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Posts Tagged ‘complexity theory’

In today’s complex and turbulent environment, organisations need ‘foresight’ to be able to respond promptly to various change drivers including technology, sustainability, globalisation and the economy. Essentially ‘foresight’ is a participative approach to creating shared long-term visions to inform short term decision-making processes (see http://www.foresight-network.eu/). During a recent webinar, Dave Snowden (Cognitive Edge) and Mike Jackson (Shaping Tomorrow) outlined how horizon scanning and social computing can help organisations plan for the future, protect themselves against unexpected threats and exploit forthcoming opportunities.

Jackson outlined the following five components of foresight development and managing change:

  • ID and Monitor Change: Identify patterns from the stories, fragments of information and behaviours of many participants in a system or network and decide how those patterns impact business.
  • Critique implications: Inform the impact assessment with a cross-section of information not just intelligence regarding one’s own industry. That means monitoring much more change and developing a better peripheral vision to be able to understand the broader implications for the business.
  • Imagine difference: Establish the risks and alternatives for different scenarios.
  • Envision preferred route forward: Established where you are, then determine where you want to go by scanning plausible, possible and probable ideas and changes for the future.
  • Plan and implement: Identify goals, resources, strategies and stakeholders required to create change and help them cope with the inherently uncertain future.

The participatory, evolutionary and social nature of ‘foresight’ development makes for a snug fit with social computing (i.e the simpler more networked online applications that connect people and allow them to pool their knowledge and interact better with those in their network). More specifically, social computing enables the content and online interactions to constantly shift so as to better reflect the knowledge, ideas, opinions, preferences and even aspirations of all contributors. Not only does this allow us to develop a better radar of what is happening across our network, it also provides us with higher level of collaborative intelligence: a range of opportunities and outputs that could not be created by any number of individuals or small groups working alone.

(Interestingly, these are also features of complex adaptive systems (emergent, highly connected and simple on the micro level; complex and unpredictable on the macro level) which evolve through rapid feedback loops making them highly adaptive to changing conditions.)

Snowden picked up here, talking about complexity theory, the creation of human sensor networks and the need to manage the evolutionary potential of the present as an alternative to traditional scenario planning. Referring to his recent blog Think anew, Act anew: Scenario Planning, Snowden cited a wonderful quote from Seneca:

“The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.”

This quote emphasises that what matters now is managing the present by switching from “fail safe design strategies to safe fail experimentation”. That involves the use of small early interventions in the form of exploratory behaviour, allowing the ones with good results to be amplified and the ones that don’t work to be eliminated.

Snowden went on to outlined the three fundamental consequences of complexity theory, which need to be present to mange a complex system, which he covers in great depth along with a critique of horizon scanning and scenario planning, in his post mentioned above.

  • Need for distributed cognition. The crux of this is decentralisation and mass participation. The idea that the few can decide for the many, whether it be drawing up scenarios, selecting technology, imposing structures or the like, is inherently unstable. Instead, we need to start to use large numbers of people to feed decision making processes with current information and diverse perspectives.
  • Fragments are key. Material that is used must be finely granulated. A big problem with traditional scenario planning is that it produces ‘chunked’ reports. The human brain has evolved to handle fragmented data patterns – pictures, comments, captions, labels, etc. One of the reasons social computing is so successful is that it presents information in multiple inter-threaded fragments, so that the brain can ‘conceptually blend’ those and link those fragments to determine how to move forward. Documents don’t tune in to the evolutionary nature of humans. Fragmented information has evolutionary advantage.
  • Overcome disintermediation. People making decisions about the future have to have direct contact with raw intelligence. They can’t afford to have middle management or processes mediating, summarising or grouping information. The information must come from trusted sources and permit interaction with those sources (so the information can be validated).

In Part II of this post I will look at some of the implications of this participative evolutionary approach for traditional current awareness and information creation and categorisation processes.

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From time to time it’s instructive (and fun) to explore other systems and theories, as a way of learning and coping with problems in our projects, company or wider business environment. Take, for instance complexity theory and life in the Kruger National Park.

Broadly speaking, complexity theory suggests there is an underlying natural order to the behaviour and evolution of complex systems – be they ecosystems, financial systems, business operations or herds of buffalo. The following clip illustrates how herds and prides comprise sub-systems in the greater (Savannah) system. Each buffalo (or lion) operating with its fellow herd (or pride) member to form a unit, seeking to achieve a common goal, without anyone of them managing the operation! Each unit in the clip responded to the action of the other (and a third party intervention – in this case that of the crocodiles) – and together effected a pattern of self-organising behaviour, where the group was responsible for dividing and attacking the target. Something that each individual could not have achieved alone.

In other words, the disparate elements worked together in a self-directed manner to achieve coherence in the overall outcome. With each actor having some freedom to attack or kick from a certain angle or at a given target, allowing them to spontaneously adapt to the situation – all elements of ‘survival learning’.

So what are the implications for our work with people, information and technology?

Many organisations, in particular legal and professional services firms, are eternally challenged with ‘managing’ knowledge (and associated spin-offs for innovation). Until recently, they have been trying to do this through standardised inflexible top-down controlled systems, which require ‘knowledge’ to be distilled, refined and polished (all as separate time consuming activities to people’s daily work load), and then ‘filed’ in pre-determined siloed categories with associated taxonomies. Not much room in there for self-directed action!

That has led some to implement more flexible solutions and processes – including the use of social tools. Complexity theory suggests that, given enough latitude, people will self-organise and bring about their own natural order by using tools such as wikis, blogs, tagging, etc, to suit their information and process needs. (Social tools having the innate flexibility to support that type of behaviour.) That has direct implications, amongst other things, in respect of any top-down structuring of content, and managerial support and direction in the use of the tools.

It follows that people should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools to create their own view of the information, by tagging, linking and bookmarking content which is useful to them – i.e. bottom-up activity. Not only will that help the individual later find and use the content, but when each individual’s activity in the wiki is aggregated with that of others, it creates a collective intelligence and signals about the information people find most useful and the way they are categorising/labeling it to promote its future findability (because people use terms and content which are relevant and useful – rather than ‘miscellaneous’). As people use the tools, and reflect on and update the information/knowledge therein, they learn how to adapt their behaviour and what works best in their circumstances.

In other words, this behaviour is self-directed and emergent because it is dependent on the current issues and opportunities people have to deal with. Those issues and opportunities in turn impact on the value of yesterday’s information, which usually needs constant attention and updating to ensure it is current and relevant, so as to be able to help in solving today’s problems. So, as people query, discuss, update and re-categorise information, they leave crucial footprints and create new information – all of which can be captured (as part of the participation process) within the social tools, and collated to form new information which is fed into the stream of current awareness people use to make decisions about the issues they face. As such, trying to plan for and create wholly top-down structures (like categories and taxonomies) for information, and responsibilities for its capture and upkeep, is somewhat futile. That approach cannot reflect real-time changes and learning derived from people’s experience with the system.

And the take-away point here is: Allow people to self-organise in their use of social tools, and the creation, updating and maintenance of information/knowledge therein.

As I outlined in my last post, that will require businesses to take a different tact regarding control – i.e. stepping back and letting people develop their own patterns rather than trying to predict and standardise the structure of information and its use from the outset.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale departure from top-down categorisation since the system may, to a certain extent, still depend on the interactions with certain pre-defined/categorised elements. Nor does it mean that the use of social tools, and the management of information therein, should be devoid of strategic planning for their development, enhancement and future growth. Planned emergence can play a key role here in helping to ensure we develop our ideas, knowledge and expertise, and systems in support thereof, in a way that helps us best deal with our everyday problems and ambuguities. As the lions demonstrated, it’s just not enough to catch your prey, you’ve got to be able to follow through in uncertain rapidy changing circumstances.

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