Making meaning problematic

February 6, 2017

I spent a good part of today talking about our planned project on Meaning Making or The Making of Meaning (we are still debating the programme name). It has nine elements ranging from the socio-physical world to ideas of spirituality in the modern world. A provision web site and a series of MassSense events around the subject area should be sorted out this week and I will post when it is ready. I originally started to think about this many moons ago when I was in IBM and got a special award from the Academy of Management for original contributions to Knowledge Management. The prize for this was to present to a session at the academy and then be subject to criticism by Max Boisot and J C Spender. The latter suggested that I was making meaning problematic. For JC that was a compliment, he thought that when words became problematic life got interesting as it allowed new knowledge to emerge.

Either way over a decade later I think I am starting to see how to answer his question. Within the programme we will be looking at a range of subjects but through an anthro-complexity lens. That involves thinking anew about some traditional divides, for example:

  1. The separation of the sacred and the mundane rather than realising that each is intimately bound up with other.  This is not simply a religious matter by the way, although the split allows someone to separate their day to day work practice from their Sunday attendance at a local Church. To focus on the material at the cost of the poetic or to ignore the mundane by aspiring to a higher level of enlightenment (think about the Jade and other Spiral Dynamics Nonsense or even aspects of Theory U if you want examples) are equally foolish.
  2. Cartesian models of consciousness which separate the body from the soul, mind form matter and in extremis assume that the mind is a computer and that transfer of personality to a hard disk is only a mater of time.  I’m of the view that if you really think that, then it may be possible or even immanent for you. Separation from our physical world, from the ecosystem of which are a part is alienating and potentially fatal for us as a species; true knowledge is enacted, embodied and engaged.  It is not solely abstract but neither is it concrete, rather a fluid changing state between the two.
  3. Thinking of individuals as separate from their communities, or seeing those communities as aggregations of individual self interest and/or choice.  Within complexity we talk more about interactions than things and modern scientific understanding of pre and post birth cognitive development says that we are primarily a social species, defined by as much as defining community practice.  Our common narratives create constraints on our behaviour and thoughts of which we are only partially aware.
  4. Seeing art as a process separate from craft and/or the role of an artisan.  Our early ancestors used painting to make meaning within their communities and it was deeply pragmatic and engaged.   Singing hymns in the Chapels of Wales during the industrial age was a gesture of identity and community cohesion which we have lost.  It provided a small coherence in an otherwise bleak life.  Art is not only for the elite, it is also the abstraction of the common place that is key to humanity.
  5. Seeing our heritage, our past as something fixed rather than as an intimate part of our lived present.  This is the meaning of Cynefin and why it is oh so different from the German Heimat despite their common definition as habitat in the less poetic english language.  Cynefin is not about being reconciled to a history, but it is about that history being a part of the lived present and immanent future.  The ability to live in, and enable future generations to live in that flow is key to humanity.

More on this over the next few days, and I will post links for those interested to sign up to be a part of the definition phrase. But that is for later in the week.

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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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