Language is the master of man

December 10, 2013

There is an interesting phenomena at the moment in that various people are trying to define themselves either by, or against Cynefin.  It’s an indication (citations are another) of the growing use of Cynefin within both academic and practitioner fields.  On the negative side the reaction seems to be either sycophancy or jealousy, which are best ignored or dismissed.  I attempted the latter yesterday with someone whose capacity to for self delusion and basic lack of basic integrity, let alone business sense, has been a major disappointment to Cognitive Edge this year.  One other took umbrage when I objected to their use of the Cynefin name for their own framework.  But those things happen one lives with them and moves on; I think I have only directly criticised three or four people for their use over the years and those were extreme cases: those mentioned plus the Magpies.

The other was more interesting and it came from Roger Sessions via a linked in discussion.  In it, he takes issue with the distinction between complex and complicated which he attributes to complexity aficionados who have been influenced by the Cynefin framework which is pejorative language to say the least.  It makes Cynefin sound like some drug dealer trapping the innocent into their first fix.  The twitter stream hit back and I think I was one of the most gentle, which is not a familiar position.  John Bordeaux gave a considered response and Stephen Bounds responded.  I just replied and a civilised dialogue looks to be in prospect.  When people are confident and know their subject disagreement is positive, the people who hate arguments generally don't satisfy the starting conditions.  Roger and I have batted this one back and forwards over the years and I have taught his students, at his invitation.  He has invested considerable time in a particular use of words and I can understand him defending that use and not wishing to change.  The problem is that language moves on and I suspect that he is increasingly getting questions and criticisms about his use of complex and this is problematic.

I think its useful as it gives me a chance to clear up some confusions and clarify the use of language in Cynefin.  The title of this post by the way comes from Heidegger and the full quote is Man thinks he is the master of language, but language is the master of man.  Language is so fundamental to our sense-making capability and intelligence that words do matter. Trying to pretend they don't is a mistake.  Glenda Eoyang said, in respect of the meaning of the terms Who decides to which I replied the literature and I could have added emergent use.  I spend a lot of time trying to explain to knowledge management people that the term cannot be rescued from its status as a subset of IT and/or a focus on codification and information.   When it started there were multiple possibilities, but they close in use over time.

This type of closure is important.  J C Spender famously used the idea of problematic language to explain this.  He argued that as words come into currency, as knowledge did in the 1990, the word becomes problematic and its meaning shifts over time based on use and practice.  At the time he also suggested that Cynefin, or more specifically I, was making the world meaning problematic; a comment I am proud to accept.  The complex and complicated distinction is not owned by Cynefin.  Paul (Cilliers) famously used it with the illustration of an aircraft (complicated) and a mayonnaise (complex) to make the point.  Since then it is in common use and to be honest I think Roger, rather like the KM people is fighting a lost cause and would be better moving on.

What I do want to do is the use the opportunity to clarify some aspects of Cynefin.   I'll do that today or tomorrow as I am teaching it to a full class here in Seattle and teaching helps me think and clarify things.  So the post will be tomorrow or the day after.


PS I am conscious that I need to write a post on Mandela, but that is going to wait a week or two.  There are many tributes on the web, many far better than anything I could write.   I want to reflect on his life in the context of a critique of non-violence as a prescription (rather than a tactic) and also Just War Theory.  That will be a Christmas post I suspect.

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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