Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
Last week a colleague led me into a debate with one of the leading organisations offering ‘solutions’, or a response, to organisational complexity. They have a model that primarily categorises the variety in our environment via the identification of simple-complicated-complex-chaotic phenomena. Our discussion was centred around the way in which we attempt to bring order to complexity. My point of view is that there are Unknown-Knowns in complex environments – we know that a variable/construct exists within the frame of the phenomena, but we do not know the intensity of that variable/construct in a given time or space, we do not know when it will become active, and we don’t know the intensity of the interaction with other variables/constructs within the same frame of reference. At the time I was told that I was attempting to simplify the complex environment by providing structure and order; the argument being that this just cannot be done; that I am trying to manipulate complexity into a complicated form. The discussion moved to comments flirting with the idea that my research methods are wrong – we didn’t even discuss the methods I employed – and that I was attempting to move towards management by objective – something I tend to disagree with, depending on how you define, ‘objective’; I am anti-Taylorism in my thinking. I was hit with the age old example of the time wasted on a five-year plan, the argument being that it is rarely, if ever, completed. Agreed! No argument! But, as I said in my last blog, organisations have a general direction, determined by their purpose and outputs. Is that not in itself a form of objective?
I have to be honest, the discussion disturbed me and has stuck with me for almost a week now. The reason? I would argue that this is exactly what they are trying to do with their model and yet there appears to be flamboyant resistance to alternate points of view. Ultimately, to combat complexity there is a need to reduce ambiguity and that is achieved improving structure and order. I’ll try and explain…
We, human beings, receive information in two primary forms, either visual or auditory, which are interpreted by the brain through a pattern recognition programme. That pattern recognition programme retrieves stored information and matches the input with known information about the concept and with other information about all other related concepts. The information being received can involve ambiguity, determined by the number of choices to be made within the information package being transmitted and the way in which we decode it – the choices can involve equiprobable or unequal-probable choices. From here we can start to see that equiproable choices can lean towards simple or complicated structures; and unequal choices towards complex or chaotic structures.
Our internal pattern recognition programme interprets the sense to create a perception of reality, but our sense of reality can be conflicted; caused by challenges, such as conflicts within the choice to be made, mixed cues within the environment or ambiguity – this is starting to sound like the environment that organisations have to deal with when they talk about complexity. Uncertainty in our perception of the world can be driven by the originality of the phenomena being sensed; unique outputs; and non-linear connections between choices. Perception is improved by attenuation processes (isolating redundancy in the information); linear links with clear cause and effect; intelligible form; and simplicity.
It would seem that any organisation looking to make sense of complexity, and therefore an organisation’s perception of reality, is actually attenuating the information being received into a form that is improved through structure and order.
Now, if we can accept this as true, then, actually, we deal with this every day in organisations. Organisations that fail to do this struggle and, in a modern world where survival is contingent on becoming dynamic and adaptive, those that don’t die on the vine. Is today that different from other points in our history? I don’t think so; take a look at ‘The Secret of Enduring Greatness’ by Jim Collins (Fortune magazine) and make up your own mind.
My message here? There is no one single way to look at organisational reality and those who attempt to make sense of complexity are attempting to reduce ambiguity through order and structure. I would argue that many organisations already do this. Perhaps it is more about having confidence in the capabilities of the resources that already exist in an organisation. Perhaps some have become too insecure, too risk averse, and need others to make the decisions for them. Perhaps some work to create the comfort of ‘plausible deniability’. Who knows. Package it how you will, what I do know is we as humans attempt to make sense of what we do not know and that means bringing order and structure. There will always be outliers and we will always be presented with the challenges of the unexpected. welcome to reality.