From early warning to early action

November 13, 2007

I was invited to attend and speak at an EU event on the above subject in Brussels this week. I had expected a normal small meeting room, but it turned out to a much bigger event with some prestigious speakers. I thought I would report on the summary session, and use that as an introduction to the aspects of our work that I presented; which generated a lot of interest, it was as they say different.

For anyone coming to this site after my lecture at the event, then if you go to the Literature section of the web site then any article by Kurtz/Snowden will give you the academic background. In addition the Helsinki lecture and podcast spends an hour going through the material I covered in 15 minutes and may be useful

As a part of the plenary session a representative of the coming presidency of Slovenia. She talked about four needs:

  1. 1. for the response to be comprehensive and coherent, tackling simultaneous all aspects of conflict
  2. an absolute need for effective multi-lateralism – working together is a must there is a need for long term engagement for sustainability critically, take early action: come quickly, stay as long as necessary

    She then moved on to ask a critical questions: We have the reach but do we have the speed?While the EU has a range of tools, it is less good on early warning. There are some good things, for example the increasing coherence between security and development. We then had a very powerful summary and my notes are set out below, as I took them down.

    EU crisis management is in great demand, ambitions growing but the budget has zero growth. Need to shorten response time, issues here on procurement and intersilo planning. Interlocking and interpillar coherence has to be further strengthened. In doing this need to improve impact on the ground, turnkey project approach, more co-operation on the ground. Need better situation awareness to understand better risks and manage planning – many sources from old fashioned intelligence to many actors, problem is abundance of inputs not the shortage, need to concentrate more on processing.

    Reporting was more mixed. That on the track session I was in seemed to reflect one of the speakers alone (I think he was also the reporter but I am not sure). There was some very powerful and moving material from a range of speakers involved in conflict resolution on the ground, as well as wise words from people in positions of power and influence in the EU.

    However I was disturbed at many of the conclusions, which were repeating the sorts of statements which have been around for years. As you might expect they related to more common systems, more prediction, more common tools. Lots of language around better prediction and anticipation and a strong tendency to assume that the past would allow us to create models for future interaction. This included phrases like common processes from reconciliation not to mention lots of synchronization type statements. The technology solutions seem to have recognized the need for local needs, but very much wanted to prove new concepts by retrospective review of past projects, something we know doesn’t work. Wanting to make decisions for established and proven technologies. Talk of standards on technology and methods and the classic KM errors relating to exchange of information in advance of actual need.

    Proposal to have a joint mapping exercise to integrate existing knowledge. I almost growned audibly in a large hall. Why is that people keep taking this over engineered approach to natural processes? It has never worked in industry, it will not work in Government., Its the wrong approach, it wastes money and resource.

    My brief (12 minutes, well I pushed it to 15) made several simple points:

    • The need to realise that in crisis management we are dealing with complex systems where the past only repeats by accident.
    • That hindsight does not lead to foresight, although we can learn from it
    • In a complex system we need to shift from Fail-Safe design to Safe-Fail experimentation
    • Distributed cognition is key in a complex system, the decision making has to come in the main from the subjects of the intervention not the interveners. This is very different from delegation
    • Narrative creates the basic patterns through which different cultures view the world
    • Narrative if fragmented, its not about
    • Experts can not look at a subject objectively without cognitive bias

    I finished by showing some of the landscape work we have being doing to represent cultural through narrative and that attracted considerable interest and there will be some follow up here I think.

    I would have also added that seemed no realisation in the technology summaries of the potential of Web 2.0, it was not mentioned in the summary, despite lots of wish lists for interoperability and ready availability. This leads me to my major concern about an over constrained system, which follows in the next paragraph.

    Overall it was a worthwhile investment of time. However one overriding concern remains. Europe, and the European Community, particularly after its expansion represents a multi-cultural block with money and power. The US is a single culture block with more power and maybe more money. As such the Eu should be in a position to do far more in resolving, preventing and anticipating conflict. However all of my encounters with the EU have been with bureaucracy, partially redeemed by brilliant and motivated individuals.

    Speed of response, early amplification or dampening of weak signals is key. To do that in a sustainable way at acceptable cost will require radical rethinking of current processes. To many of speaker were trying to make the existing system work better, when in practice it has reached the near limits of its capability.

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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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