Openness and Designing for Loss of Control

Openness is the mega-trend for innovation in the 21st century, and companies are losing control over their workforces, their customers, and as a result, their brands. How do you design for the loss of control?

Openness has been on the agenda of every executive ever since Henry Chesbrough’s seminal Open Innovation came out in 2003. However, as several new books elaborate upon the concept from different perspectives, and a growing number of organizations have recently launched ambitious initiatives to expand the paradigm to other areas of business, I thought it might be a good time to reframe “Open” from a design point of view.

What sparked my interest in particular was the Dachis Group’s list of Six Social Business Trends to Watch which referenced the phrase JP Rangaswami coined at this year’s Enterprise 2.0 conference: “Design for the loss of control.” His point was more IT-specific, arguing that the combination of pervasive digital infrastructure, software-as-a-service, cloud computing, social software, and smart phones have enabled employee- and customer-driven solutions to a degree that renders top-down IT systems obsolete. As Dion Hinchcliffe of the Dachis Group writes: “Enterprises currently expend considerable resources trying to impose control on a situation that increasingly appears like it not only can’t be controlled, but almost certainly doesn’t need to be.”

No longer in control

The new paradigm Hinchcliffe describes has implications far beyond just IT. For one thing, employees, who are facing an increasingly hybridized work/life proposition, are eager to do what they are passionate about, and they will increasingly find the digital spaces and tools that allow them to do this most effectively without having to ask anyone for permission. Companies have to come to terms with the fact that the traditional model of managerial resource allocation and coordination (mainly coerced through extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards and punishments, such as payments, promotions, demotions, etc.) has become outdated and no longer reflects the social fabric of today’s workforce.

Moreover, customers, too, seek out relationships with brands that go beyond the merely transactional. Empowered through ubiquitous access to information and therefore radical transparency, through an abundance of choices on the web, as well as the ability to contribute and tap into social networks (and thus social capital) in real-time and on-the-go, they expect brands to offer engagement and collaboration models that match the more distributed and multi-layered mechanisms of value creation through social media.

Commitment is fickle, reputation volatile, and loyalty scarce. In short: Companies have lost control – over their workforce, their customers, and as a result, their brands. Or, more precisely, as Charlene Li points out in her book Open Leadership, they have never really been in control – what they are actually forced to give up now is their need for control.

The power of pull

So what can they do besides just bemoaning this loss and passively observing how the new centrifugal forces of the Social, Real-Time Web are disrupting their traditional business and engagement models? Li lays out how business leaders can and (must!) embrace the new rules of openness. John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison, in the The Power of Pull, provide an actionable framework for how these new forces can be leveraged through “shaping strategies” on the individual, institutional, and societal level.

These “shaping strategies,” as the term suggests, present an exciting challenge for design. If designers embrace the insight that influence is replacing authority as the new currency in the “pull economy” and that the best way to gain influence is to give up control, they will have significant impact on how this new economy is shaping up. In fact, they are uniquely positioned to develop what Hagel, Seely Brown, and Davison call levers of “access, attraction, and achievement” that provide the “creation spaces” and tools for employees and customers alike to design their own destiny, create their own meaning, and thus convert their very own skills and passions into productivity and loyalty.

In essence, businesses can use “shaping strategies” to amplify and accelerate the inevitable loss of control in order to avoid employees and customers abandon them. This may sound counter-intuitive but the upside is considerable. A deliberately designed loss of control grants companies the only remaining and arguably most critical competitive advantage – access. As long as they enable and facilitate knowledge flows, ideas, passions, skills, and experiences, they have access to them. In fact, if they fully leverage the “powers of pull,” these assets will gravitate towards them.

X-problems and social networks

Openness is no longer just a nice stunt but a fundamental requirement for any business that wants to thrive in the new “pull economy.” Because we’re increasingly dealing with “X-Problems,” as my colleague Adam Richardson reckons in his book Innovation X, we need approaches that allow us to come up with creative solutions to problems we may not even know yet. In other words: Solutions that help define the problem. Or as Hagel, Seely Brown, and Davison put it: “If you want to find out what it is you don’t know that you don’t know, you need to hang out with other people who might already know it.”

The loss of control enables the creation of more weak ties in a company’s network (inside and outside of the organization), and, as social network research has shown, weak ties are more conducive to transporting foreign ideas, knowledge, and skills – because they move faster from one node to the other as the network becomes more accessible and nimble on its fringes. The further you get away from the core of your network, the less control you (may want to) have.

You could argue that designers have been designing creation spaces, feedback mechanisms, and other participatory experiences for some time now. They certainly have, but perhaps without fully recognizing or deliberately orchestrating the amount of loss of control that their designs represented. It seems like the time is ripe to understand these efforts as part of a broader shift and consolidate them into a series of formats that, going forward, shall serve as blueprints for “design for the loss of control,” across different corporate functions and disciplines.

Frequently, these solutions will involve de-institutionalizing decision-making by removing the intermediary. In many cases, this may imply an act of democratization, but it is also important not to see this as a zero-sum game. Control is not just shifting from one hand to many; rather, it is dissolving and defragmenting and along the way diminishing – or turning into something else, far more valuable: social capital that resides in the public domain and is no longer controlled by anyone. The formats that propel this new mode of collaboration and value creation are emergent and informal, and they typically carry a significant amount of tacit knowledge.

Here are some recent examples:

Open ideation/crowdsourcing: Open ideation (or crowdsourcing) is based on the assumption that the best ideas for new products, services, and business models may come from outside of your organization or from those people inside your organization who are typically (by function or hierarchy) excluded from the ideation process. Like all open innovation efforts, crowdsourcing redistributes control from an elite group of thinkers and doers to a broader group of self-selected participants. By broadening the funnel, companies can harness the accumulated or aggregated knowledge of these voices. Crowdsourcing is usually focused on ideas and insights but can also cover a wider array of collaborations with external parties throughout all stages of the innovation cycle. Dell, Starbucks, P&G, and many other organizations use crowdsourcing. Nike partners with Creative Commons and Best Buy for GreenXchange, a platform that promotes “the creation and adoption of technologies that have the potential to solve important global or industry-wide sustainability challenges.” TED is expanding its reach through TEDx, “independently organized TED events,” without compromising the exclusivity of its brand. Furthermore, Victors & Spoils brought crowdsourcing to the world of advertising; and IDEO recently launched its crowdsourcing platform, OpenIDEO, inviting the public to join “creative challenges” that tackle social issues through design. And there are firms such as InnoCentive that specialize in crowdsourcing services for other companies. All these companies not only make ideas accessible to more or less open publics (to some extent, giving up control over IP) but also commit to making the follow-up on these ideas (at least partially) transparent (giving up some control over agenda-setting and strategic planning).

Open design research: frogMob, developed by frog design, is a tool for crowdsourced design research, based on the idea that everyone can be a researcher for a day, just by paying a little more attention to the world around them. frogMob uses guerilla photography and stories to take a quick pulse on global trends, behaviors, and artifacts. Launched internally first – tapping into frog’s eight global studios – we are now expanding frogMob to a broader public. Through frogMob, we are able to “mobilize” not only our internal network around a specific assignment but also external contributors on an ad hoc basis, in a short amount of time (like a Flash Mob). frogMob allows us to provide lightweight, rapid design research for clients who ask for a “trend scrape” that identifies patterns and offers unexpected inspiration. The key here is to tap into existing knowledge flows – in a nimble way that does not require too much commitment from the participants and eliminates bureaucratic hurdles.

Open strategy: Crowdsourcing can also take place as a combination of online and offline collaboration, as demonstrated by NPR and its Think-In on the future of digital media. Supported and facilitated by frog, NPR hosted an open strategy session, bringing together 60 thought leaders at the intersection of media and technology to explore new approaches to content creation, distribution, and funding for NPR and NPR member stations. The Think-In harnessed the collective expertise and creativity of an exceptional group of entrepreneurs, executives, and innovators, and it developed concepts that NPR incorporated into its organizational roadmap. The event was augmented through live-commentary and streaming via various social media channels. This social augmentation made the workshop accessible for a broader audience, which – like the on-site participants – felt so genuinely passionate about NPR that they committed some serious time to this collective brainstorming. Such passion for brands could also be put to work through a more radical version of a Think-In: a “brand hijack” that convenes customers and other interested parties to explore new directions for a brand – yet with the twist that the brand itself would not participate (but may have the option to co-opt the results of the session afterwards).

Open-source humanitarian software: In the software space, open-source projects have long been an established form of open innovation, see IBM’s Eclipse platform. Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), founded by teams from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA and the World Bank, uses open-source methods to “hack for humanity.” It describes itself as a community of “developers, geeks and tech-savvy do-gooders around the world, working to develop software solutions that respond to the challenges facing humanity today.” The group runs “Hackathons,” inviting the best and the brightest hackers from around the world, who volunteer their time to tackle disaster relief issues with through software applications. The Hackathons are designed as so-called “codejams,” fast-paced competitions that give the participants a set amount of time to solve the challenges they are given. At the end of a two-day marathon of hacking, a panel will review each hack, and the winners will walk away with prizes, as well as the right to call themselves “RHoKstars” ever after. Another example of open-source humanitarian software is Ushahidi’s CrowdMap which displays crowdsourced crisis data on maps as a free cloud-based service.

Open-(source) social networks: Lockheed Martin, the giant defense contractor, built its own networking site called Eureka Streams and released it open-source for the public to use. As Fast Company writes in a recent blog post, “The company’s management had recognized that an internal social networking tool could have all sorts of procedural benefits for a large, and geographically disjointed organization. Essentially it lets ‘knowledge workers’ inside the company find and talk with other experts who may have valid input to particular projects, but who would otherwise have zero oversight or input.” Dow Chemical is another example of a company setting up its own social network, in this case to help managers identify the talent they need to execute projects across different business units and functions. Dow has even extended the network to include former employees – a smart move. Closed networks are of diminishing value. A recent McKinsey Quarterly report argues, “In the longer term, networked organizations will focus on the orchestration of tasks rather than the ‘ownership’ of workers’ and advises executives to ‘make the network the organization.’”

Open branding: In the spirit of transparency, design firm Continuum is partly revealing to the public its creative process. The specific challenge is to create a brand identity for the Design Museum Boston, a nomadic institution that exhibits mainly in the virtual space. For six weeks, Continuum is partnering with Core77 on a blog series that will reveal the firm’s process and progress as it takes on the challenge. Readers are invited to comment but it is not quite clear to what degree they can influence the creative work. It’s a non-commercial client and a low-risk project but in any case, making a creative project transparent – even somewhat haphazardly – is an interesting experiment that is worth following. The more radical experiment would of course be to put the creative control over a project fully in the hands of the “smart crowd” and have the creative team steered by a disperse group of “remote creative directors”- beyond just input comprising of insights and ideas. Other, more radical formats are imaginable: For example, sharing a company’s entire communications (some, more or less tightly managed corporate Twitter accounts are in a way a precursor to this) with the public. This would be radical transparency indeed, and an experiment with unpredictable outcome – will the benefit of enabling reciprocal, collaborative relationships outweigh the risk of reputational landmines and IP violations? Is it IP, in the end, as proprietary “knowledge stocks” (The Power of Pull), that serves as a company’s greatest asset or isn’t it rather the ability to attract talent and grant access to knowledge and skills? There’s another, softer benefit to it: Brand personality comes from being personal. The more transparent and the more vulnerable brands are, the more personal, they more authentic they will appear. Transparency is a prerequisite for authenticity – an unmasked and immediate act of communication.

Open social-capital enablers: Small, ad-hoc, start-ups are popping up that leverage the principles of self-organization, which Clay Shirky so aptly described in Here Comes Everybody, to rethink “capital” and reinvent human resources allocation in order to tackle global issues. Originated from the Sandbox network, an exclusive network of young innovators and entrepreneurs under 30, this movement calls itself “Emergent Transformation,” and Max Marmer, one of its masterminds, writes on its group blog: “Lately we have been observing an accelerated movement of ventures that are revolutionizing how we take initiative on a global scale. They can be mostly found in the areas of education, innovation, collaboration, networks, entrepreneurship, and human development: spaces that most likely will dominate the future of value creation in our society. These ventures are leveling the global resource play, unleashing unused & undeveloped human capital and leading to a socioeconomic transformation.” For example, there is Supercool School, an online school platform that strives to give people worldwide access to education by building a new global infrastructure of live online schools. Or Assetmap, an online platform that helps individuals discover and leverage resources directly from the community around them, using the methodology of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). Max Marmer believes “One huge differentiator that sets these projects apart from almost all other organizations is their emphasis on ‘human potential’ or ‘social capital,’ rather than economic capital. The hope is that by creating a clearly defined space for these organizations to work in, there will be more opportunity to share this social capital, allowing them to achieve complimentary aspects of mutually shared visions. Their aspirations are tied to value creation, based on co-operative contribution, and will allow them to fulfill personal passions. Giving new meaning to their work, it’s helping people lead happier lives.”

Open conferences: Un-conferences are facilitated, face-to-face, participant-driven conferences centered on a specific theme or purpose. They are the antidote to the conventional conference format, radically disrupting the delineation between curator and attendees, speaker and audience. The attendees are the experts. Many organizations and groups have begun to use un-conferences to capture and externalize the full breadth of expertise assembled at conferences. Some conferences prefer to incorporate only some un-conference formats into their program – participant-driven sessions that are developed on site in real time.

Open conversations: Modernista did it. Skittles did it. And ad shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky did it. All of them use their corporate web sites as social hubs that curate what is being said about their brand rather than staging what their brand has to say. These efforts are attempts to at least co-opt the conversation on the Social Web before brand-specific aggregators could benefit from being parasites of the brand’s social universe. In other words, what if a brand faced unexpected competition from a third-party site that provided a much more comprehensive and easier-to-access curation of Skittles conversations than the brand itself? Or if McDonalds suddenly saw itself confronted with a site aggregating blogs, videos, news, and tweets, all about but not by McDonalds? Think of this as the logical extension of the company profiles that already exist on LinkedIn and, which aggregate individual member data into a fairly transparent view of companies, including employee information, salary information, and recent news. Indeed, third-party brand curators might realize that brands live in the ‘social commons,’ and that whoever builds the right aggregation mechanism and establishes the most popular channels to reach a mass audience will “own” the branded conversation on the web. Take a look at how Get Satisfaction’s “community-empowered customer support” plays this – it is not an uncontroversial model, but it is “designed for the loss of control (of brands),” enabling customer-to-customer service. You could also spin the idea of a “social homepage” a bit further and not only curate the social web conversation about your brand but actually give away your whole homepage to third parties and to public service announcements, stories, or art. Give up control – gain social currency.

Open HR: Of all critical business functions, HR might be the one with the greatest potential for innovation. With dynamic, quickly accessible expertise replacing static piles of proprietary knowledge, and companies moving from organization-centric to network-centric modi operandi, HR becomes a key enabler of assets through the nurturing of relationships, developing talent, and fostering a culture of openness and participation. This is not just pep talk but includes new tools and methodologies that radically alter the relationship between employee and firm. A recent study by Birkman International that surveyed nearly 20,000 HR professionals found that 83 percent of respondents see great potential in social media-based HR solutions, particularly when it comes to improving communication, learning, and knowledge sharing. Here at frog design, we have launched frogForward, an open-ended, conversational, and social performance management app that allows our employees to provide 360-degree feedback any time throughout the year (not just during review cycles). Goal-setting is entered as a stream, and the feedback – peer, managerial, and employee feedback – can be shared openly or privately. This new approach reflects the changing realities of work performance, from a task-driven control and coordination approach with quantifiable goals to a holistic view that is more situation-and context-aware, gives the employee significantly more control of the process, and considers intangibles such as tacit knowledge, social intelligence, and relationship-building. frogForward shares this approach with Rypple, an ad-hoc social network that provides simple, direct, anonymous, and ongoing customer and employee feedback.

All of these initiatives, whether they apply to brand, CRM, product development, R&D, customer service, or HR, exhibit some similar characteristics:

– easy access;

– open platforms that harness the creativity and expertise from people outside of the organization or untapped sources inside;

– open-ended formats that can evolve as the problem statement changes;

– ample room for participation and emergent self-organization;

– easy mechanisms for tinkering and hacking (e.g. through open-source formats);

– small formats that can be easily shared

– strong incentives (ideally intrinsic motivation or social currency);

– real-time visibility (through sharable content);

– tie-ins to dormant or active social networks;

– and distributed decision-making.

Openness as permanent crisis

There is another aspect to this: The most imminent and urgent manifestation of “loss of control” is of course a crisis. And in times where terrorism, financial downturns, natural disasters, as well as catastrophic events on the individual level are a steady companion to our societies and personal lives, designing for crisis has become a default skill, forcing designers to make contingency planning an integral part of the experiences they create. Often, this means developing exit scenarios that are flexible enough to provide a structure for emergent solutions in response to emergencies. (The notion that architects design spaces so they can be escaped from has been thoroughly examined by Stephan Trueby in his book Exit-Architecture – Design Between War and Peace). In other words: an easy way out. And in. Because exits are entry points as well. If you design ways out of the system, they might as well serve as ways into the system.

If you think about it, this insight may provoke a different notion of openness – understanding it as a system where exit and entry are identical. In this line of thinking, an ecosystem on the Social Web could be seen as a system in permanent crisis – it is always in flux, and its composition and value are constantly threatened by a multitude of forces, from the inside and the outside. What if we understood “designing for the loss of control” as designing for structures that are in a permanent crisis? Crises are essentially disruptions that shock the system. They are deviations from routines, and the very variance that the advocates of planning and programs (the “Push” model) so despise. At their own peril, because they fail to realize that variance is the mother of all meaning; it is variance that challenges the status quo, pulls people and their passions towards you, and propels innovation. “Designing for the loss of control” means designing for variance.

One system in permanent crisis that contains a high level of variance is WikiLeaks. The most remarkable thing about the site appears to be the dichotomy between the uncompromised transparency it aims at and the radical secrecy it requires to do so. The same organization that depends on the loss of control for its content very much depends on a highly controlled environment to protect itself and keep operating effectively. But not just that: Ironically, secrecy is also a fundamental prerequisite for the appeal of WikiLeaks’ “there are no secrets” claim. Simply put: there is no light without darkness. And there is no WikiLeaks without secrets.

Applied to systems and solutions design, this means that total openness is the antidote to openness. When everything is open, nothing is open. In order to design openness, one of the first decisions designers have to make is therefore to determine what needs to remain closed. This is a strategic task: making negative choices for positive effects. You need to build enough variance into a system to make it “flow” and yet retain some control over the underlying parameters (access, boundaries, authorship, participants, agenda, process, conversation, collaboration, documentation, etc.). Only if you maintain the fundamental ability to at least manage (and modify) the conditions for openness, will you be able to create it. To design for the loss of control, control the parameters that enable it.

These are just some initial thoughts. What other formats and business models can you think of that “design for the loss of control” to everyone’s benefit and increased social value? What other variances can be created and effectively shaped? What design principles must be applied?

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