February 5, 2008

In my last post I suggested that building capabilities in an organization and in individuals is a necessary step to enable the growth of authority. Building capabilities also underpins any meaningful response to the Horsemen of Famine and Death.

Both horsemen preach despair – indeed the lethality of Famine is that it first removes the capability for self-nourishment and then removes the will to even try – it even removes the belief that this is possible.

The first and most basic capability to guarantee is the right of an employee to the information they need to do their job – which means information of the right quality, accuracy and usability. At present we treat this as more of an ideal – we know we don’t take something seriously when we use mantras and clichés to describe it: “just-in-time knowledge management” “right information to the right person, at the right time”.

This is mostly bullshit. It imagines that we or someone like us can determine who should be fed what information when, that this schematic will remain stable over time, and that we can design a system to follow the pipedream reliably. Each of these assumptions is tantamount to a belief in magic and the power of incantations. And it completely ignores the natural facility humans have for foraging and ferreting out for themselves what will benefit them – if they are given entry to a resource.

To enact the right to information and provide some defence against the horseman Famine, there are only three things organisations need to do:

(a)remove the ability to restrict access to all but the smallest number of highly sensitive documents – content should be either private (to oneself) or public (to all)
(b)remove the technical barriers to finding and transferring content across different systems and platforms
(c)provide redress for the failure to provide information when requested, or for those whose information has been misused.

I say “only” three things. Each of the three is rife with political and technical difficulty. And in an immature environment it will take some time for the pain of abuse, avoidance and resistance to work its way through towards productive working.

Here again, consultants can play a small role. We are sometimes in a position to encourage a move towards technology platforms that are more open, interoperable, and insecure (yes, insecure). When we do taxonomy or metadata development work, we can deliberately design for cross-enterprise and not special-interest tools for findability and access. As consultants we are less constrained by the need to acquiesce, we can defend against – even subvert – special interests and factional views. Any enemies we make will be short term enemies.

I sometimes wonder if it would be unethical to slip these radical changes into an organization without preaching their real benefits first – to preach is to arouse the sleeping beast of insecurity and prevarication. When Nathan Wallace migrated the Janssen Cilag intranet onto a wiki, did he fully disclose the implications of what he was doing (if he was fully aware)?

Sometimes I think it might be better to sin first and ask for forgiveness later. But I believe strongly in self-determination and ownership, so thus far I have preached and not smuggled. I’m not sure if that is the best thing to do, when I see the painful struggles (and failures) that ensue. But at the end of the day, it’s one thing for an employee to do something like this, another for an external consultant who will not be around to take the consequences.

In the question of the larger organisational capability, the consultant is largely irrelevant, except to the extent that we can try to foster the internal capabilities of our clients.

For as long as our clients see themselves as the recipients of limited interventions from external experts, they will remain incapable of determining their own destiny. Because they don’t own the interventions or their consequences.

Let me give an example. Within the Cognitive Edge network we have a range of useful (but still, I think, primitive) methods and approaches for creating the conditions for self-awareness, self-determination, ownership and authority.

But they are still designed and delivered as limited-scale interventions with extremely shaky life expectancies. In my first post on Apocalypse, I mentioned the case of the employee who wanted to know the point of doing another cultural archetypes exercise, since the first one had “failed”. It worked like a sticking plaster on a ravaging disease. And this is an organization with which we have been more or less continually engaged in the interim period. More shame on us.

There are two serious questions here: one is on the adequacy of our methods to the scale of the problems we face in these “apocalyptic” organisations. The other is the mode of our engagement. As external advisors who own the methods and the philosophy of our approach, the breadth and depth of our impact will always be limited. The more we are helping to inject capabilities and beliefs directly into these organisations, the better they will be. Which means we need to preach ourselves into extinction, so far as the design and follow through of interventions goes.

Again, this is easier said than done. There are lots of practitioners working inside organisations, and not as independent consultants and that is a good thing. But our interventions and our methods, I believe, are still too lightweight and inadequate for the shifts and transformations required of them. And as in KM, an independent consulting career must often seem more attractive a proposition than the painful intractitude of host organisations, once one has gained one’s battle scars.

So we can add to the capabilities of the organisations we serve, but our ability to do so is vastly disproportionate to the need; we need something to amplify and sustain their effect. This brings us to the idea of positive deviance.

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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.


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Positive Deviance

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