February 4, 2008

In my final posts this week I want to cover four inter-connected areas of work that I think show some promise of hope against the apocalyptic horsemen. They offer a real-world counter to the bi-polar disorder we threaten to slide into when things get messy. And I’m going to try to say what kind of work we should be doing as consultants to pursue that hope.

The first two of them, Authority and Capability, are intimately linked to the pervasive questions about power that run through the accounts of all four horsemen. I will look at the second two work areas, Positive Deviance and Struggle in my final two posts.

Pestilence showed us how power can degenerate into a decentralized morass of multi-headed, self-righteous blame. It also showed us the extent to which power in the real world depends on acquiescence as the ammunition for future blame.

War showed us a picture of fragmented silos of power arrayed against each other in heavily fortified standoffs. Famine showed us its roots in a shift in people’s power to command the resources that give them a livelihood. Death told us that we have no power to change what’s happening to us.

Authority, I think addresses some of the power issues presented by Pestilence and War. I do not mean by this assigned authority, nor even emergent authority (which can be as fickle as a crowd), but social authority that grows from reputation, character and behaviour over a substantial period of time.

Authority of this kind does a few interesting things. It turns the game of passive, blame-pregnant acquiescence into active, intelligent, respectful (sometimes combative) collaboration. While it supports diversity, it also attracts different factions towards greater alignment and common purpose. It gives an organization the means to direct its attention in meaningful directions, and the means of making decisions as a coherent – not a splintered – group. And finally, it enacts the idea of ownership and self-determination.

For this kind of authority to grow, you need a few pre-conditions: first it is necessary to have people who remain in a context for long enough to build the reputation that gives them authority. Second, good work needs to be visible to the social group as a whole, and it needs to be talked about.

It is hard for consultants to make any deep contribution to the growth of authority inside an organization. We can preach it all we like, and we can encourage the necessity of its preconditions all we like. But we rarely have the chance to impact the availability of good people over extensive time, or their own ability to build their reputation and respect, or the breach in the structures of assigned and emergent power that are necessary for social authority to step in. Authority has a life of its own – like Death, it travels at its own pace.

But we are sometimes in a position to influence the mechanisms of visibility. The principles of the read/write web – and the social tools that spring out of it – are perfectly suited to making good work and good people visible over time. Which is not to say that they will do this automatically.

So while we have a strong interest – even a duty – to be political in our work, and to encourage the adoption of tools and processes for transparency and openness inside the organisations we work for, there are two risks in blind advocacy of web 2.0 adoption.

The first is to confuse popularity (emergent authority) with social authority, and to imagine that authority can be measured in social network maps, page hits, bulletin board responses, blog links and comments. This favours rhetoric over results. Emergent authority always requires scrutiny and validation.

The second risk is not to recognize that the sclerotic and fragmented power structures we are trying to supplant (yes, we are subversives) have their own ways of adapting to things that threaten their existence.

When email first emerged into large-scale adoption in organisations, there was a sudden brief and heady flush of transparency. Lack of rules, zero cost of duplication and Cc/Bcc lines suddenly gave us all the heady power of enlightenment, of creating awareness elsewhere of what we were doing, and what we felt needed to be done.

Those days are long gone – email in organisations is a blinding, confusing bloat of un-assured information and haphazard collaboration. We have gorged ourselves into collective stupidity in our indiscriminate broadcasts. Email works at the individual level, but not at any meaningful social level, where it is personified in the fragmentation and confusion of War.

A couple of years ago I was in conversation with a senior public servant in Australia and we got to talking about information sharing in her department. She told me that greater calls for information transparency and public accountability meant that public officials were increasingly reluctant to join up their information systems into common, accessible resources – in fact, that they were starting to be increasingly reluctant to make comprehensive documentary records at all.

This was because the potential for aggressive public scrutiny was too intimidating, especially where they were venturing into areas of public policy that were riddled with complexity, sophistication and uncertainty. They preferred to keep their information work shadowy and inaccessible except to those initiated into its goals.

Last October at the actKM conference I listened to a paper from Deborah Blackman and her colleagues, reporting on a research project they had conducted inside a University Council. Their intent was to try and see the role that knowledge management might play in the governance of a large higher education institution.

What they found was that very little of the context and acts of power were captured in formal knowledge processes or records. Decisions were apparently being made outside meetings and recorded only in their bare essentials. Meetings were theatres of the absurd, ritual readings of meaningless and virtually context-free minutes.

What this tells us is that the acts of fractious, divided power evade scrutiny and duck underground if transparency is imposed on them without an alternate power-model to compete with them and call them to account.

In a society alternate power-models can be expressed in a viable political opposition and a free press. In an organization it requires the active presence of diverse opinions acting outside the formal decision making hierarchy, but summoning it to some form of accountability.

In short, there must be non-complicit, non-acquiescent public and respected voices with access to key information about the organization and its life. Providing the tools and the doctrine of transparency alone does not guarantee the growth of social authority – capabilities must grow too, as well as some form of protection for public dissent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

Don’t congratulate the butterfly ….

- No Comments

I have always been concerned about the trivialisation of serious issues by some popular authors ...

More posts

Next >


- No Comments

In my last post I suggested that building capabilities in an organization and in individuals ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram