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Complexity and KM: Teamwork was key to success of first life, has anything really changed?

An article in New Scientist this week announced, ‘Teamwork was key to success of first life’ (Oct 27th, 2012, p. 10).  The nub of the article is that at the beginning of time RNA molecules (replicators) experienced a problem, they either had to grow bigger (to store more information) or cooperate, splitting the information amongst several molecules and cooperating together as part of a network.  In the first option the molecule, being an early self-replicating version, would inevitably have produced errors in the replication process and the enhanced size, brought about by information growth, would have enhanced the likelihood of copying errors and the likelihood of the destruction of the information contained within (what is described in the New scientist article as an ‘error-catastrophe’).

This distribution of information brought with it a problem.  Each piece of information (each molecule) essentially acted as a node.  The more intricate the information strand, the more nodes and the more nodes, the more complex the information web became (experiments mentioned in the article have fragmented one piece of information into 48 unique molecules, one molecule bearing one fragment of the original piece of information, and observed the information ‘web’ reform to ensure the constitution of the whole).  In human terms I would argue that this would enrich the knowledge being held, with each of the 48 nodes not only holding a piece of the whole, but enhancing it through their own experiences.

This simple, but necessary, fragmenting of information strands introduced what we would come to know as complexity.  The article claims, “The earliest life may have been a primordial soup of RNA molecules” (p. 10) and this fragmenting of information was a survival technique.  The information was embedded (retained) as long as each molecule in the web replicated itself.

Fast forward and there is almost a fractal resonance to be found between these first stirrings of the primordial soup and much of today’s better Knowledge Management practice.

It is widely accepted that we know more than we can show, we can show more than we can speak and we can speak more than we can write.  As a consequence, we know that the most powerful knowledge is socially embedded knowledge.  It is also the most secure knowledge, but at the same time the most complex and, arguably, problematic (whose bright idea was it to give humans knowledge capability and agency?  Someone/thing has a lot to answer for…speak to any resource-based Knowledge Manager and hear their pain!), in terms of surfacing/accessing the knowledge needed.   It is the bedrock of internal Communities Of Practice/Interest and a founding contributor to dynamic/agile/adaptive capability. The distribution of skills in a human knowledge web brings with it diversity, of experience, education, knowledge, skills and abilities – the perfect antidote to complexity, using variety to overcome variety.

When looking at a knowledge asset threat analysis in organisations we often start with the question, ‘what cost to relearn what you already know’?

If your knowledge is distributed (embedded across the network), the risk is limited.  This applies across the knowledge web; one node obviously impacts another, but what impact upon your connectedness, decision-making capability, problem solving, diversity and competitive advantage, in comparison to a single ‘all knowing’ node?  So, what are you doing to ensure the replication and development (possibly with some errors/omissions) of the knowledge within the system?

Most organisations would prefer the challenges of distributed knowledge than the ‘error-catastrophe’ associated with all their knowledge being locked up within one ‘all knowing’ body.  What happens when that one body is lost to the organisation?

‘Error-catastrophe’ seems understated, like a Gaelic shrug of nonchalance, in terms of tone, when considering the potential ramifications to an organisation upon losing ‘big’ information/knowledge held by a single resource.

That said I never cease to be amazed by the number of organisations that find their critical knowledge to be held by a single ‘replicator’, with no contingency for its loss.

According to the New Scientist, ‘Teamwork was key to success of first life’.  Has anything really changed?

One comment on “Complexity and KM: Teamwork was key to success of first life, has anything really changed?

  1. Love your work mate. Great metaphor.

    Some may argue that it doesn’t truly fit because organisations are a directed process where molecular evolution relies on mutation and natural selection, however your call to the dynamic/agile/emergent nature of organisational knowledge brings the comparison closer together again. The only argument is what percentage of actual work a person believes is done through formal versus informal processes.


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