This came through to me very strongly when reading a recent article in New Scientist, entitled "we've made a world we cannot control". Here the authors talk about three levels of complexity.
- Level 1 is a piece of technology, or any other autonomous system, in isolation. Take a Nuclear Power Plant for example. It can be designed, it works, you can map out cause and effect, and you can predict what will happen if you change certain variables. You can "know" it fully.
- Level 2 is that piece of technology set within a network. Like a Nuclear Power Plant connected to an electrical grid, which is connected to domestic appliances and factories. Here you have feedback effects, which can lead to unexpected consequences, to which the Level 1 system needs to react. You can't really know the system fully, but you can derive some models.
- Level 3 is that technology, in that network, integrated into all the other factors that effect it - the climate, the way humans behave en masse, global politics, the tectonic plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis. This is chaos. This is unpredictable.
Also, the world is becoming an increasingly collective place. The decisions we make, affect people on the other side of the world. Our friendship networks and our business networks are becoming global, and we are connected to them full-time, through the phones in our pockets. we do not work in isolation, and we do not make decisions in isolation.
That's where the Boston Square on this page comes into the picture (based on Blackler, 1995).
In a Level 1 world, without connectivity, then we could rely on experts. Level 1 is the rational "knowledge society" based on Enlightenment notions of rationality. And if we need to work collectively, we can develop robust transferable procedures to help transfer that expertise.
In a Level 3 world, we need to be creative and to be reactive and to be innovative. If we were not connected - if collectivity were low - then we could rely on creative individuals to respond to unexpected problems. But we are connected, and that's where knowledge management comes in. The authors of the New Scientist article, Braden R Allenbury and Daniel Sarewitz, call our Level 3 world "the ignorance society" because the world is too complex to understand and too unpredictable to fully know. Ironically we cannot survive in a collective, complex, level 3 "ignorance society" without knowledge management.
We need to be innovative, we need to be agile, we need to learn very fast, and we need to pool and build on what knowledge we have. That's why Knowledge management is a crucial tool for survival in a Level 3, Collective world; whether you are in the Nuclear industry, the sales and marketing business, government, or any other sector. Knowledge is in short supply, so we need to make the most of what little knowledge we have, and be prepared to think and learn and innovate on our feet, collectively.