is the magic needed for cooperative work tools to take us past collaboration’s slow-and-tight models. When we can rely on platform-mediated weak ties to surface the information we have made clear we want to see, then that machinery will become ‘an engine of meaning’, sifting through the social exhaust of thousands to find the eleven things I really need to see right now.