Kakul Srivastava asks “Is the nature of identity and belonging changing in the emergent business?”

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I got an email from Kakul Srivastava, of Tomfoolery. She posted this on Twitter the other day:

giving self a day to catch up on @stoweboyd posts. brain happy. G. Bateson: ‘a business is best considered as a network of conversations’

Her day led to a few questions that Kakul emailed to me. Here’s the first one:

Is the fundamental nature of individuals changing in this new world (less of a need for alliance, belonging, affiliation, more transient definitions of self, increased satisfaction/dissatisfaction)?

Here’s a start of an answer to that.

There is a diffusion and shift of affiliation, belonging and identity in the emergent business context, relative to what has come before.

The transition to a context where people in general have more connections, but a smaller proportion of strong ties, means that affiliation is diffused.  While a person might cowork with a larger constellation of people, fewer of those coworkers are likely to be connected to each other. This is the nature of loosening the network, even while increasing the degree of connectedness for each individual. So the individual’s world is larger — more connections, more innovative ideas flowing past — but it may be perceived as more discontinuous, since longer periods of time pass between communications with loosely connected colleagues.

One aspect of the shift of affiliation is where individuals are choosing who to follow rather than being situated in a role with predefined close connections, which is the case in the conventional postmodern business. So, for example, you [Kakul] and I have a close connection only because of the level of the respect we have for each other, based on a mutual appreciation. It is not based on the length of our relationship, or the frequency of our interactions. However, I know you share the sense that there is a deep resonance in our thinking. This is outside of the normal business relationship, and is based on affiliation around values and the orientation of our self-identities to our work, and our shared awareness of purpose and meaning that arises from pursuing that work. This is the sort of affiliation that will define emergent business: A smaller proportion of strong ties (although maybe more in absolute numbers), and those ties based on choosing who to follow, which is the most important decision in a connected world. And, as in the case of our interactions, more of those choices are likely to be with people that we aren’t officially “working” with. You and I are not working at the same company, we aren’t working on a project together in any conventional sense. I am pursuing my investigations, which has led to us colliding, while you are working on Tomfoolery, pursuing your own ends. But we both are both doing our own “work” as the foundation of this relationship.


Imagine that I learn a creative technique while working with someone, like scenario-based future thinking. In that exercise I become aware of approaches to fleshing out scenarios that are less intuitive for me, like using narrative to explore the views of product users. As a result, months later in a different setting when I am in a different group that is blocking on a creative task, I can dredge up the technique, and come at the problem narratively instead of through systems thinking or metaphorically, which are more natural for me. And that shift to a different model of the problem changes my perspective, and even the weighting of values in my thinking. In a real tangible way, I am a different self when I adopt new patterns of thought.

One way to characterize this shift is this: in the collaborative business, people affiliate with coworkers around shared business culture and an approved strategic plan to which they subordinate their personal aims. But in a cooperative business, people affiliate with coworkers around a shared business ethos, and each is pursuing their own personal aims to which they subordinate business strategy. So, cooperatives are first and foremost organized around cooperation as a set of principles that circumscribe the nature of loose connection, while collaboratives are organized around belonging to a collective, based on tight connection. Loose, laissez-faire rules like ‘First, do no harm’, ‘Do unto others’, and ‘Hear everyone’s opinion before making binding commitments’ are the sort of rules (unsurprisingly) that define the ethos of cooperative work, and which come before the needs and ends of any specific project.

The sense of self in those working in cooperative settings may be — but doesn’t need to be — more transient, although people in the emergent business setting are shifting contexts more frequently, working in different settings, and that may make it easier to express different aspects of self at the ‘same time’. Like working with one scene of people as a futurist, and as a chef in another. This is considered ‘moonlighting’ in a collaborative world, but merely two shades of working in the cooperative, emergent world. And the offset of the closeness that came from being part of a collaborative team is the breadth of experience that comes from participating in many cooperative teams (although team is the wrong word: maybe cooperative constellations).

Put another way, self may become more discontinuous in the emergent business, allowing us to express more of the whole person, instead of being expected to be the same at all times, to hold only one set of perspectives, ever. To the extent we are open to diversity in the workplace, we need to allow individuals to be diverse, in their selves, as well.

Here’s one practical example of this diversity. Imagine that I learn a creative technique while working with someone, like scenario-based future thinking. In that exercise I become aware of approaches to fleshing out scenarios that are less intuitive for me, like using narrative to explore the views of product users. As a result, months later in a different setting when I am in a different group that is blocking on a creative task, I can dredge up the technique, and come at the problem narratively instead of through systems thinking or metaphorically, which are more natural for me. And that shift to a different model of the problem changes my perspective, and even the weighting of values in my thinking. In a real tangible way, I am a different self when I adopt new patterns of thought.

But in other contexts — for example, a slow-and-tight collaborative business where values are more constrained, and more tightly linked to long-term strategic goals and to a more static corporate culture — people may find fewer possibilities for flexibility. Not that people wouldn’t use narratives in a scenario process, but they might not go so far as to reconsider their values, because the company’s underlying cultural matrix might not allow questioning of its basic principles. But in the emergent business, company culture comes second to the ethos of fast-and-loose cooperation, including a more relaxed notion about the centrality and continuity of self. This is related to the concept of multiphrenia, a concept explored by Kenneth Gergen, and about which I have written before:

Stowe Boyd, Multiphrenic Identity

We invest ourselves into relationships that are shaped by the affordances of the tools and the particular social contracts of the contexts. Through these relationships new and perhaps unexpected insights into others and ourselves arise. And we participate in dozens of these social environments, possibly with non-overlapping constituencies, each focused on different aspects of the greater world: entertainment, food, news, social causes, health, religion, sex, you name it. We become adept at shifting registers, just like polyglots shift from Italian to Corsican to Catalan without even thinking about it. We are multiphrenic.

And the benefits of this multiphrenia, this ability to network different selves, are exactly the benefits that polyglots realize: the ability to rapidly shift lenses through which to view the world differently.

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