Traditional systems thinking and complex systems
Traditionally, our view of IT and Information Systems management is rooted in a form of systems thinking. As such, we typically see the IT artefact (the technology) as a solution with which change (in terms of improvements) can be introduced into an organisational system.
A good archetype example for this way of thinking can be found in business process management. A typical story would go as follows: Unsatisfied with the performance of an organisational system (say a division), management initiates a business process redesign project. After modelling the “as-is” state of the system (e.g. a business process) the business analysts on the project propose a redesigned version of the process, the so-called “to-be” process. In order to facilitate the changes and move the systems from the “as-is” to the “to-be” state, management decides to procure and implement a suitable software (e.g. a module to an existing enterprise resource planning system – ERP).
What the example shows is that traditionally systems thinking is about closing a gap between a current and an identified ideal future state. Technology in this case takes on the role of a solution agent for closing this gap, while the focus is on the individuals in the systems to change their ways of working.The argument I am going to make is that this systems thinking is woefully inadequate in the context of social media, social business and Enterprise 2.0, as such emerging systems resemble complex systems. This can be shown with a few simple moves. The first move is to point out the differences in the technologies involved.
1. Technology as enforcing best practice vs opening up a space for possibilities.
Traditional enterprise software is built on the notion of best practice in that best practice processes and ways of working become inscribed in the software. The whole point of implementing these systems is enforcing certain best practice ways of working and enforcing control onto the individuals using the systems. In stark contrast, in earlier posts I have shown that social media are very different in that they are open, flexible platform technologies that do not determine ways of use to the extent that it is impossible to deduce from their simple feature sets how they will be used. Rather than enforcing certain ways of working these technologies open up a space for experimenting and for many different work practices to evolve.
2. In complex systems any future system state remains unknown and indeterminable
Given that social media platforms are what I have described as “nutzungsoffen” it is impossible to anticipate how the technology will be used. This aspect has been described by Andrew McAfee as social media emergence, whereby the concrete work practices emerging from the technology are indeterminable beforehand.
3. Co-evolution rather than deterministic systems change
At the same time as work practices emerge from social media adoption the nature and role of that platform changes for the individuals and groups involved. Social media might become a medium for work coordination, for project management, team discussions, context building, precisely depending on the emerging practices facilitated by the technology. Hence, ways of using, work practices and the (role of) the platform itself emerge in symbiosis. Dave Snowden refers to this principle as “co-evolution”, whereby the whole system evolves “through collective action to a future state which could not be fully anticipated but which is sustainable and resilient.”
4. From management as “planning and execution” to “facilitating safe-to-fail experiments”
Dave Snowden refers to these kinds of systems as complex-adaptive systems (a definition that is slightly different, but more useful, than the common definition in the literature). It is in the nature of complex systems that management cannot rely on planning and execution to close a pre-identified gap, but needs to engage in what Snowden calls “safe-to-fail interventions”. In the context of social media this means that rather than to try to identify and prescribe use cases upfront, management needs to put trust in the professionalism of it employees to find productive ways of working with social media. Such emerging use cases can then be used to communicate to others the contextual benefits of social media in the organisation. Champions and lead users might be identified to further drive adoption and diffusion, but essentially the whole endeavour needs to rely on self organisation.
My next post will be about how such a social network evolution process evolves in a self-organised manner. Stay tuned.