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This is the dawning of the age of praxis?

January 22, 2009

As part of the book writing (and the Cognitive Edge business plan) several of us have been looking at models of change over time. I have always been an admirer of Charles Handy and had the privilege of speaking on the same platform in Dublin. In his classic book The Empty Rain Coat he elaborated his concept of the sigmoid curve. These can be used to describe any life cycle. The basic idea is that all new ideas start slowly, often staggering through the adoption phase on raw belief alone, then they rise to a pinnacle of success followed by decline. The secret of success is to adopt the next curve early (the yellow areas on the diagram below); not too early and not too late. The paradox is that you should make changes while the old model is still working, and commit the resources to take it though the early stage. The longer you leave it the hard it comes and if you wait until you are past the yellow zone the cost is massive and many organisations at this point fail.

I’ve attempted to apply sigmoid curves to the wider history of management both for understanding and to give a perspective on where we go next, and an optimistic take on the current recession. A rough summary below which will be greatly elaborated in the preface to the book. All and any crticism (constructive or otherwise) would be appreciated, either as comments or by email

As you can see I have elaborated three signmoid curves. The first is the period of scientific management from Taylor through until the 1980s where we see the adoption of process based approaches. We move from the functional structure of the traditional manufacturing environment with its separation of marketing, from sales, from production to the process orientation triggered by Hammer and Champy’s Re-engineering the Corporation . With that we see the growth of management consultants, ERP systems and a radical transformation of companies. That period includes knowledge management which adopted the same codification strategy that was implicit in process management, and utilised similar consultancy methods and approaches to the use of technology. Interestingly the old functional form was maintained, but matrix organisations emerged and there was a general downsizing of middle management.

Companies late to adopt the change suffered, and the dominant software of the period was probably SAP. Now while we may think of process as common place and even at times carried to excess in approaches such as Sick Stigma back then it was a revolutionary new idea. IBM rejected a German business plan to create the first ERP system (SAP). It took a recession and the need to reduce costs to trigger a move to process. In general the move was late and the cost was high, and that cost rose as time went on for more conservative organisations.

While those two periods were different, at their heart they assumed an ordered system and the discoverable existence of best practice. The next sigmoid is I think a phase shift (I am trying to avoid the paradigm word). It involves the move to an understanding of complex system, with their inherent un-causality, their nature requiring an approach based on the three basic characteristics of distributed cognition, fine granularity objects and disintermediation. I have previously elaborated those here and will expand further on their application in that series over the next few months. This shift has been characterised by the phenomena of social computing, but until recently that has not been a corporate tool, more a private one. Now we have a recession, we have an immediate a chronic need to rethink our organisations and markets and that needs a new way of perceiving the world.

For me that has always been the natural science based approach to sense-making, incorporating complex adaptive systems, narrative and the like into a vody of method and tools that allow us (as process did before) to do more with less. That new paradigm is emerging and in case you hadn’t realised it Cognitive Edge and SenseMaker™ were a rejected IBM business plan ….

One of the major changes here is the shift from attempting to replicate what has worked for others with the inevitable confusion of correlation with causation and the failure to appreciate the criticality of context, to an approach in which sound theory is applied to practice. When we understand the principles of complexity, such as agent interaction, attractors etc. then we can apply that theory to a novel situation with some confidence of a good outcome. It will not replicate past success, but will be appropriate to the current context. That used to be called praxis and is I think at the heart of this new age, and a key and controversial skill so its adoption will not be easy. Back in the seventies we used to joke that praxis makes perfect. In an age of uncertainty that is not longer a joke, its a key opportunity.

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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.
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