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Everything is fragmented— The core principles

In an earlier column, I wrote about the science of complex adaptive systems (see Nov./Dec. 2008 KMWorld), which is a key piece of underlying theory to help us comprehend the increasingly interdependent and co-evolving worlds of knowledge management, social computing and learning.

The argument I am making is that nearly all human systems are complex in nature, and thus need a radical new approach to design. To do that, we need to establish some basic principles of system design, informed by complexity theory. Over the last four years, through a mixture of theoretical research and real-world practice, I have identified three core principles that I explain in the following paragraphs.

Distributed cognition means far more than the more popular phrase "wisdom of crowds," which is a misnomer because crowds can be more foolish than wise. [See Weinberger column (KMWorld, Vol 18, Issue 1, "What crowds are wise at") for more on the wisdom of crowds.] Distributed cognition means using network intelligence. The classic example is the Grameen Bank or micro-lending, with self-forming lending groups determining loan allocation rather than centralized credit scoring. In the context of modern management practice, that means the top-down stimulation of bottom-up activity. It’s not about delegation per se, or the absence of management, but it is about using the capacity of diverse networks to contribute to decision-making and system design; shifting the analyst from prime investigator and interpreter to a role of synthesis; and allowing systems to emerge through the interaction of people with software, rather than designing that use in advance.

Finely granulated objects have more utility than chunked up documents (information) or massive organizational empires. (That is the meaning behind this column’s title, Everything is Fragmented.) The basic idea is simple: Small things are more adaptable than big things, and they are frequently more interesting and more able to gain our attention. People will spend more time surfing the Web and using the fragmented material of an RSS feed than reading documents. It’s easier to write a blog than a book. Fine granularity material can combine in novel and different ways more easily than formal documents. Fragmented stories of partial failure create more learning than formal documents summarizing best practice. Fragmented material can combine and recombine in novel and different ways, a form of conceptual blending. In organizations, small, self-forming teams are more adaptive than matrix structures. Networks adapt faster than hierarchies.

Disintermediation is one of those interesting words that border on jargon, but it is too useful to abandon. It means removing the layers that separate decision makers from raw data—allowing them to move from an abstract representation of a large data set, spot patterns and anomalies, and focus on the five or six items to which they really need to pay attention. There is an ethical dimension to this too. When people encounter real stories/pictures, etc., they are far more likely to gain empathy and understanding, and therefore make more contextually aware decisions.

So we now have the basic theory of complex adaptive systems and three core principles. We can start to apply those principles to different aspects of system design. Over the next few months, I will explore the application of those principles to narrative-based, user requirement capture; the use of archetypal persona to inform design and rollout; co-evolutionary approaches to application development; the use of formal, ritualized dissent to increase the resilience of applications; and finally project management.

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