The TIM^n Framework (video + script)


In the book Design Unbound by Ann Pendleton Jullian and John Seely Brown I was recently introduced to the idea of society existing and evolving on multiple levels of organization, and David Ronfeldt’s TIMn framework. TIMn stands for Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks. 

In early history, society only existed at the tribal level. Tribes were kinship-based social units, like extended families, clans, etc. They relied on oral communication, especially storytelling, for their cohesion and alignment, and thus were limited to a specific geographic proximity. 

Institutions came along, I guess Yuval Harari describes it in his book Sapiens as occurring right around the time of the cognitive revolution and the adoption of agrarian society, which required the need for a larger scale type of organization and alignment. Institutions are hierarchical in nature, exemplified by the church, military, or bureaucratic state. From Design Unbound: “The institutional form relies on the transcribing of oral communication into writing that can be disseminated to larger groups as books, records, and commands.”

The printing press obviously scaled the capacity to do this immensely, allowing for much larger institutions to form and function. 

The third form is Markets, which are about competitive exchange, facilitated by merchants and traders, responding to forces of supply and demand, and reliant on interconnectivity and mobility provided by infrastructure. 

Lastly, networks are web-like ties that rely on digital hyperconnectivity. They are extremely fluid in nature.  

So these societal forms don’t replace one-another. They build on each other and influence one-another. Healthy evolution is dependent on the ability of a society to combine forms into an integrated system. In Ronfeltd’s framework, institutional form didn’t replace tribes, but produced an era of tribes plus institutions, and then evolved into an era of tribes + institutions + markets, with progression never being smooth. 

In Design Unbound, the authors propose that due to how networks continue to radically transform the other three forms, becoming at times the drivers and conduits for new tribes, institutions, and markets, the TIMN framework is better articulated as TIM to the nth power, where the network form operates to exponentially influence the other three forms. 

Now though I’m tempted to just read this whole chapter from this wonderful book aloud, instead I’m going to just encourage you to get the book which I am still working my way through, and share a few thoughts that it has inspired for me personally.  

First is this thing that Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin framework put into my head which is the relationship between official and unofficial networks, and how they both serve an important purpose. They can not and should not replace one-another, but instead compliment each-other by serving very different purposes. A good demonstration of this can be seen in the organizational transformations described in General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams, which I would say amounts to moving institutional forms and tribal forms out of the way so that unofficial networks and less bureaucratic forms of communication and alignment can play a larger role in making the larger network more fluid. 

When I first discovered the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, I felt this incredible sense of wonder and excitement because it met a need that I had to connect to what I believe amounts to a tribe in Ronfeldt’s framework – in this case a tribe of defense intrapreneurs-  sustained and driven by oral tradition which should and does still lean heavily on narrative storytelling rather than overly bureaucratic or institutional forms of communication, which do not achieve the types of alignment required for the tribal form…. 

And we’ve just recently seen enormous success in the growth of Agitare over the last 8 months… our community of practice for design and discovery work. Again, we see the greatest success there through events that are story and narrative-driven, and our best strategy there continues to be a fluid one in which we put energy into the system as it currently is – as a tribe, we detect where our efforts will be most effective through oral tradition- through conversations and meetups, not by crafting a large, slow bureaucratic system with set roles and… we don’t even have a charter at this point, but continue to drive the motivated involvement of community members. 

I’m reminded of this concept of alignment that I recently wrote about in an article on LinkedIn, in which I talk about the different types of alignment- strategic, cultural, and individual, which are achieved through creating shared artifacts and refreshing artifacts to the current context through rituals. Artifacts need to be refreshed to the larger complex system and the complexity faced by individuals. That is how you keep people engaged, aligned, and ensure their actions are beneficial to the larger, long-term strategy of the organization. 

So one of the biggest things on my mind right now is how we incorporate this view of differing social structures into the things that we design. One project we’re pursuing at AF Cyberworx right now is about how we create connective spaces for Airmen in dorms, and I think it’s really important that we consider what social forms – tribes, institutions, markets, and networks inform how we go about designing that. 

I think that most Air Force and defense design in the past has tended to consider only the institutional form. I think that one reason most of our communication and collaboration solutions tend to fail is because we haven’t quite tapped into how we get people to form unofficial networks using these tools. We usually opt for the creation of official networks, which don’t attract the same degree of participation, energy, and engagement as I’ve seen from things like unofficial spaces on Slack. As a matter of fact, those unofficial networks often form on their own in spaces designed precisely for that purpose – facebook, twitter, reddit… none of which we can or perhaps should control. Perhaps the best design decision is to embrace those networks as they already exist- to enter them as participants rather than trying to build or control them. 

So that’s it for now. I just really like this book that I’m reading, and I’m experimenting with this form of sharing my thoughts on a topic at hand. Please check out the book Design Unbound by Ann Pendleton Jullian and John Seely Brown. I’m still working my way through but really appreciated this particular portion. That is it for now. 

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