Posts Tagged ‘networks’

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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It’s taken a few days for my hippocampus to process and tag all the choice nuggets shared during Interesting2008. And during that short time, stories from the day are already infusing the internet. Russell Davies (Interesting’s instigator) suggested the day would offer ‘guides to interestingness’. It certainly did that – and I’m still revisiting the places the 30-odd speakers guided me to.

Stories were told, not so much for meaning, as for possibility, and providing new perspectives. Like Daniel Raven Ellison‘s illustrations of the world map – moving away from a traditional depiction of landmass to representation of countries based on their ecological footprint. He explained that Salisbury’s ecological footprint is larger than Greater London, and that our present consumption rates mean we are exhausting at least 2.5 planets’ worth of resources. One explanation for this is our emotional and physical distance from the actual consequences of our excesses.

There were echoes of those themes in Matt Webb‘s inglorious tale about the Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia. Apparently, the Patagonian civilisation was moved towards great sophistication due to its science of optics. When vast mirrored spheres were raised over the giant edifice which comprised the legendary Library of Patagonia, people scattered smaller spheres outside windows and inside rooms, so they could view every mirroed piece of text, making the library visible from any point in the country. Effectively, cities and villages were connected through those lenses.

The imagery of this story hooked me, and I found myself wanting it to be true, even if there are some physical impossibilities to do with defraction. Of course, there’s always the reality of the internet and social network theory – not quite so mythical, but a clear metaphorical reflection of the network of spheres! Matt’s thoughts (written up in 2003) dovetail so well with ideas of perspective and distance:

“Can we ever learn to see as others do, and how many alternative ways have we destroyed in our reckless expansion and desire to observe? … We have much to understand. We have much to contemplate.”

Then Steve Hardy introduced the ‘creative generalist’. Someone interested in everything;a connector with eclectic curiosity. These people have a foot in so many different worlds they have the effect of bringing them together. (That sounds very much like the power of weak ties.) Someone with experience and empathy – which brings us back to perspectives and perception – about people, behaviour and motivations. In other words, being genuinely interested in other people’s points of reference.

After so many words, Jim Le Fevre titilated us with these fabulous images of little people doing their ‘things’:

I suppose it’s no coincidence that Penguin was giving away copies of “The Black Swan” during the day. I don’t know if Russell is an ornithologist, but he certainly does know how to bring about a rare event! (Thanks a mill Cybersoc for the ticket!)

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