Social Design, Empathy & Mindfulness


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Frederick Taylor, dubbed “the father of scientific management”, gained repute for making steel manufacturing more productive in Pennsylvania by conducting time studies of labourers which involved measuring how much time they took to perform their tasks, which were usually repetitive and required low skills. Taylor faced his first major resistance from the moulders in the Army arsenal in Massachusetts (which are now the offices of Harvard Business Review), they resented being monitored by strangers with stopwatches. These studies had dehumanising and demeaning effect on the workers, who were considered no better than cogs in the machinery and thus have no say in how things should work. This has been my major gripe with business process management too.

As a developer some years ago, when I used to work on developing & implementing BPM & CRM systems, I would work on the business processes as defined by the managers, not based on how the work actually got done. In later years when I could actually go and observe how work was getting done and flowing, how people depended on each other to get things done, I understood how far the BPMS & CRMS I built were from the actual flow of work happening on the ground. No wonder most of the CRM & BPM implementations across the globe have adoption issues.

There were many criticisms against Taylor’s methods, even while the notion of efficient process redeisgn itself morphed, first as business reengineering and now as Social Business (at least some variations of the definition of that term). Managers in the knowledge industry try every now and then (or at least think of trying) to surreptitiously monitor the work of their workers. And with the advent of computers as a main tool for the knowledge workers, it certainly has the wherewithal to help the managers achieve the time studies without letting the workers know they are being monitored. With the advent of smartphones managers can definitely go even further (consider what can be achieved by Reality Mining) and measure almost everything their workers do. And now with the launch of enterprise social networks (dubbed social business) it is possible to even measure the social interactions of the workers, not just their work related activities. (Orwellian!)

Certainly, the improvements in Analytics, DW/BI and Visualization software (including the much hyped Big Data & in-memory calculations) can probably help managers design much better and efficient systems that could then be rolled out to the knowledge workers. However, I think the knowledge workers would consider themselves to be even more skilled than the moulders of the Army arsenal in Massachusetts a century ago, and resent even more when they are considered incapable of telling how work can be organized.

Given this prelude now consider the unenviable task of having to show productivity improvements while achieving employee delight. And that’s precisely where I am placed currently, because that’s what our CIO has been charged with and thus his whole team. The crucial lever that our CIO has given for achieving this seemingly paradoxical goals is something he calls Social Design. And I am charged with evangelising it, which I assume includes expanding on his thoughts too, as only when the concept is made accessible to everybody (in terms of awareness, reach as well as understandability) can we figure out if the people are willing to make those tiny changes that could snowball into an organization wide change.

The key to understanding Social Design, if you ask me, is to understand people as individuals as well as a social being. And also the fact that by using technology we are Cyborgs, and we have been one ever since we used a thigh bone as a hammer (as shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey right after the first monolith makes an appearance on Earth some 4 million years ago). Technology might have advanced a lot since then and also since Taylor’s time, especially Digital, to make things faster thus relieving even the Cognitive burden onto technology, not merely the physical burden. But what these mechano-cognitive technological advances have missed thus far is the fact that we humans are a social animal.

Physical & Cognitive technologies have not yet been leveraged to augment, amplify or extend our qualities like Empathy, Mindfulness or Compassion. We haven’t yet developed a set of skills and social practices, called “cyborg literacy” for that. Howard Rheingold says this about Cyborg Literacy: “This not only includes an ability to enhance problem solving but also to incorporate a balance of individual autonomy and collective interdependence; networks of trust; and norms of reciprocity, empathy, compassion, and conviviality that are absent from strictly engineering-oriented or purely market-based approaches.”

No amount of advances in Social or Collaborative Technologies can achieve their unsaid goal (productivity improvements) if they do not foment trust, reciprocity, empathy, compassion or conviviality in its users. And while it is pertinent that tools alone cannot achieve these and that people and processes also need to be conducive, I still like to explore what can be achieved by technology, since we know that tools indeed do have the capacity to change our behaviour. Actually, even buildings are capable of reshaping our brains, so why not attempt similarly with technology? And whereby I look at Empathy and Mindfulness from a technological slant.

In my previous post on the Thali versus Melting pot metaphors I mentioned about epistolary culture & literacy lending a hand to empathy and thus reduction in violence in the world. And long back I had also made observations about how we are in the second phase of an epistolary culture, with some key variations than before on the personal interactions front. However, at a humanity level, the effects seem to be the same. Sure, there are disturbances when differing view points clash on the social web that get reflected in the physical world too in addition to the digital; however we need to be aware of how culture is going across the borders. How humanity is collaborating within itself across the borders. All thanks to the technology that has helped bring more empathy to even more people. For with non textual content (pictures, music, videos, etc.) you do not even need to be literate to get to know the other people.

This leads us to the question, how can we achieve the same (increased empathy) in a corporate environment with these social technologies? As I have emphasised earlier, it is very important to be able to ‘share’; and good or bad, we are stuck with corporate cultures were sharing is deemed detrimental. Sure, it is changing, but can we design systems that can increase sharing? Since sharing is a behaviour, let us consider the Fogg Behaviour Model (FBM) of B = MAT (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Trigger) and we find that there is actually demotivation in the corporate environment for sharing. People fear reprisals from supervisors and don’t share. Collaborating outside the group can lead to social rejection within the group. As for ability, retweeting, reblogging, social share icons all make it so easy to share content in the internet, but not so much in the Intranet. Work systems help you only to get things done, not share. Emails allow you to share, but it is limited in reach. It is not broadcast and rarely does a work related email go viral.

I would like you to try ideating on how we can get people to share more by thinking of:

  • ways to motivate people to share (please/pain, hope/fear, social acceptance/rejection)
  • ways to make it simpler to share (time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance, non-routine)
  • different triggers to share (facilitator, spark, signal)
So while we consider ‘sharing’ as a means of enabling/amplifying Empathy, Mindfulness comes from what I call as the Systems of Awareness. Awareness of self, others, how others perceive self, interactions between others & self. Do read a short post where I introduce the concept of Systems of Awareness. In the ensuing months I forgot about it, only to be reminded of it again last week when I was getting an introduction to the systems our analytics team was building. And there-in I found some holes in my concept too.

In my introductory post on SoA (like SoR and SoE for Systems of Record and Systems of Engagement respectively; not to be confused with SOA, which stands for Service Oriented Architecture) I missed out on two key aspects:

  • the awareness a person can have about oneself from the data the systems capture these days, and also help them close the loop by seeing how the data moves by taking certain actions (actionable insights for the individual)
  • storytelling to go with the data, because people understand stories better than data (A good article on storytelling:

The problem with the first point in a large enterprise is that while technology exists to capture, analyse and present the data about an individual, the DW/BI systems license costs are prohibitively expensive to provide to every employee of a large enterprise. And that is what has been overcome by our CIO organization using open source systems and custom built applications. And boy was I happy to note the heavy usage of free/open source software. But that is beside the point here. Point is, that we are attempting to provide analytical tools to everyone in our organization, not just the managers. And these tools will not only provide data about oneself but also help people take actions based on these data points and track if their actions had any impact – not just actionable insights, but actually closing the loop!

The second point that I had missed out was that I somehow restrained myself in defining SoA to only analytical systems. But not all are able to interpret data appropriately nor is data enough to convince people. However, stories strike deeper in our psyche. Storytelling has had us hooked for ages, across age groups. But can systems write stories out of data? I do not know. Surely they can plot charts and paint a picture. Hans Rosling even does moving pictures.

Do you think that we have the wherewithal to design systems that will cater to empathy & mindfulness? Do you think they are necessary at all?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Prem Kumar Aparanji
SCRM Evangelist @ Cognizant. Additional knowledge in BPM, QA, Innovations, Solutions, Offshoring from previous roles as developer, tester, consultant, manager. Interested in FLOSS, Social Media, Social Networks & Rice Writing. Love SF&F books. Blessed with a loving wife & a curious kid. :)


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