Emergent meaning or prescription?

May 9, 2009

I was chatting with David Tebbutt on Skype today on a range of subjects from knowledge management to some named individuals that we both know. We also talked more broadly around Cognitive Edge current projects which are creating a form of distributed ethnography or networked intelligence. Now David was one of the first people outside of my workgroup to see the value in the theory and practice I was starting to put together in my early IBM period, some fifteen years ago now and its always interesting talking with him. During the process of the conversation I managed to articulate something I think have known intuitively for some time. It’s the distinction between networked intelligence and the expert and it’s a major shift in the way we need to think about consultancy (which is not necessarily a dirty word).

Now I should make something clear here. I am not talking about knowledge being determined by majority vote. In politics I think delegative (and at multiple levels) authority has a higher morality than referenda and populism. In specific fields such as Engineering, Philosophy etc. where there is an established body of knowledge it would be a nonsense to go with the majority opinion of the uninformed masses. Yes we need to be careful about the exclusion of mavericks, the entrained patterns of traditional thinking that inhibit the emergence of novelty. However that very inhibition serves as a evolutionary control or refinement process on novelty and is infinitely preferable to the tyranny of the mob. To refer back a couple of entries and anticipate a post I plan for tomorrow: Ayn Rand may be popular within a specific culture, but popularity should not define importance.

I am talking here about an understanding within an organisation or community of what is possible, of how to effect change. Here we are dealing with emergent possibilities based on the realities of the present rather than idealistic models of the future.

We have two models in play at the moment.

  • Firstly the traditional model of consultancy involves the creation of expertise in organisational change. Some of this is experience, some arises from observation of successful and unsuccessful organisations with the attempt to derive best practice from that observation. With the increasing emphasis on manufacturing models of consultancy (at the expense of partner-mentoring ones) this has also led to the growth of recipes, processes, models, tests etc. The confusion of correlation with causation is as ever endemic in these approaches. The selling process always ends up with the expert making recommendations to decision makers about what should be done next. Such recommendations can be idealistic (leaders should consultant staff more), more frequently they involve re-organisation to some ideal model (more consultancy revenue. All are based on how things should be with the authority of expert making that determination.
  • Secondly we have the new approaches that have become possible since technology matured from process control and information flow to the networked, fragmented and semi-structured worlds of social computing. Here as communication flow increases, patterns of meaning start to emerge. We start to see the possibilities for navigation, pathways that look interesting, areas that however attractive look dangerous. The work I posted on Justice gave an indication of what is possible here. Imagine if we present images of aspects of organisation rather than justice, then gather the basic day to day narrative of the organisation (as well as its hopes, fears and dreams) we can map the landscape that emerges. Here the diagnostic is done by the research subjects themselves within a loose framework set by the experts. In justice we used anthropologists, but the expertise of organisational change specialists can be used here, not to tell people what to do, but to create a structure within which the organisation itself can communicate what is possible.

Now the process of transition between these approaches is not going to be easy, but it is going to happen. In the mean time the old expert model seems to be split into two extremes. At one end we have the recipe welding process manager, the sick stigma turqioise belt , the high priests of orthodoxy. At the other end the new age fluffy bunnies with idealistic models of enlightened managers supported by highly motivated and participation staff; a brave new world which is so far away from what is possible that it excuses disengagement with the present for its gurus.

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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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