I think a lot of people don’t realise how novel the complexity stuff still and how threatening (needlessly) it is to established management practice. Those of us engaged in taking a more humane perspective a decade or so ago were a merry band of mavericks from many different backgrounds. I still treasure the various meetings and sessions we held both when I was in IBM and after I left.
For me, complexity was always the science of common sense. It gave a theoretical understanding of what anyone with experience already knew. In particular, it challenged the engineering metaphor which had dominated since the 1980s and some like Stacy just wanted to throw the engineering stuff out of the window along with anything he chose to label as systems thinking (which generally meant anyone Ralph disagreed with). To my way of thinking that was a mistake, engineering approaches were right up to a point but plan bloody dangerous beyond that. I cut my teeth as a manager when process approaches were starting to take off and I saw the need for standardisation and creating cross-silo flows of information. All of that had value but it suffered from what has been a perennial problem of management theory, namely the failure to realise that manufacturing is a special case of a highly constrained system and in many ways is a closed system. It’s good for researchers and consultants because you remove uncertainty, or treat any uncertainty as an example of correctable deviance. The problem is that it fails to grasp that as interactions increase the boundaries of the system become permeable that this breaks down. What works in manufacturing should stay in manufacturing.
The issue then arises as to can we manage if we are dealing with inherent uncertainty? That, together with a summary of key aspects of anthro-complexity as a field is the subject of this final post in the section before I go on look at the wider perspective of naturalising sense-making which will occupy the final three posts in the main sequence of this series. The heading of this post is drawn from a key book chapter I wrote with Cynthia and the difference between training a horse (menege) over household budgeting (menage) the essence of which I have blogged a few times, this being one example. That was one of the many blog posts where the pictures have been lost in two web upgrades so I added a rather nice image of Amish farming when I found it.
So in looking at what we can manage I came up with three main points about human purposeful (but please don’t confuse that with the purpose cult) interaction with a complex system:
I think this last point is the critical one and it brings me full circle to the earlier posts on knowledge and ASHEN. Humans have evolved things like apprentice schemes, education, and a host of other things that allow us to cope and adapt to a changing world. We are an adaptable species and while we are Homo Sapiens, we are also Homo Faber, Home Narrans, and Homo Ludens – think about all of those and I can now move on to the final three posts on the overarching theme here of naturalising sense-making.
Now I am not 100% sure of those, but for the moment they will do! I will expand on them and the earlier two sections in the final three posts. I also promised to talk more about identity today but I am not going to be able to do that. The good news, for some people, is that I do plan to bring back the ABIDE framing and that will be in one of the next three posts so I will handle it then.
I should probably have spent more time on the thorny question of intelligence, and it is an area where there is always an immediate sense of trespass of some type. Also if you read science fiction enough then you realise the danger of limits here. Think of the feminist science fiction writer Sheri S. Tepper and her Arbai Trilogy in which the first novel Grass is considered a classic, winning the Hugo and Locus awards back in 1990. Or the Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky which explores the social implications of spiders accidentally gifted with intelligence. There are multiple explorations of intelligence other than in humans.
One of the things I said in an earlier post was that I wanted to avoid a human-centric perspective by which I meant taking a view that the world and its species were created for the enjoyment and use by mankind. I’ve seen people try and use that as a Christian v Buddhist argument but like so much of the West v East nonsense, it is generally stereotyping and doesn’t represent all thinking in either tradition. So we are mammals, experiments on olfactory senses in rabbits can have implications for human decision making (Freeman’s work here is fascinating), my life is ruled when home by the whims of two white cats whose liking for ritual is sure and certain proof that not only were they once Gods but they still are, we just haven’t realised it yet. I’m going to say something about the role of religion in the final three posts by the way.
My use here relates to contrast with hive intelligence, the response to a stimulus that characterises ants and termite nest structures, or the flocking behaviour of birds. Humans have the ability to reflect on behaviour, to avoid (but not completely) the stimulus-response mechanism. We also have a highly symbolic language with the use of metaphor (think of Deacon’s Symbolic Species) that means we do things not in our short or long-term interest. We have literature, we can be changed by art, and so on. There is some evidence of symbolic thinking in higher apes but not developed in a social context like humans. Yes, other creatures including Rooks create and use tools (Homo Faber) and evidence humour if not irony (Homo Ludens) but do they tell stories (Homo Narrans)? They may, but if so we have not heard them.
So I am not saying that only humans have intelligence, but I am saying that the nature of human intelligence (posts 4-6 in this series) means that the study of complexity in human systems is qualitatively different from simulation models and the like in what I have called computational complexity.
Continuing my pick-up on my New Years’ trip to Snowdonia two years ago and this time the Carneddau, one of the great circular walks in Wales. The full walk continues to Pen yr Helgi Du but it was winter and time was running short them I got to Bwlch Eryl Farchog so I took a shortcut back to the A5 and then the side path back to the car.
The descent to the Bwlch is the one hazardous section of the walk, easy to go up but always problematic going down and people have slipped and died here. The guide books really don’t give enough warning of this especially as it comes towards the end of a long day when people will be tired. If you ascend from Tal y Llyn Ogwen at the eastern end of the Llyn Ogwen then everything has been easy to this point assuming a clear day. Never ascend Per yr Ole Wen from the Ogwen Cottage unless you are a masochist by the way, and the direct descent is even worse than the ascent. The other hazard, if visibility is poor, is the ridge from the summit of Dafydd to the point where it turns left to Llewelyn as it tracks Ysgolion Duon or the Black Ladders to the left which are a rock climbers playground and a lot of good tracks lead directly from the ridge to the tops of climbing routes and a wrong stop there will see you tumbling down 400m without the chance of arrest. Stay right and use a compass or Sat Nav if in any doubt. Equally, you need good navigation skills to get the right exit from Llewelyn so unless you are experienced this is a good weather walk and the views will reward you.
Both pictures are looking south from a position close to the summit of Carnedd Dafydd. Winter light as ever is good for the photographer as there is no haze. I didn’t take any stone wall pictures on this walk so I picked a natural pile of stones as an alternative. Other pictures from the day can be found here.
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