posted 21 Jul 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 10
The prevention (or detection and suppression) of error
By Jack King
The way I see it, knowledge production and utilisation are key competencies of humans, both as individuals and as influenced by interaction with others, e.g., in communities. Production and utilisation both demand astute management, not only of information resources, but also of the number, proximity and styles – and therefore the behaviours – of the people involved.
One important, often overlooked behaviour is the prevention of error, or at least the timely detection and suppression of error.
Sometimes two plus two does not equal four. Systems thinkers know about synergy wherein two and two, when interrelated ‘just so’, equal more than four. Unfortunately, systems can be counterproductive with the result two and two may also equal less than four.
This is called ‘disergy’, a situation in which coordination costs increase faster than the worth that coordination achieves. Disergy runs rampant throughout society, exemplified by recent conferences that highlighted trillion dollar per year problematic situations. Among these are ecosystem stewardship, healthcare, futile information search, cyber security, identity verification, real property loss and corporate restructuring costs.
These problematic situations share three key attributes, notably: extent, variety and ambiguity. Extent signifies the sheer number of cognates involved. Variety signifies the number of unique cognates, both ontological and temporal (changes over time). Ambiguity signifies the likelihood of false positives and false negatives in any interpretation or judgment.
Situations of very high extent, variety and ambiguity are called ‘wicked problems’. This label signifies that attempts to ameliorate the problem almost always make the problem worse. This because – as pointed out by John N. Warfield, professor emeritus, George Mason University – high extent, variety and ambiguity causes cognitive overload in humans, which leads, in turn, to underconceptualisation. Cognitive overload means people simply become overwhelmed with data glut. Underconceptualisation means they devise solutions that, paraphrasing famed journalist H. L. Mencken, “are straightforward, easy to comprehend – and wrong”.
What has this to do with knowledge work? Perhaps Einstein told us only half the story with e=mc2. He didn’t mention knowledge. Utilising knowledge in lieu of energy or mass goes beyond knowing things. The primary measure of knowledge utilisation becomes accomplishing things. This takes three kinds of knowledge, semantics (the science of meaning), semiotics (the signs of meaning) and systemics (the theory of and praxis for creating purposeful systems). When all are applied in the right proportions, problematic situations can be suppressed without toxic side effects.
Individual prowess in all three is necessary but not sufficient. It takes shared semantics, semiotics and systemics to cope with wicked problems. This opens the way beyond collaboration to co-learning and co-evolving. If your version of knowledge management enables and promotes such sharing, then you may be one of our future leaders. We need you.
Jack Ring is the owner of Innovation Management,