Sunday, 21 November 2010

Humans are Not the Dominant Species on Earth

We have created artificial intelligence and it is destroying our world and the means of our existence. This chilling piece is from

"Unfortunately, we created corporations and gave them life before Asimov drew up his Three Laws of Robotics. The First Law was: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The Second: “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.” We would be much better off today if all corporations – which, like robots, are man-made automata – were constrained by these laws.

Our legal systems instead put into these business automata a single urge – to seek profits. This one-track mind has made them take over commonly-held sources of abundance – from seeds, to land, to knowledge – and turn these into monopolies because it is profitable to do so. What they could not take over, they have undermined or sabotaged, to create artificial scarcity. Corporations have destroyed the fertility of our soils, substituting commercial synthetics in their place; they have stopped the natural flow of mothers’ milk in favor of commercial formula; they have bought out independent seed companies, to force-feed us with genetically-modified toxic foods, all in pursuit of profit. They have become, in Wolfgang Hoeschele’s words, “scarcity-generating institutions”.

We conceded to corporations legal personhood, turning them into a de facto man-made species of business automata. They have become super-aggressive players in our political, economic, and social worlds. Beating us in our own game, they have taken over governments, economies, and media. Having become masters in domesticating Homo sapiens, they now house, feed, train and employ tamed humans to serve as their workhorses, pack mules, milking cows, watchdogs, stool pigeons and smart asses.

Thus, I will argue, corporations are now the dominant species on Earth. They routinely ignore human orders, injure human beings and foul up ecosystems in violation of laws for automata; these man-made mammoths now occupy the top of the food chain and have become the greatest threat to our well-being and the survival of many species on this planet

We face, it seems, three fundamental and interrelated challenges in the twenty-first century:

First, we must reacquire a species consciousness as Homo sapiens and reestablish our connections with the natural world. With our conscious mind, unique intelligence and creative powers, the human, says a new story of creation, is the Universe’s way of looking at itself and appreciating its own beauty, origins, evolution and grandeur. For this, we carry a huge burden of responsibility to the rest of the living world, now dying under a great wave of extinctions.

Second, we must free ourselves from corporate control. This basically involves learning to keep ourselves healthy through the right natural environment, food and protection from the elements, and raising our young under the new mindset, without depending on corporations. We must rely instead on each other and on commonly-held sources of abundance we ourselves can build and maintain.

Third, we must reestablish control over corporations. This involves reprogramming them to obey Asimov’s three laws for automata, and hunting down disobedient corporations. Eliminating the disobedient from the corporate gene pool is the first step in reclaiming our role as stewards of the natural world and masters of our own creations.

Given the powers of the corporate species, these are daunting tasks indeed. But they are also tasks worthy of Homo sapiens."

Hmmmm that's thought provoking.

Redundancy Efficiency Creativity

For centuries human organisations and endeavours have sought to be efficient, to use as few resources as possible to achieve the ends desired. It is the number one goal in 20th century management theory, underpinning that whole systems theory based ideology.

But what if this was just a symptom of an age of scarcity? In nature, biological systems are rarely efficient in the way that Ansoff (the father of strategic management) or Taylor (of scientific management fame) would recognise. Millions of sperm but only one 'succeeds' to use 20th century thinking. Gazillions of bacteria, if they all succesfully reproduced we would be buried under mountains of them.

It is the reproduction costs that have caused our obession with 'efficiency'. If the reproduction cost of a book is several years of a monk's life, you want efficiency. You don't want lots of rewrites. When the cost of reproduction is zero or close to zero, as it is in this digital age, efficiency is no longer a determining factor. Or more importantly, a commercially significant factor in competitive performance.

Think about this. To be competitive in the 21st century, if you can change your business to be information based (and most can be shifted towards selling information with the hard goods being a decreasing part of the operation. The classic 70% customer facing ; 30% backroom personnel split), you no longer need to be efficient. Because it doesnt matter, because you aren't wasting anything. If redundant activity generates benefit, you are in net gain.

What is the advantage of this? Creativity and novelty. In nature, redundancy is the necessary by product of evolutionary change. Novelty arises due to inefficient reproduction. Not all sperm are identical. In some, reproductive mistakes have occurred to create variety and novelty. Just as Nature cannot predict which 'sports' (as farmers call accidental mutations) will be more 'successful' until they are tried in practice, the sperm which due to a 'malfunction' in its chemical pathways is able to swim a tiny bit faster than others, so we cannot predict what new ideas will be successful in business. Many have tried. Many 20th century strategic choice theorists, Michael Porter for example, have tried to design 'betting systems' by examining the form of the market and betting on specific directions for business development.

In practice, the evidence of the effectiveness of these games is slight. In my practical experinece (30 years across public, private and social economy sectors) they just dont work. They don't predict the future in any meaningful way. Analysis, review, hindsight, certainly, but looking into the future they are no better than good old MOTS (do More Of The Same). This is the view of post-systems management theorists such as Ralph Stacey and 'just do it' pragmatists like Tom Peters. Planning works for dinosaur businesses which can dominate markets but not for the little mammals trying to get out from under their feet. And when the environment changes......

In my prevous blog I wrote about swarm intelligence, how ants use seemingly redundant behaviour, wandering about 'aimlessly' plus good communications to construct highly complex behaviour patterns. They find something good or bad, communicate it and provoke a collective response by communicating the information.

Humans have spent many years avoiding this. Stuffing our fellow humans into non-complex processes in factories or call centers, causing stress and unhappiness as a consequence. Because we can't use swarm intelligence? Because our class based society has a horror of redundant behaviour (if it costs the boss money 'stop the talking on the production line'. Even though much of this apparently idle chat may be about correcting the errors that otherwise clog up Quality Control at the end of the line.)

The problem for bosses is that self-initiating, self-directed behaviour undermines control. Who can tell what would happen if operatives were encouraged to talk to customers and suppliers and design their own work? Is this another reason why executive directed, elite controlled businesses are so 'last century'?

And what would businesses which behaved in this organically redundant fashion be constructed like? Instead of linear business information processing we would have to see 'at the point of need' flexible IT support with underlying and automated billing procedures. So that the operative/ marketeer wouldn't need to know anything about how the business admin is going to get payment or effect delivery for that little bit of extra business. If he did it would not be efficient.

So what should we be looking for as our guiding light in an age of redundancy and low/no cost production. Roberto Verzola, at the International Conference on the Commons, Berlin, Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2010, says it is reliability.

He says that in an age of abundance (of information, data, relationships, networking) what people now want is reliability. He says we live in a new age of information 'commons'. Unlike old style grazing grounds our e-commons cannot be degrade by over grazing (although Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed that the 'tragedy of the commons' was a fabrication if commons based economies were left to find an equilibrium). The more these new data commons are used the stronger and more sustainable they become.

Reliability means customers get what they actually want, when they want it and whenever they want it. Personal service, at their convenience, predictably for an indefinite future.

The law of requisute variety says that the onlt way to ensure this complexity of demand is satisfied is to use a systems controller of equal complexity, human minds. Any IT system must be less complex (the human mind is the most complex thing in the known universe).

Wasteful processes are often more sustainable because they are, like natural processes, more diverse. 'Duplication' that horror word for old style business process engineers, can actually be a good if it ensures there are alternative channels for production if the main one 'goes down'.

Many 1990s management studies highlighted the importance of social capital in maintaining sustainable business processes. The implicit knowledge actioned by participants in their organic relationships with colleagues, without thinking, that keep business processes running. For example, Jenny just knows that if Johnny is on holiday she had better check that Jilly knows about Jackie's foibles in how she wants her order. You can't keep track of the complexity of those kind of relationships. Implicit knowledge cannot be 'surfaced' and written down, Many attempts at doing so have failed.

These elements of the complexity of human thought and behaviour can only be practiced, they cannot be prefigured and designed. But we can design dehumanising production lines.

This is why business process re-engineering was such a disaster with 80% of BPR initiatives resulting in decreased performance, because it destroyed the social relationships and social capital that kept old 'inefficient' processes running. BPR is fine for production line drones but not for any creative customer facing business. In that you need the complexity of human behaviour to meet the complexity of human behaviour from customers.

In an age of redundancy and ever faster change, production lines are too slow to change. We must rely more on duplication and redundant behaviour to find new and better ways of doing work. Even work which is resource costly.

For example a warehouse collating orders for customers. It can be designed so that order pickers just do as they are told brutally efficiently. But what the customer wants is the best fit with their current requirements. A brutally efficient operation delivers what the customer thought they wanted when they placed the order. It is conceivable to have the order pickers wired up with real time stock levels for different products, new 'just in stock' products, and with access to the latest CRM information for specific customers, in real time communication with customers and collating their order in collaboration with the customer.

Undoubtedly many suggestions would be redundant but this active relationship marketing could generate far higher sales than the production line of 'old information' order fulfillment of today.

What would you do if the Amazon order picker rang you up on your mobile as you were on your way to work and said, I can give you your favourite author's new book at 50% off because I'm about to pick his old book to fulfill your order and the new one is in the next bin and did you know this author likes that music and you might like it too. This is already done by Amazon of course using IT intelligence at the ordering stage (when it is easy to ignore). Many other businesses could do it using humans, a vastly more complex tool than any software.

But the core of this argument is that prefigurative , simplifying, predictive, set, business processes are no longer fit for purpose, even in normal business, that is, outside of information reproduction enterprise.

Business which are class based, with controllers and controlled, are less likely to be able to adapt to this new redundant work style.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Swarm Intelligence versus Production Line Repression

Networks not Processes

This article is about how we can choose different structures and organisation. What do we want? We dont have to accept just the one way of organising that is on offer.

Modern internet era IT enables new forms of organisation. Once it was only possible to control linear processes of production with a limited networking capability outside those production lines. Production and supply would be organised in a preplanned, pre-set arrangement and people would fit into that arrangement.

The Ford era production line is the idea with suppliers feeding in from the sides (a simple 'network'). This reaches its peak with the Dell mail order PC business model where the PC is built to a customer's unique order from parts sourced and organised from around the world coming together Just In Time for delivery. But it's still basically Fordism.

Fordist thinking underpins all manner of production today, not just cars but data handling, call centres, restaurants, hospitals and service providers, even solicitors, teachers, doctors and other professionals have been Fordised (?is that a word?). Karl Marx called it proletarianisation.

Our ways of thinking are conditioned to believe this is the only safe way to organise and this is the theoretical basis of Value Chain Analysis and other popularBusiness Process re-engineering techniques which underpin most common management thinking.
The storyline goes "If we can only make the process more error free, more efficient, more responsive we will be ok" (but disregard the psychology of the people involved because that is too unpredictable to manage so pretend it isn't there.)

The internet and the communications technology we now have has enabled greatly enhanced networking inside organisation to the point where the concept of 'a production line' business process can disappear. We can have business structures which are more like the way we live the rest of our lives, in networks not in production lines.

Eric Bonabeau is an informatics engineer with France Telecom and a world expert on the application of swarm intelligence to computer systems.
While he deals with routing of information on the internet and in telecoms, the same principles of routing exist in all information and business process management systems i.e. in all human organisations.

He and other IT engineers have shown in practice that it is possible to organise communications in a better way. One that utilises the collected intelligence of the agents (people) in the network rather than suppressing intelligence into the obedience necessary to operate a business process production line (and then moaning about your workers for not obeying the rules).

The most serious problem with Fordist production lines is resistance to change, the investment of effort required to change is high, and it therefore lags behind customer and market changes. Change has to be reactive because it has to be planned and agreed in advance (i.e. not worth the hassle).

Fordism is fragile because it is dependent on experts and specialists who alone can control it and it is vulnerable to disruption, being linear, a blockage stops the line. (modern multi-lateral production lines like Dell's avoid the 'spanner in the works' blockage but are still vulnerable to shortages of key components produced by single factories). You don't have to have a physical production line to be Fordist, it can be virtual or spread out between departments or between sites. It can be manufacturing or service.

Fordist production dehumanises people working in it, alienating them from their behaviour, generating stress and negative reactions, and divides people into controllers and controlled. Worker coops struggle to manage these tensions.

Organisation based on swarm intelligence is different. It looks to the 'intelligent' behaviour of social insects, where non-intelligent single insects working socially, can create extraordinarily complex organisations - two way highways, brutally efficient foraging behaviour, organised defence strategies, bridges over obstacles, complicated division of labour and large and complicated physical structures like termite nests.

These organisations look like factories. The behaviour looks like efficient productive behaviour. It is not reliant on single pathways or single specialists or single resources.

To our Fordist eyes there seems to be redundancy. Ants exploring seem to wander aimlessly though they are actually following a search pattern. Once a food source or threat or job needing doing (clearing out the rubbish for example) is detected, the information is efficiently transmitted and colleagues easily exploit the new found resource, mount a defence or get it done. Opportunities are not wasted as they are in Fordist organisation where people (not ants) cannot try something new because they are too busy 'on the line' or 'on the phones'.

This is the key weakness in Fordism, that people's intelligence is not used, yet business managers cry out for better change capability while the source of improvement is there in front of them but frustrated by the organisation they impose!

Swarm intelligence based production systems are not as dehumanising as Fordist production lines. Strange as it may appear when we are looking at ant behaviour, swarm permits people to use their intelligence to try a new way of doing things, or try new possibilities. If they are supported by appropriate information systems (the human equivalent of the ants' pheromones) successful 'tries' are efficiently copied and the effort gets a good payback, and unsuccessful 'tries' get stopped PDQ.

But the key is that the 'changes' are small and build up to a bigger change if other people copy them. So production systems cannot be production lines where even small changes cause disruption. They have to be something like production groups eg as Volvo (used to) use, a team of workers builds the car in a bay with parts brought to them as needed, rather than standing alongside a line with parts brought to that stage on the line.

In the group, workers can show team colleagues better ways to do the work, peer review encourages quality and collectively demand better support from others eg parts distribution. On a Ford line, workers face the machine as individuals unless they all go out on strike together. There is little possibility of self-managed improvement (thought there may be suggestion boxes managed by management.) They are dependent on management to make improvements , to respond to feedback, to be persuaded to give them the time and space to try something new etc.

In a swarm organisation, this creative behaviour just happens. HR recruits, selects and trains people to work in this self-managed way but we then force ourselves to work 'on the line' instead.

Swarm isn't chaos, there are principles and boundaries. Ants normally behave predictably, but if something different happens, maybe they fall off a leaf, they can behave differently. Humans being intelligent are much better at taking initiative than ants but normally most people prefer a reasonable routine with an occasional challenge, just right for swarm organisation.

It would be easy to reorganise worker owned businesses as we want to, to fit how we clearly would prefer to work, in charge of the work rather than the work being in charge of us. The reason we don't do it, is because our information and business process management systems cannot currently cope with anything more complex and we assume the generic production line is the best and only way to organise.

So if we want our businesses to be more responsive to customers' changing requirements, automatically correct errors, based on team working rather than 'cloud' working (much work is a bit like being a wandering lonely cloud), which enables rather than inhibits continuous improvement, should we be looking at organising ourselves something like swarm networking or like a production line with pre-set rules? And shouldnt any new IT system we are designing, be designed to support swarm networking rather than to control a production line (because then we would still be stuck where we are).

Too often more modern systems analysis opportunities are not considered before the trusted old ways are chosen again. Value Chain Analysis and other similar Business Process Re-engineering methods were invented long before the internet so it's not surprising they are designed to improve linear or simple networked processes.

It's not surprising they focus on designing a production process into which people must fit (requiring management to make them behave according to the rules of the process, an unwinnable task in a worker owned business).

And its not surprising they create controllers and other people who are controlled (even if they democratically agree to be controlled) because that is what they are designed to do. A 2006 European study found the primary cause of degeneration of worker coops was capture by experts who come to dominate and control information. Creating controllers is not safe in worker owned or cooperative business.

Should we not be looking at 21st century forms of organisation and creating computer systems to support them rather than assuming the only option is the old way?

Swarm is just one example of a range of new ideas for 21st century business organisation. Why don't we take the time to reflect and review and research before we commit ourselves? Another case of the UK disease of acting before we think?

Businesses die when they fall behind in the way they are organised. Some worker co-ops are exploiting swarm type networking, Dulas in Wales is (arguably) and is growing at an astonishing rate. They will soon be bigger than Suma "the UKs biggest worker coop" which while growing slowly, remains stubbornly Fordist.

C'mon comrades, break free, you have nothing to lose but your production lines!