Saturday, 27 December 2008

Complexity? or Sensemaking!

Complexity seems to be a hype today. Or better, it has become a hype-phrase over the last five years. Even modest magazines today publish about "complex problems" and almost any problem arising in the political arena here in Holland is soon characterized as a complex problem by the politicians. At times it seems that "being complex" is a good excuse for not solving the problem.

And indeed complexity is a strange animal in this world. Even guru's like Dave Snowden need 7 notions to characterize it. It started with the 3C's of Complexity in July 2008, featuring Constraint, Coherence and Connectivity. This good start was augmented to 5C's on October 21 adding Context and Coalescence. But is was clearly not enough as already on October 26 the counter went to 7C's adding Culture and ..... Complexity. Yes indeed Complexity as Dave also changed the title and refers to his magnificent 7 as The Seven 7C's of Sensemaking.

So why am I repeating Dave's list here? Well, because Dave is right, it is not about complexity that we should bother, it is about Sensemaking. Making sense of a situation where old Newtonian Cause-Effect rules don't apply. Situations where the apple doesn't fall down when released. That is why Dave's first C of Constraint is so important. Yes one can make any situation ordered by applying more constraints. It might take the Military but almost any civil "problem" can be pushed into the ordered regime (well Bush learned (or should I say experienced) what the almost is about in Irak). But still contraints matter, lift the contraints and observe the system to move back into chaos (mission failed) or stabilize into a pattern of complex/complicated behavior any Democratic society evolves around (mission completed, get out!).

Ofcourse I could go on here explaining the other six C's here but that is what links are for, and Dave has done very well. Here I just want to touch upon Complexity a bit. For me something (a system, a problem, a challenge) is complex when in a dynamic situation there are so many relations (connections) between the parts (fragments?) that it is hopeless to attempt in-depth analysis. Like Dave's favorite story on children playing in a schoolyard. One cannot design a plan to let all 400 of them play nicely. What one can do is observe patterns (are they playing nicely, look bored or are they fighting?) and next trow in a probe (a ball, a rope, start a new game) to get the bored playing and disrupt the bad patterns in the hope better patterns of playing will emerge.

I really hope we will see more of that kind of intervention from our Governments next year. One size (measures) fits nobody so to say, creative people (Bankers or other proffesionals) will always find their way around the static rules. I really hope for some raise of applying dynamic interventions in our societies. Am I an optimist? Well, its Xmas, it is allowed I guess for the next week or so.

Have a good start of the year.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fragmented Innovation 2.0?

Yesterday I got my weekly LinkedIn update email (yes, I still use that old techbunch) and noticed that one of my contacts had joined a new group called Innovation 2.0. It turned out to be a group started by the Dutch Government Department of Economic Affairs in an attempt to go "crowdsourcing" on Innovation Policy. Now, less than 3 weeks old, the group has moved into the top-100 of LinkedIn groups with 370 members (as of 18 Dec 2008, 9:18). Hearthfelt congratulations to Richard Blad and his colleagues.

Like any subject covered so publicly, the discussion is quite fragmented, but very interesting, especially as this number of members means that at this moment more people are contributing to governmental innovation policy (whatever that may mean), than ever before in Dutch history. This experiment is undoubtedly followed suspiciously by many in the Department of Economic Affairs with nagging questions like "should I get involved" creeping up the cranial hierarchy.

Yes, they SHOULD. Am I sounding like Obama now? Let's hope it is as effective.

Have a nice Innovation 2.0 day.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Fragmented or bringing the pieces together?

Besides being blogger, an employee, a husband, father-of-three, citizen of Cuijk, Dutchman, etc, etc. I'm a frequent reader and - a little less - a poster on the listserv Forum dedicated to the work of Stafford Beer whose members also are frequenting metaphorum and the Cybernetics & Society wiki.

During the last weeks there were lots of discussion in the list on the subject of getting new people onboard and questions like "does Obama need a Cybernetician"? One of the central themes in these discussions was how to rephase the insights of the early Cyberneticians into today's language. This was also one of the main reasons to start this blog. And another listreader started a new wiki named VSM4Business (so please go there and help establish a great site).

To get some serious feedback I notified the member of the forum that I started this blog a few days ago. From the Google traffic analysis over the weekend it was very clear that many list members have inspected this blog as I saw a lot of traffic from Canada, the UK and Russia. Thanks folks!

And - hooray! - also reactions began to come in. And one of them suggested to change the name to "Fragmented Living - Putting the Pieces Back Together Again" which is a very good suggestion as it nicely captures two of the three themes I want to invite my readers to join into the discussion:
  1. Theme 1 - Fragmentedness, the fact that the same person or organization has multiple roles to play and is seen by others in at least as many ways as there are others.
  2. Theme 2 - How to connect the old stuff of cybernetics, with the newer stuff of organizational learning and the newest stuff in narrative knowledge management.
  3. Theme 3 - Bringing together a communitity of interested people from various background to think about these issues.

So I will seriously consider such a change, provided it is technically doable. Reactions are warmly appreciated.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Why is regulating in realtime not practiced?

Yesterday's McKinsey Quarterly features in article titled Creative destruction and the financial crisis. It is an interview with Mr. Richard Forster, a former director at McKinsey from 1992 to 2004, quite a respectable (long) period.

Reading the article it struck me how easily the question can the government only regulate AFTER a crises has struck is not addressed, while there is a vast body of literature available how to regulate in realtime. So I dropped the following letter to the editor:

It's very good to see Schumpeter being rediscovered in the public eye. Ofcourse many will claim in retrospect that he was never out of sight, but history, at least the last 40 years, suggests this was mostly lip service, not acceptance of the message. As Cybernetics learned since the '50's: the purpose of a system is what it does.

And the financial market did, as neatly indicated in this article, nothing more that purposedly acting
outside the scope of the regulated areas. This poses the next question: why are regulators behind reality and only regulate when things go out of control. Haven't they learned how to regulate? How is that possible with all scientific progress since Schumpeter? Only mentioning

  • Prigogine's dissipative systems,
  • complexity and chaos theory,
  • Stafford Beers' Viable Systems Model,
  • Maturana's autopoiesis,
  • Checklands' Soft Systems Model,
  • Senge's Learning Organization and
  • Stuart Kaufmanns' work on co-evolution

should be sufficient for regulators to learn and realize regulation in real time instead of after the fact. And finally: the same techologies developed for fighting terrorism can be effectively applied for monitoring the development of values systems and detect weak signals of non-complience as Dave Snowden and his crew at Cognitive Edge have shown.

Now back to today's article. The funny thing is that Schumpeter himself identified the descructive forces
with INNOVATION. Innovation is, according to him, not associated with new ideas that get new business started - as this article suggest - instead it is identical, or at least strongly associated to the creative destructive forces external to the existing players: innovation as a force comes from the outside, not from within.

We seem to have forgotten about this since 1960, but destruction and the emergence of new (human) value
systems are at the core of innovation. INVENTION, despite its press, is, will and never has been the key factor in innovation. ACCEPTANCE by customers (the one who pays the bill) and increasingly users (the ones that have to use the product or consume the service) are in the driver seat. In that sense the role of centralized R&D departments has been oversold the last 50 years.

At its core, the same holds for transaction-focussed services industries like banking and insurance. There
invention is associated with new financial instruments like mentioned derivatives. Unlike product industries the R&D function of the banking systems is far more discributed and thus it is hard today to point to "the guilty".

Regulating discributed processes seem not the most top-of-mind concern of regulators today and in the past, but it is - in my opinion exactly - where complexity based holistic science can be applied very effectively. Please reread mentioned literature with the perspective glasses on that innovation is related to the co-creation of new (human) value systems and how these processes can be regulated from WITHIN the system.
Yes within, please reread Beer

I guess this is enough food for thought for today.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Communities of Interest

Communities, a word that seems to fit so nicely with the month of December. But also a word often heard in business. Communities were really hot in the early 2000's when business was booming but seem to have gone down in the popularity polls when the crisisses (yes, multiple: .com, .credit, .credibility) hit.

Why is that? Well, before going into that lets see what communities are in business. The concept was popularized by Etienne Wenger. On his website he writes:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for
something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly
And indeed, that is what most business people refer to when they speak of a community: regular meetings of groups of people to exchange knowledge about a shared concern or topic. And there a lots of examples where groups of similar people meet to learn from each other in a certain discipline: banking, chemistry, software, etc.
It is however not very clear who should participate when the communities is gathering around a problem. Wengers' definition states that the people should share a concern or a passion. Ones passion can be ones job, but problems in organisations rarely obey departemental or discipline boundaries. In general they tend to challenge those more than be confined by them.
Therefore, problems are better handles by communities of interest.
Groups of people from different backgrounds that share an interest in the problem
at hand and volunteer to participate in an attempt to solve it
At the risk of overgeneralizing I suggest to discern two types of communities:
  • Communities of Practice (CoP) - regular gatherings where people with a shared profession or passion can increase and most often deepen their knowledge about the subject at hand.
  • Communities of Interest (CoI) - ad-hoc formed short-lived team-like groups that volunteer to work on solving a problem from their disciplines' perspective.

CoP's are perfect for sharpening existing skills and learning skills to newcomers in the organization, CoI's are geared at solving problems that cannot be solved by applying knowledge from one discipline.

Here we see, once more, that reality is fragmented. Many oroblems arise because things are not approached holistically but from within a certain tunnel-visioned framework. Solving these problems requires many inputs, neglecting presense of (organizational) walls that were once relevant in order to guard the organization from developing chronic pathologies.

As promised, some final words on the current popularity of Communities. As allways in times of crises people and organizations show a tendency to retreat to safe harbours. Making sure "normal" work is done gets priority. Developping skills can wait until later.

And indeed, that might be true for Practices, but Problems seems to be more abundant in times of trouble. So my thesis is that Communities need a rebrand as good Problem solvers, especially in dire times.

So far my "Sinterklaas" (the Dutch version of the Santa) present for my readers.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Knowledge Management

Finally, the word has arrived to this blog: Knowledge. But what has that do to with viability or fragementedness. Well .... everything.

Knowledge, together with innovation, were THE hypewords of the last two decades. Both are however, barely understood in practical terms. But lets focus on knowledge first.

In the old days, say the middle ages, knowledge was exclusive to the rich and the church. Books were rare, even long after invention of the printing press. So the impression remained for a long time that knowledge was stored in books and transferred by teachers from book to student. Well, these days are over.

Based on the same mechanisms so familiar in the Dark Ages, Nonaka and Takeuchi, touted the conversion of Tacit (skilled) knowledge to Explicit knowledge in their 1995 book The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Misunderstood by many, and largely helped by ICT firms, Knowledge Management was advocated as " write down everything you do".

Ofcourse it didn't help much as most practical work is done just because it has to be done in a practical manner. Humans are lazy, so if there was an easier way ....

A good step forward came with the introduction of communities of practice, popularized by Etienne Wenger. He made clear that people best learn from each other when they are interested in each others problems and create possible solutions amongst them. And it worked, well, in cases were community membership was voluntary.

And that resonates quite well with the next phase in KM that advocates the narrative approach. A well known saying is that you cannot command people’s knowledge; you need to encourage them to share it, directly followed by we always know more than we can tell, and we can always tell more than we can write. What does this mean for practical used in organizations?

First of all it tells us that there is little to be gained by forcing people to write down what they know. This is what the ICT advocates did and why it failed so splendidly (but please don't delete your KM system yet, you will need it for other purposes). The second saying gives us a first clue why it failed: we cannot write down all we know. Even worse, we cannot even tell all we know.

There is a third famous saying in narrative based KM circles saying we only know what we know when we need to know it. The easiest way to understand this is by realizing that valuable knowledge in one situation is worthless of even damaging in others. So knowledge is very contextual. One level deeper this saying makes clear that people will share there knowledge when the situation urges them to. In general no human will stand back when a somebody else needs help that can be offered by that human.

So, when going from knowing, to saying, to writing we are loosing LOTS of knowledge and therefore a good KM approach involves doing and telling in all combinations and approaches p0ssible/applicable. To make this a bit more explicit (yes, don't shred the KM system yet), Dave Snowden and his co-workers have developed the ASHEN acronym to indicate some forms of knowledge that are easily recognised:
  • Artifacts - Anything that is produced: reports, prototypes, buildings, drawings, databases, photos.
  • Skills - The applied expertise to get a job done, solve a problem, etc.
  • Heuristics - Rules of thumb that apply to the situation.
  • Experience - Gained by previous encounters with similar situations
  • Natural talent - Innate, instinctive, given qualities that cannot be learned.

It is clear that any project of activity creates some artifacts, uses, develops and hones skills of the participants and draws quite often on their past experiences while creating a brand new one. And often, especially when thing go sluggish or wrong heuritics are appliced by the most experienced people in the group to base important decisions on. And natural talent? Well, often humor breaks down barriers that cannot be scaled by logic or reason. So there is a place for such talents in a good KM approach. And a good nose for picking the right people for a project is also a form of natural talent.

I hope to have shown today that knowledge is fragmented too. It is not a bulky thing to be stored solely as blobs in databases. A good KM approach is a blended approach using technology, concepts and methods that fit the situation and honour the context. Don't give sleek PDA's to garbadgemen and let people stick to paper when they want do. Sometimes things are so simple, not always, but lets save some of those situations for later.

Self-creation alias Autopoiesis

Those who have mastered to read though the intricate works of Maturana and Varela will have noticed that these gents talk about living species as machines. They state that flies, humans, plants, cars, factories, etc. are machines! But fortunately, they see two types:
  • Allopoietic - machines that create other types of machines, such as a car factory that produces cars.
  • Autopoietic - machines that are capable of producting themselves, such as women that "produce" babies.

I really like this way of thinking. And thinkering about it a bit makes one realize how little mankind has been able to produce autopoietically. For almost every aspect of life we depend on allopoietic machines. Our electricity comes out of power stations that have a constant need for new fuel. New products like cars, phones, bricks, gas, coal, gold, books, carpet, precious metals, etc, all are produced by factories or mines that have no clue how to reproduce themselves. According to Maturana this is because autopoietic machines are capable of reproducting their organization, while allopoeitic machines can't do that.

Only in agriculture we are a bit near autopoietic-like production. Crops can be harvested over and over again from the same soil in the so-called circle-of-life, provided we are a bit cautious with the land and don't overuse it. Just like Life itself, it has to be looked after.

The only other category I know is the organization. How oftendo we speak about reinventing the firm? And indeed, more recently scientists like Stuart Kaufmann have pointed at the resemblances between the way organizations and living systems are autopoietic: they can both recreate themselves.

Another striking similarity is that many living systems and organizations have a kind of language. Many organizations have whole vocabularies of their own, just like any human being has its own version of reality, command language in his/her unique way, and formulates from his unique perspective.

Perspective, language and autopoiesis must therefore be deeply connected. Somewhere between Maturana, Varela and Kauffman there are links worthy to explore.

Hope this helps.