A few thoughts and links on scale, connection and mutualism in the design of social systems and organisations
Scale, connection & mutualism in system design
One of the repeated tragedies of ideologies and political systems is the pursuit of scale and control at the expense of individual and community-level social connections. Whenever humans design a perfect system that subsumes human dignity and happiness to the imagined will of the collective (represented by some powerful clique), bad things tend to happen.
Unsurprisingly, the same thing happens in the world of technology. The mid-C20th era of IBM-led enterprise computing was not just built around late C19th command and control management theory, but also set it in stone for a further half century when we could done things differently with personal computing. Similarly, after the early honeymoon period of social computing around 2002-2005, where individuals and small groups could weave their own human-scale mutually-beneficial networks, we saw the VC-led Web 2.0 era destroy its potential in pursuit of huge scale, valuations and returns based on an ad-tech monetisation model. We got Facebook and proprietary walled gardens instead of the connected forests and networks that were wonderful, but hard to strip mine for advertising dollars. I think we are now beyond the pretence that most people are capable of mutualism in an imagined global village with no real human connection, but we are still living with the social and political harms this created.
So why would so-called Web 3.0 and crypto be any different? Technologists have designed systems bereft of human connection and governed by code and coins, creating enormous incentives for exploitation by bad actors. And why not? if we owe each other nothing and code is law, then who cares if we exploit the inevitable bugs, and the lack of regulation or oversight to make a quick buck?
Every recent exchange collapse, DeFi unwinding or just plain old rug pull exposes the myth of de-centralised ‘freedom’ that crypto claims to provide. But hey, you can now buy a token backed by an unpaid debt that promises 20% yield – WAGMI to the moon 🚀🚀🚀!
Even leading VC firm A16Z, who produce Crypto market research that looks like sober macro-economic analysis, can’t answer the most basic question: yes, but what does it do?
Ironically, the few practical use cases for the blockchain are so prosaic and boring that they will likely not be developed because VCs can’t make 1000x on them. Real estate registries, tracking physical goods and ownership are all features that will be commoditised.
It might yet turn out that you can’t build a new world purely on a get-rich quick scheme whose leading lights are mostly hucksters.
Small, human-scale automation opportunities
I am already receiving leadership development briefs to teach the benefits and world-changing potential of the blockchain and crypto 🙈, but I am far more interested in how we teach real decentralised methods to deploy technology that can solve real problems for real teams, and then scale up fractally from below to create more robust and responsive organisational structures.
One of the easiest areas for organisations to get started is in the area of team building and transformation. Take a team that delivers a service, then ask the kinds of questions John Cutler uses in his initial consultations, and help them gently deploy assistive or augmentative light-weight automation and smart tools to help get the boring stuff down more quickly so they can focus on the higher value tasks.
Early automation strategies in organisations tended to begin as centralised services, naturally enough, but we now have far more local tools that can be used in a more distributed way without IT input, such as Microsoft’s Power Platform, which is widely available in enterprise environments. But there are also some other great tools emerging in the space between low-code / no-code and automation.
This thread from Rohit Kaul is a good summary of the value proposition that tools like Levity AI could bring to small-scale automation within teams. It resonates with the way we see service team transformation, which looks to identify recipes and workflows that can be embodied in simple automations and algorithms that contribute to the wider stock of organisational capabilities shared within an internal service platform.
Also, given the talent shortage in specialist areas of IT right now, there is a huge potential win-win here that both engages and empowers employees and team members through the use of low/no-code tools and also reduces their reliance on IT specialists to transform their work on a local level.
Bonus links for weaving human structures
Finally, two useful resources on full of insights and advice on how we can bring people together to weave the social connections that make for better organisations:
- The Kool aid factory looks like a nice collection of ‘zines’ about models and methods for connecting organisations better.
- The latest edition of the Community Management report is worth a read about how this field of activity has evolved over the past year.
- Mel Conway reflects on the so-called reverse Conway design principle, and concludes that ‘politics as a design problem’ is an urgent area of enquiry given the trash fire we see today in formerly mature democracies.