Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
I am always looking for books or ideas that challenge my way of thinking. A recent read got me reflecting on a popular argument around the idea of ‘Best Practice’ – I’ve touched on this before, but some of the discussion from Tim Harford’s book ‘Adapt’ gave me reason to pause and revisit my previous blogs…what follows is not necessarily from the book itself, but is, in part, inspired by a good read.
The need for best practice will vary according to the knowledge intensity of the organisation’s outputs; think Coca Cola’s production facilities versus their R+D function. One is based on standardisation and minimal deviation from the norm (based on complicated, replicable processes) and the other is immersed in complexity, ambiguity and experimental approaches. The first, you may argue, is prime territory for ‘Best Practice’ the latter, less so. My argument: perhaps it is actually time to eradicate the term, ‘Best Practice’ from the business lexicon.
We are always looking for better products or services; quicker, more efficient ways (cost optimisation) of doing things (Lean/Six Sigma?). The premise being that Best Practice attempts to limit variety in the environment to a standard way of doing something – eliminating waste and error from the process…doesn’t error bring about evolution and waste; and do you mean the time and space needed to effectively collaborate (I am, of course, being inflammatory)? MBA graduates indoctrinated in the ways of Taylorism preach the mantra of efficiency, order, structure and the one best way. How about a spanner in the works: What about human and/or local challenges that require variation in the process?
The problem is that an organisation’s ability to evolve (to meet the needs of its environment survival of the fittest), informed by its adaptive capacity, itself informed by its dynamic capability, emerges from need/demand (again, from interaction with the complexity of the knowledge economy), requires an engagement with variety. This leads to issues of complexity and the idea of Complex Adaptive Systems (follow the links for previous discussions in this area). However, Best Practice appears to run contrary to the evolutionary process. It seems to emerge from a natural human instinct to bring structure and order to our world; to replicate what we know already works. This can be traced back to philosophy and the idea of Homo Faber: Man the creator and man the wise, where man looks to control the environment; referred to by Henri Bergson (The Creative Evolution, 1907), where he stated that intelligence emerges through man’s “faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings” – the idea links to previous blogs where I have discussed the idea of the person human, and, as such, organisations, being model-dependent. What I would also suggest is that the more ambiguous, the more abstract the environment, the harder we seem to work to model, organise and structure that environment. We look for patterns, fill in the gaps and build models that allow us to ‘recognise’ this world we are sensing. Best Practice appears to respond to this primal need to bring order, but, even when looking at standardised processes, are we fooling ourselves – much in the same way that our brain fools us into ignoring our own blind spots in our senses; where the optic nerve exits the eye. The problem is that if you subscribe to the idea of the organisation as a Complex Adaptive System then you also subscribe to two key dimensions: The human dimension and the local dimension. Why is this a potential issue? I’ll give you an example: In every organisation I have ever worked with, where there is a focus on Standard Operating Procedures, I have found local ‘work arounds’ – local procedures that work around the standard procedures set out by a centralised management function – these procedures often exist under the radar and, when they surface, are suppressed by the centralised approach to management…you wouldn’t believe the number of organisations that ignore feedback from their own people; people who are distanced from the strength of the centre and add unwanted variety to the organisation’s ‘one voice’.
Moving on…We need to understand that variety is critical to progress or evolution. Some of the best inventions, products and services, have spawned variations on the theme – some work, some don’t, but the environment (in this case, customers) reward the strongest and condemn the weakest to the business scrap heap. Take Apple’s iPad, how many variations are we now seeing on the market; how many are successful; how many fail (evolution and survival of the fittest) how many are moving the market forward; how is this forcing Apple to respond? Is this any different with highly standardised processes? We are always looking for financial gain or competitive advantage through the optimisation of standardised processes; does a Best Practice approach really encourage or satisfy this need? We need to encourage experimentation bound by the needs of the organisation, people and the local context. We can give examples of existing practice, but perhaps that is where we should stop. Perhaps the answer is to respond to the need to evolve existing products/services/processes by allowing what exists to evolve, not replicated. Peter Palchinsky suggested there to be three principles for engaging with complex environments and the resulting demand for an interface with variety:
- Seek new ideas and try new things (Variation)
- Scale failure so that it is survivable
- Feedback and learn from mistakes (Selection)
We need to accept that Best Practice methods rarely, if ever, allow for the variety needed to fuel the navigation of complex environments. We can be bold and dare to deviate from the norm, or we can tread the beaten path and follow others into obscurity.