Twelvetide 20:02 Carbon is not silicon

December 26, 2020

49674316422 eae2dea477 oIn this second post within the knowledge management section, I want to summarise some of the material on human cognition and decision making that I and others rely on within the wider field of sense-making.  The third post I intend to largely devote to the work I did over the years with Max Boisot and others in the UK Complexity group (never formalised) as that will lead naturally into the second section on narrative.  Some of this material is controversial, but only because of a dominant dichotomy that has emerged in the management literature and practice over the last few decades between engineered process and the inspirational leader.  Abandon that dichotomy and life becomes a lot easier.

The dichotomy grew out of cybernetics in practice, augmented by the sudden shift to scalable and affordable computing.  I am making an important qualification here namely ‘in practice’.  I read and still read Beer, I worked with Checkland’s methods in the Genus Programme during my period in Datasolve and still trace some of my facilitation techniques back to soft systems.  Thanks to Max and Mac I spent some time with Ackoff and others at Wharton College and continue to call on his work.  I’ve read Ashby and Shannon in the context of understanding information, itself a far more complex issue that covered in knowledge management as a field.  I have said on many an occasion that if Beer and Ackoff had been working when we started to understand the science of complex adaptive systems that they would have had a better base for where their intuition took them.  So there is a body of sound theory and practice within Systems Dynamics and Cybernetics as a field that continues to this day, but I do think it’s time to move on.  But to emphasis a point I made on Christmas Eve changing theory does not involve not seeing the value in the practice and the opportunity, with better theory to energise said practice.  Throwing babies out with the bathwater is a bad idea, but equally, new wine should not be stored in old wineskins.

The rapid growth of the capability of computing to handle large volumes of information was critical to the growth of techniques like Business Process Engineering; the movement that triggered popular adoption of systems dynamics and cybernetics.  In my lifetime I went from programming using punch cards, to a 250k modem and then to my modern MacBook and the Cloud.  The first commercial program I wrote on a PC (I also saw that birth) computed pension entitlements and required a secretary to swan 5¼” floppy discs after the OC had processed 50 records.  The decision support systems I created for Guinness Group and others were programmed and ran on mainframe computers where the battery backup (to give us 4 minutes to close everything down without damage) occupied a three-story building.  Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation was the best selling business book of the 90s.  Its publication coincided with the growth of scalable and affordable computing that the growing market for what we called ‘Minis” represented.  Combined with the first enterprise-wide planning system SAP it created a market for large teams of consultants whose mission and goals was to reengineer the corporation bottom-up, the engineers ideal of a greenfield site.  As the introduction to the first edition proudly proclaimed nothing that happened in the past has any relevance to the future.  This is when HR departments started to adopt nonsense like Myers Briggs, it appeared to allow them to categorise employees, to see where they fit within the grand engineering projects on which companies were engaged.

In effect the engineering metaphor, the focus on efficiency which reached its apogee in what Gary Klein called sick sigma was a priori limited in what it could account for.  The reality of being human resisted the drive to be a component in the spares parts warehouse defined by a set of completeness.  As companies started to try and make a feature of short-term employment people responded by renting their knowledge to the highest bidder; loyalty breeds loyalty.  When things didn’t work out then it was blamed on culture, mindset, or the like and we got into the whole cycle of change programmes.  Knowledge management with its focus on codification got swept up in this.  Knowledge was to be codified and extracted into databases.  It paralleled the sudden take up of Peter Senge’s (and others) Fifth Discipline which involves involved a deep paradox.  It sought to deal with the soft aspects of an organisation in contrast to the efficient focus of engineering.  But it came from the same goal.  The function of the leader was to set goals and directives and the role of employees was to subsume their individuality in those goals.  Mission statements, visions, and so on became a part of corporate jargon and in more recent years they have all been rebranded with words such as purpose and the like.  The real giveaway in Fifth Discipline is its metaphor of the body to represent the organisation and then we get to the brain, the heart, and so on.  This was of conceiving the firm is anathema to complexity thinking which sees things as networks of connections and emergent potential rather than an autopoietic system which can be defined and directed.

There was (and is) and linked tendency to take techniques from psychotherapy and therapy in general sideways into organisational design.  The problem with this is that is assumes people need therapy and privileges the therapist, which may be why such techniques are heavily promoted and often ‘certified’.  Now there are aspects of the psychoanalytic tradition which have relevance and utility in the field.  Our last physical retreat was on the Aran Islands on the role of Narrative and we had Yiannis Gabriel as facility, someone I have worked with over the best part of two decades.  But he understands that the context of an organisation is very different from the relationship with a therapist.   I should also say that individuals mostly benefit from therapy and coaching and in some cases it is essential.  That may be needed to cope with the perverted behaviour of many a change programme.  But that is an individual choice to engage, when those techniques are deployed at an organisational level there is no choice.  There is another danger here; if you have a theory of leadership, authority or whatever then there is a natural tendency to find evidence to support that and suggest said motivation to those you are working with,  Even the professions can get caught up in this as we saw in the Orkney scandal.  There is all together two much amateur take up and use of techniques that need professional application.

I am in danger of ranting here, but I despise the dehumanization that was involved in process engineering and the cult-like conformity of purpose, vision, and goals still dominates despite successive failures.  How many reorganisations, transformation, and change projects have you lived through?  It’s a two-year cycle in most companies and, as I have said before, the Organisational Change function has the CEO of most organisations caught up in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship.  Most of my focus in knowledge was on fighting for the role of people, the work in informal communities which I posted on a few days ago and which formed one of the early Cynefin papers.  That focus on people pulled me into a range of literature and conversations.  Deacon’s Symbolic Species the final death knell for Chomsky’s theory of language was one and then a whole range of material suggested by Max on others on cognitive neuroscience, conceptual blending and the truly wonderful work of Andy Clark in Being There with the idea of scaffolding as part of extended consciousness.  What was fascinating about that was the speed with which it became possible to find better explanations in natural science for the phenomena described as mindsetdouble loops learning and others.  The general metaphor I have used for this is that we knew a lot about gravity, how to manage it, and dealt with it but then Newton came along and we finally had some theory that was not just an explanation, but the result of replicable experimentation and mathematics.  Some of this was already there when I started to investigate the London Taxi Drivers ‘Knowledge’.  I used them in a conference once and had some vague notion of how the Knowledge was obtained but when I looked into it it turns out that no one has got it in less than two years and the hypo-campus of a London taxi driver is significantly enlarged over other human beings.  It takes that time for the brain and the body to co-evolve to allow the knowledge to emerge.  From that, I spent a lot of time looking at apprentice schemes, in particular, the highly ritualised medieval craft halls and the criticality of physicality to knowledge not just the cognitive started to drive home.  It was also increasingly obvious that narrative forms in society acted as a constraint on what people would believe – that came from the counter-terrorism work in DARPA and elsewhere.   Material Engagement Theory was a revelation and so many more ideas all developed in s=academic silos, all of which needed to be synthesised and I am still working on that.  T

I could go on, and give more and more background to this and I will do so in future posts as the mood takes me.  But for the moment, as I did yesterday I want to summarise some basic principles that underpin Naturalising SenseMaking, this time with a specific focus on human decision making and innovation:

  1. We make decisions based on a very partial data scan which triggers a series of memories that we blend together and then do a first fit pattern match that determines our actions in there here and now
  2. It is almost impossible for any human to be fully objective in assessing a situation, we generally form a conclusion as to what we should do and then assess the situation to support that position
  3. A lot of what we do is involuntary or driven in non-explicit ways.  We can call that sub-conscious, but it does not mean the Freudian notion of the subconscious
  4. Human consciousness to embodied, the body and associated autonomic processes are a critical part of consciousness
  5. A considerable part of what we are, and our being as becoming, is extended into social interaction, shared narratives, and experiences
  6. Equally much of what we are is enacted, it requires physical interaction and experience for knowledge to form and have utility; tools are critical to what we are and what we can become, they change us physically and mentally.
  7. We are social creatures, evolved to be part of a clan.  So-called educational deficiencies are actually, from a clan perspective part of distributed intelligence.  We evolved for extended families and clans (not tribes that is an extra level of abstraction) and it remains a key part of what we are.  Individuals may or may not take advantage of the affordances that are available, we have free will, but the various interactions and path dependencies determine what those affordances are.

I’m going to pick up on things like epigenetics in other sections and on exaptation tomorrow.  But for the moment one last point.  One of the great disasters that hit us was the adoption of a computer metaphor to understand humans.  I remember an A-Level psychology textbook that said humans were limited capacity information processing devices.  Much modern organisational theory assumes that humans make decisions based on programmes (mental models) that can be engineered and controlled through data flow.  But this is not the case – things that humans are good at computers to do poorly and vice versa.  Yes AI has beaten a GO player, but change the board or the pieces and it no longer can.  Computers are tools and AI is highly dependent on training data sets, we need to understand our differences and stop using the language and assumptions of computer programming to understand the complexity and richness of the human condition.  The title of this post references that, and Star Trek devotees will remember the Horta; for those who believe in the nonsense of the singularity remember the mind-meld …

Postscript on the whole mission, values & purpose issue

Written in response to a question overnight emailed overnight.  

I am not saying that organisations should have no values, mission, or purpose, but I am challenging the idea of centrally planned organisational rollouts of programmes designed with articulated Values, Mission or Purpose statements.  The reality is that strong organisations have all three and they are understood and articulated as needed and mainly through what people do, not what they say they want to do.  Anything articulated can be gamed and most survivors in organisations have learned to parrot the latest corporate-speak while carrying on with business as usual. I’ve previously written on this but should not have assumed all readers would remember it.

In summary, it is better to start by mapping where you are and then make contextually appropriate shifts (I dislike the corruption of the word nudge but we might have to live with that).  Change who interacts with who and see how things emerge as a result and then modify the action.  Use semiotics – cartoons, archetypes, and other forms to communicate complex ideas with a degree of ambiguity.

The problem is that won’t sell books and it will only reward consultants who care more about the outcome than they do utilisation.  This was forcibly driven home to me in a conversation with a book agent who didn’t like the planned outline of The Book.  There was he said too much; what he wanted was a new book every two or three years with a catchy title offering a quick fix solution with lots and lots of cases and then, he said, we make all the money on your speaker fees.  It won’t take you long to find those following this advise and all the cases in those books are retrospectively coherent, they are chosen to fit the theory.

This also follows a significant issue, that in the popular form I trace back to Senge, which is the confusion of the properties of an emergent set of conditions with a cause.  The things you observe in organisations are the results of multiple complex interactions, a lived journey and you have to create your own journey not borrow the outcome of someone else’s.  Yes, a lot of those authors write in inspiring ways, although those with more integrity get disillusioned.  Others just move on to the next big idea (Agile is a popular one at the moment) and simply recycle the old cases.  I am deeply suspicious of anyone who describes themselves as a motivational or inspirational speaker – the one thing more of less guaranteed is a string of inspirational platitudes, professionally delivered containing nothing that anyone could disagree with.


Storm Bella arrived overnight with heavy rain and warnings of 70mph plus gusts on the tops so I spent most of the day writing and reading before taking a late afternoon walk around the harbour at Maryport.  I’ve always loved fishing ports and I suspect anyone with a camera does as well.  Trawlers are working boats and operating on tight margins and the boats reflect that reality.  The quayside is a mass of nets and equipment, one pile of which forms the banner picture to this post.

The stone wall, with the slightly damaged ladder stile located in a stream too deep for a gaiter to handle, is from the same walk in the Rhinogs as yesterday’s post.  Getting over the water was just about possible but another party coming the other way went straight into it as they were not paying attention. As it happened it contained by sister.  We had meant to join up but I discovered I had left my boots in the flat so had to go back.  To ensure we met up I reversed the path which meant I was aware of the hazard.  Thanks to the fact that I tend to just walk rather than take multiple tea & cake breaks I got back to the cars before them, despite starting a good hour later, only to be admonished for not warning them of the hazard.


Dear Reader, while we have your attention: we are on a determined drive to expand our network around the world. We’re certainly living in uncertain times (sic), and we believe that it will take a large collective of like-minded people to help organisations and societies navigate stormy waters, make sense of the world and make good decisions. Consider joining the Cynefin Network by clicking on the banner below. Links to eBook and paperback copies of our latest book are also available on this page.

Join the Cynefin Network Banner 8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

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.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

Twelvetide 20:01 Acts of knowing

- No Comments

As promised yesterday the main theme of this Twelvetide series is to summarise the main ...

More posts

Next >

Twlevetide 20:03 Abstraction & codification

- No Comments

I’d been working on knowledge management for some time and have come across Boisot’s book Knowledge ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram