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Learning on the Job

January 16, 2009

I was reminded of a large study we concluded in the fall of 2008 on employee attitudes about their quality of work life. The study came to mind because just this past week we were wrestling with how to best access the perspectives of a large continuing education student body. At least here in the States, it seems like our over-reliance on quantitative research methodology is alive and well, evidenced by the seemingly perpetual arguments we must make in support of purely qualitative or even mixed method approaches to surveying attitudes.

As I was thinking about last year's project I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of the insights we gained from conducting this large-scale C-E project and how we are putting insights to work. Although the logistics of the project were a challenge at times, the insights gained by folks inside the organization were well worth the effort. We conducted a large number of anecdote circles workshops over a several month period. We had hoped to run several large events and collect the stories in a short period of time, but pressures of the organization's work schedule resulted in us running a substantial number of small workshops. Our assumption that we could pull together a large number of people in this particular setting was in error.

We did find that workshop participants were quick to get over their skepticism about the anecdote circle process and they proved to be generous in their willingness to share stories. We workshop facilitators quickly encountered a dilemma—should we collect a high volume of great anecdotes based on storyteller enthusiasm, or deal with the participant pushback when they had to fill out the index sheets (Dave warned us about this ahead of time, but apparently we didn’t carefully listen). Participants were more than willing to share work experience stories, but we quickly realized that the cognitive load associated with filling out the index questionnaires was a big task. We would have preferred to augment the workshops with website collection, but in this particular setting it just wasn't possible. The lesson was the importance of balancing anecdote production with the effort associated with participant indexing.

Ultimately, we collected a significant number of stories and used Sensemaker to analyze the data. A significant number of managers within the organization have spent time analyzing the embedded patterns within the data using Sensemaker, but frequently they gravitate back to the stories themselves to create context.

Based on insights gained from the study, one of our next steps is to bring complexity and cognitive science principles to systems engineers. The cross-functional nature of work done by systems engineers requires them to contend with the most complex of all systems—human systems. In this next phase of the project we hope to provide engineers with the tools to work more effectively within complex human systems (cross-team, silo and function) so they can successfully manage projects ranging from simple system integration to large-scale multi-system coordination.

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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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