Social technologies

Picking up on yesterday’s post and Seppo’s comment, another topic that has been coming up in my conversations is the idea of “social technology”. This doesn’t mean social software, where technology is applied for social purposes like Facebook or LinkedIn, but instead the idea of creating better social patterns that we can use. In this sense, democracy and monarchy would be two different social technologies, as would consensus-driven and hierarchical decision making. Social technology is the counterpart to physical technology, like telecommunications advances or increased computing power, a distinction observed in Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth.

In particular, I’m interested in the question posed by Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody: with the new physical technologies that have emerged over the past decade (e.g. always-on access, mobile access, zero cost to publish media worldwide), how will our social technologies evolve? What new social patterns will emerge and prove useful in this world? Or to ask a more focused question, what social technologies will let us manage ourselves more effectively? Before we can get to that, we need to take a step back and look at existing social technologies.

I’m going to start by talking about a social meta-technology, which is the idea of learn and latch: “For continued successful adaptation of an entity, whether it’s a person, a genome, a corporation or a society, you need elements that are going and trying new things all the time, but you also need elements that are preserving the successful changes so that they don’t need to re-tried by the next generation.” I see this as the larger pattern that many social (and physical) technologies are designed to implement (although I may be suffering from Architecture Astronaut syndrome).

One effective social technology is stories. I love talking about stories as I think they are the key to many aspects of human behavior, from community to identity. In this case, I think that stories serve the function of “latching” in the “learn and latch” pattern. Stories preserve what has been learned by previous generations in a form that is compelling and easy to remember.

Another latching social technology is process. I tend to be dubious about process, but process is essentially a more restrictive form of stories. Instead of telling the general lesson learned, process maps out a specific set of steps that lead to the desired result. Note that process is a more effective latching mechanism in an unchanging world, as the steps will often change when the world changes. But in such a world, it is very effective at creating a standard level of competence (what Neal Stephenson refers to as the “three-ring binder” used to operate a franchise like McDonald’s). Bureaucracy is another form of process that has the same advantages and disadvantages.

The learning side of the “learn and latch” pattern is harder to characterize. A couple ways in which a person or organization learns are copying from others (but who comes up with the idea first?) and trying new things (which is often a waste of time since most new things will be worse than the status quo). One broken social technology for learning is status meetings – with the advent of new communication technologies, a meeting is possibly the least efficient way to transfer information among people (then again, I hate meetings). Note that doesn’t mean that meetings in general are useless – meetings which are used for discussion and brainstorming are using the interaction power of meetings and are thus a good social technology in that context.

I’ve written several posts about the importance of feedback, but I hadn’t thought about how feedback as a social technology embodies the “learn and latch” pattern. The general process of feedback is to let somebody do something, and then offer them feedback on how they did and what they could do better. They learn from the feedback, try again, and latch the new behavior. Without feedback, the person may be learning bad habits and fall prey to the aphorism, “Practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent”. This is also why I believe rapid prototyping is a useful social meta-technology, as it embeds constant feedback into a development process.

Having reviewed a few existing social technologies, it’s time to think about which social technologies are appropriate in today’s world. This is a question of both capabilities (what social technologies are available given new physical technologies?) and appropriateness (what social technologies apply in a rapidly changing innovative world?). To put it another way that addresses Seppo’s comment, how does one make a team most effective?

I think the fundamental problem facing the deployment of existing social technologies is that the pace of change has increased. This is not a new observation by any means, but the implications are still being worked out. Many of today’s management techniques were developed in the 1950s at enduring industry titans like IBM, and it’s easy to see why such techniques may no longer be appropriate. In a rapidly changing world, the overhead of maintaining one’s social infrastructure is a drain on productivity as new situations have to not only be handled, but then the process must be updated with the new response (the “latching” part of the system takes too much effort). Organizations that can respond to situations more fluidly will be more productive. At the same time, an organization that treats every situation as new will never learn from its history (it never “latches” anything). So there must be a balance there.

I think the Built to Last authors got it right: “Preserve the core, but stimulate progress”. Or to put it another way, understand the big picture and figure out how to apply the big picture to the individual situation. Or to put it yet another way, play the infinite game such that the rules of the finite game (processes and canned responses) get updated continuously, but the greater goal of the infinite game continues. Or if you’re a geek like me, run things like Ender did, managing the big picture so that your people are always in situations which play to their strengths and they can just react and do what comes naturally.

In the strategies I listed above, a key component is making sure that everybody on the team is aligned with the larger goal, and understand how their specific roles are contributing to that larger goal. Unfortunately, despite the proliferation of communication technologies, effective communication (getting such an idea from person A to person B) has become more difficult, as we are all suffering from information overload. Having an intranet with all the relevant information or cc’ing everybody with status update emails may seem like communication, but that communication has failed if the right person doesn’t see the right information at the right time. I’m not sure that doing that part can be automated away through technology, which is why I think that good managers will continue to have a place even if they are just talking.

Another challenge is that even if the communication is in place, the team can fall apart without trust. In a high-functioning team, the team members trust each other to give a heads up about relevant new information, so they spend their time working on their piece of the project otherwise. Without that trust, each team member spends time double checking information, gossiping at the water cooler to make sure they know what’s going on, concocting theories about ulterior motives in the information being transferred (e.g. is the due date artificially early to induce us to work longer hours?), etc. All that time is wasted productivity that could be gained back if a bond of trust is established within the team.

I’ve gotten a bit distracted here from my original question of what new social technologies will look like, partially because I’m not sure what the answer is. I do see new social technologies as having to be much more fluid in response to a changing environment, but there needs to be an easy way to “latch” the knowledge gained. Using a wiki may be part of the solution, as Wikipedia has demonstrated, but that still requires people knowing to check the wiki for that knowledge. We need better technology like the Remembrance Agent to let us know that we don’t know something. For now, we are still dependent on people like me who can map new situations onto previously encountered situations and know who to ask or where to look to find the previous best response.

I also think that new social technologies will need to free the individual to use all of their capabilities. Right now, our organizations and hierarchies hire people for specific roles, and don’t know how to handle it when people expand outside of those roles. I suspect that future organizations will consist of consensus-driven vision creation, and then each person determining how they can contribute to that vision. Formal organization creates an unsustainable overhead in updating process and charts and following the three-ring binder. To take a specific example from this past weekend, there was no time wasted creating a formal plan to set up or take down chairs and tables for the reception; instead, the bride and groom just said “Hey, make it happen”, and everybody figured out how they could help. I see that sort of self-organization being the way of the future, perhaps drawing on studies of self-organizing systems or existing leaderless organizations.

I haven’t answered the question I set out to when I started this post, but I think social technologies are a fertile topic for further thought. Like Seppo, I never would have imagined myself caring about these sorts of issues ten years ago, when I was a techno-determinist. But time and experience has taught me that fixing these social issues is more difficult but also more rewarding than the technology problems I once thought were the hardest problems to solve. I look forward to when we get social tech to match our physical tech, as I think that will enable the sheer potential of human creativity to be unleashed in all directions with spectacular results. We get hints of it from DIY sites like Instructables today, but we’re at the start of this period, and I think it will be exciting to see how things evolve.

8 thoughts on “Social technologies

  1. Ok, I know you are going to say what flavor Kool-Aid I’m drinking, but I think that Lean and the Toyota Way may be a path to some of the issues you are dealing with. I know its based in manufacturing and may not fit completely, but its main focus is simple. Standardize the process, measure it, see how much you are doing actually creates value for the customer, then empower the team doing the work to improve it. By making people responsible for their work and the process, and giving them the power to make it better, you build trust and a teamwork that allows for measurable change and the communication you are looking for.

    Welcome to management my friend.

  2. got halfway through, but have to head off to work – before I go, though, I wanted to post something quick in response to this:

    “I’ve written several posts about the importance of feedback, but I hadn’t thought about how feedback as a social technology embodies the “learn and latch” pattern. The general process of feedback is to let somebody do something, and then offer them feedback on how they did and what they could do better. They learn from the feedback, try again, and latch the new behavior.”

    This is one thing that’s really interesting to me. I want feedback. I want it as fast and as thoroughly as you can possibly give it to me, but if I had to choose one, I’d choose fast over thorough.

    For me, I feel like I can do a very general “sweep” of a concept quickly, but drilling down into it means more investment of time on my part. I want to make sure the general stage of the process is *good* before making that further investment. So, once I’ve got the basics outlined/written, I’ll almost always ask for feedback.

    Problem is, I rarely get it. When I do, my style of working is to iterate very quickly, write down stuff *even if it’s not 100%*, and rely on iterations to weed out stuff that’s wrong, and strengthen the stuff that’s right.

    Without feedback, that iterative style is pointless.

    Still, in a field like videogame design, I don’t think there’s a better method that rapid iteration to get to a goal. There are few “right” solutions, and if you wait ’till you “know” something, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to guess, you have to speculate, and then send those speculations out into the world. The more people give you feedback on your imaginary direction, the better job you can do. You can at least know whether you’re communicating your ideas clearly.

    But in addition to few people regularly giving me feedback, almost no one else *requests* it. This is strange to me, because it implies their fundamental approach is very, very different.

    More later.

  3. One thing that occurred to me while reading the “back half” of the post was this – the critical social technology (if you can call it that) that my current company is missing is this:


    Now, that’s not hierarchy, and it’s not imposed structure, or any of those things. When I say “authority,” I mean the authority that comes from below. I believe it was on this blog that I first read that definition of authority, and it’s been incredibly useful in trying to figure out what’s wrong with the company.

    We have a lot of *authoritarian* upper management. Their style is “Do this *because I said so and I’m in fucking charge*.” The problem is, of course, that no one trusts them, no one believes what they’re saying, there is a LOT of speculation about their ulterior motives because they’ve historically doled out information to suit their ulterior motives already.

    A lot of that comes from fear. As many people have already said, you get promoted to your level of incompetence. Well, our project leads (with the exception of a small few) are basically at that point. They’re in over their head, and they snap back to this reflexive “fuck you, I’m in charge” attitude to protect themselves from having their decisions questioned.

    I ended up talking to one of the guys the other day (the get out of my head day), and the crux of the conversation was that his problem with the team was that he had no authority. His authoritarian attitude prevented anyone from ever developing that trust in him, and his stubborn inability to have a discussion or admit he was wrong about a decision was driving the team to chaos.

    As a designer, I’m responsible for setting a LOT of gears in motion. At any time, dozens of people are working full-time to enact plans that I *hope* will turn into something reasonable. I have to make plans, in the void of any sort of certainty, based on speculation, research, discussion, and hope. I’m often wrong.

    When an engineer’s spent two weeks developing a feature based on a spec I wrote, and it turns out for various reasons to not function correctly, I don’t stubbornly stick with it. I don’t not admit I’m wrong, and I don’t ever ever ever tell the engineer it’s their fault (unless it really is). I go to them, tell them why I was mistaken, how we can take a step towards fixing it, and see where we go from there.

    This isn’t a problem for a a couple reasons: 1.) While developing the original spec, I sought their input and feedback as often as was appropriate. 2.) I treated them as a partner in the project, not as a peon.

    Without those things, going to them later and discussing that the system didn’t work would engender frustration and misery – I would have handed down some document from on high and demanded them to do this come hell or high water. When it didn’t work, it would be my fault. They did their job properly, I fucked up.

    With those things, going to them later and discussing that *our* system didn’t work the way we thought it would is easy. We can sit down and analyze the mechanics of the system, how it’s different from how we imagined it might be, and what kinds of solutions we can implement so that the next iteration is stronger.

    The next time I have to work with the same person, they can trust me because they know my methodology, know that I’m honest, know that I value their input, and know that I’m willing to bust my ass and ignore my ego to make sure that we’re making the best thing we can.

    I believe this has borne out in practice. At this company, I’ve been on three projects at various times, and *every time*, the project has ended up as the one everyone’s *wanted* to work on most, and the one that’s generated the most “buzz” at the company. I’d love to take credit for that because my design ideas are incredibly awesome, but even if that’s partially the case, maybe (I hope), the bigger part of it is that I work in a way that gets the team invested in the game as their own, and gets them excited about the ideas in the game as if they were their own. In many cases, even if I came up with the seed, the plant belongs to the team, and is totally different than what the seed might have grown into if I’d tried to grow the plant myself. Better, in every case.

    So, yeah. The ability to get people working together, to trust in you that you know what you’re doing, to be open and honest in your communication, to know that there aren’t ulterior motives behind what you’re doing, and to simply believe in you.


  4. Alternatively, the only “social tool” you need is Jayne’s Chain of Command – “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with ’til you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.”

    Though your results will likely be quite different than described above.

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