Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Some Thoughts about 21st Century Organizations as Constrained - Complex Adaptive Systems

I recently gave a co-worker the paper I had co-authored for my organization on the "Meta-Organization: A Conceptual and Research Landscape". Essentially the paper proposes the need to evolve our organizations toward a concept of 'constrained complex adaptive system' (C-CAS). Basic to this concept is the capacity and need for enabled 'self-organization'.

This is posting is another distillation of social thinking compiled from several emails and conversations regarding thoughts and counter-thoughts.

My colleagues first comment regarding C-CAS was to as whether I had heard of The Big Society - David Cameron's vision of the UK where people can just do things, without the need to pander or endure government bureaucracy - but can get some help in getting things done. The idea is that people no longer need top-down direction of services and that empowered localism can solve many social problems and reduce the cost of Government. Of course this approach would require new forms of institutions.

Some critics of of the Big Society argue that it would only work for the well-off, and well-educated. The problem is that the Big Society is vague enough to appeal to both the progressively oriented and to the more neo-conservative/libertarian ideologies. It can easily be transformed into a sort of ‘right wing’ libertarianism and ‘ownership society’ framework. The Big Society would than simply be double speak for getting rid of government. The devil would be in the details. 

The reason for associating The Big Society with the issues of the Meta-Organization and C-CAS is that they both aim to empower self-forming groups and the need to frame problems with care (as some problems are 'wicked' and thus not really amenable to 'solutions' as much as they require constant 'solutioning'). The question was whether the same criticism could be applied to both - e.g. C-CAS only works for the digitally literate. 

I fount this interesting. I have read about the debate between The Big Society, A great discussion on this is found on the RSA Social Brain site this. In particular I liked the Beyond The Big Society. 

There is some truth about the idea of a digital divide, but this is really an argument about how a society creates literate, empowered citizens regardless of class. Overcoming limitations class is an old 'wicked' problem that a digital environment sustained as a public infrastructure could help.

Particular contexts
My colleagues next comment related to a personal scenario - of sailing a 30 meter brig. This is small enough to enable everyone on board a type of immediate communication. Yet large enough that everyone has to be given specific tasks/duties. This is a transparent context where everyone can see if everyone else is doing the job and has enough flexibility for each person to get help if they need it. Fundamental however, is when the weather is extreme the captain's command (go starboard) needs everyone to comply. He claims there is no time for self-organizing. Despite a literature about ineffective hierarchies contributing to air accidents he had a difficult time thinking that a 'chain of command' would not be necessary on occasion. 

I really liked the example of sailing experience. The way I see it is it is much like mission command ‘Command Intent’ (go to the Starboard) and decentralized execution – he doesn’t tell people on the team exactly how to do what they need to do. In some sense they at least 'self-organize' their own action and in helping any other team member - they do it as needed since the situation is 'transparent' everyone must compensate when uneventful things arise. The concept of ‘object oriented programming’ poses a nice metaphor of competency hierarchies – the hierarchic structure doesn’t go away, however leadership is assumed on the basis of ‘context’ (in the programming metaphor different ‘objects’ seize control based on the data coming into the system) – whoever has the required competencies related to the context & particular topic/task takes leadership until the context changes.
I can see that the context of a ship (& thus the Navy) leads to a more rigid hierarchy related to skill that take years to master. But as ships become increasingly automated a smaller more cross-trained and agile crew may be necessary.

The metaphor of sailing a ship with a small crew/team also brings to mind all sorts of other types of teams – each with differing types of improvisational demands and/or structures of roles. One person can engage in any number of different types of teams and become adapt at the range of structured role-based demands or agile improvisational way-finding. Each type of sport team carries different opportunities.

My colleague next brought up the issue of institutions - and the popular 'bad press' they get. The issue for him was the security they provide society.  Also he pointed out the despite a type of improvisational 'chaos' the self-organized endeavours seem to romanticize - institutions inevitably arise. 

Here I thought that much of the aim of the paper was an argument FOR institutional innovation - this is not an ‘anti-institutionalism’. Rather, is is a call that the digital environment is a change in the conditions of change. This means that institutional innovation is fundamentally important, and that we must accelerate that process whereby institutions emerge out of evolving practices.

Institutions seem to be increasingly under stress because they can’t keep up with the pace of change – I think what is required is the emergence of ‘meta-institutions’ and processes that enable institutional innovation – yet that fosters ‘good enough’ order in the process. In some ways this is seen in the backlash occurring to changes in the ‘institution of marriage’ – it is being stressed by new types of family (blended, serial monogamy, networked), and long-standing relationships (common-law) as well as sexual orientation.

People aren't like that
The next critique is a common one - the eternal debate on what human nature is fundamentally. My colleague had difficulty believing that 'everyone' would contribute positively to 'self-organizing' endeavours. He question the basic motivations for getting involved. He also brought up the digital divide and asked whether the 'unwired' were fated to become the new primitives. 

I get the motivation part. The challenge is both fostering ‘intrinsic’ motivation as well as the ‘moral’ dimension of our very social nature. Adam Smith’s first book was “A theory of moral sentiments’. It was in this book that he first used the term ‘invisible hand’. Later in the ‘Wealth of Nations’ where he outlines his theory of a market system – the reference to the ‘invisible hand’ carries a moral dimension that guides and constrains the working of a market system. A great deal of what we do is guided and constrained by this moral part of ourselves. There is a lot to say about why the myth of the ‘Hobbesian’ isolated and atomistic individual was an important myth to promulgate – e.g. to shake up the deeply entrenched way that identity formation was embedded in the structures of feudal and ancient society. No real individuals existed in those societies – they were representatives of kin and geographic lineages. To develop a society that could urbanize, ‘nationalize’, democratize and marketize (English is a living language) what was needed was a ‘new type of individual’ and a new type of ‘imagined community’. Despite the necessity of the myth of the isolated individual, humans remain fundamentally social.

Opportunity Costs
My friend brought up our conversation about the collapse of transaction cost that the digital environment as caused and which enables whole new ways of doing business never before possible. He countered that while search and access to information is now almost 'costless' - the cost is relying on it as well as the risk that it won't be there the next time we search. That our communications might break down, that 'competitors' will gain access to it.

While this is true - it is also not a new problem, it is in fact the same problems we face now. As David Weinberger elaborates so well in his new book "Too Big Too Know". Paper as a medium gave us the illusions of authoritative knowledge. That there was a sense that the world could be 'knowable'. The digital environment exposes and reveals the whole contestability of knowledge - the unknowable myriad of perspectives and possibilities of truth.

Kahneman's latest book "Thinking: Fast and Slow" makes clear the difficulty we have in assessing 'opportunity' costs. Humans tend to see situations as ‘gains or losses’ and we are more ‘risk averse to loss’ than we are ‘risk seeking for gain’. A great example is the ‘Cautionary Principle’ – this tends to be biased against the new, while blind to (or assuming that) the risks in the status quo – that doing nothing is safer than doing something. Hence potentially incurring huge opportunity costs. An entrenched cautionary principle would not have produced the vaccine, the steam engine, etc.

What is a better frame is the ‘Vigilance Principle’ – explore, experiment, etc. – But monitor, watch, be vigilant and respond with agility. We can never know the long term consequences of our action. An action could produce short term gains – that become disasters in the long run, or just as easily produce a significant loss in the short term that becomes conditions for great gains in the long run. Vigilance seems to me that only reasonable way forward. J