Moving Beyond “Work as Usual” in a Complex World

As ever increasing speed and amount of available knowledge are reshaping day after day the world we live in, it looks like a gap is widening between the way most businesses still operate and the capabilities needed to deal with our environment’s growing complexity.

Organizational responses to overall increasing speed too often are costs reductions, automation and optimization. Efficiency has become the new business’ black, and BPR is its credo. But speed isn’t only a factor we have to cope with; it is deeply transforming the nature of our relationships to the world. As Paul Virilio wrote: “The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light.” When considering speed as an external constraint, companies are keeping themselves deliberately out of many of today’s new fundamental dynamics. Pushing the gas pedal won’t drive anyone faster than the engine was built for, and current business engine was assembled in the — industrial – XIXth century, and amended more than thirty years ago with the rise of the process-driven enterprise.

The shy face of Enterprise 2.0

On every subject, for every aspect of our life, the quantity of information available is so tantalizing, that we cannot simply store all information we need at some time into our memory anymore. Such abundance has transformed our cognitive process: we now mostly remember links and references to information, extending our memory map, our knowledge, to a network of peers and sources. The more information is made available, the stronger and wider this network becomes, and the faster knowledge is able to flow. This networked nature of our representation of the world in turn participates in increasing the global speed of the world.

One major Enterprise 2.0 frameworks’ motto is to help companies to deal better with this information overabundance, to make organizational knowledge expandable and faster to access, with the help of social software: connecting with the right information at the right time. So far so good. Power has shifted from knowledge to knowledge sharing. Cool; but for how long? Even if there is little hope to break the 90-9-1 rule in organizations, information is becoming ubiquitous in an exponential way.

A recent attempt to deal with this growing quantity of knowledge flows is content curation, to allow for a better distribution of information. Unfortunately, this only helps facilitating knowledge acquisition when the desired outcome is already known, since what is relevant to you isn’t necessarily so for someone else, or even in another situation. Context is missing here. What we need is another way to filter information in context, another way to make information usable through non-deterministic tasks. The real power resides in knowledge use, not in knowledge sharing.

Another motto is to start with clear objectives. Business objectives… When quantity of information and speed of transmission are changing our way of thinking, are deeply transforming our lives, is it reasonable to believe that aligning corporate practices with private habits will spare us to rethink the way we work, the way we do business? Can we seriously think that getting from silos to clusters will save us deeper organizational transformations? Yes, we have to set up business objectives to any collaborative initiatives, but we have to consider which new kind of objectives can be achieved through social business, and what it means for the future of business.

The poor performance of processes

Umair Haque recently stated that “Making Room for Reflection Is a Strategic Imperative“. This is a nice injunction, backed with lucid and thoughtful arguments, but can we just “stop doing”, in an environment where speed has become the very stuff of things? I don’t believe so, taking a break is no more an option, and what we really need instead is to think differently. Accelerated growth of available data requires new ways to acquire knowledge and put it into action. In such a situation, unlearning has become as important as learning.

As most of our knowledge is now stored outside of our memory, the challenge not only lies in matching real-world situations with experiences stored in our memory, but also in pairing those situations with the right external connections, in order to gain access to the relevant knowledge. Not only do we have to deal with data, in anything but routine thinking, but with people, and our cognitive process now encompasses our networks. Information retrieval, and learning, had become inherently hyper-connected.

From internal “social” initiatives (let us consider them as knowledge networks rather than true collaborative environments for demonstration purpose) to customers’ relationships, present process-based approach to business is broken. Business processes expect a deterministic output; they rely on repeatability and explicit workflows, which often proves itself far from the nature of human relationships. The cognitive process, instead, is a non-linear mechanism, able to make sense from disjointed information. Cognition doesn’t appeal for processes, but for patterns. Furthermore, processes suit perfectly machine-to-machine communication. Human-to-machine communication needs to take into account user experience, which hardly resumes to processes, and human-to-human communication is all about weak signals and pattern recognition.

Knowledge work is all about patterns

Venessa Miemis has written a great post about the importance of patterns recognition in the cognitive process. To quote her: “there are strong and weak signals all around us, patterns, which indicate a change has happened, is happening, or has the potential to happen”. Business processes work as long as nothing changes, or at least changes slowly, which happens less and less in present business environments. Dynamic patterns, instead, are emergent phenomena of complex systems. They are highly adaptive and relate not only to existing flows (whether they be knowledge, work, customer journey, etc.), but also to how these flows change over time. In other words, they can be harnessed as predictive tools as well as operational routines design. A simple change in an underlying process might translate into huge and fast modifications of related pattern. Looking at the way patterns change (sometimes dramatically) in our networks provides us critical clues on how to improve broken processes, or on when to seamlessly switch to another one.

Here is a short summary of dynamic patterns versus processes characteristics:

Designed on purposeEmergent and self-organizing
Inside-outMostly outside-in
Hard to changeHighly adaptive
Need stability to performRequire instability to form
May cause formation or modification of a single patternMay emerge from multiple different processes

Patterns are already used in business context. Emergent practices leveraged from online communities are patterns. Ethnography, and many design thinking methods, invoke pattern recognition to decipher customers’ behavior. Social learning implies the use of patterns in knowledge acquisition. Dynamic patterns are much more adapted to knowledge work than business processes are.

As they can be broken down to processes, monitoring patterns’ evolution in networks represent a promising way to handle the exceptions crippling most of the processes in which human interaction is involved. Integrating pattern recognition into work might require dedicated competencies, but it also requires new approaches. Adaptive Case Management is a promising framework to help dealing with knowledge flows rather than with processes, considered the fact that not only should we focus on information, but also on the way information, and connections to it, changes over time. Time has come, to understand that information is not only the blood of our networked organizations, but also their bones.

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18 Responses to Moving Beyond “Work as Usual” in a Complex World

  1. Great points, actually just a few minutes before reading this post i was saying to myself that the upside for me now is I am more comfortable with how I sustain information, curate it, and filter it, and of course learn from it, but with the quality comes quantity and that means reading more because it’s such good information.

    One thing I believe is the rise and need of knowledge workers within the organization. I strongly believe there are human capital characteristics of people out there who are born to do such things to scan information, to establish boundaries and filtering, to create ways to curate the information so that it’s not only easy to access but transitional, in other words you are learning as you are doing and that is key.

  2. Thierry de Baillon says:

    “you are learning as you are doing”

    You are right Spiro, we are getting used to deal with those growing information flows. For example, when I look at my children, I see how they discard what doesn’t directly interest them (even if required in college), it is just “somewhere around”, at their disposal whenever they need it, and memorize only what fascinates them. And I am realizing I more and more act in the same way 🙂

    I would go further and say that we are learning to learn by doing. Organizations are failing to learn from their workers, and do not realize that this wouldn’t be delegating control to users, but adapting to complexity. Subsidiarity is key here.

  3. What your seeing is transitional information, as the saying goes, “attention plus intention” equals success, for example, over the course of eighteen months following Graham Hill, Wim Rampen, Paul Greenberg, Mitch Lieberman, Mike Boysen, Esteban Kolsky, of which are inside a list that is small where i can transition each day with what they tweet,

    But i find the point is to quickly assess what interests you right away or at least recognize that what you read, learned, etc is somewhere viable in something you are working on now.

    If then we store it for a later time, we usually forget to follow up and there it sits,

    My point is i transitioned into learning about value co creation, service design, customer service etc by looking at ways to assess, and implement at least for starters thinking of ways where i can recognize what i can improve on or eliminate and so forth…

    Now each of us is an observer of our own “activity space” we input and we output, and on a daily basis we transition together by co creating that value, i learn from you, you learn from him and you take that output and rework it with your knowledge and put it back into the system.

    The problem is unlearning first to learn.

    Staying with my point above after eighteen months I can say I’ve made adjustments because of learning in a transition mode.

    Pattern recognition only comes after you are able to be a keen observer.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Storing for later use is indeed synonym for oblivion. But just as you build stronger ties with people you meet face to face, you will remember better who gave you that information which might help you today, and at which occasion, than where you store this file, memo, conversation transcript (if any).

      In the context you describe, pattern recognition appeals more to long-term memory, and the way we access it (see there, for example, notably p. 16), than to working –executable- memory.

      But the cognition process does not exclusively rely on focusing your attention. Unfocusing-reframing-focusing-protyping is a typical design thinking framework, and pattern recognition clearly belongs here to the unfocusing phase. The nature of our learning needs determines also the kind (conscious or unconscious) of pattern recognition at work.

  4. Mark Tamis says:

    I’m glad you picked up on ACM, Thierry, and I hope I had something to do with it 🙂

    Direct remembrance of the contents will be less important than knowing who to turn to to find the contents you need, be it only temporarily. It might be then the person you turn to does not have the knowledge either, but thru the network effect will in turn be able to find what your are looking for thru his ties, and then make the connection (and thereby satisfying the need for recognition).

    Curation to me is a dead end that is too intensive for assignment to a limited number of gatekeepers. All you are doing is offloading your information overload to them, rather than spread it out over an infinite number of ties.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Yes you do 🙂 as your posts helped me better make my mind on ACM, but you weren’t the first…
      Hutch Carpenter pointed me to ACM in a comment last Summer.

      The medical origin of “case management” is also a really interesting framework, as it involves iterative co-creation between a physician and his client.

  5. J. Scott says:

    I’m new to your blog (via John Hagel at FB), and found your post interesting. I’ve been wrestling notions of patterns w/respect to cognition for some time. One thing I’ve discovered is that a process is a pattern by definition (check-out the synonyms for pattern). I understand your usage (and agree with the sentiment), but given the vagaries of human cognition, certain processes/patterns (predictability) are necessary—-meaning a dialectic juxtaposition of process and pattern may be found wanting; particularly “design on purpose” and the “need for stability” (of particular interest Nicholas Nassim Taleb has advanced/coined a new word “antifragility” to describe systems that thrive on instability). You are on to something, with linear and inside-out—but a certain amount of linearity is a necessary part of our cognitive wiring; think classic economic equilibrium theory.
    Cordially, Scott

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Scott.
      Semantics are tricky, and the respective definitions for patterns and processes often overlap. The grabbing of the word “process” by business deserves special attention, as it in fact relates, in my opinion, more to causality (inherent to their industrial/mechanistic origin) than to linearity.

      Linearity seems to be only a side-effect in this case, since businesses put the emphasis on chain of events or decisions, each event determining next relevant response. Attempts to model processes which do not formalize tasks as deterministic chain exist, see for example Thingamy and the notion of Barely Repeatable Process. But causality remains.

      “Design on purpose” seems also to relate to causality, even if a more “relaxed” form, what Salmon described as pseudo-processes, eg where the cause is external to the process itself). But in complex systems dynamics, causality vanishes. There is no more agent, internal or external, to cause formation of patterns. This is the very meaning of emergence: patterns come up uniquely from interactions between people, or between pieces of information.

      I totally agree with you when saying that we need a certain amount of stability. Understanding how we can keep our systems (economical or organizational) stable without explicit causality (hierarchy, in its organizational definition, also heavily relies on causality) might be one of the major challenges we are now facing.

      I would love to continue this discussion with you, please feel free to answer or email me.
      Regards, Thierry

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  8. Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you for this!! I am a professor who is defecting from the linear processes if learning Wirh am emphasis on what I call crowdsourcing knowledge from the ppl in my classroom and the networks of experience and the reception of knowledge the and only they can bring. Your post gave me new distinctions about what I have already been doing. This was so needed today for me as I am rethinking my approach and hoe to create the interdependence of the networks in each class. I teach intro to anthropology and a course on the evolution and expressions of racism. But I also sm passionate about empowering students-as-adults, generating great citizens, professionals and human beings. This post is going to be shared ESP in my racism course to grok the shift in thinking I am inviting them to create for themselves inside and outside the classroom. Thx

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      I am happy if this can help, Kyra. Learning is typically a non-linear process, where people, more than information itself, play the role of attractors. Almost everyone has a story about a teacher who helped him suddenly “get it” in a particular course he didn’t understand before. In a classroom network, everybody is part of the pattern, that’s why you learn better when you have to teach to peers.
      Cordially, Thierry

  9. Interesting point of view – patterns. We use the phrase “work patterns” to identify various ways of organization work in response to the characteristics of the servive provided.
    Check out whitepaper on casemanagement for more info, around our Service/BPM grid.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Very interesting paper, Rœland. I baulked at some of the terminology used (best practices, for example, even more if they might be quickly rolled out), but, hey, this is kindda marketing stuff too 😉

      More seriously, I think that Capgemini’s take on case management (and patterns) misses one important point. The example given from the Health sector is in that sense typical: the original definition of Case Management not only relates to dynamically defined decisions and actions, but also to constant cooperation with the patient. Cases aren’t completed, they are co-completed.
      And patterns cannot be recognized from company side, they result from interaction between company and customers, or even between different parts of a company.

      This is, in my opinion, the key of a necessary shift from processes to patterns. Processes aren’t siloed (the paper states they are), They are defined when interaction is needed between different silos; accounting processes are about interaction with banks, shareholders, suppliers, etc. HR processes are about interaction with workers. That’s why the more complicated an organization is, the more processes are defined.

      There was a funny discussion on Linkedin and other places upon whether SMB need BPM or not. My answer is that they don’t need it (internally at least) because they are more or less holistic.
      I recently was in contact with a small (60) company whose CEO tried to implement internal processes. The result was disastrous among employees. Processes, as well as case management, are about interaction, and all stakeholders shape the pattern. Co-creation, or co-evolution (my next post), is definitely involved.
      Don’t you think so?

  10. Pingback: The FASTForward Blog » Dealing with A Dynamic World – Useful Thoughts from Thierry de Baillon: Enterprise 2.0 Blog: News, Coverage, and Commentary

  11. Dawn says:

    Just followed Venessa Miemis at twitter. Thank you for your post.

  12. Yes, very good posts on ACM. Both ACM and BPM aim at developing the business quality and performances in the organisation.
    Unlike BPM, ACM concentrates more on the information than the process. The information is something which is more important and will be taken in to official record.

  13. Attempts to model processes which do not formalize tasks as deterministic chain exist and process are defined when interaction is needed between different silos.This is the very meaning of emergence: patterns come up uniquely from interactions between people, or between pieces of information

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