Jul 072009
 

This page should be blank…(really?)

This page, like this Wiki, is in the stage of constant evolution. What follows at the moment is theory and background taken from some folks who are considerably smarter than I am. I’ve excerpted and rearranged, but hopefully stayed true to their thinking and intent. I’ve also provided links to the original articles, and I encourage you to explore. What we are trying to accomplish with the knowledge share experiment is at once simple and complex; how it evolves, how we evolve, is part of the experiment.

From A K M Adam

Now, let’s say you’re the dean or president of an academic venture, and your institution began entering, marking-up, formatting, and promoting an online library of academically-important sources. Let’s say that your school puts its faculty online in short-span audio/video spots that address topical problems in digestible segments. In the process of producing these materials, of course, your students and faculty learn better the ins and outs of the texts that they’re working with (as Thayer notes, Qui scribit, bis legit: “One who writes, reads twice”). Let’s say that your students can expect open access to much of their learning materials, written and audio and video; and let’s say that your faculty and your institutional name are bouncing around the Web as the font of this treasury of learning. Doesn’t that sound like a big competitive advantage for your institution as you scrabble to attract students (and grants, and faculty)?

These are the faster horses of technology as it interacts with the academy. Every penny you invest in technologies that perpetuate the familiar patterns of classroom/library instruction depreciates the minute it’s spent. Every penny you invest in the technological transformation of the academy along lines that match best-use cases of various technologies (including, especially, the seminar room and the book) will redound to your advantage multiple times.

On the other hand, no one ever got fired for signing up for another year’s subscription to BlackBoard, and being an advocate for a transformative approach to technology and academy hasn’t helped me land a job. Maybe the future does indeed lie with encumbering teachers, students, writers, readers, researchers, and a generally-interested public with systemic limitations in order to preserve the economic and pedagogical superstructure of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century academy.Those of you with the curiosity to have clicked through the “faster horses” link above have some good reason to suspect that the open wiki path we are proposing is likely to get as they say in Montana “right Western”. We were pretty comfortable with frontier metaphors in the early days of the Internet, but seem to have forgotten that and we try to convince ourselves that things have grown more civilized. Example of that is our general belief that if we pay enough money for the right software and the right consultants our problems will be solved FOR US. However, as Mr. Ed reminds us no matter how you deck it out, “a horse is a horse”. The $600,000 horse should run faster than the $2000 horse, but as this year’s Kentucky Derby demonstrated, should doesn’t necessarily scale; nor is the race always to the swift, but let’s not ride the metaphor into the ground. The real point is that we are proposing a solution not because it is cheaper but because we think the frontier is still where we live. The Knowledge Share Wiki just might work; no guarantee and in fact pulling off is going to be a real challenge but here’s Mark Pesce with some explanation of why just might be worth the effort, the risk, and the responsibility. You are encouraged to read the full Sharing Power (Aussie Rules) essay as if you rely on the c&p you’ll miss things like, “Studies of Japanese teenagers using mobiles and twenty-somethings on Facebook have shown that, most of the time, activity is directed toward a small circle of peers, perhaps six or seven others. This ‘co-presence’ is probably a modern echo of an ancient behavior, presumably related to the familial unit.”

In the 21st century we now have two oppositional methods of organization: the hierarchy and the cloud. Each of them carry with them their own costs and their own strengths. Neither has yet proven to be wholly better than the other. One could make an argument that both have their own roles into the future, and that we’ll be spending a lot of time learning which works best in a given situation. What we have already learned is that these organizational types are mostly incompatible: unless very specific steps are taken, the cloud overpowers the hierarchy, or the hierarchy dissipates the cloud. We need to think about the interfaces that can connect one to the other. That’s the area that all organizations – and very specifically, non-profit organizations – will be working through in the coming years. Learning how to harness the power of the cloud will mark the difference between a modest success and overwhelming one. Yet working with the cloud will present organizational challenges of an unprecedented order. There is no way that any hierarchy can work with a cloud without becoming fundamentally changed by the experience.

The cloud, this new thing, is really what has us scared, because it is, quite literally, ‘out of control’. It arises naturally out of the human condition of ‘hyperconnection’. We are so much better connected than we were even a decade ago, and this connectivity breeds new capabilities. The first of these capabilities are the pooling and sharing of knowledge – or ‘hyperintelligence’. Consider: everyone who reads Wikipedia is potentially as smart as the smartest person who’s written an article in Wikipedia. Wikipedia has effectively banished ignorance born of want of knowledge.

Don’t expect a revolution. We will not see masses of hyperconnected individuals, storming the Winter Palaces of power. This is not a proletarian revolt. It is, instead, rather more subtle and complex. The entire nature of power has changed, as have the burdens of power. Power has always carried with it the ‘burden of omniscience’ – that is, those at the top of the hierarchy have to possess a complete knowledge of everything of importance happening everywhere under their control. This new power that flows from the cloud of hyperconnectivity carries a different burden, the ‘burden of connection’. In order to maintain the cloud, and our presence within it, we are beholden to it. We must maintain each of the social relationships, each of the informational relationships, each of the knowledge relationships and each of the mimetic relationships within the cloud. Without that constant activity, the cloud dissipates, evaporating into nothing at all.
For each of us, connectivity carries a high price. For every organization which attempts to harness hyperconnectivity, the price is even higher. With very few exceptions, organizations are structured along hierarchical lines. Power flows from bottom to the top. Not only does this create the ‘burden of omniscience’ at the highest levels of the organization, it also fundamentally mismatches the flows of power in the cloud. When the hierarchy comes into contact with an energized cloud, the ‘discharge’ from the cloud to the hierarchy can completely overload the hierarchy. That’s the power of hyperconnectivity.

How does this happen?

What is it that turns a cloud in to a storm? Jimmy Wales has said that the success of any language-variant version of Wikipedia comes down to the dedicated efforts of five individuals. Once he spies those five individuals hard at work in Pashtun or Khazak or Xhosa, he knows that edition of Wikipedia will become a success. In other words, five people have to take the lead, leading everyone else in the cloud with their dedication, their selflessness, and their openness. This number probably holds true in a cloud of any sort – find five like-minded individuals, and the transformation from cloud to storm will begin.

At the end of that transformation there is still no hierarchy. There are, instead, concentric circles of involvement. At the innermost, those five or more incredibly dedicated individuals; then a larger circle of a greater number, who work with that inner five as time and opportunity allow; and so on, outward, at decreasing levels of involvement, until we reach those who simply contribute a word or a grammatical change, and have no real connection with the inner circle, except in commonality of purpose.

What, then, is leadership in the cloud? It is not like leadership in the tower. It is not a position wrought from power, but authority in its other, and more primary meaning, ‘to be the master of’. Authority in the cloud is drawn from dedication, or, to use rather more precise language, love. Love is what holds the cloud together. People are attracted to the cloud because they are in love with the aim of the cloud. The cloud truly is an affair of the heart, and these affairs of the heart will be the engines that drive 21st century business, politics and community.
All of you have your own hierarchical organizations – because that’s how organizations have always been run. Yet each of you are surrounded by your own clouds: community organizations (both in the real world and online), bulletin boards, blogs, and all of the other Web2.0 supports for the sharing of connectivity, information, knowledge and power. You are already halfway invested in the cloud, whether or not you realize it. And that’s also true for people you serve, your customers and clients and interest groups. You can’t simply ignore the cloud.

How then should organizations proceed?

First recommendation: do not be scared of the cloud. It might be some time before you can come to love the cloud, or even trust it, but you must at least move to a place where you are not frightened by a constituency which uses the cloud to assert its own empowerment. Reacting out of fright will only lead to an arms race, a series of escalations where the your hierarchy attempts to contain the cloud, and the cloud – which is faster, smarter and more agile than you can ever hope to be – outwits you, again and again.

Second: like likes like. If you can permute your organization so that it looks more like the cloud, you’ll have an easier time working with the cloud. Case in point: because of ‘message discipline’, only a very few people are allowed to speak for an organization. Yet, because of the exponential growth in connectivity and Web2.0 technologies, everyone in your organization has more opportunities to speak for your organization than ever before. Can you release control over message discipline, and empower your organization to speak for itself, from any point of contact? Yes, this sounds dangerous, and yes, there are some dangers involved, but the cloud wants to be spoken to authentically, and authenticity has many competing voices, not a single monolithic tone.

Third, and finally, remember that we are all involved in a growth process. The cloud of last year is not the cloud of next year. The answers that satisfied a year ago are not the same answers that will satisfy a year from now. We are all booting up very quickly into an alternative form of social organization which is only just now spreading its wings and testing its worth. Beginnings are delicate times. The future will be shaped by actions in the present. This means there are enormous opportunities to extend the capabilities of existing organizations, simply by harnessing them to the changes underway.

So this is where we stand at the moment; as I said at the outset this page really should be blank. To make Knowledge Share work we need five people who are in love with its idea. They don’t need to know what they’re doing; they just need to be willing to keep trying until something works, and if they really are in love with the idea I suspect they’ll find that something much faster than we would have imagined.

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