Managing emergent practice

What would happen if you called for closing your training department in favor of a new function?  Imagine telling senior management that you were shuttering the classrooms in favor of peer-to-peer learning. You’re redeploying training staff as mentors, coaches, and facilitators who work on improving core business processes, strengthening relationships with customers, and cutting costs. You’re going to shift the focus to creativity, innovation, and helping people perform better, faster, cheaper. You might want to give it a try.  Perhaps the time has come.

This is how Jay Cross and I finished our article on The Future of the Training Department. We showed that in complex environments, which more of us face each day, only emergent practices are effective, as backward-looking “good practices” are inadequate. Training is a method based on good practices and best practices. We establish our performance objectives based on an understanding of what we want to achieve, usually engaging subject matter experts to help us. But what if nobody knows how to do or even describe our future roles and tasks? That is the challenge for training managers in preparing workers to face complex problems.

According to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, sense can be made in complex environments by 1) first probing through some action and then 2) sensing to understand what is happening and 3) finally responding based on what you have learned. Think of it as launching a new Web service. First it goes up as a Beta site and people join and use the services. Through their actions they give feedback; implicit and explicit. An effective strategy is to tap the feedback and actions of users and revise the service. Sometimes it is a radical change that is needed, such as when Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!) changed its early business focus from online gaming to photo sharing. In other cases it is a minor change, like accepting the use of the “@” symbol as a way of sending replies in Twitter. On the Web, and in complexity, it’s – Ready, Fire, Aim, Re-aim. I call it Life in Perpetual Beta.

A key understanding about complex environments is that they cannot be planned for. Certain skills can be developed in preparation for dealing with complexity but it is just as important to have systems in place that support workers in dealing with complexity. Shifting the main effort of the training department from content delivery to connecting and communicating is needed. That means pushing learning development tools to all workers. Everyone is now a subject matter expert at some point in time. Workers need to develop practices so that they can easily capture, find and share emerging practices. Web tools like social bookmarks, feed readers, blogs, and wikis can help (See Jane Hart’s 25 Tools for Learning Professionals).

The training department not only needs to teach how to use these tools but has to mine current practices as they evolve. Sense-making and pattern recognition become core skills for training specialists as they continuously develop new tools and processes based on emerging practices. Working in complex environments requires constant recalibration of methods and practices. There is no status quo.

In complex work environments we may need more coaches and facilitators but they will have to be as close to the work as possible. Standing back with a non-practitioner’s perspective will not help those doing the work. New roles such as ‘coach-as-co-worker’ or ‘facilitator-peer’ may emerge in this environment. As has already happened in this late industrial age, mid-level managers will become more redundant unless they can can do more than just manage. Who wants to hire a knowledge worker, as more of us are becoming, who still needs to be managed?

4 Responses to “Managing emergent practice”

  1. Ken Allan

    Kia ora Harold.

    What you describe here is not complexity. It is what they toyed with in the 60s when the retroactive effect of negative feedback was observed and experimented with when researching the use of relays in mechanical systems. It is complicated, not complex.

    You use the word ’emergent’. It is true that it applies to complexity. It describes the capricious (unpredictable) behaviour of a thing or system that makes it look as if it has a mind of its own. In the wake of the mechanical age, this is still a newbie. Only 30 years ago, ecology (a study of complexity systems) which was thought to be a discipline governed by scientific and mathematical parameters, baffled the observers at the time when its outcomes seemed to disobey the abundant theories that related to equilibria and their like.

    We are still trying to make sense of behaviour and outcomes in terms of things mechanical when looking at systems that are anything but mechanical. We must stop doing this. It’s like trying to explain exponential effects in terms of addition, or digital effects in terms of their analogue equivalent. It cannot be done.

    I posit here that most who talk and expound the concepts of complexity don’t know the fundamentals of complexity. It’s not that they’re out of their depth. It’s that they are in two dimensions when what they try to talk about is taking place in three. Try explaining volume and capacity to a two dimensional being who lives in the comic environment of the picture. They see the height and width of it, but the depth has to be manifest in terms of the other two dimensions, so understanding is just not possible. There is no panacea for this problem until a paradigm shift (I know it’s a 20th century term!) is made in our thinking.

    We have to think complexity when dealing with complexity systems. The old and well known mechanically complicated systems behave differently, and their rules and what we can predict form those don’t apply to what we are looking at.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Harold Jarche

    Ken; I think we are are talking about different things. I understand what you are saying but I hold to my views on emergent practices being required to make sense in complex environments. Of course, I will continue to examine and try to understand the field of complexity in order to be better understand it. Thanks for challenging my assumptions and making me think some more about this 🙂


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