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Adventure & security

June 5, 2013

It's Thursday so it must be Bangkok more or less summarises this week which is a series of 1/2 night hotel stays.  I'm looking forward to a solid week in Melbourne and a chance to properly unpack.  I'm here to give an evening lecture at Bangkok University to the Knowledge and Innovation PhD group for Vincent Ribiere and it is my second time up for this engagement.  The session is also open to the public.   My love affair with Cathay Pacific continues as they upgraded me for the flight and achieved the same degree of discretion that I reported on the previous flight.

I think the lecture will be on line but regular readers will be familiar with the material, although I took a knowledge management focus.  The interview I did with Vincent was interesting given that generally I don't use the term knowledge management that much these days.   But I had an honest stab at the questions and I will post a link if it becomes available online.  In the presentation I used a quote from T S Eliot which I found the other day and which is apposite to the current state of affairs in complexity theory.

Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.

You can see a fair amount of this in the use of complexity theory at the moment, it has become a hot topic and that means the bandwagons roll into town and disgorge the snake oil sales-persons (this one is not confined to men by any means).   In one of the long minibus transports within Bangkok I sketched out the picture shown above.  On the horizontal scale we go from authentic to the theory to simply exploiting the theory with or without understanding.  On the vertical scale with go from low to high utility.  Now I need to qualify this somewhat.  By utility I really mean the ability to gain adoption of the idea in a early-majority/early adopter market so there is an element of marketability judgement involved in that.  Given that we get three extremes:

  • Authentic, low utility
    The area of the pure theory, normally in a research environment.   We see a lot of work here on complexity modelling and the like.  A real deep understanding of the science in question which has high generic utility, but is too abstract or removed to allow rapid adoption and/or exploitation.
  • Exploitative, low utility
    Which is the normal badging up of old methods with new language.   I'm not sure if this is old wine into new wineskins or vice versa, but whichever it is or should be busted.  This is where people take existing methods, often ideologically chosen, then use the language of complexity to give them a quick polish and brush up.  Ironically they may use the language correctly and they may understanding it but that does not translate into modifications of preferred practice.   We have a lot of this with facilitation techniques, mediation and coaching and the like at the moment.  Basically the test is to check if you have heard the approach described before without complexity language.  If that is the case proceed with caution.   Its also the space of Magpies, people who pick up bright shiny things they only partially understand, for whom I have less respect.
  • High utility not fully authentic
    Which is the more difficult area to sustain but potentially the most useful.  It goes back to the complex domain model.  There is no point in being right if you don't carry the key decision makers with you.  The test to see if someone is here is the degree to which what they propose should be done is different, unfamiliar and disturbing.  By that I do not mean ideologically disturbing I mean thinking very differently disturbing.  So to take an example arguing against management is not especially revolutionary, it is a familiar position of many a consultant who doesn't have to take responsibility, or who in their past has failed in said role.   On the other hand, to define different ways to manage based on different types of system (in the case of complexity) is revolutionary.  An either/or can be understood while a both/and is more difficult.

This is going to be a bigger theme over the next year or so and I have a few books to review that fall very firmly into the exploitative end of the scale.  The final position is a balancing act between academic and practitioner and both groups find you difficult in consequence.  The academics wonder why you waste your time with practitioners and the latter find the while thing too academic.  Of course the snake oil guys or just want you to accept anything as valid, or everything as complex or variants on the fad-scene.

So new wine for new wineskins, it's a simple test and while it has a delight of adventure it is far from secure

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