serious play in a complex party

November 27, 2008

Reading Dave’s post regarding “The major obstacle to the adoption of social computing” (which Dave says is “the IT department trying to over-constrain the system”) motivates me to do two things which surprise myself:
i) justify the current practices of IT Departments; and, by doing # i
ii) disagree publicly with Dave Snowden.

(Well, o.k., I’m much less surprised by point ii than point i

It has been a long hard slog for IT Departments to become competent (and many have not) in the ordered domain, bordering into the complicated (Cynefin framework). In brief, good IT Departments have gotten there by doing exactly what Dave says experts should do: they are sticking to the ordered and complicated. The essence of Web 2.0 is that they are tools to support social systems. As I hope to illustrate in a posting re “systems” worldviews (which I guess I’d better do soon – only two days left in this gig) social systems are inherently complex. Good IT Departments realize that they are stuck, by default, with capturing the business rules into their software. But there are no business rules in the complex domain.

The only solution that I know of: assist the business side in developing the vision of what could exist in this new domain, and then evangelize IT, who will generally agree that managing the supporting infrastructure is within their competence. I’ll step out on a limb and say it’s happening for me right now in my own workplace.

The easiest way to explain/develop a vision is simply to show it – if only on a smaller scale. Of course, this requires making something to show. And this is where play (the title of my post and something we claim to know about in Cognitive Edge) comes in. Play is both a highly effective way to experiment with social structures and non-threatening to the status quo (after all, it’s “only” play . I’ve got two examples of what I mean.

Larry Garfield explains how he got involved in Drupal to facilitate his play:

In one of my many lives, I am a member of an online international Star Trek RPG club called STF. STF is now over 16 years old, dating back to the summer of 1991 on the old Prodigy dial-up service’s bulletin boards. It moved to the new-fangled thing called the “Web” in 1997, using a horrid pile of custom Perl scripts called “effWeBB” as a posting system. (“eff” as in the grade the author thought he’d get if he submitted it for class.) That is when I joined. I wanted to replace effWeBB with something cleaner, more functional, more usable, more modular, and more maintainable from almost day one.

The site Larry is talking about is STF: “the best online Bulletin-board style Star Trek Role-Playing site on the internet”. To understand it a bit, look at the front page, start with Navigation And Roleplaying Basics, especially the sections “Roleplaying Style” and “Multiple Timelines”

Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt describe how they built BlueShirt Nation (BSN; also see this slideshow):

Here we have a robust community of people with a common interest, Best Buy. They share knowledge, best practices, frustrations, aspirations and jokes.

Within a year 20,000 of them have signed up. All have come to the site from referrals or through word of mouth.

They form groups, make friends, stay in touch and prop each other up. They help each other. They seem to like each other. How cool.

And it’s a fluke.

BSN is a corporate sponsored social network site that is outside of the corporate firewall. It is moderated largely by it’s users and it’s completely voluntary. Plus it was built with open source software and is managed by a couple of ad guys.

In the traditional sense, it shouldn’t work.


Its a fluke because we didn’t know enough at the beginning to say what it would be. Its a fluke that we built a prototype and someone actually full-heartedly supported it. Its a fluke that people showed up on the site. Its a fluke that people liked our t-shirts and signed up- and then told others. Its a fluke that management started to listen to the employees and make decisions based on their input.

The biggest reason its a fluke is that we could have never planned for what it became. There are two main reasons that it became something real. The first is admitting what we knew when we started. And that one thing we knew is that we didn’t know enough. We didn’t know what people wanted or how or if they’d even use it. Admitting that forced us to ask questions, to listen, to react quickly.

The second is failure. We’re good at it. We fail weekly and we kind of like it. We try tons of new things, some stick and some don’t. Most don’t. But we do it in a low criticality environment. We do it so it doesn’t cost us a lot of money or make an investment on our part that we’re too proud to give up. And when we fail, people forgive us and we learn.

The primary goal of a good IT Department is to avoid failure. The essence of good corporate design is to not have two contradictory imperatives (prevent and promote failure) within the same unit. And, frankly, I don’t think even the BSN userbase would be very accepting of, for example, a failure that lost the entire history of their postings. What we need must come from a different place than the IT Department. Ranting about IT’s shortcomings, instead of building a vision that they can sign on to, is only our own failure.

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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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