Agile Collaboration & Social Creativity

Open-plan offices and social networks are often seen as significant factors of collaboration and innovation, breeding and nurturing the creativity of knowledge workers, weaving their ideas into webs of truths, and molding their minds into some collective intelligence.

Brains need some breathing space

Open-plan offices, collaboration, and knowledge workers creativity

Yet, as creativity comes with agility, knowledge workflows should give brains enough breathing space lest they get more pressure than pasture.

Collaboration & Thinking Flows

Collaboration is a means to an end. To be of any use exchanges have to be fed with renewed ideas and assumptions, triggering arguments and adjustments, and opening new perspectives. If not they may burn themselves out with hollow considerations blurring clues and expectations, clogging the channels, and finally stemming the thinking flows.

Taking example from lean manufacturing, the first objective should be to streamline knowledge workflows as to eliminate swirling pools of squabbles, drain stagnant puddles of stale thoughts, and gear collaboration to flowing knowledge streams. As illustrated by flood irrigation, the first step is to identify basin levels.

Dunbar Numbers & Collaboration Basins

Studying the grooming habits of social primates, psychologist Robin Dunbar came to the conclusion that the size of social circles that individuals of a living species can maintain is set by the size of brain’s neocortex. Further studies have confirmed Dunbar’s findings, with the corresponding sizes for humans set around 10 for trusted personal groups and 150 for untried social ones. As it happens, and not by chance, those numbers seem to coincide with actual observations: the former for personal and direct collaboration, the latter for social and mediated collaboration.

Based on that understanding, the objective would be to organize knowledge workflows across two primary basins:

  • On-site and face-to-face collaboration with trusted co-workers. Corresponding interactions would be driven by personal dispositions and attitudes.
  • On-line and networked collaboration with workers, trusted or otherwise. Corresponding interactions would be based on shared interests and past exchanges.

Knowledge Workflows

The aim of knowledge workflows is to process data into information and put it to use. That is to be achieved by combining different kinds of tasks, in particular:

  • Data and information management: build the symbolic descriptions of contexts, concerns, and means.
  • Objectives management: based on a set of symbolic descriptions, identify and refine opportunities together with the ways to realize them.
  • Tasks management: allocate rights and responsibilities across organizations and collaboration frames, public and shallow or personal and deep.
  • Flows management: monitor and manage actual flows, publish arguments and propositions, consolidate decisions, …

Taking into account constraints and dependencies between the tasks, the aims would be to balance creativity and automation while eliminating superfluous intermediate products (like documents or models) or activities (e.g unfocused meetings).

With regard to dependencies, KM tasks are often intertwined and cannot be carried out sequentially; moreover, as illustrated by the impact of “creative accounting” on accounted activities, their overlapping is not frozen but subject to feedback, changes and adjustments.

With regard to automation, three groups are to be considered: the first requires only raw processing power and can be fully automated; the second also involves some intelligence that may be provided by smart systems; and the third calls for decision-making that can only be done by human agents entitled by the organization.

At first sight some lessons could be drawn from lean manufacturing, yet, since knowledge processes are not subject to hardware constraints, agile approaches should provide a more informative reference.

Iterative Knowledge Processing

A simple preliminary step is to check the applicability of agile principles by replacing “software” by “knowledge”. Assuming that ground is secured, the core undertaking is to consider what would become of cycles and iterations when applied to knowledge processing:

  • Cycle invariants: tasks would be iterated on given sets of symbolic descriptions applied to the state of affairs (contexts, concerns, and means).
  • Iterations content: based on those descriptions data would be processed into information, changes would be monitored, and possibilities explored.
  • Exit condition: cycles would complete with decisions committing changes in the state of affairs that would also entail adjustments or changes in symbolic descriptions.

That scheme meets three of the basic tenets of the agile paradigm, i.e open scope (unknowns cannot be set in advance), continuity of delivery (invariants are defined and managed by knowledge workers), and users in driving seats (through exit conditions). Yet it still doesn’t deal with creativity and the benefits of collaboration for knowledge workers.

Thinking Space & Pace

The scope of creativity in processes is neatly circumscribed by the nature of flows, i.e the possibility to insert knowledge during the processing: external for material flows (e.g in manufacturing), internal for symbolic flows (e.g in software engineering and knowledge processing).

Yet, whereas both software engineering and knowledge processes come with some built-in capability to redefined their symbolic flows on-the-fly, they don’t grant the same room to creativity. Contrary to software engineering projects which have to close their perspectives on the delivery of working products, knowledge processes are meant to keep them open to new understandings and opportunities. For the former creativity is the means to an end, for the latter it’s the end in itself, with collaboration as means.

Such opposite perspectives have direct consequences for two basic agile collaboration mechanisms: backlog and time-boxing:

  • Backlogs are used to structure and manage the space under exploration. But contrary to software processes whose space is focused and structured by users’ needs, knowledge processes are supposed to play on workers’ creativity to expand and redefine the range under consideration.
  • Time-boxes are used to synchronize tasks. But with creativity entering the fray, neither space granularity or thinking pace can be set in advance and coerced into single-sized boxes. In that case individuals must remain in full control of the contents and stride of their thinking streams.

It ensues that when creativity is the primary success factor standard agile collaboration mechanisms are falling short and intelligent collaboration schemes are to be introduced.

Creativity & Collaboration Tiers

The synchronization of creative activities has to deal with conflicting objectives:

  • On one hand the mental maps of knowledge workers and the stream of their thoughts have to be dynamically aligned.
  • On the other hand unsolicited face-to-face interactions or instant communications may significantly impair the course of creative thinking.

When activities, e.g software engineering, can be streamlined towards the delivery of clearly defined outcomes, backlogs and time-boxes can be used to harness workers’ creativity. When that’s not the case more sophisticated collaboration mechanisms are needed.

Assuming that mediated collaboration has a limited impact on thinking creativity (emails don’t have to be answered, or even presented, instantly), the objective is to steer knowledge workflows across a two-tiered collaboration framework: one personal and direct between knowledge workers, the other social and mediated through enterprise or institutional networks.

On the first tier knowledge workers would manage their thinking flows (content and tempo) independently, initiating or accepting personal collaboration (either through physical contact or some kind of instant messaging) depending on their respective “state of mind”.

The second tier would be for social collaboration and would be expected to replace backlogs and time-boxing. Proceeding from the first to the second tier would be conditioned by workers’ needs and expectations, triggered on their own initiative or following prompts.

From Personal to Collective Thinking

The challenging issue is obviously to define and implement the mechanisms governing the exchanges between collaboration tiers, e.g:

  • How to keep tabs on topics and contents to be safeguarded.
  • How to mediate (i.e filter and time) the solicitations and contribution issued by the social tier.
  • How to assess the solicitations and contribution issued by individuals.
  • How to assess and manage knowledge deemed to remain proprietary.
  • How to identify and manage knowledge workers personal and social circles.

Whereas such issues are customary tackled by various AI systems (knowledge management, decision-making, multi-players games, etc), taken as a whole they bring up the question of the relationship between personal and collective thinking, and as a corollary, the role of organization in nurturing corporate innovation.

Conclusion: Collaboration Spaces vs Panopticon

As illustrated by the rising of futuristic headquarters, leading technology firms have been trying to tackle these issues by redefining internal architecture as collaboration spaces. Compared to traditional open spaces, such approaches try to fuse physical and digital spaces into overlapping layers of collaboration spaces, using artificial intelligence to harness cooperation.

Yet, lest uniform and comprehensive transparency brings the worrying shadow of a panopticon within which everyone can be unknowingly observed, working spaces have to be designed as to enhance collaboration without trespassing on privacy.

That could be achieved with a layered transparency set along the nature of collaboration:

  • Immediate and personal: working cells regrouping 5 to 10 workstations earmarked for a task and used indifferently by teams members.
  • Delayed and personal: open physical spaces accommodating working cells, with instant messaging and geo-localization; spaces are hinged on domains and focused on shared knowledge.
  • On-line and networked: digital spaces merging physical spaces and organizational structures.

That mix of physical and virtual spaces could be dynamically redefined depending on activities, projects, location, and organisation.

Further Readings

External Links


4 Responses to “Agile Collaboration & Social Creativity”

  1. Thilo Berenson Says:

    Great read!
    I think there is a lot of connection between the place and way of work and how well we do it. Beginning to believe that agile methodologies are a way to get the best out of our collective mind and ability – wouldn’t you agree?
    I recently came across a nice article on how agile is actually biologically suited to the way we think of work and see it, also to how we imagine our own capabilities and its reflection on the quality of work. This was the post, for reference:
    Hopefully, more people will come to realize how much more can be achieved when applying an Agile methodology.

  2. caminao Says:

    Hi Thilo,
    I certainly agree, but the post you mention only gives half of the story: our brain has evolved to balance curiosity (that’s agile) with security (that’s routine).

  3. Thilo Berenson Says:

    Hmm, wouldn’t you say that routine is the “flow” part of doing agile that the post mentions? Finding a way to make each day similar in structure, but different in specific actions?
    I think this is how I’d understand this. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to see agile in everything (I’m new to the concept and quite blind-sighted 😉

    • caminao Says:

      The origins and principles of the agile paradigm are clearly libertarian, especially compared to traditional (procedural) development methods. But human nature is not to disappear and many agile methods soon enough introduce some degree of procedure.

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