H.L. Mencken, American satirist, wrote that, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” That pretty much sums up the problems we are facing today in our organizations and institutions. We are using tools that assume simple, or at most complicated, problems when many are actually complex. A mechanistic approach to problem solving is inadequate in complex adaptive environments. Global networks have made all of our work, and all of our problems, interconnected. We live in one big, unfathomable complex adaptive system.
Managing in complex systems is more about influencing possibilities rather than trying to determine any predictability. This requires tacit knowledge, or ways of thinking that cannot be codified and written up as best practices. It’s a continuous process of trying things out, sensing what happens and developing emergent practices. This is the great potential of web social media. Social networking supports emergent work practices. The true value of social networking is in sharing tacit knowledge.
What hinders the adoption of social media is that hierarchical leaders (those in power by virtue of their position, not their knowledge or ability) are not able to function when ideas and knowledge flow laterally as well as vertically. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Social media bypass the organization’s information gatekeepers and render hierarchical leadership useless.
Over the past century, large organizations have simplified and codified their processes in order to get economies of scale. They have also centralized as many functions as possible, including anything related to learning and performance. This is the modern institution and corporation. The problem is that this will not work any more. Biological, technological, environmental and societal change are accelerating. Moore’s Law states that computational power doubles every 18 months while human knowledge doubles every year.
Our current models for managing people, training and knowledge-sharing are insufficient for a workplace that demands emergent practices just to keep up. Formal training has only ever addressed 20% of workplace learning and this was acceptable when the work environment was merely complicated. Knowledge workers today need to connect with others to co-solve problems. Sharing tacit knowledge through conversations (the only way to do this) is an essential component of knowledge work. Social media enable adaptation (the development of emergent practices) through conversations.
In the 21st century, conversation is learning and learning is work.