complexity in the workplace

In my post on complexity and learning, I said that work in networks requires different skills than in hierarchies. Coordination is making sure things get done effectively and efficiently. Most organizations do this well. Collaboration is working together for a common objective, usually directed through someone in authority. This is still the focus of most management training. But cooperation should be the default behaviour for connected organizations working in the network era.

Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. People in a network cannot be told what to do, only influenced by their peers. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others. Organizations need to be open, transparent, and diverse to thrive in networks. Enabling people to cooperate gives organizations the flexibility they will need to engage with complexity.

When work requirements are relatively simple, they can be addressed by standardized procedures and best practices. This is the type of work that is getting automated every day. Once a flowchart can describe a process, the algorithms can get to work replacing humans. Complicated work, where systems can be analyzed and understood, can be addressed through industry best-of-breed work practices and can be assisted by enterprise software to ensure people know what is going on. But complex work requires much greater human involvement and the sharing of implicit knowledge, which cannot easily be codified or captured by software. Chaotic situations, which should be avoided, often require novel and untested solutions, as the crew and ground staff had to do for the Apollo 13 mission. Understanding the environment and the type of problems we face is assisted by an understanding of the Cynefin framework.


With increasing complexity in most aspects of a network society, the way that we support organizational learning must change. With low levels of complexity, knowledge can be codified into documentation and distributed throughout the organization. Best practices can be determined and then people can be trained to perform these methods at work. For example, basic aircraft flight operations can be taught in this way. But complex problems require implicit knowledge that cannot be put into a manual. This type of knowledge is nuanced and dependent on the context and situation. For example, negotiating the creation of the United Nations required many conversations and involved a myriad of social connections. In cases like this, implicit knowledge is much more important than memorizing facts and figures.

Dealing with people, and their organizations, is complex. These types of complex circumstances, confronting us more frequently in many walks of life, require emergent practices in order to try the new. Best practices can be taught, but emergent practices have to be developed and learned as we work. They should be based on solid explicit knowledge in addition to networked implicit knowledge. To deal with complex issues, social learning at work is a business necessity.



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