Talking is often dismissed, especially in business, as something that is categorically inferior to doing. Why is that? And just what is the “doing” here referred to? The simple reason for this so-called “bias to action”, I think, is that within the economy of industrial production, talk is just grit in the slick grease of efficiency, which all too often is obssessed with “saving” time. Within such an economy, talking, which takes time, can only stall or slow decision and action.
When Elvis sang, “a little less conversation, a little more action, please,” he was hoping to hustle things up and get laid. Fair enough, so far as it goes. And I think this is just what business wants to do, hustle through or past the work of relationships and get straight on to the main event: the consummation, in this case, of the transaction. This, again, within a framework where efficiency and the minimization of costs are paramount, makes perfect sense. So the talking which is so much a part of establishing relationships, conversation, is marginalized by more efficient forms of communication, like orders, memos, and meetings (OK, we can all be forgiven our suspicions about the efficiency of that last one).
Casual conversations abound in social life. Serious, deep, conversation, however, is a kind of talking that happens far too seldom in general, and which happens only in isolation or in the margins in the context of business or work. What I mean by conversation, I should clarify, is quite particular. A conversation has multiple participants, engagement is voluntary, and the talking in a conversation is governed by interest rather than status or role. Conversation is a form of communication, then, that involves an exchange among the participants where the value of content is emergent and the interest in participation is intrinsic. In other words, we can never know at the start of a true conversation where it will end up and we give ourselves over to having conversations primarily because it feels good to have one.
What conversation gives up in terms of predictability and control, however, it makes up for in the value of its reflexive and looping design. What conversations can produce organically and emergently, I’d argue, are intelligent outcomes. The structure of conversations is neither that of truth trees or decision trees, nor of waterfalls or stage gates. Conversation is an irreducibly social form of communications and consequently shares the structure of the social, which is to say, it has the shape of a network. In other designs or patterns of communication, ones with essentially linear pathways, the intelligence is usually located at the front end, as for example in a command hierarchy. The regime of this method of communication is explicitly designed against revision, and so, by definition, orders cannot become more intelligent after they are given, and yet it is only after they are given that they start to be tested against the shifting dynamics of context and interactions. This matters least when the objectives of action are well understood: attach that fastener, take that hill, get me a coffee.
Conversations, on the other hand, have two structural elements that can augment or enhance the thinking of the participants: these are diversity and the “looping effect” of the network. These elements are not optimal by default in every conversation, but rather are structural characteristics that can be optimized. To put it another way, the features that regulate the quality of a conversation can be designed. The first element, diversity, derives from a principle of cybernetics: Ashby’s “law of requisite variety”. Simply put, the potential for intelligent outcomes to arise from a conversation are related to the participants collectively sharing a sufficient diversity to avoid simple reproduction (likemind) or too much disagreement (stalemate). The second element, what I call the looping effect of the network structure, is related to but not reducible to diversity. The concept of a feedback loop is well understood and permits us to explain how systems can learn and improve. Applying this framework to a network structure produces a looping pattern of dynamic potentials between the nodes of the network (these looping effects are a more granular phenomenon of network effects): in a human conversation we call these digressions, tangents, sidebars, and so on. But what can appear to be “time wasters” in the context of a more linear design for interaction, e.g. a meeting, here can give rise to the unexpected, which is often where the intelligence of the interaction leaks into the content.
Conversation is a powerful framework for prototyping scenarios or any other situation where wicked problems arise or are in play. This is because, if well designed and well guided, a conversation is a dynamically adaptive system of interaction, a system for enabling, capturing and looping distributed cognition and dynamic data. Edwin Hutchins, in his amazing study of oceanic navigation (Cognition in the Wild), at one point observes that a nautical chart is, in fact, an analog computer. At first, this seems odd and it requires a bit of time to loose the wrench it throws into our normal way of thinking about what a computer is or what a map is. On further reflection, however, we begin to understand that the object that we take for granted, the chart, contains many layers, implicates a number of technologies, metrics, rubrics, symbolic orders, and so on. All this, furthermore, still leaves out what is Hutchins’ main object of study, the social system that is required for such a device, a chart, to be anything other than an inert object. One of Hutchins’ key insights is that the web of interaction between the team of naval navigators is both a kind of emergent intelligence and that this intelligent is itself a component part (an underlying technological layer) of a system of navigation.
My point is that conversation is a technology that is far more sophisticated than we take it to be. It seems strange, just as in Hutchins’ description of a chart as a computer, to even call a conversation a technology at all. But I think it vital that we not only start to think about how the technologies of conversation operate, but to learn to design for them. I believe that conversation is a crucial platform in a group of emerging technologies that include: networks, intelligence, knowledge, peers, sharing, and, even…freedom.