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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Making sense of complexity

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.

12 comments on “Making sense of complexity

  1. Charles W. "Bill" Robinson
    December 1, 2011

    Does our brain process reading the same as other visual information?

  2. Stephen Bounds
    December 1, 2011

    Sounds like you were either arguing with Dave Snowden directly or one of the people who have drunk the Cynefin cool-aid.

    I had an argument with Dave a few years back which almost exactly mirrors that which you describe, and things got very tetchy when I didn’t accept his view of the world. I think we owe Dave a great debt because he’s kept complexity and Knowledge Management in people’s minds and successfully developed a consulting model that will deliver good outcomes in most cases.

    However, where he and I part company is that I see Cynefin as a management model, and not a theory that can be proven or disproven in scientific terms. In fact, Cynefin only passes muster if you accept certain principles (eg the existence of the various domains) as fact and on faith. That’s not good enough for me and I’m still researching more robust models that can be empirically and scientifically validated.

    The creation of a strategic plan *will* have an effect on an organisation, just perhaps not the one expected. And to say that setting a vision is fundamentally flawed is just not something I can accept. Is the iPhone 4S, or an oil refinery just a product of “emergence”? Of course not, it took deliberate and conscious effort.

  3. Dave Snowden
    December 3, 2011

    Not with me Stephen, although if he ever wants to I’m fine with it. Not sure where you get “tetchy” from by the way. Otherwise Cynefin is a framework and its based on the literature, but like all frameworks that involve people it recognises that they will have perceptions is a part of parcel of things hence splitting order into two and adding disorder.

    I did hear about the discussion that David was involved in from a few sources, although the facts are represented somewhat differently by other participants as you would expect. Fundamentally reading the above I think David misses the key point about managing complexity (and here I quote Boisot), you have to absorb it not reduce it, and certainly not “combat” it.

    • David Griffiths
      December 3, 2011

      Hi Dave, first, just to say, like Stephen, I value the work you do in the areas of complexity and KM – you have often been the voice of reason in the body of KM literature that gave me hope for my own thinking and research.

      Anyway…the discussion: I believe that we operate in a model-dependent society and when we attempt to place an operational load on models it tends to expose structural weaknesses that require our attention; exposing elements of the fabric that make up the whole – I relate this to the dissatisfaction that has been experienced with the KM concept for a number of years now. I also believe that there is more than one way to skin a cat and that different approaches can arrive at the same conclusion; reality exists whether we know it or not and when we probe reality we attain a response – my argument being that, regardless of the method used to probe that reality, the feedback, if interpreted correctly, should be similar.

      There were only three of us in the conversation that I referred to in my blog and you are right, people will naturally have different perspectives on that discussion. My argument is that we attempt to make sense of what we do not understand, we try to reduce ambiguity and our natural response tends to lead towards creating order from disorder. The human body exists as a nested complex adaptive system and we know that within that system that certain constructs exist; I would argue that this brings a sense of structure or order at the macro level that frames the system as a whole. The example of a colony of ants is also used as a popular example of a complex adaptive system and, again, I would argue that at a macro level there are constructs (the queen) that, through understanding her function, bring order at a macro level to our understanding of the function of the colony.

      The point I was trying to make with Michael was that I am not advocating a reductionist approach to complexity, which I agree, due to the nature of a non-linear environment, is not an appropriate response. However, I do believe that we can understand the ‘knowns’ within the frame of reference, for example the queen ant, and through an understanding of those constructs understand the wider frame of reference – I don’t believe that this is this attempting to reduce the environment to a manipulation of variables, which I agree does not work in complex systems.

      My fundamental point is that we can attempt to make sense of complexity, but in doing so we attempt to create models of the information we are receiving; models attempt to create order and structure, which is a natural human response to ambiguity. I don’t see this as reductionism, I see this as sense-making at a macro level.

      Dave, your work has influenced me a lot over the last five years and I was disappointed not to have the chance to meet you again at KMAsia this year or in Turin, but I hope we get the chance to meet again in the not too distant future.


      • Dave Snowden
        December 3, 2011

        Probably better a discussion if we do get to be in the same physical location at the same time.

        While they may be more than one way to skin I cat. I do know from my grandmother’s teaching (in respect of rabbits but lets make the connection) that on way is pretty efficient and most others messy and time consuming. So the method you choose is important as it will filter perceptions. In a CAS this is of greater important as understanding emerges from interaction with the system. Ants provide genetically encoded rule responses to chemical triggers. Humans on the other hand can move between identities without thinking about it, have intentionality and intelligence all of which adds layers of complexity.

        Given that I would argue that the notion that we create models of information is questionable (although I accept it has dominated a lot of social science literature) given our growing understanding of individual but more importantly collective cognition and sense-making. The danger (to come back to the Boisot quote) is that it leads to phrases like “combat” rather than “absorb”. That does have major consequences for research methods as well.

        Either way, until we meet. Maybe one of the conference organisers will pick up on this and create some space for a debate or two

      • David Griffiths
        December 3, 2011

        Agreed, being in the same physical location would be better for this discussion; and touche on the cat/rabbit analogy, my grandmother would have agreed with you (rabbits, not cats; though she was from Merthyr and probably had experience with both)! Look forward to chatting when we get the opportunity…

    • Stephen Bounds
      December 3, 2011

      You probably don’t even remember Dave, it was a number of years ago and I was pretty new to the field of KM at the time. However it left an impression!

      I’m glad to hear you acknowledge that the Cynefin domains are there to fit people’s perceptions rather than being a essential property of systems behavior. (To be fair, you may have always said this but I may not have recognised it at the time.)

  4. Md Santo (@md_santo)
    December 4, 2011

    From my point of view, complexity actually representing organizational constraints and on the other side is the organizational entropy representing organizational uncertainties. The essence of complexity management is to seeking optimization and/or balance between constraints (complexity) and uncertainties (entropy).

    In practice we put Risk Management (RM) representing organizational complexity counterparting Change Management (CM) or Manage Change representing uncertainties or organizational entropy. Optimization or balance between RM and CM is an organizational “art and culture”.

    Our URL showing the effort in managing complexity of Process Classification Framework (PCF)-based Banking Risk Management

  5. Dave Snowden
    December 4, 2011

    Not completely Stephen. Order, Complex and Chaos are different types of system with different properties thus requiring the adoption of different epistemological approaches. Their nature is independent of perception. Human perception is an overlay onto reality which is why we split order and add disorder to the framework overall. Cynefin works at different levels, from simple classification for real time action up to full sense-making and strategy in more extended processes.

    Md Santo, someone else’s blog is not the place to really comment on another posting. However I will pick up on your model in my own blog at some stage. It contains many of the statements that have damaged KM (making tacit knowledge explicit) and seems over focused on technology in a classic causal systems dynamics model – and thus little to do with the realities of complex adaptive systems. Indeed I have seen many such pictures in the Finance sector over the years and I notice that the effect on the ability of the Finance sector to manage risk has not been marked by much success in recent years.

    • Stephen Bounds
      December 4, 2011

      Dave, as you suggest I’ll try not to turn this into an extended discussion on someone else’s blog. But I have a real problem with the idea that a system consisting of the same components can “flip” between different types or states in an empirically provable sense.

      I see Cynefin’s model as labeling perceived or manifest behavior as one of Ordered, Complex, or Chaotic. The choice of label then defines the most appropriate management response. But the system must still be a CAS and thus in a purist sense, must technically be always complex.

      • Dave Snowden
        December 4, 2011

        Well the effect is the same I suppose but I don’t like “label” or “model”. That said human systems never have the same components and the constraint conditions change. Sounds a bit like an aggregative approach to defining a system by its components rather than its interactions.

  6. Pingback: Go Simplify Complexity! | Theknowledgecore's Blog

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