cynefin

This is a retrospective on how my work has been influenced by the Cynefin framework, which I first came across in late 2007, many years after it had been originally published in 1999 — the same year as The Cluetrain Manifesto. After reading some of the background information, I concluded there is no single best way to address our pressing business, societal, or environmental issues. The majority of our challenges are not Obvious or Clear (addressed with best practice, as Frederick Winslow Taylor prescribed with his 1911 Principles of Scientific Management) nor are they merely Complicated (addressed by good practice) but more of our issues are Complex (addressed through emergent practice) and Chaotic (addressed by novel practice).

The Cynefin framework helps to highlight the weakness of instructional systems design. Instead of ISD, we need a design model that helps to template ‘desirable patterns’, recognize ‘undesirable patterns’, and provide a variety of ‘seeds’ for the learning environment. This would be a far better approach for learning than a set of learning objectives and activities, as any learning intervention involving several people is arguably in a complex environment. One aspect of complex environments, according to the Cynefin framework, is that “Cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect and do not repeat”. This sounds like most working environments today.

When no one can understand the vagaries of a situation in a changing, complex environment then the only thing to do is try out new things based on our best judgement and then watch, learn, and keep trying new practices. There are few universal best practices or even good practices outside simple or automated processes. There are things that work for some people, some of the time. As learning professionals, our job is to understand our organization or client’s situation and look outside to see what others are doing. We have to try things out and see how they work. If we wait for the best practices, we will be too late. This is life in perpetual beta.

Informed by Cynefin, I have made several recommendations for a new type of training department. One of the ways we have addressed simple and complicated problems has been through training. Training works well when we have clear and measurable objectives. However, there are no clear objectives with complex problems. Learning as we probe the problem, we gain insight and our practices are emergent (emerging from our interaction with the changing environment and the problem). Training looks backwards, at what worked in the past (good & best practices), and creates a controlled environment to develop knowledge and skills.

To deal with increasing complexity, organizations need to support emergent work practices, in addition to their training efforts. They must support collaboration, communication, synthesis, pattern recognition, and creative tension, all within a trusting environment in order to be effective. One method of supporting emergent work is the fostering of communities of practice.

Here are some specific practices for those in learning and development:

  • Be an active and continuous learner and engage in activities that take you out of your comfort zone, so that you know what it’s like to be a learner.
  • Be a lurker or a passive participant in relevant work-related communities (could be the lunch room) and LISTEN to what is being said.
  • Communicate what you observe to people around you, solicit their feedback, and engage in meaningful conversations.
  • Continuously collect feedback from the workplace, not just after courses.
  • Make it easy to share information by simplifying and synthesizing issues that are important and relevant to fellow workers.

I also came across articles by Glenda Eoyan at Cognitive Edge discussing three types of accountability, depending on the stability of the environment.

  1. Stable systems > Outcome-based accountability
  2. Active, self-organizing systems > Learning-based accountability
  3. Random & chaotic systems > Sharing-based accountability

Many of our HR and work practices are still premised on the assumption of stable systems, but as events from floods and wildfires to a global pandemic have shown, this is no longer the dominant situation. Some of the project-based work I have done uses learning-based accountability, where we are all responsible to help the rest of the team learn. For freelancers and others who live and work on the Web, this becomes a natural way to work. The same can be said for sharing-based accountability, especially among bloggers and others who share online. We have learned that the more you give, the more you get back in the form of feedback and more learning opportunities.

I have wondered out loud that if an organization is only focused on outcome-based accountability can it thrive in more active or random environments? Even in 2007 it seemed that most market and socio-economic structures were becoming more random and chaotic. This trend has continued. Reframing the concept of accountability remains an important conversation to start with HR professionals and executives.

Here are some of my conclusions about complexity, learning, and work — developed over the past decade.

  • Networks – Our workplaces, economies, and societies are becoming highly networked. That means the transmission of ideas can be instantaneous. There is no time to pause, go into the back room and develop something to address our challenges. The problem will have changed by then.
  • Life in perpetual beta – Not just rapid change, but continual change, requires practices that evolve as they are developed. In programming, this has meant a move from waterfall to agile methods. Beta releases are the norm for Web applications and as we do more on the Web, other practices are sure to follow.
  • Complexity – The Cynefin framework shows that established practices work when the environment or the challenge is simple or complicated. For complex problems there are no established answers and we need to engage the problem and learn by probing. This requires a completely different mindset from training for defined problems and measurable outcomes. The integration of learning and work is not some ideal, it is a necessity in a complex world.

Networked digital platforms give us a better way to engage in collaborative work and help us integrate learning into our daily practice, such as personal knowledge mastery. Given our complex and chaotic challenges, the only way to operate as an organization is where work is learning and learning is the work.

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