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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Blowing away the fog of complexity one conversation at a time!

First, thank you to all who got in touch requesting that I keep blogging – time is tight, and I might not post as much as I have in the past, but I’ll try to update as often as I can.

I’ve recently returned from a valuable exchange of thoughts, delivering a keynote at the European Training Foundation in Turin.  I’ve left encouraged by the motivation and dedication of the people responsible for KM within European Agencies to address the challenges they are facing.  I am also concerned with how we, the so-called experts, present the challenges facing our field at times.

Knowledge Management is by nature a cumbersome beast.  However, it is also simple in conception, I’ll explain in a moment, while also being fraught with uncertainty.  The concept is dominated by techno-centric solutions that the objectives of Knowledge Management are people-centric.  Too often it exists in isolation, with little or no links to tangible strategic outcomes.  It is far too often reactive, acting in the manner of legacy HR in organisations, as a governing mechanism; KM needs to become more proactive, it needs to become a strategic partner and organisations need to understand that the premise that informs the need for KM is actually a simple one.  With that comes a responsibility for KM ‘experts’ to keep the message simple and a duty of care to ensure that we do not further confuse a field that is in desperate need of support.  I shared a flight back from Turin with David Gurteen and the one thing we both brought away from our exchange with KM colleagues in the European Agencies is that KM needs to develop one conversation at a time. But we need more than this, we need to cut through the fog of complexity and bring forward simple messages; messages where organisations can see currency in investing time, people and finance in, what can seem to be, a nebulous and ambiguous concept.

Knowledge Management exists to develop the acquisition and storage, use, sharing and development of organisational knowledge resources against strategic and operational objectives. The Strategic and operational objectives determine the knowledge intensity of the activities performed in the organisation and the organisation as a whole is impacted by the environment that is the Knowledge Economy; pushing organisations/society to become more adaptive and dynamic – requiring innovation, informed by creativity – informed by people – enabled by technology.

Knowledge resources can exist in technical (procedural) or managerial (organisational form).  Knowledge itself can itself be said to exist in six primary forms (Know-What; Know-How; Know-When; Know-Where; Know-Who; Know-Why).  Technical knowledge can be seen as complicated (how to make a loaf of bread), while managerial knowledge can be seen as complex (the decision-making process underpinning a situation where a police officer arrives at an incident, discharging their weapon without a shot being discharged by the police officer’s target).

This brings the discussion to organisations.  Fundamentally they have been formed/designed/constructed with a purpose in mind – policy development, service provision, product production.  The operations that inform the output can be illustrated through a simple transformational model (transformed and transforming resources); KM, in its simplest form, exists to inform/develop/protect that process.

So far, so simple…

So, what about these conversations on complexity.  Complexity appears to require that organisations move from speaking of management by objective to what some term, management on the edge of chaos.  Is this where we start to lose the message?  I’m lucky, or unlucky, depending on perspective, to have to understand the nature of complex adaptive systems for the work I do with the University of Edinburgh.  It’s not a clear concept, trust me!  In fact it seems to become more dirty, or granular, as we move from theoretical thinking to operational application.  First, let me say, complexity is not a new phenomenon; it has existed before the dawn of man and is as natural to us as eating and sleeping – it has always existed, with or without our knowledge.  Organisations can be said to exist as complex adaptive systems; this is where it gets a bit daunting – what has this got to do with the management of resources or organisations?  I’ll explain a bit more in a moment, but, rest assured, you have probably been managing complicated and complex process without even knowing it. You already  construct mental models to deal with it.  You already use diagnostic and planning models that attempt to account for it.  You know more than you realise; you just need to have your awareness of the phenomenon, and your response to the context it creates, heightened.

Where I do like the idea of understanding complexity is from the perspective of complicated (making a loaf of bread) and complex (the police officer scenario) knowledge resources; if you can understand the differences then you will appreciate the management concepts that underpin them.  Complicated knowledge can be seen as something tangible, it can often be written down, structured in a linear fashion, moved through information systems and can be seen as a techno-centric view of KM (information management, librarians, or, that lovely term (sarcasm here), ‘explicit knowledge’).  Complex knowledge is less tangible, it exists in the mind of the individual, or minds of the collective; it is more often non-linear in construction; it is difficult to capture in written form; and it is protected by a firewall, the person who governs whether the resource shows itself.

Both forms of knowledge exist in an organisation and the split between the two will be determined by the knowledge intensity of the operations that inform the organisational outputs.  What is clear is that some models have lied to us!  This is not about a continuum of Data-Information-Knowledge-Understanding-Wisdom, this is about Data-Information, enabled by people, who develop Knowledge-Knowing-Expertise…this is something I’ll talk more about in the next week or so.  Now, if you can buy into this, perhaps we are not really interested in managing knowledge in the first place; look at your own drivers, are you actually more interested in skills and expertise?

Anyway, before I go too far down that tangent, back to complexity.  It exists, we deal with it without knowing it and we don’t need to add a smoke machine to the fog of management that already impacts the credibility and currency of the field in organisations.  Then, as if to make things worse for us, we start having conversations about complex adaptive systems.  Don’t worry, you already deal with this phenomenon as well…have some faith in yourself!

What is a complex adaptive system?  Think of a typical organisation; it is made up of elements, or constructs, that interact to enable the organisation’s output.  The organisation itself is not self contained; it interacts with its environment -think about the current economic challenges and the impact upon service development, not only from the organisation’s perspective (think of work force reduction), but also the changing needs of its customers (think about a reduction in disposable income).  In this way we can say that an organisation is an open system, one that interacts with its environment.  Some organisations will be more open than others, but, whether the door between the organisation and its environmental drivers is open a crack or wide open, the door is nonetheless at least partially open.  Is this anything new?  No.  This has been the way of the business world for centuries; admittedly the process of change is speeding up and organisations/individuals are required to become more internally dynamic and adaptive to deal with the dynamics of variety in the environment within which it sits – if you understand this, then you are probably attempting to address it.

Now, some would say that complexity means that we can not work to a firm objective.  The popular example is the five-year strategic plan; how many times can an organisation say that it has completed the plan against the original conditions and objectives?  The plan was developed against need/demand taken during a snapshot in time.  The directions is set, and as need/demand evolves, so does the plan.  Of course we can’t evidence the completion of a five-year plan, the environment is dynamic, so are organisations (they are if they intend to survive beyond one iteration of innovation) and so are individuals (they have to be to respond to the needs of the labour market – if not, they might be required to change jobs or they can become unemployed).  The fact is that the strategic plan is a course setting, one that changes according to environmental determinants.  Think back to Captain Smith and the Titanic; iceberg warning requires a change of course, ignore it, stick to the original plan and the consequences can be catastrophic.

David Gurteen challenged me to transform the notion of a complex adaptive system into terms that could be better understood.  Okay, I’m up for a challenge…here goes…

Pick any team sport – I’m thinking rugby, football (soccer), hockey (field or ice), basketball.  You have multiple teams (organisations) in a league (competitive environment).  They interact when they occupy the same field (market space), working to an objective of outscoring the opposition to gain points (greater market share); the outcome can be win, loss or draw.  To prepare, a club (organisation) will appoint a manager/coaching team to use the resources they have, as well as recruiting new resources to overcome deficiencies, to meet the overall objective set for the season (planning).  The club more often than not has ambitions (they never set out to fail), which require a longer term vision and you’ll often hear newly appointed coaches talk about three-year and five year-plans (strategic planning).  The manager/coach deals with recruitment and selection against the vision and mission of the team; the manager persuades the club that he or she can meet the club’s objectives by employing the right structure, skills (technique under pressure) and tactics. The management team works on four key elements within their control:  Technique; Tactics; Psychological; Fitness.  They evaluate their strengths and weaknesses against the opposition and the predicted environment (weather – home or away).  The management team know the elements under their influence and they prepare the team for success against the predicted environment.  However, the opposition are preparing to negate that influence by asserting their influence upon the environment.  Each time will have advantages and disadvantages – some more technically able, allowing for a creative style of play; others less technically able, relying on rigid efficient structures that negate the creativity of the opposition (competitive advantage).  On match day the teams interact on the field of play in often unpredictable ways.  Managers experience ‘un-coachable moments’, where players do unpredictable things that cannot be taught or legislated for in training.

“It was a great finish by Glen. I don’t know what he was doing in there but it was a great finish!,” (Kenny Dalglish, 2011: Manger of Liverpool Football Club; speaking about Glen Johnson, a Liverpool defender, scoring the winning goal against Chelsea, four minutes from the final whistle)

Individual players act out a role within the whole, but they are impacted by opposition players, their own knowledge and understanding, their reading of ever evolving situations as they occur in front of them, crowd hostility, how they deal with mistakes…the list goes on.  Some managers will attempt to influence every area of the game for the entire duration of the game – you have probably seen them flapping their arms like a crazed maniac from first whistle to last whistle – it just doesn’t work, though they will tell you it does!  An injury to a star player means a system change, tactics have to be adapted.  An influential player has made a mistake away from the field, the crowd are on his or her back, they are not performing well, there is a weakness in the framework, how does the team compensate?  A player comes up against an unknown quantity (a youth player, recently promoted to the starting team) who is faster, more technically able and fitter than they are; how do they compensate; what knowledge and experience can they draw upon; what advice comes from the management team, can they adapt; what are the consequences for the team’s balance?  A player broke up with his girlfriend last night after he caught her cheating on him, he is angry, injures an opposition player in a tackle and is ejected from the game; what are the consequences for the ‘game plan’, for both teams, and how could the coaching team have predicted this?

The game is unpredictable, a game of opposites (defend – attack – transition), it is complex. The nature of business is complex.  We need to stop worrying about complexity and start worrying about what we do best – manage!  The tools are out there, they already exist.  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to be more aware and get better at using the tools that are available to us; as well as having confidence in our own capabilities.

Organisations deal with this ever day, every week, every month and every year that they exist.  Managers need to understand what the organisation’s objective is and what elements they can influence in order to obtain that objective.  The nature of the environment means that they need to be more dynamic and adaptive.  We can coach/mentor staff (players) to be problem solvers, but we can not control the uncontrollable.  This is about individuals within a collective who all interact with the environment in different ways.  Future competitive advantage depends on the engagement of people unbridled by the constraints of Taylorism; we need problem solvers; critical thinkers; networkers; relationship builders – and you know something, this all starts one conversation at a time!

Taking the example of team sport being a game of opposites, some people like to discuss examples of actions that have brought about unintended results.  One I heard recently was a move by the Canadian Government to increase the severity of the punishment linked to domestic violence.  The unintended result was a decrease in the reporting of domestic violence, brought about by the bond between the perpetrator and the victim; the victim now being more concerned with the consequences of the report upon their partner – jail time.  This, again, has been around for a long time and is often referred to as the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Managers in sport talk about games of opposites; for example, the opposition set out to make you do the opposite of what you intend – defend instead of attack.  Now think in terms of management decision and I would hesitate a guess that effective organisations are already attempting to understand the risk associated with a given decision – scenario planning?  Our actions are governed by the capabilities of the individual, the organisation and the processes that bind the two entities together; it really is that simple.

Complexity exists.  A technology solution does not exist to overcome this; though some do try.  Bill Gates (Business at the speed of thought), talked about a digital nervous system – a concept picked up upon and explored by a fiction writer, who recently wrote:

The company of the future will have no workers

The company of the future will have no managers

The company of the future will be a digital entity

The company of the future will be alive (Harris, 2011, p.222)

To sum up, I’ll defer to Hawking (Grand Design, 2010):

“Our perception and hence our observations…is not directed, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains” (p. 38)

You know more than you realise. Have confidence in your abilities.  If you have gaps, address them.  The future will always throw up the unexpected…Keep calm and carry on!

Thanks for reading…

9 comments on “Blowing away the fog of complexity one conversation at a time!

  1. Stephen Bounds
    November 28, 2011

    Great post David. I actually found your description of sporting complexity really useful – it’s funny how we intrinsically grasp the complexity of sports and battlefields but always struggle to convert our business lives into something more structured.

    It’s probably the difference in timelines that makes such a difference. You can easily spot the effects of complexity over a 2 hour period, with plays taking seconds and “momentum” switching between teams multiple times in a match. But it’s much harder to see the big picture when the complexity plays out over months or years!

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  4. David, thanks for continuing with the blog. I have a strong interest in Project Management Lessons Learned and I really enjoy reading your thoughts. Regs, Stephen

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