Wikis as a Complex-Adaptive System

June 14, 2010

Well, hello! I’ve been away at a conference for the last week so hopefully I can make up for it in the next 7 days.

I’ve long had a fascination with the nature of ideas, and how idea-structuring technologies such as wikis benefits personal and organizational learning. The paradigm of a wiki has proven effective at every level: for the individual, as a place to collect and refine notes, for teams, as a way to socialize and synthesize content, or for mega-projects (such as Wikipedia) the means to culturally negotiate knowledge, information accepted to be true by the entire planet.

Incidentally, I’m careful of the terms information and knowledge. While you have information on your bookshelves, your knowledge is in your mind! There is no knowledge without a knower. Knowledge is the possession of information, held in each person’s mind and, thanks to that grey matter in your skull, reconfigurable – or let’s say leverageable – in an (more or less) instant. A supply and demand metaphor can be helpful: information is supply, literally fixed In Formation. Fixed “in formation” is often not leverageable. When information doesn’t fit your needs you seek conversation because that is leverageable.

A person-to-person conversation delivers knowledge because the questioner and responder can adjust their statements to meet each others needs. It’s mutually satisfying because the knower can select and deliver to the scope, language and depth of the person asking the question, attenuated by real-time feedback.

Wikis act like an outcome repository for millions of conversations, mutually adjusted questions and answers, the form of wiki enhances signal:noise by showing only conclusions and hiding chatter and dead content that progressed it. (By the way, all that history is there, it’s just hidden on an activity stream of a particular and connected pages).

Each contribution on a wiki is a presentation of evidence. The wiki’s contributors accept their belief of evidence by allowing that contribution to survive as justified by the arguments around it. Expressing and watching each wiki contribution survive (or die) makes the information content progress as a complex-adaptive ecosystem. Successive swathes of contributions provide the grounds for further content, interweaving cross-cutting themes as ever-richer contexts. Each topic might be considered a life-form contending for a niche in the shared-belief ecosystem. The best wikis emerge as a collective search for higher forms of profound concepts. Wikipedia is now a content repository authoritative on so many subjects it’s become a key enabler for 300 hundred million people per month to learn.

Organizations must adapt to thrive: it must identify and mobilize its valuable internal resources in ways against which competitors hopefully won’t defend. This demands that the organization continually engage in collective, self-reflective behaviour, i.e. look at its business context, and evolve strategies to make best of its assets, partnership agreements and distinctive competences. And while leadership sets direction and tone, it depends on its knowledge workers to make decisions using those strategies and to be the agents that drive forward the evolution of the firm’s value proposition. A firm’s knowledge workers must learn, reflect on and buy into strategies so the company can eliminate waste, progress capabilities and thus enhance its offering to customers.

I believe that a wiki makes for a great knowledge management system when seeded with content that entices knowledge workers to learn, integrated with other information feeds, and framed and proven as a place for collective action. It’s an effective medium for modelling the truth, and as they say, The Truth Is Out There (in the real world). If no one learns from a wiki it becomes an outdated information repository, and might as well be printed on dead trees! Knowledge management occurs precisely because (and when) the wiki helps people to learn.

Organizations exist in the real world, among the realities of competition. Staff in a firm equipped with and engaged on a wiki with real-time feeds can collectively be informed, make sense of and socialize their interpretations. Together they make adjustments to the firm’s relationship to the changing world. Done right, a wiki makes a firm more adaptive and certainly less rigid. More firm in its outcomes, if you like, without being fixed in its ways.

Okay! That’s all the time I have today. Back soon!

Blended Perspectives
Industry Chair, WikiSym – Gdansk, 7-9th July

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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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