Communication in a CAS

December 6, 2008

I’m preparing for the next webinar in the series Strategy to Action: The Power of Human Systems Dynamics (http://www.uliveandlearn.com/). This session, on December 10, is about communications in a complex system. Of course, if human systems are self-organizing, agent-based, pattern generating entities, communication takes on an essential theoretical role. When you live and work within such systems, communication also becomes an essential element in practice. We are dealing with communication explicitly in many projects right now:

•Conflict resolution that retains diversity of thought and action.

•Collaborations among government and private industry to deliver high-quality, cost-effective services.

•Planning in the midst of very dynamical landscapes.

•Research partnerships across geographical and disciplinary distances.

•Using multiple media to educate and facilitate our expanding network of certified associates.

Sometimes we embed an HSD perspective in communication implicitly into our relationships, and sometimes we make our ideas about communications explicit. The webinar will be an example of our explicit approach. Here is a bit of a preview.

HSD operationalizes communication as exchange, and includes exchange as one of the key conditions for self-organizing in human systems. Tight exchanges move a system toward orderly predictability. Loose exchanges move it toward emergent and surprising patterns. Without exchanges, agents roam around without reference to each other, and the result appears random and chaotic (in the garden-variety sense).

We have investigated ways to design exchanges to influence the coherence and adaptability of systemic patterns. Theoretically, the views are drawn from communications, information, and mechanical sciences. Practically, they emerge from our own experience with clients, vendors, colleagues, and each other. We focus on four aspects of exchange, each of which can be monitored and adjusted to improve the clarity, coherence, and reach of communicative acts.

•Length refers to both the time required for an exchange (both out-going and in-coming) to be completed as well as the number and ruggedness of the boundaries across which a message must travel.

•Width refers to the amount of information that is transmitted simultaneously. A bad dinner party is a much wider exchange than even the best email.

•Dynamic refers to the intent of the exchange to amplify or to damp a previous action or message. Damping (negative) feedback strives to reduce and amplifying (positive) feedback strives to increase a quantity or behavior.

•Direction refers to the “back” part of the feed. Sometimes it is reasonable to broadcast a message without expecting a message in return. The choice depends on the context, the current system state, and the message.

When faced with a communication that is not working, it is possible to describe it in terms of its length, width, dynamic, and direction, and to explore options for action to improve the function by changing one of these key variables. When you shift one of these four dimensions, the exchange is transformed, and systemic patterns shift. You cannot predict the effects, but you can anticipate them before the change, observe them after the change, and adapt tactics to improve performance in the next cycle of observation, decision, and action.

Yes, it is as easy as it sounds. For more information, join us on-line.

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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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