Why Can’t Real Organizations Be As Collaborative As Virtual Games?

Screenshot from multiplayer online game World of Warcraft

Steve Barth is an associate of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity, and that by itself qualified him as an interesting guy to talk to at the KMWorld & Intranets conference in San Jose. As soon as I heard him cite the John Gray statistic about the 16 million bits of information our bodies process every second, of which only 18 bits is conscious, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. His presentation was about Collaborative Learning and Games, and was brilliant. It is the first presentation I’ve seen in a long time where the audience was so engrossed in the subject that they spoke more than the speaker. Some of the ideas that emerged from the presentation:

  • Millions of people voluntarily spend 20 hours per week or more playing multiplayer online games that are essentially complex collaborative role-playing activities. In doing this they do many of the same things that are essential to effective business collaboration: set goals, select roles, identify appropriate teammates, accumulate capabilities (i.e. learn) and experience, and engage in strategic social interaction. So why is it so hard to cajole employees, when they are paid to do these things, to do them as enthusiastically and with as much engagement as gamers do them for free?
  • Some of these games are excellent models for complex systems in real life: They entail people acting in multiple identities (avatars) responding to attractors and barriers. Because they involve real-time, emotional decisions of real people, they are much richer and more complex than computer simulations that process only a finite number of variables. 
  • As players and games grow in sophistication, they start to become prone to some of the same unethical behaviours that occur in real life. For example, some players have started using eBay to buy and sell (a) real estate and other resources in these virtual spaces, outside the constraints of the game, and (b) experience and reputation, by hiring students to create a new game character, develop him or her in the game until the character is well established, and then turn the character over to the buyer. Real money therefore starts to create an unlevel playing field in virtual space, in effect corrupting the game. There have also been some physical acts of violence between players as a real-world extension of conflicts of their avatars.
  • Other complex real-world behaviours are starting to emerge in these virtual worlds. For example, in one game a group of characters unhappy with the constraints placed by the game-makers on their character type formed an online ‘character union’ and held a mass demonstration with their characters in the virtual world. How much can we learn about social action by watching different groups, cultures, age-groups, gender differences and personality types act out scenarios in surprisingly sophisticated and ‘realistic’ environments and situations?
  • An economist used a game persona to gather sufficient information to compute an exchange rate for the game’s virtual currency in real dollars, and a GDP per capita for the entire game environment. Because this information was gathered anthropologically (by having the economist’s ‘attractive’ character observe and interview other characters) rather than analytically, are such economic determinations perhaps more accurate than ‘real world’ economic measurements, and what learnings could we apply to improve the latter?
  • Some audience members volunteered these reasons why people love playing these games: (a) to become a member of an interesting group, (b) to meet new like-minded people, (c) to find an outlet for stifled creativity, (d) to step outside one’s normal personal identity and ‘try on’ a new one, (e) to master a challenge, (f) to do things anonymously they wouldn’t dare do in real life, (g) to establish a personal reputation and hence increase self-esteem. How many of these things do business collaborations allow employees to do, and how could collaborations start offering more of these attractors?
  • A training officer in the audience identified three reasons business learning isn’t as engaging as learning in role-playing games: (a) you can’t come and go in the learning environment whenever it suits you, (b) business learning, unlike some games, is non-addictive, and (c) business learning is much less visually interesting than learning in games. I would be tempted to add (d) business learning is often context poor while learning in games is always in context.

I took another look at the chart I put together from my previous post contrasting complicated world and complex world qualities:

Complicated World Complex World
Assumption of order (“research this to find out if there’s a market for it” Realization of unorder (“let’s explore what might happen if we did this”)
Importance of aggressiveness and charisma to “lead the change” Importance of collaboration and humility to participate in the evolution
Actions driven by authority-based direction Actions based on learnings from conversations, consensus and freedom to act bounded by personal responsibility
Top-down hierarchical communication and knowledge transfer Peer-to-peer (networked) communication and knowledge transfer
Military win/lose competitiveness Natural win/win cooperation and coexistence
Emphasis on action (making decisions quickly and ‘expertly’) Emphasis on paying attention (making decisions continuously, improvisationally)
Assumption of rational choice (“tell people why they should buy X”) Realization of entrained behaviour (“study people to discover if they might buy X”)
Primacy of objective reality (“what’s happening here”) Primacy of perception (“what do people think is happening here”)
Changing the way things are Understanding why things are the way they are
Assumption of intention (“why did this happen”) Realization of meaning (“what do we learn from this”)
Assess causality Look for pattern and correlation
Focus Experiment
Leadership is everything Membership is everything
Strive for stability Strive for resilience
Exploit weaknesses, opportunities, needs via speed-to-market Explore weaknesses, opportunities, needs via continuous environmental scan
Mechanistic (machine) models of behaviour, relationship, order, connection Organic (natural) models of behaviour, relationship, order, connection
How do we solve the problem How do we deal with the situation
Set “go-to-market” mission, objectives, strategies, actions Understand the market and actors’ identities and influence the attractors and barriers that bring the market to you
Market as rational Market as emotional

and I began to realize that ‘real-world’ business is rooted in complicated world behaviours, precepts and constructs (left side of this chart), while ‘virtual-world’ gaming is rooted in complex world behaviours, precepts and constructs (right side of this chart). Not only is the stuff on the right-hand side of the chart more interesting than that on the left, it is more real.
Some of the people in the audience couldn’t quite ‘grok’ what Steve was getting at. They kept wanting him to do the lateral thinking for them, and answer the question how business could make its collaborative, innovation and learning activities as engaging as those of video games. Some also thought Steve was advocating the use of games in business, to make learning more fun, or that he was simply advocating the use of game theory and software to run business simulations. His real point is he wants business to be the game that everyone wants to play.

Steve spent a fair bit of time hanging around with the team at Coemergence, a Canadian software company headed up by New York ex-pat Michael Chender, and in addition to Michael I had the chance to meet with Richard Marrs, Nadine Tanner and several other members of the team. I’m planning on reviewing their product, but I was profoundly impressed by the team, and wondered aloud why it is that so many very bright, creative, multi-talented and well-read people have found their niche in technology companies. Michael, for example, is a Buddhist, meditation instructor, and the Chair of the Shambala Institute, a leadership training organization that is focused on awareness, complexity, capacity, learning, innovation and community. In my discussion with Michael, I lamented that most business activities were not nearly as interesting as the discussions and idea play that has been occurring in the intersections and gaps of this remarkable conference. His answer was that we should not worry about most business being dull, and recognize that these special discussions and creative play are their own reward, and that is all the reason needed to have them — and that what was important was making room for more people to participate in these activities which, while perhaps not terribly relevant to the participants’ day jobs, nevertheless enrich, motivate, refresh and stretch us.

Another interesting presentation was by Peter Gloor of MIT/Sloan, who talked about the way in which organizations can interleaf (a) innovation networks (people who share an organizational vision or objective), (b) collaboration networks (people who share tasks, learning and capability), and (c) communication networks (people who share interests and news), in such a way that they reinforce and build on each other. He presented this intriguing map of the roles people play in business’ social networks, based on the frequency of their contributions to the network, and whether they send more messages than they receive or vice versa (note that we may play different roles in different networks, and our role in each network can evolve):

I have said before that the more organizations I study, the more I see knowledge management and technology as the ghetto for organizations’ brightest, most creative and collaborative people. This conference has shown that when you let those people out of the ghetto and get them together to party, the result is magic.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why Can’t Real Organizations Be As Collaborative As Virtual Games?

  1. Jon Husband says:

    I have long believed that the video gaming *idiom* (I don’t know what other word to use) will eventually find its way into many workplace applications, and (perhaps) become an effective way of sharing and construicting *knowledge* as information flows and learning blend together .. if only because so many people play games of one sort or another on media machines, combined with the facts that game dynamics underpin some well-established learning and adaptation models.I have even said this, to enthusiastic nodding, at HR and OD conferences where I have spoken on the future of work, or the workplace of the future. and I believe that EA has some under-the-radar experimentation going on with companies like Cisco and HP .. and then there’s always the role-playing training, electroinically delivered, that delivers sales and negotiation and project management learning / training.Not to mention the use of game-based scenarios (and software) in much of the armed forces training and development.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Apologies in advance for commenting twice in a row. re: your final paragraph “I have said before that the more organizations I study, the more I see knowledge management and technology as the ghetto for organizations’ brightest, most creative and collaborative people. This conference has shown that when you let those people out of the ghetto and get them together to party, the result is magic.”I know you and I have some substantive agreement on this, but the deep-level *skeletal* assumptions about how work is designed and the resultant organizational structures (in other words, the basic semantic definitions and rules of job evaluation, which are intricately interwoven with the shape of the org chart, carry a large part of the accountability for *ring-fencing* creativity, collaboration and the purposeful sharing of knowledge .. not to mention most compensation schemes, which are also intricately related to JE and the org chart, of course .. they are the interlocking components of an overall methodology.Some will argue that there has been much movement to team structures, and a rolling flow of project-based work .. I will argue back that moving to team structures and, increasingly, time-and-resources limited project work is only a superficial response, and not THE solution. There IS, in my opinion, a fundamental structural flaw .. these methodologies and the semantic rules used to designed work were invented in the late ’40’s / early ’50’s and have not changed much. they assume hierarchical arrangements of knowledge, problem solving and accountability, and the linear and sequential flow of tasks, from 8 in the morning till 5 pm and from Monday to friday, under some form of relatively direct supervision (physical or not).If we were to design *work* generally today from greenfield assumptions, we would not do it this way .. we would consider and understand flows and networks, and the various roles that you have identified, or that other experts in SNAlike Karen Stephenson and Valdis Krebs and Thomas Malone and Dave Pollard have suggested are actively at work in the vast networks of relationships, flows and checks-and-balances that are just begging to nbe acknowledges as the way work actuially happens in electronically-interconnected information-based environments.It IS possible, imo .. but new tools and methodologies are necessary (actually, i believe many of them exist) but there needs to be a much greater awareness that the old, basically obsolete methodologies serve mmainly to create conditions where control can still be exercised by role, power and ego … ? Ricardo semler has had a lot to say about this for a long time, and (I believe) his companies are still performing quite well.

  3. WC Ping says:

    The solution to the world’s problems will arise out of simplicity, not complexity.

  4. clivado says:

    i read your blog for about a year Dave, keep a good work

  5. Jon Husband says:

    I just remembered … a lot of the conditions you described existed in GNE, which was what the creators of Flickr were doing before they got inspired with Flickr. I would argue that one of the reason’s for Flickr’s success was its playful, light feel, and with the basics to allow people to make game-like processes of sharing photos and comments with friends. Based on tags, of course.Now there’s talk about the Flickrization of Yahoo. Gamey.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon: Agreed. The only problem will be if working for irresponsible corporations becomes more fun & games than working for responsible ones (because the irresponsible ones are more profitable thanks to their exploitation and can affort to throw more money at this technology). I think you’re right about Semler, though I’ve never actually met anyone who’s worked for Semco. As interesting as all this gaming stuff is, however, I fear that a lot of it is pure escapism, for the many who can’t or don’t want to participate in the real world, where their talent may be sorely needed.

Comments are closed.