Beware the blanket octopodes

April 24, 2009

I enjoyed yesterday’s lecture on the theme of symbiosis. The audience all understood the subject area and it was thus possible to go further faster than with a more general audience. It was recorded so I hope to be able to make the podcast available soon. My overall theme was that the field of knowledge management seen as an aspect of sense-making is caught between the horns of a dichotomy (well it begins with a d). On one side we have the traditional approach that was all too commonly focused on creating a hierarchical taxonomy and on the other the assumption that some how or other various semantic tools will manage to stitch together the rich fragmented fields of social computing. Now both of these extremes have high utility, but within boundaries. Where either dominates without recognition of the other an organisation is poorer in consequence.

Not surprisingly I argued that during periods of discontinuity it is very dangerous to simply imitate what others are doing. If you have an outbreak of the worst sort of consultants that normally means repeating idealised and retrospectively coherent accounts of partially understood data taken out of context and falsely universalised into a limited recipe. Instead I outlined a theory based approach to practice based on an understanding of the three dominant system types: ordered, chaotic and complex. In many ways the two horns of the dichotomy are ordered and chaotic in their nature and assumptio

The mechanism for synthesis (or turning a dichotomy into a dialectic) is thus to take a complex systems approach. In the context of my subject that means creating semi-constrained indexing structures through which content creators (or whatever level of granularity) can signify its meaning with a degree of what I sometimes call essential ambiguity. I went through examples of our own work here on SenseMaker™ and ran people through the three basics of complex system management, namely fine granularity objects, distributed cognition and disintermediation.

Now I had started the presentation with an overview of symbiosis and co-evolution illustrated by the Portuguese Man of War from yesterday’s posting. In an idle moment I had hunted around for any predators that might service by way of a metaphor for my concluding remarks and came across the blanket octopus that inhabits Northern Australia. Now any inhabitant of the seas of Northern Australia is going to have to be pretty canny to survive all sort of nasties, but this one is intereesting. I quote from the WIkipedia entry on this beautiful, but devious creature:

Blanket octopodes are immune to the poisonous Portuguese man o’ war, whose tentacles the female rips off and uses later for defensive purposes. Unlike many other octopuses, the blanket octopus does not use ink to intimidate potential predators, but instead unfurls a large net-like membrane which then spreads out and billows in the water like a cape. This greatly increases the octopus’s apparent size, and is what gives the animal its name.

Now I like this one, and it was to my mind a perfect description of how too many an IT department treats social computing. Creating net-like membranes that disproportionately exaggerate their role was a good start. However the perfect piece was ripping off the tentacles of the poor old Portuguese man of war and using them for defensive purposes. I’ve seen this too often of recent years, reluctantly dragged into the world of social computing which they only partially understand, the first reaction is to dismember it into something familiar and controllable, then use it as a weapon to fend off reform.

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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.

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