Friday 10 June 2011

Complexity, collectivity and Knowledge Management

The world is becoming an increasingly complex place.

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.
Level 3 is the world we live in. Level 3 is entirely unpredictable. It is too complex, and too uncertain. We are surrounded by Level 3 systems which we cannot hope to understand - financial, technological, social.

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.


Gerald Meinert said...

Hi, Nick,
immediately re-used! Great way of showing the need of KM towards the business challenges at hand / for the future.
Of course one can argue that the idea of KM is also valid for the other boxes, but of course today's manifestations of KM especially cope / aim to cope with the challenges of increasing complexity and collectivity (where older manifestations such as experts do not do the trick anymore).
So I very much like the picture (and the post in general) as it shows KM as an answer for today's challenges. I only hope that people understand it as today's manifestations and not a eternal truth, perhaps in 20 years the KM manifestations of the future a the answer to some other challenges.

Nick Milton said...

You are right Gerald in that KM has a role to play in the other boxes, and any business may find some of its operations in one box, some in another.

The difference, I think, is that in the complext, uncertain, collective box, KM is essential, rather than just having a role to play

Md Santo said...


Risk Management essentially is the management of complexity or complex system through optimization and / or balance of Complexity (representing constraints) with Entropy (representing uncertainties) on the other side Risk Management actually is the interface between complexity and Knowledge Management (KM)

Managing Risk with KM had been visualized through It is visualized that Managing Risk with KnowledgeManagement Assessment and Metrics carried out through 1. Adaptation from Dr. Ramon Barquin’s Managing Risk with KM 2. Organized within Process Classification Framework (PCF) - American Productivity and Quality Control (APQC) Taxonomy of Biz Processes 3. Applied to Human System Biology-based KM (HSBKM) model and Metrics by Mobee Knowledge Competency and Capability Maturity (MKCCM™) model - and our K-base
From our point of view, the issue of “Collectivity” is the function embedded within KM, especially KM Standard Culture and Value (as Human Organizational (Collective / Social) Learning-based boundary KM )

Md Santo -

Prarthana said...

Very interesting Nick, especially your last para. Actually KM changes the complexion of the Collective World to make it a consciously Collaborative World, which is what seems to be the need if we have survive (survive as in 'survivre' - to live beyond!)and flourish.

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