Raising the Dial Tone, Part 2.

(Part 1 is archived at http://jbordeaux.com/raising-the-dial-tone/)

Recently, Dennis McDonald offered that transparency and collaboration should be considered as efficiency measures in the Secretary of Defense’s initiatives. A sharp comment to this post responded by detailing the dire state of the federal procurement system, offering that the system is “completely broken, not superficially but structurally and intrinsically broken.” The response indicated that collaboration was at best an insufficient tool to address the pathology of the system:

“The problem isn’t a communication breakdown between the people issuing requirements and those implementing them. In most cases that communication is satisfactory. The problem is that most requirements issued on federal contracts are complete birdcage liner written by people who are either totally unqualified to design a product or produced by a process/workflow that is biased toward the most verbose form of mediocrity (i.e. reams of underwhelming requirements).”

In my field of KM, there are many well-intentioned professionals who seek to increase sharing and collaboration among and across their targeted workforces. This is a good thing. Following what we know of network science regarding loose connectors, the amplifying effect of linked networks is primarily achieved through loose connectors, also referred to as ‘weak ties.’ This is how disparate networks form ‘small worlds.’

What are these? Consider the social or professional groups with which you primarily associate. You may be central to the interactions within this group, helping keep the group together and moving forward. Network scientists call this increasing network cohesion.

The problem? You likely spend less energy meeting people with whom you have little in common. At the edges of your group, there are these people. The folks who don’t show up at every happy hour. The ones who are known, but not seen as core to the group’s identity. The accountant who is also involved in community theater. The developer who takes long weekends in the Spring to cycle across hundreds of miles with a like-minded group. The conversations here, for the most part, do not involve their work.

But some do. Sometimes the accountant meets a CFO while preparing for a community production – and banter leads to a greater understanding of each other’s professional perspective. Sometimes the developer meets an entrepreneur over dinner in a small-town diner as they restoke the cycling fires. The conversation exposes each to the challenges of the other. Weak ties are established across two previously disconnected social networks.

Monday morning, the accountant and the developer are back at work. During a project meeting, they sound different. As if they’ve been reading a different manual, suddenly expressing views that are not usually heard in the tight group. The CFO and entrepreneur likewise return to their labors with a new perspective, a new voice tucked away in their heads. With new contacts in their smart phones.

Who knows what may come of these chance interactions? We cannot know, but the theory and experience both tell us that diversity in a social system leads to a healthier, more sustainable system. From a systems science perspective, open systems are more efficient – this openness is not simply a benefit resulting from increased collaboration, but a core characteristic of a healthy system.

Connecting disparate social networks is as important – I would argue more important in many cases – than connecting within the core group. This is the reason we speak of openness of interaction, transparency of data, and collaboration across agencies and organizations. We do not – or rather, we should not – pretend that connecting people and opening the conversation will solve thorny systemic issues (health care, national security, acquisition reform); but we should set expectations that a wider dial tone will lead to serendipitous innovation. Establishing weak ties across disparate networks is the first step towards finding innovative solutions to these long-standing problems.

In our new march towards efficiency, let’s continue to raise the dial tone and open systems. This is not an end state or resolution, but a necessary path towards shared goals.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Exactly! One of the biggest problems in government is the silo mentality that just leads to “tribal” wars ultimately resulting in many project failures. Something as simple as your examples or just going out with different people for lunch can have an amazing effect on breaking those silos and unleashing innovation. Nothing new about weak ties but it is amazing the number of people who refuse to harness the power of small world networks.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Serendipity is one of my favorite ideas – and while the term connotes a sense of chance, I agree with you, John, that we can increase the likelihood of creating serendipitous moments. In fact, as Community Manager here at GovLoop, I see that as being my primary function – connecting like-minded folks with common interests who heretofore never knew one another…but when they meet, it becomes akin to a “Big Bang” as new creative energy is unleashed.