navigating complexity

The Cynefin framework 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 see the inherent weakness of instructional systems design (ISD) — designed for formal learning — which works from the premise of predetermined learning objectives and activities, usually based on good and best practices observed in the workplace.

I discussed learning in the complex domain last year and used the following visual to describe some ways that teams, communities, and networks can organize to improve knowledge sharing and sense-making.

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.

PKM with a cynefin lens

Learning in the complex domain

I suggested that there  are — at least — two modes for each form required to work and learn. For example:

  1. Teams can be semi-permanent and collaborative in ordered domains but should be quicker-forming temporary negotiated hierarchies in the complex domain.
  2. Formal communities can provide continuity in ordered domains but informal communities are needed to provide more flexibility in crossing expertise silos and disciplines.
  3. 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.

A recent research report shows the importance of informal and incidental learning when dealing with the complex challenges of a pandemic — Informal and Incidental Learning in the Clinical Learning Environment: Learning Through Complexity and Uncertainty During COVID-19

Understood through concepts borrowed from the Cynefin conceptual framework for sensemaking, the early stages of the pandemic immersed clinical teams in complex and chaotic situations where there was no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect. Health care teams had to act quickly amidst the chaos: they had to first act, make sense of, and respond with intentionality. Informal and incidental learning (IIL) emerged as a byproduct of acting with the tools and knowledge available in the moment. To integrate the informal, sometimes haphazard nature of emergence among health care teams, educators require an understanding of IIL. This understanding can help medical educators prepare health professions learners for the cognitive dissonance that accompanies uncertainty in clinical practice. —Academic Medicine 2022-08

Notice how the researchers state that with complex challenges, healthcare workers have to respond with intentionality — as I recently observed about the PKM discipline. With PKM, we develop personal practices but it’s all about how we connect and make sense with others — intentionally.

They go on to observe that different types of networks are required in complexity as shown in the image above. Formal networks can be echo chambers, therefore open knowledge networks and informal communities consisting of more diverse perspectives are necessary to speed the flow of knowledge.

Networks provide opportunity for clinicians to structure learning and increase homophily, a sociological theory whereby similar individuals will move toward each other and act similarly. Paradoxically, to optimize informal learning in team members across the health professions, heterophily is more desirable. —Academic Medicine 2022-08

We witnessed this early in the pandemic. For instance, at the WHO and many national public health policy boards, aerosol science was ignore by medical experts, “Aerosol scientists — typically, chemists, and engineers — representing the heterodoxy were systematically excluded from key decision-making networks and committees.”Orthodoxy, illusio, and playing the scientific game. These medical boards did not have the requisite heterophily to deal with the complexity of this novel coronavirus.

All organizations need to look at how they will deal with complex challenges. Do they have the flexibility and forward thinking to shift from ordered domains to the complex domain? Are professionals proficient at informal learning? Is it part of their work? Supporting informal and incidental learning at work means working smarter.

learning is the work

Image: RedForty2

4 Responses to “navigating complexity”

  1. Harold Jarche

    To deal with complex challenges — like a pandemic — established knowledge hubs (e.g. WHO), formal communities (e.g. APIC), & collaborative teams (e.g. hospitals), are ineffective.

    Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Prepare for complexity now.

  2. Helen Blunden

    Good distinction by adding the formal and informal elements to each area as this is what I’m seeing in my work too. People and teams knowledge and stories can then flow from from to the other. I also like the mention of “intention”. As humans we pick up others intentions from not what they say, but their individual and collective actions. So even though intentions aren’t expressed they’re most certainly felt and you’re on the receiving end of – which then feeds into the success or failure of such systems. I think many organisations are bang in the middle of some major challenges. Could be the beginning of the end for them?

    • Harold Jarche

      It is the beginning, but they won’t know it’s the end until it’s too late.

      “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
      “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

      Ernest Hemingway, 1926, The Sun Also Rises.


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