Familiarity breeds usefulness

November 6, 2009

I found this telling cartoon in the process of hunting down references for an overdue chapter in a book on decision making. It makes the very important point that tools are the difference between being well fed and being the good meal. It triggered me to think more about tools and their role in human sense-making. Without tools we are nothing, but tools exist to augment human intelligence and social capabilities, not to replace them. When the tools dominate then we have a form of techno-fetishm (in popular language, sexist but regrettably true, Boys with Toys).

In the early days of any new technology we run the danger of fetishism. We saw this in the early days of knowledge management, with the creation of scalable and affordable collaboration environments. I used to say that that we needed to be careful, we were in danger of replacing, rather than augmented human capability. Not only that the replacement was less adequate in many a case than the human social equivalent, but that its sustained adoption would remove that social capability to our loss. The catch phrase I created at the time to summarise this was If you pick up a tool and it fits your hand its useful, if you have to bio-rengineer your hand to fit the tool something is going badly wrong.

Of course technology embodies human knowledge, but that embodiment by its nature stabilises knowledge at a point in time, it limits innovation shifting the balance from exploration to exploitation. Social computing, a new technology should have disrupted collaboration technologies in organisations but all too often we see the old models being perpetuated. Sharepoint is a good example of this, a competent file storage system it is over structured for human collaboration, instead of augmenting human capability it constrains that capability. The apparent order created appears attractive to some but it lacks the dynamism required for information management in a modern organisation.

Brian Arthur in his excellent new book The Nature of Technology” What it is and How it Evolves makes the impotant point that modularisation is critical to the evolution of technology and in particular exaptation (although he does not use that word specifically). Now this is a form of partial constraint, without some constraints evolution does not happen, we just have randomness. With too much structure there is no space for novelty. The dilemma at the moment is that social computing considered overall is a wild flower garden, richly diverse and constantly changing. On the other hand most corporate computing environments are the equivalent of the highly formal gardens of the 17th Century, before they were swept away by the naturalistic movement of the 18th Century.

When I adopted the term sense-making to describe out work I did two things. Firstly I rejected the neologism Sensemaking adopted by Weick by inserting the hyphen. Aside from my general dislike of neologisms (if you want compound nouns learn German the language evolved for them), sense-making has a more dynamic quality to it. I also added naturalising to indicate the foundation of the approach in natural science, but it was an indirect reference to the wider use of that term. The landscape metaphor is a good one, there is structure, there is design and there is engineering (often massive in scale), but the outcome is something which is blend of the formal and the random. Our use of tools, and the architecture of our tool based environments need to reflect that.

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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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