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Engaging people

Engaging people

For the last decade, I’ve been working to understand how we can engage and motivate people to action through technology. It’s a challenge that crosses consumer anthropology with behavioural economics with emerging technologies. These articles are a collection of lessons from this journey.


Why haystacks need needles


One of the challenges of a co-operative is balancing the interests of the group with those of each individual member. Unlike a proprietary limited company, stakeholder interests are not beholden to the profit motive. Rather the primary focus is on return to members – which can be delivered in a variety of ways including via dividends, rebates and patronage. The difficulty is that without a return on capital signal, the cooperative itself has to determine how value is distributed among its members.

A data co-operative provides a simple illustration of this challenge. On the one hand, members come together to aggregate market power – as individuals they are weakly positioned to bargain the terms on which they share their data, while as a collective their individual control is amplified. On the other, one of the principal objectives of a data coop is to enable individual members to have more control over their data. For this reason, a data coop will create permissioning mechanisms that enable the individual to differentially share their data with others. The data coop leverages group market power to deliver value for individual members.

But that is only part of the story. By aggregating control over data, the data coop will also enable sharing of data in aggregate. And there are likely to be circumstances where it is in the collective’s interests to share aggregate data. This is after all why Big Data and the Algorithms have been dominating the pop charts over recent years. For this reason, it may be a condition of membership that coop members agree to authorising the coop to share their data. You can see the challenge here…

For this reason, it is really important that cooperatives are very clear about how a cooperative distributes value amongst its members. If interests are not aligned, fractures across the points of difference are likely to occur when the structure is stressed.




Can I borrow a synapse?

Annie Duke, retired poker champion, talks about strategies to accelerate learning in her book “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts”. A key one is drawing on your community – learning from the experience of experts, testing boundaries with peers, and simplifying ideas through teaching others. Really interesting question here about how to institutionalise these types of practices within an online cooperative community…



How to lead the herd

Nemo was a special snowflake. Unique just like all the clownfish that had come before him. That is the way evolution works – flawed replication fidelity. Does that make him important? Well, yes to his dad at least. But that is different from the sense of entitlement that comes with being told as a peanut that he was destined to change the world. Not every clown fish can make a dent in the universe. So how did he do it?

Consider again the school of fish. By definition not everyone can be the leader of the pack. If you are a fish that is travelling in the middle of the school it is nigh on impossible for you to go in any direction other than the same one as those around you. If you try to deviate, you’ll bump into your neighbour and they are in the same boat as you. You may as well be travelling in a bus that someone else is driving.

To lead the direction of the school, you really need to be on the edge where you are responding to the environment external to your school. And to be a little clearer, its better to be towards the leading edge of the school.

To swim at the leading edge is to be exposed. The risks to your wellbeing are heightened. The protection of the herd is a function of you being the first to fall – like a centurion in the front line of the phalanx, your role is blunt an attack and give those on the inside time to respond. Whether you survive is as much down to luck as it is to good management by you.

And what does management mean in this context? Your options are limited. You make a difference at the edge – literally. You are subject to the same inertia as those in the middle. The difference is that you can try to change direction. Say you are the first to spot a very large set of teeth bearing down on the school. You try to change direction and bump into your neighbor. In a fright, they see what you see and turn the same way you are trying to go. They bump into their neighbor and so on.

You can see where the idea of a tipping point comes from in network effects. A small and determined group of fish can turn the direction of the herd. They must for the survival tactic of herding to work.

So some lessons in leadership from the school:

  • It’s a risky endeavor, whether you succeed or fail is a function of luck as much as determination
  • Inertia is your friend…eventually. It’s not like turning the oil-tanker, you have to convince a few before you can convince the many. You are looking for a tipping point in order for the herd to respond
  • Find the front, that is where current trends are taking everyone. From there you can make your move.

The alternative is to swim off by yourself and live in a cave. Nothing wrong with that. Plenty of fish have done it and lived out their days in existential bliss. Just don’t expect to impact the herd from the safety of your cave. They are off in the depths doing their own thing.