Complex Adaptive Processes on a Wiki?

June 18, 2010

It’s no secret that many quality management practitioners reject wikis as an effective platform for hosting both process descriptions and as the content management system that to enforce a process on a documents subjected to controls. After all, “wiki” has become synonymous to “edit-open collaboration” and hands-on edit-openness is converse to the needs of compliance-driven processes – such as the quality management ISO 9000 family of standards, the safety management standard BS 18000, and the US banking regulation, Sarbanes Oxley.

To quote Wikipedia

There are two common quality-related functions within a business. One is Quality Assurance which is the prevention of defects, such as by the deployment of a quality management system and preventative activities like Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). The other is Quality Control which is the detection of defects…

A successful Failure Mode and Effects Analysis activity helps a team to identify potential Failure Modes based on past experience with similar products or processes, enabling the team to design those failures out of the system with the minimum of effort and resource expenditure, thereby reducing development time and costs.

Systematization is the enabler of both market identity and business scale.

Systems take an effort to establish and take ongoing maintenance to keep in balance with the outside market. The more broadly encompassing the scale the costlier the system to establish. The more rapidly changing the business environment the costlier maintenance will be. What about Complexity?

Once a system is in place, adjustment to slowly changing market needs can be accomplished with front-line knowledge workers responsible for continual tinkering Failure Modes out of their part of the process. Each knowledge worker treats their part as an independent silos. No one looks after the whole, and there is not much need to: transactions become like postal mail moving around a city: handed off to the next process and, with a mature enough set of processes, sooner or later everything arrives. In an otherwise well functioning system, when mail doesn’t arrive, or it’s delivered late, damaged or to the wrong place, point fixes can be made by the knowledge worker closest to the particular problem

In Complicated, mature industries the stable conditions let massive players dominate. The kings of systemization, these giants build processes to handle complicated scenarios that fill niches of market value creation and extraction. Scale in these niches wins both scope (brand) advantages and cost advantages adding up to sales volume, and broad market share.

What if we get system failure? Then the system as a whole needs looking at, as incremental point fixes are just wasteful. For example the case of traffic gridlock in most major cities: adding extra roads isn’t a long-term fix.

In Nascent periods (think: new industries, recently disrupted industries) competitors have to sense-make to understand. No one is sure who customers are, which bundles of propositions are most highly valued by those customers, and so what offerings should look like and which other markets contain substitutes and are therefore threats. Scale needs systematization and systemization demands stable circumstances. The question is whether Nascent is actually Complex or Chaotic and whether continually morphing circumstances will dominate.

Outright revamps that reconsider the whole, and radically restructure impact hordes of people. They are risky, expensive, and if enacted repeatedly leave both front line workers and management weary of change. They also don’t work in Chaotic or semi-chaotic business environments. They can’t. Premediated revamps assume the problem is tractable and solutions can be made stable.

A key question for team, product, or organizational leaders must be how to determine what level of order their business environment is operating at, at whatever level of scale they are responsible. Chaos or complexity at the massive scale is more readily seen once identified: industry pundits will talk about it. In the small – in particular business scenarios where there are no industry pundits – that the extent of complexity is more difficult to ascertain. Cognitive Edge’s toolset can help either way.

But what, now you’ve established you have complexity and shifting circumstances? You need to equip your firm to continually adapt.

Your processes can’t be occasionally revamped. They have to be continually evolved, by rule. That’s going to take work, and not by outside process experts, but continuously, by the knowledge workers who enact the process who notice the exceptions, and who’s buy-in to alternative you are going to need anyway to get the changes enacted.

Wiki-like edit-open processes are scary to Quality Management professionals. How can random changes by random people deliver stable outcomes? Open contribution to a running process is contrary to the Quality Assurance mantra to get to the “prevention of defects”.

The problem with wikis has always been the collapse of two essentially different operations: Save and Publish. You edit and save a page. What happens? You publish to the world. No approval. No chance to ensure it marries up with process changes made elsewhere, compare to compliance or governance regulations, to get it buy-in from stakeholders or to get legal approval. As a rule Wikis omit Content Management and Workflow capabilities and, because they don’t deal with Approved Records, they also lack Records Management and Records Retention facilities.

For the past year I’ve worked with Comalatech to extend the vision of a workflow product for a leading commercial wiki product, Confluence. Before this year, Comalatech’s Approvals Workflows Plugin for Confluence created an intervention between the notions of Save and Publish (meaning the act of saving is shared selectively and that a sequence of approvals has to happen before the document is broadly published.) Therein creates a world for stable processes to be introduced by Process Experts to embrace Quality. I won’t go on about that here as the Cognitive Edge blog is not centered on the topic of Quality Management.

The extensions I’ve advocated for Comalatech are not for these stable circumstances known in advance and to be controlled by the hands of this Quality Process Expert. They are for uncertain, ambiguous and morphing scenarios: where the knowledge worker’s work and processes need to keep shifting to keep up with evolving complexity that only that knowledge worker really understands and where the front line Knowledge Worker is the agent primarily responsible noticing and making that shift happen. You can check out the Ad hoc Workflows for Confluence at – if I wrote any more I’d feel like I’m selling rather than telling, and that’s not my intention.

In my last blog post over the weekend I’ll tell you about WikiSym and WikiMania, to be held in Poland in 3 weeks time. Let me know your thoughts, typos outright errors or just examples. I’ll answer them next week!

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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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