Knowing how to work with flows of information in near real-time emerged as a key theme at the Dachis Social Business Summit held in Austin, Texas, on March 10th. We, as humans, have a great deal of capacity and experience in the techniques behind producing fixed sets of information, such as reports, documents, movies, plays and so on. However, when it comes to knowing how to handle a changing multi-directional flow of information as it is happening before us, tends to challenge some of the best of us.
Thought-leaders in Social Business gathered at this second of four worldwide events held by the Dachis group to consider and present our collective understanding of what it means to work in the mode of business that embraces networks of people to create business value. Among the speakers, JP Rangaswamy (Chief Scientist of Salesforce.com, and formerly, Chief Scientist at BT), John Hagel III (Deloitte’s Chairman of the Center for the Edge), and Shiv Singh (Head of Digital at PepsiCo Beverages) all spoke about the need to understand how to work with flowing information in real-time.
Essentially, the information age is reaching a new level where it requires us to look beyond static or fixed pieces of content such as documents, papers, individual posts, or even video content. These are essentially content with a clearly defined beginning and end, a defined format or structure, and even while a sequence of events tend to be formulated into some narrative or plot. There certainly are ones which are complex or obscure, or even stories we consider downright loony. However, we able to learn how to analyze, understand, and respond to these fixed packets of information.
What really challenges us as humans is the notion of dealing with a constantly changing flow or stream of information without a discernable pattern or intended direction. We can understand flows often enough, but we usually look for quantized bits within the flow itself to match it to patterns that we have seen before. Sometimes we can see a trend in where the flow has been and even predict where it is going because of these recognizable patterns.
Companies value employees who have that ability to not just recognize patterns well but know what to do with that information, and can react quickly to it. For example, financial traders spend years learning the foundations of the subject and even basic patterns—we often call them financial theory—but the best ones are those who have demonstrated that they understand this by instinct, and have a proven history of results because of these instincts.
We see this ability to understand patterns by instinct everywhere: artists, air traffic controllers, trading-floor brokers, criminologists, jazz musicians, etc. But most evidently, we notice them in particular among those top in their field. They aren’t simply people who are good at guessing or lucky, but have honed their understanding of the patterns relevant to their jobs over a great many experiences. In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell talks about an art expert who instinctively was able to determine that something was wrong with a particular statue (and its provenance) simply by looking at it, despite the evidence that it was authentic.
This form of mastery of understanding patterns is far from easy but the real question is: can it be learned? Among all the technology and business speakers at the Dachis event heralding the importance of working with flows, only one in particular struck me as having an answer on how to do it: a jazz musician.Music to hone your skills byMichael Gold of Jazz Impact
Michael Gold is founder and President of Jazz Impact, and ongoing lecturer for The Executive MBA and Leadership Development Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, The MBA Program at Loyola University in New Orleans, and at The School of Public Health at The University of Minnesota.
Michael’s presentation focused on how jazz musicians learned to play with each other, a particularly difficult skill due to the improvisational nature of jazz music. Each instrument and each musician takes on different functions: sustaining, modifying, synthesizing and innovating, paired into two key types of roles supporting and leading. They certainly need a grasp of the fundamentals of playing their instruments, but learning to collaborate requires understanding how these roles work together.
Every band member has the opportunity to move between functions, and change roles, but they also need to understand and respect when to allow the other musicians to shine as well. Consider all this is happening in real-time, as the music is being played and while trying to keep in rhythm with others. Understanding the nature of these roles, as well as understanding your teammates is the key to a good jazz band.
As Mr. Gold puts it, “How does a culture based on this kind of ‘technology’ (jazz music) evolve? It takes place in the liminal zone … at the threshold of what we know and what we don’t know. Jazz is focused on the social motion [of minds of the musicians] across that zone.”
However, learning to work with the flows of music, the changing functions and roles of others requires understanding how we handle this changing information. Mr. Gold shared a simple graph describing stages of comprehension. It begins with the legacy or origin of a particular tune—the foundational notes of the piece to improvise on. Musicians engage or play that tune from its legacy, based on their individual perspective, and then begin to add a change—as he calls it, ambiguity—to push the inertia of the original notes into a stage of emergence.
At this point, others may hear the dissonance, notice that change, and consider what it sounds like to them and respond with a possibility of what they think fits in. The dissonance during the emergence phase is the step when the other collaborators notice the change, and their response to that change creates friction. This is the point in collaboration where wonders begin to happen—or failure. Sometimes they may back away from the friction and return to the base, but hopefully they may move on to the next stage of transformation. Here is the peak of the curve, the moment of collaborative innovation. It is not simply optimization of something that existed but the transformation of it into something entirely new. This stage then falls down into a level of integration back into the music. What you have now is the tune transformed.
While we aren’t all going to become jazz musicians, I think we can appreciate that this curve is not very different from what happens in agile organizations. What it takes to achieve this is a strong degree of flexibility, as well as understanding and recognition of these stages as they are occurring.
Working with flows of information appears very similar to me. However, we may still be fairly young in this field, while jazz music has had about 100 years of life to achieve this level of knowledge about their art. While musical instruments have an unlimited range of tunes that may come out of it, we understand what these can do. We are barely beginning to understand our instruments, our tools, in social business. Finally, we also need to understand the practice itself, as well as who we practice with to elevate our own skill.