Tag Archives: knowledge

Copying, Synergy, and the Test Kitchen

30 Jun

I’m thinking about another entry in Maslow’s Eupsychian Management, “Synergic versus Antisynergic Doctrine.”

Here Maslow beings by exploring two ways of seeing availability of resources: as limited and as unlimited or regenerating.  In the general, dog-eat-dog world of life or the office, (or in Theory X, as Maslow would say), we see things as limited, so we have to grab what we can get and do whatever we can to keep others from grabbing it back. The problems with this are fairly obvious in general, but it’s particularly problematic when the “limited” way of thinking is wrongly extended to things which when shared generate more of themselves in an ever-increasing way. Good things, like ideas, knowledge, psychological well-being.

Science, for instance, only works when ideas and learnings and experiments are shared. Of course, that is the whole idea of science. Everyone can build on each other’s experiences in an ever-increasing virtuous circle. The times when we try to limit knowledge–like to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, for instance–hurt the “us” more than it hurts the “them,” because the us don’t benefit from the virtuous cycle of the knowledge percolating through the aquifer of our collective thought. And the them probably find their way to the information in any event.

To share knowledge is to generate more knowledge; and that’s a “synergic” way of looking at things, from a generative perspective rather than a perspective of limitation. To think “I need to hide the secret in the safe,” that’s “anti-synergic.”

Anti-synergic thinking shows a confusion of the product with the more complex and more beautiful and more fleeting and more valuable and less reproducible people-thought-action-system (my words) that produced it. Ideas in business are a good example. Of course it’s common to develop a product and then want to keep the stuff we learned while developing it secret so our competitors can’t redo it and thus steal our potential earnings and glory, etc.

But you can look at things differently. Take the voltmeter from Nonlinear Systems (Maslow’s example). Nonlinear invented the voltmeter, apparently, and could have kept how to make it secret, but they didn’t. Allan Kay, the leader, pointed out that anyone could copy the voltmeter, but they couldn’t as easily copy the complex system that developed it.

About that “system.” For Maslow, it seems, this system consists of three key parts: a creative disposition, a commitment to iterate, and an ability to perceive things in their truth, regardless of predispositions.  (I guess a fourth necessary part that goes without saying is that the system needs to have people in it). These three, or four, things make a process or flow, a virtuous circle–a thing half ceremony, half discovery, have foundry–from which the particular product is but a kind of snapshot or a thrown-off snakeskin, only marking where things were at a certain point.

Someone can copy the snakeskin, but it would be hard to copy the “snake,” the fluid, creative, productive, self-corrective, honestly-perceiving ecosystem that gave it birth.  And if you did recreate the snake, or Nonlinear Systems, that would be good in any event, because you’d be bringing a “Theory Y,” healing, self-affirming, goodness-making, not-believing-in-limitations, social machine into being, and that would have all sorts of positive effects on the lives of the people that came into contact with it. And your new Nonlinear Systems would probably get along OK with the Old Nonlinear Systems, since good organizations would of course get along with good organizations. You would probably form a system between you of a higher order of mind-process-production that couldn’t have been conceived until then.

The flow of the creative-iterative-perceptive system feels like it has parts in it of my idea of the information “sluice;” but it also contains a built-in doing component (the “foundry,” per me, above), because you’re making things. It feels akin to Basadur’s Creative Problem Solving process, which says an idea is not creative if it’s not implemented. But it’s also meta. I take Basadur’s CPS as a kind of subroutine; whereas the kind of organization or process Maslow is talking here about feels more like a superordinate way of going about things. One that might contain within its parts both synergic and anti-synergic subroutines.

I should stress the observation part. I added it; Maslow doesn’t break it out as such in this entry, but it pops up in others. And it resonates. Perhaps the most important part of this creative synergic flow is the ability to look at yourself or your process with Bergsonian pure perception, or with Maslow’s B-cognition. Objectively and lovingly and without predetermined ideas, but rather seeing the context for the context, the product for the product. Not clouded by a desire for the thing to be good, or for the struggle to be over so that you can coast, or for a desire to defeat your enemies, but just in itself. This ability to step out of yourself would seem crucial to generating the kind of creative ideas that would fuel iterative improvement.

For the record, the idea of sharing things in order to have more of them, for Maslow, works for other things we often assume we have to hoard in work or in life: power and love being two.  He refers to Linkert’s idea (in New Patterns of Management) of the “influence pie:” where managers allowed their reports to have more influence and suddenly discovered they themselves (the managers) had more, too.

As an aside, cooking shows are connected to this. You can watch the person make a dish and know how to make that dish, but you won’t learn much about the life of their kitchen, or how they relate to food, and what sparks new dish ideas, and how they refine things, and how they get feedback. You might mistakenly focus on sourcing ingredients and getting the right pot and wake up to find yourself in a antisynergic mode. When it’s not about the particular ingredient or pot or outcome, but about the culture hidden behind and among those things. Even America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t really teach you how to have your own test kitchen.  Which is sad because I think a synergic life would be a kind of continual test kitchen.

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Bill Snyder on Communities of Practice

18 Jul

Bill Snyder, expert on communities of practice, spoke at the Learning Organization Academy last week. My notes below. For the record, Bill co-wrote Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.

The Engaged and Messy Nature of Knowledge and Learning

Knowledge, according to Bill, is not abstract, fixed, and unconnected from life. It’s “situated, tacit, dynamic;” “social;” and “practical.” It’s interwoven between and among people and what they’re doing and need to do, in the environment where they are. Correspondingly, learning is largely informal, is built on communication and connections—stories, conversations, experiences, coaching. It depends heavily on trust and reciprocity.

Communities of Practice Steward Messy Knowledge

The kind of knowledge and learning above aren’t that well-served by formal education. What works better are communities of practice–groups of people sharing a particular domain of knowledge who gather and talk about what they know and what they do. The emphasis is on social relationships and communication; communities of practice are heterarchical as opposed to hierarchical. There isn’t a rigid power or control structure; they grow up where people who share a particular passion feel a need to talk to each other. They’re voluntary. As such they stand in contrast to the hierarchical workplace, its emphasis on control and outcomes, and its investment in its own existence. They can be “natural” in that they occur on their own when a few people find their way together, and intentional, in that people actively develop them, though this is an art. They can be conceptualized using a three-mode framework: domain (or subject matter); community (the people); and practice (how they apply the knowledge they share).

Peripheral and Core Participation

A key feature of communities of practice is that they allow for a variety of ways to be involved. You don’t have to be an expert: peripheral participation, or lurking, is OK, and even seen positively (because it’s a way to enter into the field—consider the apprenticeship model).  Usually, though, a core group comprising 3 – 5% of the people ends up being responsible for most of the activity of the community; these people are generally experts and well-respected (though there is a role for some in that core group to focus on the organizational details who don’t therefore need to be a subject mater expert). Importantly, the community of practice allows you to shift from lurker to middle to core group and back—in fact, you can see that movement as a kind of sideways Zone of Proximal Development.

Distinction Between Communities of Practice and Project Teams

Bill makes a key distinction between communities of practice, which self-organize to shepherd the learning in a social group, and project teams, which are formed, usually by fiat, to achieve a particular end. The community of practice focuses on knowledge sharing, is voluntary, has a long-term focus, boundaries are permeable, and the nature of the group is often emergent; the team is different—it has a clear outcome in mind, it gathers information on whether it meets that goal or not, it ends, roles are kinda fixed, it reports back. The project team works well in the hierarchical workplace of course; but it’s not antithetical to the community of practice. A project team can peel off of a community and go work on a project then share outcomes with the community. Just don’t assign a discrete, short-term, actionable goal to the overall community.

Phases of Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice go through various stages: Potential (basic parts are there: topic, social group, desire to share); Coalescing (community begins to work together and build trust); Maturing (clarification of the subject, individual roles; identification of gaps in knowledge); Stewardship (focus on action and maintaining momentum, attracting new members, keeping knowledge up-to-date); Transformation (its work may be done; members may leave; it may go dormant to return later).  Bill notes that it’s important to accept the community where it is—the stewardship phase isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, for instance: a community may function perfectly well and serve its members even in the early stages.

Things to Avoid

There are some things you shouldn’t do if you want your community of practice to be successful. You can’t tell it what to do—the passion has to come from the people involved (although you can find and build on existing passions). You need the domain to be somewhat practical and problematic; if it’s too superficial—that is, only about relationships and pleasantries, it won’t work. The topic also can’t be too narrow or too broad. You have to be wary as well of problems that occur in all communities: cliques and factions, and people who “squelch” or “spoil.” And a key pitfall: “impermeable boundaries”–if people can’t move from the fringes to the core group and every stage in-between, it’s not a heterarchy anymore.

Communities of Practice Improve Performance

You might think such an ephemeral structure might not result in anything tangible, but it does—those relationships and passions drive the participants to “build, share, and apply” core practices and capabilities, increasing their capability, and all that of course translates to improved performance outcomes.