All comments posted on this blog do not reflect the opinions of any organization that I am affiliated with. These are my personal perspectives only.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sun Tzu and the Art of Social Computing

Sun Tzu, the influential author of, "The Art of War", might be the last thing you'd consider relevant to social computing and enterprise 2.0. And although not all of his beliefs can be directly ported, if you think of the "enemy" as, "poor collaboration", "inefficiency", "bureaucracy" or "employee frustration", there are some good insights that can help you achieve success with your enterprise 2.0 / social computing initiatives.

Sun Tzu on Planning & Strategy

"Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose. " - Sun Tzu

"Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory." - Sun Tzu

When building social computing systems or events, we spend a great deal of effort in the upfront design. Based on our experience, we are well aware that a poorly thought-through social computing environment can inadvertently do more damage than good.

It can waste valuable resources, create false expectations leading to distrust, question your credibility, question the credibility of the tools, and potentially further alienate employees, just to name a few consequences of poor design.

If at first you don't succeed...You may not get a second chance....

Companies sometimes jump to implementing enterprise 2.0 technology because they have read a good book, or a good article. Perhaps they heard a good success story. Every time I read, "just try it and see what happens", I get shivers. Your circumstances may be completely different then the anecdotal success story that was told. Knowing when "not to do something" is sometimes a more difficult but useful discipline.

Sun Tzu on Knowing your Enemy and Yourself

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Sun Tzu

The enemy in this situation is in-effective collaboration. Knowing yourself includes understanding strength and weaknesses of the culture, the organizational processes, and the technology to be deployed.

What prevents us from collaborating? Several things. To help understand the challenges we use what we refer to as the "engagement model". This model groups the critical elements of collaboration into 3 categories (motivation, opportunity and capability). I've written a more detailed analysis of this in the past. In this post, I'll suggest a few questions to consider.

Don't assume employees will simply just adopt new technology no matter how "cool" it is. The often talked about "Wikipedia 1%" where only 1% of all Wikipedia users actually create the majority of content may be sufficient if we're talking about the entire global population, but does 1% work for your company?

Let's consider the employee's perspective. What's in it for me (WIIFM)? Do I see the benefit? Or do I see this as another management flavour of the day which I've learned to ignore? Do I feel threatened that my "reputation" as the "gatekeeper" or "go to person" will evaporate? Does the existing compensation system (process) actually motivate me to horde information such as in a competitive system?

And even if I was motivated. Do I have the opportunity to participate (real or perceived)? Or are the pressures of my job prohibiting my ability to engage in a meaningful way? How are employees being notified about these new tools? Are they aware? Are they aware of why? And what is the informal message I am getting from my immediate boss about these tools? Do they buy in to it?

Motivation and opportunity alone are still not enough. Do the employees have the skills? How will they get them? The full value of social computing is only achieved after critical mass of adoption. Mass levels of adoption require removal of as many obstacles as possible. In other words.... Simplicity (which is actually pretty hard to design).

"There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army: By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey; This is called hobbling the army. By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army; This causes restlessness in the soldier's minds. By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers." - Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu on Aaptability

"Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards... Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain. " - Sun Tzu

You can't plan for everything. Things will evolve, and you will learn, but you can accelerate that learning and stack the odds in your favour. This is not like implementing "SAP" where an employee MUST use the tool to do their job and there is no choice. These enterprise 2.0 technologies are often used (or not) by choice.

The power of self-organization and allowing for emergent use can compliment a well thought through plan. Learn from how people self-organize and build upon it. Guy Kawaski tells a good story about the launch of the Ford Mustang and how the marketers where initially upset because the car was being bought by "the wrong customers". Learn from it and adapt.

Even if you choose to ignore the Sun Tzu spin, don't ignore the importance of upfront design. And always keep in mind the bigger picture.

"Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation." - Sun Tzu


Rex Lee said...

Here is another quotation to remind us that although design is important. Don't fall victim to analysis paralysis.

"Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays." - Sun Tzu

Steve Sauvageau said...

Hi Rex,

It is quite interesting that you are posting an article referring to Sun Tzu after the video games one. I’m not sure that everybody that is reading your blog might at first glance understand who this Sun Tzu might be.

Like I said in my previous posting, as an enthusiastic gamer, I had the opportunity to play many games and one of my favourites was Romance of the three kingdoms produced by Koei in 1993. You were assuming the role of a historical ruler around 200 BC and you had to manage your kingdom, officers, diplomatic relations and economy, drafting troops, and waging war. I had the opportunity to hear about many warlords such as the powerful Cao Cao, the charismatic Liu Bei and his brothers (Zhang Fei and Guan Yu), the brilliant Sima Yi and many others.

During the game, you were occasionally receiving gifts after winning battles. And one of them was the Sun Tzu War Book, which was improving the intelligence skills of one of your general. So I had a little smile when I saw your post's title and I wanted to share it with you. Nothing fancy here. :)