Unraveling Complexity (the Missing Link): A new approach for solving problems in Social Ecosystems


For months I’ve been reaching out to colleagues to explore barriers to collaboration, a key tool in the social innovator’s toolbox. Among those queried (and in spite of diverse backgrounds), virtually all had experienced significant barriers to collaboration over the years including silo-thinking, dated and inefficient problem solving models, cultures of control, and a strong, prevailing lack of trust.

Consensus? The barriers to innovation seem to be as universal as they are frustrating.

So something is broken. What is the root cause?

Beth Noveck and David Johnson have published important research on how new Social Media collaboration technologies can change the game. Their perspective on a New Science of Complexity is summarized in this People & Place blog post and explained further in an excerpt from their research. Their focus was the U.S. EPA (including the Federal process for environmental research and legislation) but their conclusion, which I agree with strongly, is that the principles are applicable in business (#e20) and broader social venues (#gov20) as well.

My primary takeaway?  I now believe that INNOVATION IN COMPLEX ECOSYSTEMS will depend on an improved collaboration process – a new middle ground for problem solving – that balances large-scale central organizational approach with grass-roots contributions by individuals. It is about finding the “sweet spot” between rigid structure and adaptive, organic sourcing of ideas. In a new and somewhat uncharted public collaboration space, it means that the forces of organizational scale and leverage can be networked – connected – with discrete centers (or hubs) for contribution to produce more rigorous solutions.

At the core of this thinking? A realization that traditional large-scale organizations (with their central thinking, hierarchical layers, and silos of functional experts) are generally ineffective when dealing with complex situations. Quite literally, they are too rigid. Without the ability to adapt to new variables or to coordinate across silos, grid-lock ensues. And complex social ecosystems are impacted, since “sending in experts” is how we tend to attack these issues. On the list? The well known structural challenges in energy, sustainable food and water sources, public education and healthcare.

What’s needed is an outright paradigm shift in problem solving models that are fundamentally more interactive and cross-functional. And focusing on complexity theory is key, because it begins to unlock some new doors. For one, there must be an organic aspect that allows solution teams to learn, self-correct and grow. And to meet the requirement of connecting people more dynamically, Social Media is the ideal technology. Some examples? Think about experts engaged in live chat. Acceleration of thought synergies. Tools to merge and re-mix knowledge. Ability to leverage and extend dynamic repositories.

With focus and coordination, we can work to find the elusive “sweet spot”.

In terms of naming and framing the problem, the above research makes significant strides. The next step is critical as well, and is just as exciting: in pockets across the internet, the new collaboration is already starting to appear.

Are you seeing it too? Let’s talk, I’ll show you where and how.

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6 thoughts on “Unraveling Complexity (the Missing Link): A new approach for solving problems in Social Ecosystems

  1. Chris,
    This is an immensely exciting post for me to discover! I’ve been facilitating f2f collaboration for over a decade, and have been experimenting with how to incorporate principles and methods from complex adaptive systems the whole time. We’ve incorporated principles like independence, model-building, iteration and recombination into our group processes. We’re now exploring how to design the same principles into virtual collaborative processes. Here is our thinking to date, in two posts:
    Conceiving of Virtual Collaboration:
    http://www.illuminationgalleries.com/blog/2009/03/conceiving-of-virtual-collaboration.html

    A Process for Virtual COllaborative Design:
    http://www.illuminationgalleries.com/blog/2009/03/process-for-virtual-collaborative.html

    Would love to know if either of these strike a chord.

    Great post!
    Jay

    • Thanks Jay (@jaysmet), with due credit to Beth Noveck and David Johnson for their complexity research. I’m just hoping to apply it.

      Yes, both of your posts strike a chord. I especially like your core “iterative model building” approach, and the extent to which you’ve developed scenarios for interaction. As recently as this morning I was brainstorming alternative processes for online group collab. I plan to post soon to summarize experiences in web-based collaboration vehicles using chat, thread, map, merge/remix and repository elements.

      Appreciate your interest and desire to engage. Let’s talk further 1:1 (I’ll DM/EM).

      Chris (@SourcePOV)

  2. Enjoyed your post Chris and the obvious thought and study that went into it.

    Having had several chats to you about the subject, and knowing how you approach this subject, I know you do not say things like “what is needed is an outright paradigm shift” lightly, or without consideration for the issues that surround that.

    Indeed organizations that are able to find this “sweet spot” will hold an important competitive advantage in a world where retrospective measurements and reactions are still important, but are not enough to keep up with the real-time expectations and demands of the market.

    Opening up the collaboration process, while still keeping it protected is indeed possible. We all understand that there are different levels to collaboration and an open ethos does not necessarily equate to carelessness or exposure.
    Thanks for getting the grey matter working.

    • Great feedback Alasdair (@ajmunn), thanks for your comment.

      I am having more conversations every day about ecosystem challenges. Issues of ‘complexity’ and ‘barriers’ are raised often. But I’m encouraged to hear grass-roots collaboration is being raised often as well, as an alternative.

      Just today I heard a senior government official talk about the need for some ‘change to come from the outside’ .. a call to action, for certain .. but a key realization that silo’d governments can’t be expected to find all the answers.

      As outlined above, with SM, individuals can step in and take part. Thats a new mindset and a culture change, so it will take some time to catch-on. But I do see it starting to spread.

      The paradigm is starting to shift.

      So it sounds like we agree on the ‘why’.

      We still have work to do on the ‘how’, though we’re making some headway, w/ groups like SMCHAT. I’d like to start addressing some key steps in future posts here, and have heard others are doing the same (I’ll try to keep tabs on progress, with links here).

      Meantime, the ‘what’ is a pretty long list. Where do we start?

      Healthcare? Education? Energy?

  3. Pingback: EcoSys at One. Are you ready to Engage? « Driving innovation in a digital world

  4. Pingback: EcoSys at One. Are you ready to Engage? « Driving innovation in a digital world

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