Tools & Process v Networked Human Judgement

March 15, 2015

Late in April, Gary Wong and I will be delivering our complexity and safety training course in Houston. This session focuses on how complex adaptive systems thinking, the Cynefin framework, and narrative collection can help leadership teams improve their safety cultures and reduce safety risks. Fundamental to the overall approach is deploying a more effective form of networked human judgement and distributed sense-making.

Being a professional engineer with industrial project management experience I can appreciate the challenges many leadership teams face across a range of industrial sectors. Earlier in my tenure at Cognitive Edge I also led transformation projects in healthcare, some of which looked closely at patient safety in hospitals and healthcare regions. A common challenge that I see facing companies today is the proliferation of tools that allow all of us to manage an incredible degree of detail in our day to day work lives. It’s not the tools themselves that present the challenge but our attempt to manage complex and uncertain environments with such tools in an ordered way. This proliferation of tools together with an ordered approach is also impacting safety. There seems to be no end to the number and variety of tool supported safety management systems enabling an incredible degree of coordination across large networks and devices. For those that know me well know of my personal delight in exploring the newest technological tools.  So I’m the first to admit that I like tools and what they can do for us. However there is a consequence in attempting to manage every level of detail in a structured way when faced with uncertain, complex, and dynamic contexts.

What are the implications of having an overwhelming array of tools and processes to help manage an overwhelming volume of tasks / activities? Before we had such an array of tools, I would argue we managed the gaps more effectively with a more loosely coupled network of human judgement. Such human judgement was much more localized and face to face.  Fundamentally it was woven into, and defining of, a corporate culture. A networked form of human judgement expressed through an organization’s culture is far more enabling, adaptive, and resilient in conditions of complexity and uncertainty.

Unfortunately an all too common excessive obsession with efficiency, a desire to engineer all processes, and a wish to eliminate all uncertainty and complexity is not only burning out human resources but it’s introducing risks into operating environments. Safety is one of those areas that is unfortunately suffering a negative impact from this overly ordered management approach.

The challenge is not to make the informal formal, or the formal entirely informal, the challenge is to better negotiate and establish a means to manage the boundary between the two. All companies and organizations need constraints and ordered processes, especially when it comes to safety. We are all benefiting to a certain degree with the variety and abundance of tools. The reality is we are overemphasizing the engineering of safety management systems rather than managing the interaction between the necessary ordered structures and the informal cultural norms that have evolved within companies.  It is precisely this area that our upcoming Cynefin and safety training course will be covering and we hope you can join us in Houston in April.


PS – For anyone who posts a comment to this blog, pls note that I will be away from the office enjoying a spring break holiday with my family. I’ll respond to any comments upon my return. 

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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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