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Guest Post: David Socha

February 7, 2012

Our third guest post is from Professor David Socha, a presenter during the TIC TALK Series: “Building Great Teams.”  David Socha is an Assistant Professor in Computing and Software Systems at the University of Washington Bothell. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering and his M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Washington. He earned a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin.

Socha’s interests, research and teaching focus on how to create effective software-enabled systems that solve important human needs. This is a holistic design space involving many aspects from technical to social, business to science, quantitative to qualitative. Currently, he is focusing his research on two areas: software testing, and biomimicry. In software testing, he works with industrial colleagues to explore various aspects of what is now called computer aided software testing. This is a simple and effective way of combining the best of what humans do well and what computers do well. One question he is exploring is the dynamics of why and how software testers accept, or do not accept, to follow these practices. In biomimicry, he is exploring how the biomimicry design process is, and could be, used to create better software systems and better organizational processes. A third area of interest is organizational design and team effectiveness.

You can check out his own blog here: http://davidsocha.wordpress.com/

“Everybody” Improves Whole Systems

I am always looking out for simple models that illuminate more effective ways of acting, especially when they relate to teams and organizations since these are the units of work in today’s world. Thus, I was pleased when I came across the following model at yet another excellent OSR seminar during which Marvin Weisbord spoke of his life’s work of experience exploring and describing how to improve organizations and communities. In particular, he showed a simple diagram, which I have scanned from the brand-new 25th anniversary, 3rd edition of his book Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century:

Marvin Weisbord’s Learning Curve

This diagram illustrates how our strategies for effective organizations have evolved over the last 100+ years. In 1900, the trend was for experts to solve problems. Insights into group dynamics in the 1950s led to adding a new strategy to the mix: “everybody” solving problems. The rise of general systems theory in the 1960s resulted in experts improving whole systems. This evolved in the 2000s to be “everybody” improving whole systems. Each addition provided a new set of tools and approaches that are helping to drive productivity to new all-time levels. Experts have led the way creating knowledge and practices that were then adopted by “everybody”.

Marvin goes on to say:

“While the four learning curve strategies coexist, if you aspire to dignity, meaning and community, you won’t be satisfied until you get everybody improving the whole. Not if you seek the economic benefits from ever-changing technologies.”

Dignity. Meaning. Community. Those are laudable goals. And essential parts of what make us human. And economic benefits are needed along the way.

Since becoming a professor in September 2010, I’ve been thinking more and more about our higher educational system and how to improve it to become even more effective. Marvin’s diagram resonates with me. It connects with my understanding of the complex systems in which we live and act: biology, organizations, products, teams, etc. One of the most illuminating descriptions of complex systems that I have found is David Snowden’s video describing the sense-making Cynefin Framework.

In complex systems cause and effect are only obvious in hindsight, changes to the system are largely irreversible, and the system has unpredictable, emergent outcomes. There are no “best practices” or “right answers”. The system is too large, too diverse, with too many interacting parts for any one person to understand the system. This is no longer the domain of experts. Every practice needs to be contextualized, adapted for the particular context of that person, and the context is always changing as is the person. Thus, practices need to be continually modified to respond to the emergent behaviors of the system.

In such complex systems, the most effective leadership move is to create an environment in which “everybody” does lots of experiments to continually learn about how to best adapt their practices. In other words, create a situation where “everybody” improves whole systems.

So what does this mean for UW Bothell, where I work?

UW Bothell is in the upper left quadrant of the Cynefin framework: it is a complex system (an organization) working with complex systems (students, staff, faculty, their families, communities, industries, etc.) doing complex activities (learning). We need to continually adapt to the changing context of the systems that we are in. We need to be acting in the upper right quadrant of Marvin’s Learning Curve diagram.

Are we training our students to effectively act in complex systems? Are we providing them with tools, principles, practices, and experience of being part of “everybody” improving whole systems? Do they understand that there are different types of systems with different ways of acting effectively? Do they understand what “whole systems” means? Do the faculty and staff emulate these practices?

And perhaps most important, how can we get “everybody” improving the whole UW Bothell system?

TIC Talk Series: Building Great Teams will be occurring Monday, Feb 13 12:00pm-1:30pm in the Rose Room.

Speakers: Professor Deanna Kennedy, Professor Tayfun Keskin, Professor David Socha

Building Great Teams features brief research presentations, followed by a panel discussion on organizations, teams and collaborative technologies. Presentations include:

  1. Analyzing Team Structures and Processes Now to Build Better Teams Tomorrow by Professor Deanna Kennedy
    What are the characteristics of an ideal project team? How does the ideal project team collaborate? How does an ideal project team communicate? By finding out the answer to these questions today we can build (and train) for better teams tomorrow.
    Herein the ideal project team is identified using computational studies of laboratory, simulation, and field team data. Using such methods as Monte Carlo simulation, particle swarm optimization and genetic algorithms, the composition, collaboration, and communication of ideal teams are studied. The implications for building the ideal team are discussed.
  2. Collaborative Technologies’ Role in Teamwork by Professor Tayfun Keskin
    Collaborative information technologies are integrated sets of information processing functions designed to facilitate knowledge sharing and integration among interconnected entities.
    Today, most organizations have access to some type of collaborative technology, such as messengers, e-mail, an online calendar, and sometimes a file sharing system despite unending debates on the effect of information technologies. So do really collaborative technologies enhance performance? If so, which functionalities help better performance? And under which conditions? Because we know sometimes IT does not matter. My aim is to develop a quantitative “role of information systems” theory to find answers to these questions.
  3. Greatness by Professor David Socha
    We all want greatness. How do we get greatness? By producing great results. How do we produce great results? By being part of a great team. The opportunities for producing greatness, the need for producing greatness, and our understandings of how to produce greatness have changed dramatically over the last few decades. How can we at UW Bothell, intentionally and effectively help to dramatically increase the amount of greatness done in this, our one world?

About TIC Talks:
UW Bothell faculty members discuss the real-world applications of their research at Technology, Innovation and Creativity (TIC) Talks, sponsored by the Office of Research. These interactive sessions, held Monday-Thursday at noon, highlight topics ranging from games for education to organizational innovation. The community is invited to join faculty, staff and students for these lively presentation-and-discussion sessions.

  1. February 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Seeing your emphasis on “everybody” here reminds me of an insightful and relatively short post by Kevin Marks I encountered a few years ago: Here Comes Everybody – Tummlers, Geishas, Animateurs and Chief Conversation Officers help us listen, in which he talks about the “false dichotomy of ‘we choose who you get to hear’ and ‘total anarchic mob noise'” and emphasizing the importance of “finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community.”

    Seems to me that the most effective way that UWB faculty can practice systems thinking and doing and encourage UWB students to do likewise is by adopting the role of tummler, geisha, animateur and even Chief Conversation Officer, in and out of the classroom.

    Speaking of which, I’m struck by the lack of conversation represented in these blog posts. So far, this appears to be more of an online lecture channel than a discussion forum. It appears only one post – other than this one – has any comments, and there were no responses by the author of the post. It will be interesting to see whether the physical sessions at the Innovation Forum are able to catalyze conversation more effectively than in the online preview.

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