learning in the complex domain

Personal knowledge mastery (PKM) can be a lens to examine how knowledge flows in organizations and human systems, especially from a perspective beyond formal training and education.

“A model of curation for the digital era that is being used in health and care is Harold Jarche’s ‘Personal Knowledge Mastery’ (PKM). This is about individuals making the best use of their networks and other sources of knowledge so that they can keep up to date with the most effective thinking in their area and practice new ways of doing things. Leaders who take responsibility for their own effectiveness through PKM create leverage and value for their organisations. The underpinning framework for curation within PKM is ‘seek, sense, share’. ‘Seeking’ is about finding things out and keeping up to date; pulling’ information, but also having it ‘pushed’ to us by trusted sources. ‘Sensing’ is about making sense and meaning of information, reflecting and putting into practice what we have learned and plugging information into our own mental models and turning it into knowledge. ‘Sharing’ is about connecting and collaborating; sharing complex knowledge with our own work teams, testing new ideas with our own networks and increasing connections through social networks.” —UK National Health Service White Paper: The new era of thinking and practice in change and transformation

In addition, PKM is much more than a model of curation.

“Seek > Sense > Share are three elements at the core of Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) Framework. With PKM, he shaped one of the most persuasive approaches to personal and professional development, combining natural ways of learning with an approach to sensemaking and contributing to a larger collective.” —GIZ.DE

Personal knowledge mastery is a framework that connects working and learning. Much of what professionals and most adults learn is from experience and interactions with other people, at work or outside of it. We learn from experiences and exposure to people and ideas.

The US-based Hearing First community “supports families and professionals to help children with hearing loss have the opportunity to take advantage of access to sound — a critical building block for future success”. It uses the PKM framework as a foundation for learning.

Our world has opened up, and traditional learning channels (while still completely valid) are no longer sufficient on their own. We need to embrace this new personal learning channel: the digital world.

There is a solution for personal learning in the Digital Age: Personal Knowledge Mastery (or PKM). By incorporating PKM into our new age behavior, we’ll be able to accomplish the goals we have to improve ourselves and our listening and spoken language practice. You may have heard of personal knowledge management, but we don’t want to just manage knowledge. We want to master it.

The first step to personal knowledge mastery is the Seek-Sense-Share learning model. It was created by Harold Jarche, connected learning specialist, and it’s a concept that Hearing First supports for learning through our personal and professional networks. This learning model helps us make that data meaningful by being productive in our work and in the world of LSL. So, how does Seek-Sense-Share work exactly?” —PKM at Hearing First



“The Cynefin® framework was developed to help leaders understand their challenges and to make decisions in context. By distinguishing different domains (the subsystems in which we operate), it recognises that our actions need to match the reality we find ourselves in through a process of sense-making. This helps leaders cultivate an awareness of what is really complex and what is not and respond accordingly, so that no energy is wasted in overthinking the routine but they also never try to make the complex fit into standard solutions.” —Cynefin Centre

Cynefin can help us connect work and learning, especially for emergent and novel practices, for which we do not have good or best practices known in advance. When we want to create a conducive learning environment for knowledge workers, the Cynefin framework helps us to see the inherent weakness of instructional systems design (ISD) which works from the premise of predetermined learning objectives and activities, usually based on good and best practices observed in the workplace.

The Cynefin framework adds to PKM with levels of abstraction. Low levels of abstraction mean that information and knowledge are understandable to few people. The lowest level would be a person understanding something only to themselves. Higher levels of abstraction would make this more understandable to more people, but would lose nuance and context in the process. High levels of abstraction are good for things that everyone should understand, such as the symbols and markings on a map.

The image below takes the basic PKM model —  with teams in blue, communities in red, and networks in green — along two axes: high & low structure, and low & high abstraction. These are split in half — one for the Complex domain, and the other for the ordered domains (Complicated & Clear). The Chaotic domain has unique conditions and requires a different approach, beyond this post.

There are (at least) two modes for each form required to work and learn.

Teams can be semi-permanent and collaborative in ordered domains but should be quicker-forming temporary negotiated hierarchies in the complex domain.

Formal communities can provide continuity in ordered domains but informal communities are needed to provide more flexibility in crossing expertise silos and disciplines.

Established knowledge hubs provide all the structured information that a discipline requires, like the Project Management Body of Knowledge, but open knowledge networks are better when facing the complexity of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic as they need to quickly incorporate new findings and knowledge.

Given that all organizations are likely to face complex challenges at some time, these forms for complexity should be incorporated into how organizations are structured, how learning can be supported, and how professionals engage. For some aspects of this, an individual may need permission, but much of this can be done independently and especially interdependently between professionals.

PKM with a cynefin lens

Examples from the Complex Domain


Medecins sans frontières (MSF) has learned to deal with complexity and has come up with some guidelines to help those in the field.

  • Everything is political and influences medical assistance.
  • Gut feeling is very important to assess complex situations.
  • Finding common ground between parties in conflict is very difficult and too often simple, but ineffective solutions are chosen.
  • The situation is always changing and there is a need for constant reflection, as individuals and at an organizational level.
  • Impartiality [trust] is the ‘red line’ that cannot be crossed.
  • Every action is a compromise.
  • Conflicts are messy & dirty – therefore the humanitarian assistance is messy & dirty.
  • Learning through constant discussions is critical for all members of the organization.
  • MSF has a culture of debate and exposing the truth and this lets the organization move forward.

‘Marie Noelle Rodrigue, operations director of MSF in Paris, said: “The time has come to explain the fragile equilibrium between the price it is necessary for an organisation to pay so that you are helping the victims.
“Often that means making a compromise to a degree where you are helping the authorities. This is a question that no-one has wanted to examine and it is good that MSF have looked into it and I think we are happy that we’ve done it honestly.”’ —The Guardian 2011-11-20

The Linux Kernel

“Hierarchies might let you make one-off decisions at a faster rate, but, ultimately, they’re just not as responsive in the long term … Today, [the Linux kernel] stands as the very best solution to a growing number of technological problems, but it didn’t spring from a single person’s head overnight. Decades of work made it the flexible, superior solution it is today. Local improvements and impassioned debates between key stakeholders continue to refine it.” —OpenSource 2016-03-29

The Chaordic Organization — VISA

chaordic [kay-ordʹ-ic], adj., fr. E. chaos and order.  1. The behavior of any self-organizing, self-governing, organ, organization, or system that harmoniously exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos.   2. Patterned by chaos and order in a way not dominated by either.  3.  Blending of diversity, chaos, complexity and order characteristic of the fundamental organizing principles of evolution and nature. —DeeHock.com

“Our current forms of organization are almost universally based on compelled behavior — on tyranny, for that is what compelled behavior is, no matter how benign it may appear or how carefully disguised and exercised. The organization of the future will be the embodiment of community based on shared purpose calling to the higher aspirations of people.

Formation of a chaordic organization is a difficult, often painful process, but one also filled with joy and humor. Entirely different dynamics of judgment, behavior, capacity, and ingenuity can evolve. Small shifts in deeply held beliefs and values can massively alter societal behavior and results — in fact, may be the only things that ever have. That is my hope for our future.

I know it can happen. I’ve been there — or at least gone part of the way — during the formation of VISA and other chaordic organizations. It’s very difficult to put in words, for in truly chaordic organization there is no destination. There is no ultimate being. There is only becoming.” —Dee Hock 1999

Silo Thinking — Orthodoxy, illusio, and playing the scientific game

If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s that experts disagree, nobody has all the answers, and we are mostly making things up as we go. In a crisis it is important to act but even more important to learn as we take action. Add in the human factor that some people are always trying to take advantage of any situation and we start to float in a liquid surround of misinformation, propaganda, and half-truths.

Medicine is composed of many silos of expertise. They often see situations from quite different perspectives. Experts in all disciplines have to get out of their silos and connect in multidisciplinary subject matter networks. A lone expert, or even a lone discipline, is obsolete in the network era. Only cooperative networks will help us make sense of the complex challenges such as a pandemic.

“Three fields—political, state (policy and regulatory), and scientific—were particularly relevant to our analysis. Political and policy actors at international, national, and regional level aligned—predominantly though not invariably—with medical scientific orthodoxy which promoted the droplet theory of transmission and considered aerosol transmission unproven or of doubtful relevance. This dominant scientific sub-field centred around the clinical discipline of infectious disease control, in which leading actors were hospital clinicians aligned with the evidence-based medicine movement. Aerosol scientists—typically, chemists, and engineers—representing the heterodoxy were systematically excluded from key decision-making networks and committees. Dominant discourses defined these scientists’ ideas and methodologies as weak, their empirical findings as untrustworthy or insignificant, and their contributions to debate as unhelpful.”
 —Wellcome Research 2021-05-24

Open Sharing on Twitter

Here is an example of 16 people in various specialties — epidemiology, complexity, public health, sociology — from four countries (CA, UK, US, ZA) who share their knowledge in the open and by combining their views on a platform like Twitter, we are better informed about the current coronavirus pandemic
Twitter Pandemic List.

Democratizing Knowledge

“The pandemic has empowered us to become co-creators, co-producers, and co-distributors of what we know — While each unique, these cases are all organic efforts to share useful knowledge and create new venues of access. The gains of the burgeoning knowledge commons in response to Covid-19 are twofold.

First, individuals are empowered to become co-creators, co-producers, and co-distributors of information for the benefit of their communities. The need for local knowledge in this pandemic, combined with the use of digital venues like Google Sheets or Minecraft, enables individuals to participate in knowledge production when ordinarily they would not … Second, the accessibility of these knowledge products enables innovation. The release of patents under an open license means that inventors and manufacturers can build needed solutions without the worry of a lawsuit.” —Wired 2020-05-27

• Learn more with the PKM Online Workshop

Next: navigating complexity

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)