Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sustaining Amidst Challenges of Growing Complexity

Inspired by   to look at the "Flat World", has described some of the complex changes that have altered the nature of the world as we knew it.

Both individual and participatory decision-making has become increasingly complex as our decision contexts have become increasingly more complex as the world moved into what is Friedman describes as a third phase of globalization.

In this phase individuals across the world enter into relationships and drive opportunity and impact. Unlike the previous 200 years where globalization was driven by industry for markets and labor, this phase creates far greater number of linkages across distant geographies and is driven by greater diversity of events, purposes and actors. This also throws up newer combinations of systems that co-exist and result in yet un-experienced worlds for the us as decision-makers.

As a consequence of the increasingly complex systems, we experience an increase in the time it takes for the system to respond to our decisions (Response Time). This radically alters their ability to impact and be effective. Dramatic examples are seen in time it took for our systems to respond to the Tsunami warnings, control of the SARS outbreak or it is taking to  implement the UN Millennium Goals. In everyday life have you noticed the time it takes to have your post to the electronic or print media to become visible? That is the time the system took to respond.

Simultaneously the time the acceptable conditions will last in the system without intervention becomes smaller and smaller (Respite Time). Altering the time the acceptable condition can last without intervention requires greater effort, teamwork and understanding on part of the different stakeholders and decision-makers. Dramatic examples are seen in the smaller and smaller time that our societies are able to maintain themselves free from poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment and disease. Or in our day-to-day experience the smaller and smaller time that the media is able to maintain relevance without active intervention.

Given these changes and complexity, it is natural that the positions taken up by different stakeholders and the interests  of the different actors in a system are increasingly out of context and often threatening for different stakeholders. Decision negotiations are usually a bigger nightmare than before. The decision context is therefore saddled with an increased diversity of normative and prescriptive conflicts.

Those of us with a cognitive approach using “utility functions” or weighted comparisons or other logical methods to arrive at decisions can increasingly find our premises to be conflicting or part of conflicting contexts. For example the weight given to the environmental concerns, poverty, equity, globalization or free trade in different countries may not follow a consistent pattern. Or demographic concerns and therefore resource requirements, production and delivery logics tend to be completely different.

Those of us with a strong affective approach are often likely to find our contexts largely lacking for feeling or often get mixed messages. For example in the absence of physical proximity we may find it virtually impossible to understand the hugely different “feeling” of colleagues or stakeholders across the oceans or cultures. The arrogance, humility, anger, despair, concern, indifference or compassion of our colleagues may seem out of place.
Whatever our actual style on the cognitive-affective continuum, the changed contexts pose considerable challenges.

Like the world, which has shrunk with globalization, the computers have shrunk from occupying a building to a palm. The computer has extended its reach from itself to a local area network to wide area networks and the internet. It has therefore made it possible for distant actors, purposes and events now have omnipresence and even amplification. This makes it possible for rapid shifts of dominance of messages, purposes and actors. It is not unusual to be subject to many conflicting blogs, emails, feeds every day.

Naturally the traditional structure of organizations, departments and divisions are rarely as stable or insulated as in the past. Teams, even virtual teams form, perform and reform around missions rapidly across the world.

In view of this altered context of decision-making, how have our challenges to manage change altered?

I can see that firstly there is an increased need to deal with the variety amplification or cope with complexity. This means we need ways in which we can deal with the huge increase in information that we are subject to. We need ways to hold our world together, to reduce the complexity of the world we are a part of.

Secondly there is a greater need to deal with timing, especially if we are concerned about the sustainability of the systems we are a part of. We need ways to quicken the pace at which the system can respond to our inputs. We need ways to increase the time the system can auto-pilot without disaster.

How can we cope with these altered contexts and be effective in sustaining the systems we are a part of?

Suggested Links

1. Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005


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