Is that all?

December 2, 2008

Lunch on Friday was with a particularly business-savvy academic. We are committed to offering a Masters degree in Human Systems Dynamics, and he is interested in building an international reputation for state-of-the-art social science.

I found one of his questions particularly challenging, “Is that all?” It came in response to my response to his first question, “What is the content for an MA in HSD?” I had answered simply and, I thought, rather elegantly:
•Self-organizing systems

So, he asked, “Is that all?” As most good questions do, this one made me stop and challenge my own assumptions and his. I realized that the elegance of my answer hid a whole host of diversity.

Take “self-organizing systems,” for example. It potentially includes:
•Agent-based and other forms of computer simulation modeling
•Any facet of engineering or the natural sciences that deals with nonlinear dynamics
•All of biological sciences
•Metaphysics and philosophy—both ancient and contemporary
•All social sciences, from psychology to international relations

Others would certainly include spirituality and creative arts, though these lie on the periphery for me. Is that all?

The challenge, of course, is to make such a broad-ranging field coherent for both scholars and practitioners. That is where the other three content areas come into the picture.

Praxis tightly couples theory and practice. When HSD takes it as a core tenet, we commit to focusing on aspects of self-organizing that are both true (see intersubjectivity) and useful. At this early stage in the development of sciences of self-organizing systems, many concepts are taken to be true, but we have not yet (see inquiry) found them useful for decision making and action in human systems. Other concepts appear to be useful, but they can make no reliable claim to truth. HSD is a field of study and a network of scholar practitioners who focus on what is both true and useful.

Inquiry might seem to expand the bounds of HSD even further, but it too informs and focuses our work. HSD is not a dogma, it is a field of inquiry. We welcome the evolutionary process of individual and collective learning. We’ve wondered over the years whether inquiry is simply an artifact of the maturity of this emerging science. “In fifteen years, when we’ve delved the depths, we will have answers with long shelf-lives.” I think not. There seems to be something fundamental about curiosity when one is consciously engaged in self-organizing systems.

Intersubjectivity was the way Habermas built a bridge over the abyss of constructivism. He named four “ontological realms” that define equivalent and complementary categories of truth. Objective is the one we usually think of as TRUTH. It is based on evidence that is observable and confirmable by anyone. Subjective is truth that is known personally, with certainty but without immediate reference to external evidence. Normative truth is established by agreement among people in a group. Finally, intersubjectivity is the stance that acknowledges all of the other truths as valid and necessary, and focuses on one or another as appropriate to a given situation. As we apply HSD to help individuals and groups build adaptive options for action, we find objective, subjective, and normative truths to be useful—sometimes all at the same time. We find it a powerful and difficult concept whether we are working with scholars or practitioners.

So, yes, that is all. We expect to work with partners in accredited academic institutions to deliver a Masters program that builds capacity to deal with the complex challenges of human systems dynamics. The program will be interdisciplinary, on-line, and international.

Your comments, questions, and self-organizing possibilities are welcome!

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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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