Colonizing the Outer Rings

by Andrew McAfee on October 22, 2009

As I looked back over some recent blog posts and thought about some recent conversations, I realized that they’ve been pointing to a single broad conclusion. I think it’s time to state it explicitly instead of having it remain in the penumbra of the discussion around Enterprise 2.0.

Before doing this, I need to re-draw my E2.0 target picture, which I explained a while back: “The… figure below is an extremely simple and not-to-scale representation of the relative size of [four groups of people], from the perspective of our focal knowledge worker. The small core of people with whom she has strong ties is at the center, surrounded by her larger group of weakly-tied colleagues. Potential ties are in the next ring, and co-workers —  people with whom valuable ties do not and will not exist —  make up the outermost ring. My intuition is that for most knowledge workers the four circles in the figure are nested accurately  —  that the number of potential ties, for example, is greater than the number of weak ties —  even if their relative sizes are way off.” (This post explains the picture and its purpose in more detail.)

Enterprise 2.0 Rings

The conclusion I’ve arrived at recently is easy to state: Enterprise 2.0 is most valuable at the outer rings of the target.

I don’t mean to imply that emergent social software platforms (ESSPs) aren’t useful for strongly-tied colleagues (in other words, close collaborators). I’ve seen plenty of examples of dedicated teams making effective use of wikis, Sharepoint, and other forms of 2.0-style groupware. I get the impression, in fact, that at present ESSPs are most often deployed to support the work of people who are already strongly tied to one another.

I don’t think that this use case is bad, short-sighted, or uninteresting in any way. But I do think that it’s less interesting, and less valuable, than the deployment and use of ESSPs that span the outer rings of the picture above, where people are weakly tied or not yet connected at all.

I say this for two main reasons. First, prior to the arrival of ESSPs the IT toolkit available at the outer rings was both small and ineffective. Before the 2.0 era, what technology did we use to keep up to date with what our weakly-tied colleagues were doing, or to update them on what we were doing? How many of us sent out weekly emails to all of our ‘professonal acquaintances’ letting them know what we’d been up to?    How many of us would have read such emails from others?

And were there good digital tools to help us figure out who we should be working with, who could answer a question or solve a problem, or put hours back in our week? Throughout most of my professional life I figured such things out by asking my strong ties, who would consult their mental rolodexes and tell me if anyone came to mind. This technique worked sometimes and failed sometimes, but it certainly wasn’t technology-enabled.

Because of ESSPs like social networking software, microblogs (like Twitter), and a blogosphere that’s densely interlinked (and so navigable and searchable), the digital toolkit for the outer rings is no longer lousy. In fact, it’s now quite good. We can keep in touch with our weak ties, and find good potential ties — people we should be interacting with. And as I wrote earlier, prediction markets are great tools at the outermost ring, where people are strangers and will remain so. Prediction markets let strangers trade securities with each other, an activity that yields weirdly accurate forecasts of future events.

The second main reason for my conclusion is that outer-ring ESSPs bring substantial benefits, and ones that are difficult to achieve any other way. In other words, it’s not just that good outer-ring tools are new; it’s that they’re new and powerful.

Outer-ring ESSPs allow authoring, or writing for a broad yet unspecified audience. When knowledge workers author and link to each other, searchers can locate them and assess their knowledge and expertise. These same tools allow people to publicize not only what they know, but also what they don’t; seekers can use ESSPs to pose questions and let an undefined and arbitrarily large group of people see them. I’ve quoted Eric Raymond before that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” The new tools let people put their ‘work bugs’ in front of lots of eyeballs; if some of them belong to people who are informed and good-willed, solutions will be forthcoming.

ESSPs also let people build and maintain large social networks. An interesting possibility, discussed in my book, is that they might let users get past Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number social group size. Dunbar’s number has been estimated at around 150 for people, yet many of us have more Facebook friends than that. It could be (but is by no means sure) that ESSPs let us keep up to date with more people than we could with our gray matter alone. A final demonstrated benefit of the E2.0 toolkit is collective intelligence, or the ability of crowds to come together and, with a bit of technology glue, generate good answers.

After a company deploys outer-ring ESSPs and acquires these capabilities, wouldn’t you imagine that it becomes significantly more productive, more efficient, and less plagued by waste and redundancy than it was before? I’d also imagine that it becomes more agile, responsive, smart, and innovative than was previously the case, but I realize that these are bolder claims.

One final thought experiment: take the same company, and imagine that it deploys ESSPs aimed only at facilitating the work of colleagues who are already strongly tied. Now how does your before-vs.-after comparison look?   Mine doesn’t look nearly as impressive; the company still achieves some real improvements, but they’re not in the same league as those realized when outer-ring ESSPs are in place.

Do you agree? Are you with me that the real benefits of E2.0 come when the outer rings are colonized by ESSPs, or do you believe something else?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

  • http://twitter.com/nlachapelle Neil LaChapelle

    Very interesting post! It generates an interesting image in my mind, which is an employee who adds a lot of value to many things in general, but nothing in particular, and is highly valued for that reason. In other words, if an organization had a lot of these kinds of tools for leveraging peripheral participation on tasks, and someone turned out to be really very good at those kinds of tasks across many functional areas, their working day might end up consisting of providing input into these dispersed, weakly connected networks. It would be unclear where such a person would sit on a tradtional org chart.

    I am exploring the value of using a concentric collaboration model in online education communities, and your work is enriching my sense of what that might mean. My work so far on that is at: http://www.educause.edu/blog/HiredEd/OrbitalLea

  • jheuristic

    Hi -

    Novel observations on “The Strength of No Ties.” There is a convergence of SNA and E2.0. It is the mainstay of collective intelligence networks… See:

    http://www.collectiveintelligencenetworks.com/

    -j

  • http://www.xpragma.com Marc Buyens

    You are correct stating that the greatest opportunities will be found in the outer rings of your diagram. Yet, this is only one perspective on corporate reality. Another one would be 'how we expect the ties to be'. Between close collaborators, we would expect strong ties. Yet, in reality, we might often find weak or even no ties. Whatever the reasons for these 'anomalies', ESSPs will have tendency strengthening these anomalies instead of removing them. Indeed, most ESSPs facilitate our quest for 'personal confirmation' (more thoughts on this in http://www.xpragma.com/view125.php).

    So, yes, the value is in the outer rings and perhaps, implementations should deliberately focus of these segments. Otherwise, heavy interaction between already strong ties might be seen as the false proof of success.

    And no, ESSPs will not get us past Dunbar’s number.

    MarcB

  • saqibali

    I agree that e2.0 is most useful at the outer rings, however the people who are sitting in the outer most ring are usually the ones asking others to communicate/collaborate on their behalf.

    “I will email the information to you, can you please post it on the wiki for me?”.

    Sounds familiar?

    It is a wiki! Post it yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/strategicfront Strategic Frontend

    We found that companies doing market risk management need structured blogs and wikies to assess early warnings. Weak ties proved especially value able evaluating market riks.

  • https://gstrzok.wordpress.com/ G. Lance Strzok

    Andrew,

    I do agree with you on the greatest influence taking place in the outer circles. I also agree that made available to the inner circles, it will likely improve communication and collaboration there as well. So in general, making ESSP's available to the entire enterprise enables improvement across the entirety of your target.

    If I were to add anything of value to your discussion, it would be that deploying these ESSP's in the outer rings alone is not enough to ensure success. I think a related question that impacts the effectiveness of doing so would be – where and how do you create a culture of collaboration that will utilize these tools? Followed with which one do you put the most effort into and in what order? Do you start with something small but effective, prove its utility, then build the culture of collaboration around that tool followed up with another tool or tools that allow even more growth to take place? Because if you don't see the use of the initial tools, and the culture does not begin to take hold, then further tools may be a waste.

  • http://blogstu.wordpress.com stu

    Great thought provoking post.
    In the early phases of deployment of E2.0, it's easier to get those outer ring connections since (at least in my experience) there aren't many people to connect to, so it is a high likelihood that you'll be seeing more and sharing information with those who you wouldn't otherwise. There is the danger that as the environments become more mainstream that people will congregate with those that they already have stronger ties to, won't get as much added value out of the interactions and will be less likely to engage on the communities.
    I agree that it is the new viewpoints and cross-functional visibility that holds great value. If we simply transfer the same activities and relationships onto new tools, it's an incremental rather than exponential gain.

  • http://twitter.com/nlachapelle Neil LaChapelle

    Showing weak-ties collaboration in progress? “Friction-free collaboration”. http://projectshrink.blip.tv/file/2765340/

  • http://www.EnglishLCI.com/ englishlci

    Interesting post, conceptually oposed to all trends that talk about targetting all the time. Of course, the number of subjects or users increase, but it gets harder to penetrate as the primary target fades away.
    Rgds

  • http://twitter.com/bhc3 Hutch Carpenter

    I've recently been reading the work of Professor Ron Burt, University of Chicago. His study of the Raytheon supply chain group looked at how well employees performed in generating quality ideas. What he analyzed was the degree of cross-organization connectedness for each employee, and how it correlated to the quality of the idea they submitted in the study. Social network analysis was used.

    He found that employees who are more insular, talking only with a regular coterie of peers who knew one another, produced lower quality ideas. Employees who were “brokers”, spanning across different groups in the organization, consistently produced higher quality ideas.

    A write-up of his findings and a link to the original research paper are here:

    http://blog.spigit.com/permalink/2009/10/19/stu

    I connect your thinking on weak and potential ties to the future state of employees who draw ideas, knowledge and perspective from more diverse sources. Need to find them first, via ESSPs.

  • http://andrewmcafee.org/blog amcafee

    Hutch, thanks for your reply, and for the pointer to Burt's work. I wasn't familiar with that particular study, but Burt is a giant in the field, and one of the scholars I drew on when putting together the E2.0 target picture and highlighting the importance of the outer rings. Thanks for writing!

  • http://twitter.com/sengseng Amy

    Colonizing of the outer rings or capitalizing on weak/potential ties requires connectors – people connectors, data connectors – without these the platform is worthless.

  • http://www.Maintenance-One.com/ janitorial services

    The outer rings, uh? Nice metaphore indeed!

  • timbull

    I've been thinking about this recently and reflecting on E2.0 implementations I've been involved in. One problem I've seen is shooting for a broad number of connections – trying to reach the outer-circle straight away which is where the clear benefits lie, but without a strong inner-core, the efforts collapse.

    Perhaps deploying to a strongly connected group is the neccesary evolution to get to the outer-circle? My experience is suggesting to me that this is the case.

    FaceBook is an interesting example because while there are lots of people who do have a high Dunbar number. I also think that many of these cut there teeth on that inner-circle where the tool was reinforcing the strong connections they already have.

    We are starting to think about some of these issues as well with http://www.binaryplex.com where we are building a tool to work alongside ESSPs to help users discover the experts across the breadth of the organisation based on the work people are demonstrating in the ESSPs.

  • http://info-architecure.blogspot.com driessen

    Very interesting post. I agree with your conclusion. We're seeing this in practice too. The surprise it gives people when they connect to people inside and outside the organization they've never met! Your conclusions also relates to work done knowledge mapping and expertise location. And to a book I read some time ago: Cross & Parker, 'The hidden power of social networks'. It would be interesting to see if we could extend Dunbar's number. Dunbar relates to the strong ties, … number relates to weak ties, etc.

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  • Jim

    There will also be people who are informed and bad-willed. Greed, mania and power alter folks. How to measure trust – by friendship levels? Access controls limit sharing. ESSPs will need to address privacy and logging. “That gave me an idea.” – now who gets the patent? ESSPs will need to grow and adapt to business and human cultures.

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