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Inside Complexity: On Sense-Making, where Context Rules

soulofmedium-1

“Where does a system start and end?” asked the bird outside the cage.

Hardly a day goes by that I’m not thinking about complexity, and how we might get better at understanding it.

Unlike the structured, linear, mechanized world that we’ve learned better how to control, we’re now learning that the vast majority of the world’s soscial systems, and all of it’s natural ones – including humans – are guided by unstructured, dynamic modes of interaction. It’s the organic, adaptive approach of complex systems.  It’s a place of uncertain outcomes, but significant potential.  It’s how plants and animals evolve according to diverse environmental factors. We can’t know with certainty how these systems will evolve. There are too many variables.

But we can learn how to better anticipate trends and patterns, and perhaps even have an influence.

The are the challenges of getting our head around complex systems in social spaces, places like teams, where work needs to get done.

Enter context.

My latest thinking on this emerged from a conversation on Twiter between Jan HoglundMaz IqbalNora Bateson, Dil Green, and a host of others, discussing the challange of multiple system layers, as they cross-function in shifting contexts. To paraphrase the thread, it’s very hard to visualize all the layers of a complex system interacting with all the external variables, in one coherent view. Our sense-making abilities can seem profound, but there limits.

Here’s the thread on Twitter, definitely worth a look.

When thinking about complexity in layers of systems, its easy to “max out” due to the number of variables. Our mental models of the moment essentially crash.

As an example, consider a person in a meeting at work, who is likely to experience some of these simultaneous influences, to varying degrees:

    • mental health – happy, angry, curious, distracted
    • subject matter – interesting, germane vs limited relevance
    • biological – nourished, energized, alert vs lethargic, restless
    • physical – comfort, safety, temperature
    • social – promimity to others, nature of relationships (friends, strangers), trust
    • culture – family, community, nation, ethnicity, gender roles, demographics

In any given moment, individuals sense these things. They impact thoughts, focus and concentration.

On a team, we can’t understand the combinations of factors like these in any moment, because, again, we’d “max out” from too much data.  The crossover effects are mind boggling. Instead, whether as observers (facilitators) or actors (the person in the room) we can hold personal health and values constant for a moment, and focus on a group objective. We move forward with shared purpose. This works for a short while. Until it is time for lunch and bio breaks, when individuals get to refocus and recharge, tending to needs of their individual systems.

All models are approximations of what’s really there.  A good model needs to allow enough clarity to make sense of what’s happening, at a level that makese sense for the problem we’re working to solve. We can’t “let all the complexity in” at once, or we drown in information.

When we’re sense-making, we need to let in some simplifying assumptions.

This is especially true for complex adaptive systems, that learn – like humans – where it is essentially to hold most variable and external factors constant, in the context of the moment, so that mental faculties can be focused on a problem. Both individuals and groups can do this for short periods. Some individuals and larger groups may struggle. The duration must be limited, the quintessential ‘time box’.

Ulimately, this is how we achieve results in a team settting, moving beyond idle thoughts and actions to purposeful work. We try to focus our energies like this every day. So often, we struggle.

It is the process of complex adaptive (human) systems functioning in the world, not only surviving, but learning and creating. And all of it, ultimately, is fueled and driven by our individual and collective ability to make sense of what matters in the moment.

In my view, the key is setting and holding context while we make sense of what’s happening. When we have an idea, a few theories, something to work from, only then we can shift that context, and let in more or less data, to further vet our thinking. The lens can zoom in, or back out. It can expose more details of a system, and it’s subsystems, or less. Neither are right or wrong to the sense-maker. Only more or less useful, in the moment.

Context, like the lens, is our principal tool for understanding complexity. To the deep thinker, the student of complexity, it takes some mental gymnastics when learning to shift or hold context on demand. Doing it a group is harder still.

Harder. But not impossible.

I’ve laid out some of these dynamics in my first book.  As we speak, I’m compiling more practices for complexity sense-making in my second, now in progress.  It’s already proving to be a fascinating and exciting journey.  And it starts with looking around.

Join me.

Chris Jones aka @sourcepov Charlotte NC US

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Learning in the Moment: Navigation Strategies for the Flow (or Flood?) of Insight

Can learners improve their skills at navigating in the sea of insights?

How can we learn when the flow of information seems overwhelming?

 

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2014, by 

While common core standards draw the spotlight & ire of educators and parents alike, perhaps we are looking past a more practical and useful question:

“How might we improve our ability to learn in the moment?”

The human brain is a complex place, and there are many ways it processes new information. If we look beyond the “talking head” classroom model, we can already find a raft of alternative learning experiences, ranging from visual learning, team/design models used heavily for project-based scenarios, as well as situational and immersive learning offered by some public systems, GT programs and specialty schools.

What is common in all of these alternative models?

I believe they require .. and build .. competency in real-time processing of information. Quite simply they help us to focus, to interpret, and evaluate new inputs in the moment, using a variety of senses and external stimuli.  People.  Images.  Crossover concepts.  In the sea of information that is cable TV and the internet, that is no small achievement.  In fact,

“Building competency for real-time learning is increasingly critical. Students (of all ages) need to recognize, evaluate and prioritize new insights in the moment, pulling value and meaning from the tidal waves of information flowing past us.”

What does this imply in a practical sense?  I think it’s a significant change of thinking.  It could challenge our pre-conceived notions of how we, as individuals, learn best in 21st century conditions of information overload.

More and more, facts and dates seem less important than the causes of things, their trends, and emerging patterns.  Sure, facts and dates are key inputs.  Together, they can tell a story.  But without the ability to interpret them and apply them in context, we are simplify left with a sea of facts and dates.

In a combined #cdna and #ecosys this MONDAY 4/14 at 8pm ET, let’s explore the notion of “learning in the moment” and we’ll use the metaphor of splashing in water as our metaphor of choice.  Why?  Few would argue that information is crashing constantly around us.  It’s an endless flow, a frothing sea that many perceive to be overwhelming.  It’s time 21st century learners .. which is all of us .. become better at discernment and learning in real-time.

  • Q1. What factors have you seen block learning in real-time?
  • Q2. What limitiations does structured knowledge-based learning (facts, dates) place on us that critical thinking does not?
  • Q3. How should we define critical thinking (in this context?)
  • Q4. What value does a fluid insight have over fully-matured facts, data, or other crystallized knowledge artifacts, and why?
  • Q5. How can we make “learning in the moment” more immediate, accessible, and top of mind?

I hope you will join our real-time conversation using combined hashtags #cdna and #ecosys on MON 4/14 at 8pm ET. Twitter is one of my favorite immersive mediums for learning.  Depending on who you choose to follow, out twitter streams (!?) themselves can provide a steady flow of powerful insights.

You might just say we’re learning all the time.

We try to meet in this same time slot, every second Wednesday at 8pm ET.  We’ll be diving into the deep end (!!).  Bring your favorite flotation device.

See you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov


Additional reading

  • Anderson, Lorin W. et al. “Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching & Assessing: Revisions of Bloom” (2001)
  • Dweck, Carol S. PhD. “Mindset: The New Pscyhology of Success” (2006); provides foundational thinking re: “growth” vs. “fixed” learning mindset, I think a key factor here
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. “Blink” (2005)
  • Herbert, Wray. “On Second Thought” (2010); provides excellent insights on Mental Heuristics, a key aspect of this discussion
  • Jones, Chris. “The DNA of Collaboration” (2012); this post expands on my thinking re: collaborative and social learning; for more on these ideas, see Ch.6 on Metaphor, Ch.8 on Listening, Ch.9 on Mental Heuristics, and Ch.20 on Critical Thinking; see also related posts on the book’s website, http://collaborationdna.com
  • Kahneman, Daniel. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011)
  • Lewin, Kurt. “Action Research” article, Journal of Social Issues 2(4) (1946)
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Building Social Capital (the series): Taking on Community Engagement

Are u building Social Capital? (c) 2013 Amberwood Media Group

CHARLOTTE, NC. June 2013, by

As builders start building again and we resume the race to keep up with the 21st century, I’m compelled to ask:  how long has it been since we’ve felt truly connected with our communities?  Many I know are reporting gaps .. whether it be with their church, gym, PTA, or even the local neighborhood association.  Oh sure, we may still be there physically.  But ..

To what extent are we participating?  How many of the people around us do we actually know?  Are we in the crowd going through the motions, obsessively checking our smart phones, but not engaged?

Chances are we know the answer to that one.  Here’s another key question:

If and when we DO engage in our communities, what are our motivations?

If we answered the second question:  to “survive”,  “fit in” or “claim our rightful share” I’d argue that we’ve lost touch with what’s important.  Where once we knew our neighbors well and we knew what we stood for .. ok, I may be going back a few decades .. now it seems we find ourselves more and more isolated, cut off from the deep and nurturing social connections that humans thrive on.  Our consumer and work-saturated culture seems to have trumped our core values, and the path to a better place is less than clear.  We’re in a bit of a pickle.

A Clarion Call for Leadership.  We need a new vision, to me that’s clear.  But leadership in the societal (not using “social” here on purpose) space is tricky.  For community leadership to work, the energy must come from the rank and file .. from the inside out and the bottom up.  Seth Godin in “Tribes” builds strong arguments around the need for leadership from the inside .. getting people who are used to not leading to start leading .. sometimes, by creating spaces and situations and cultures that empower.

No small task, that.  But one that holds significant possibilities.

Why?  Because it’s an approach that can scale.

But that means some of the leaders, if not the vast majority, will be folks like you and me.  Working types.  And for many of us, leadership is not something we’re  used to.  Can we play?  I say yes.

Social Possibilities.  Communities offer a broad landscape of opportunity, really.  I’d argue that we need to invest our time and energy before we find our social systems past a point of no return.  Cynics have declared that we’re too late.  But ..

I believe we are just now starting to mobilize our thinking. We’re learning to focus our energies, and .. this is important ..  connecting people in ways that literally unlock their creative potential.

It’s time for us to stop being alone with our televisions  and to start engaging in our communities again.  The applies both offline (in real life) and online (virtual).  It’s not so hard.  We learned how to do it on the playground.  If our kids are out their having fun, taking chances, building sand castles, and making new friends, why can’t we?

When we engage in a real way, we’re building social capital .. putting together the skills, resources and networks that can help us learn, in turn helping us to help others.

As that happens, we start raising the water level of what’s possible.

Ultimately, we can change the game.

Get Started Getting Social.  This post starts a new blog series on social capital.  In coming posts we’ll take the notions apart so we can rebuild them into something that we’ll find practical and useful.  And we’ll tap some of the approaches in my book, helping us to take inventory of the barriers and enablers we’ll need to master along the way ..

I’ll post links to subsequent posts here, as well as in the sidebar Editorial Calendar.

In the meantime?  No waiting around.  Connect.  Engage.  Get social. We’ve lost ground, and some precious time.  If you have to, ask your kids how they do it !!  [ .. on that note? .. cue Angela Maiers and her Sandbox Manifesto .. ]

I hope you’ll stop back in.  We’ve got work to do.

Keeping Up with the Flow: Why Feedly Changes the Game

CHARLOTTE, NC. March 2013, by

As you may know, I’ve been exploring the flow of insights across organizations for years. It’s at the core of effective collaboration. As I’ve shared at conferencesblogs and now in softcover, more often than not, that critical flow of insight is blocked.

On the Web we have the opposite problem. Here we have the freedom to read and write any content we like. Insights can flow rapidly. But in terms of content like blog posts, it can be incredibly difficult to keep track of it all. The deluge of insight overflows the levies of our day to day attention spans.

There is  too much content, and it never stops coming.

Haw River, NC - feedly in the flow of insights

Haw River, NC – feedly in the flow (of insights)

Feedly changes the game because it recognizes the problem. It knows our time is limited. So it helps us move past the okay stuff so we can get to the good stuff. And if all the content is good? Feedly lets us quickly get to the next level, identifying the good stuff that’s most relevant. To me, that’s a game changer. Here are the Feedly features that made me sit up and take notice:

  • Rapid and seamless integration with Google Reader. Since I was already signed-in to chrome and G+, I simply had to tell Feedly to sync with Reader and it happened in a matter of minutes.
  • Rapid update of feeds. Quickly add or drop the content you want to receive. All you need is the blog URL.
  • While mobile, a “swipe” browses and/or marks posts as read. Beautifully mirroring the turn of a magazine page, we can scan headlines, drill down to read an article, or move on .. quickly.
  • Dynamic categories (for tracking relevance). This is where power surfing begins to leave paper magazines behind. With tools like Feedly we can bookmark and tag on the fly, helping us connect new ideas with our own, using categories to index what’s important to us, even as what’s important evolves.
  • Save for later. Let’s us flag posts that need another read, a share on Twitter or G+, or a response.
  • Multiple-device sync. Feedly on the browser and mobile work together.
  • Valuable content: anytime, anywhere (aka, another “win” for mobility). Where once our idle moments (elevators, subways, concert lines) were venues for checking Facebook or our Twitter feed, now we can read deep and important content on the go as well, all of it real time.

In a world where everyone pushes content, it’s time to focus on context, finding and adopting more powerful tools (like Feedly) for tracking what’s important. Who decides what’s important? Look in the mirror. With these tools in hand, it’s easier to filter and to focus, connecting related ideas with our own, unlocking opportunties for more engagement which can ultimately lead to new thinking.

For anyone that takes learning and the learning organization seriously, that’s a huge step forward. The critical feedback loop can now be closed.

Insights flow "like leaves on a river" - David Bohm

Insights flow “like leaves on a river” – David Bohm

Organizations will continue to grapple with their collaborative barriers. Often they must settle for little more than a trickle of insight. Meantime, out in the open spaces, we’re getting better at flood control.

Props to Mack Collier and crew for the Feedly tip at #blogchat.

So go ahead, blogosphere. Let the insights flow. Now, at long last, I’m ready for you.

Collaborative Learning 2013: In Search of Common Ground

In my last post on Collaborative Learning, I pondered synergies among practice areas that had traditionally been hallmarks for how we learn. Public Education quickly came to mind.  So did Higher Learning. But what about the commercial space?  Organizational Development (OD) and Knowledge Management (KM) have staked claims to learning too.  And don’t all entrepreneurs, especially in social change spaces, seek to discover ‘what is possible’?

I’ve been in at least 4 Twitter chats on this topic since that original post in December, and had a highly energized conversation every time. We’ve answered the question at a high-level:  YES, there should be synergies across practices.  The many comments on the previous post supported this, and provided numerous sources and examples from personal experience. Thank you Blake Melnick, Jon Husband, Bas Reus and Kira Campo for those contributions.

There’s something to be said about how we, as learners, can learn differently (and perhaps better) in groups with other people, as opposed to learning alone.  A solo effort might involve a book, a teacher, or a computer screen, but in all cases, the learner is generally on their own to discern the material, with only an instructor and visual content (words, pictures) to guide their learning.

Collaborative learning means learning in groups or teams, deriving deeper insights from discussion, alternative perspectives, and open dialog.

Call it social learning if you like.  That’s an interesting frame all it’s own, with important implications for social media, many of them covered in an excellent book, The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.  In fact, by reading this blog post, you and I are using social media to connect the dots on this thinking, with the potential of further engaging in collaborative research ..

But as you will see in our framework, many more factors will influence our success, extending beyond social technology.  Areas like intention, culture, and our ability to think deeply in a variety of modes come into view.  We’re not just talking left-brain vs. right-brain here (though that enters in .. see Iain McGilchrist on RSA for a fascinating update).  We’re talking about critical thinking, empirical thinking, and design thinking, 21st Century frames from the 3 high-order Learning Dimensions in Bloom/Anderson.

From ECODNA 2009 - a discovery thread (detail)

From ECODNA 2009 – a discovery thread (detail)

In our 2/18 #CDNA chat, the group weighed-in in favor of a “spiral” path, not following rows or columns.  Is this possible?  How would be able to keep our bearings?  We’ll be discussing it at hashtag #CDNA on 2/25 at 8pET.  Watch for the transcript.

To get you thinking, the image at left is an excerpt from ECODNA, a reference framework which evolved via Twitter chat in October 2009, part of the genesis of #ECOSYS.

I hope and believe we can bring new energy on “learning to learn” in every direction possible .. the workplace, the classroom, and our daily lives.  We solve problems every day. That means we tap our ability to summon the right solution, or to call up the right set of factors to determine a new solution.  Are we successful?  Sometimes.  But I contend our ability to make sense of the 21st Century is going to be ever more difficult.  The problems are more complex and intertwined.  We will need both the rigor and depth that comes with “learning to learn” at a new level.

The commercial and education implications are significant.

In 2013 at hashtag #cdna we’re going to fill in the blanks on this framework.  At hashtag #ecosys (explained in the ECOSYS blog) we’re exploring Learning Models.

No high stakes testing or forced curricula in sight, folks.  We’re using collaboration to get to the next level of results.  Would love your thoughts as comments here or online using Twitter.  For a deeper dialog, stop by our new Collaborative Learning community at G+.

Don’t look now.  We’re learning to learn as we speak.

Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

These days, the ability to achieve deep, meaningful learning seems more and more of a challenge.  Hamstrung as we are by an ever growing mountain of content, dwindling attention spans, fewer available hours of focused energy, and pressure to prove results, it’s a wonder anyone can truly learn anything anymore.

Some say we can’t, and that increasingly .. we aren’t.

Rather than piling more fuel on the pyre of discontent, I’ve begun to focus my energy on new ideas in the learning space.  For most of the last 4 years I have been reading, researching, and discussing the challenges.  Much of that has happened over at the #k12 #ecosys, where deep & insightful discussions continue.

The result?  It certainly remains a work in progress.  But I’ve begun to put increasing stock on how to drive a synthesis across professional practices that claim much of the high ground on what it means to learn:  KM, OD and Education in particular.  Here’s a discussion framework that has emerged out of these conversations.

What do I mean by these?  I’ll offer a working definition of each, in the context of “learning how to learn”:

  • KM – Knowledge management, a business practice from the 90’s that seeks to  define, capture, and reuse knowledge across an organization, helping its members to share and ultimately learn from past achievements
  • OD – Organizational development, a business discipline most commonly in HR (human resources) that seeks to increase the productive capacity of the people and teams within the organizations walls
  • Education – the immensely broad ecosystem of teaching professionals across K12, colleges and universities, deeply immersed in the art and science (mostly science) of helping our young people learn

Challenge me here. Is this a good foundation?

Assuming so, would cross-pollination of experts like this be unthinkable?  It seems daunting on the surface.  Getting experts working together is hard work, as I’ve explored throughout The DNA of Collaboration.  But to me, crossing these boundaries is precisely the challenge.  We must work together to redefine the problems in solvable ways.  It means changing the stakes so that all the generations around us .. Boomers,  X, Y, Z and beyond .. can embrace new ways to learn how to learn.

In the face of increasing pressures for results, seemingly ‘soft’ initiatives like these are often scaled back, reducing our capacity to learn and to innovate at precisely the wrong moment.

What are some of the requirements in gaining cross-disciplinary cooperation and teamwork?

  • Intention and focus – to define what it means to learn deeply, and to establish new benchmarks for what is possible and achievable
  • Cultures that evolve – fostering new levels of trust, risk-taking and collaboration, so they might earn a more venerable status: ‘cultures of learning’
  • Solution language – that help insights and ideas emerge and converge into fundamentally new possibilities
  • Releasing the flow of insight – surrendering structure to more organic and adaptive methods of exchange

Working across professional disciplines exposes visible fault lines.  Many are deeply entrenched in decades of research and practice, convinced that the only path to success is the one they learned in grad school.  For some, their deeply held convictions will need to be left by the door.

In terms of some key ideas, what might we be talking about?  Here’s just a starter list of topics, to spark the synapses ..

  • Social Capital – building skills, networks and resources to help ourselves to help others
  • Evolution of Teacher/Learner – teachers that learn; learners that teach
  • Learning Cultures – how do we foster them?
  • Weaving a Collaborative Learning Fabric – discussing 1Q13 at CDNA G+ Community
  • Self-Selection and Ownership – customization of the learning agenda
  • Motivation and Growth Mindset – removing fear of not-knowing
  • White space – exploring and exposing the creative urge
  • Social, Team & Project-based Learning – is all learning truly social?
  • Key Stakeholder Roles – including Community involvement, and the notion of Resilience
  • Open Knowledge Frameworks – via a 21st century read of Kant
  • Virtual Environments – the purposeful evolution of distance learning and e-Learning

Under the hashtag #cdna (for “collaboration DNA”) we have begun to explore what it means to learn deeply and learn together, across all the contexts described here.  To get at the issues more directly, we will use this space, related posts on the book site, and other spaces (join our CDNA G+ Community) to expand on what we mean by the practice of KM, OD and Education in the context of learning.

Change demands new thinking.  And as you likely know by now, that is the sort of discussion that  keeps me up at night.  I would love your input and ideas.

My fear is that increasing numbers will someday fail to learn how to learn.  It’s a slippery slope with serious implications.

We’ve got work to do.

KMWorld 2012 Workshop W5: Exploring the Flow of Insight, and the Future of the Learning Organization

By now you know I have lots of say about the future of KM.

I’m more excited than ever to be hosting a 3-hour workshop on TUES 10/16 at KMW12, in Washington.  It’s Pre-Conference Workshop W5, and seats are still available.  I’m on right before Dave Snowden, so perhaps you can come out to see us both.

In my last KM post, I shared my ideas on how KM might evolve.

That discussion, which became the outline of Chapter 19 in The DNA of Collaboration (now on Amazon), is also the foundation for my upcoming KMW12 Workshop.

What are the big ideas?

As I looked at how information moves in organizations, I found that it tends to get stranded more often than not.  The metaphor of a river loomed ever larger for me as I wrote. Senge cites David Bohm’s “leaves on the river” metaphor in The Fifth Discipline, and the more I reflected, the more it became a grounding concept for me.  John Hagel has contributed much re: moving from stocks to flows. And I was intrigued when Beth Noveck, former Deputy CIO at the White House, mentioned rivers in her recent TED Talk.

Potomac River, Leesburg VA

Ultimately the concept of flow is where we need to be, because it stands in stark opposition to the prevailing business paradigm, the hierarchical silo.

Flow opens the floodgates of possibility, so to speak.

We can move around barriers, choose new channels to follow, and adjust to the environment as needed. How can we make insight flow faster in organizations?  Here are some key themes:

  • Collaborative Cultures – that foster trusting behavior and learning, in all its dimensions
  • Room to Take Risk – as the path to learning (it’s ok to be wrong)
  • Framing and Messaging with Rigor – focusing on semantics and critical thinking to best define our problems and solutions  
  • Intention – as foundation for focusing our vision and the baseline for demonstrating integrity

We’ll touch on all of these themes in our workshop, and they flow (quite literally) throughout my book.  They are essential aspects of what it takes for KM to be successful. They are core enablers of learning, and central to effective collaboration.

We need to get better in all of these areas, if we hope to start solving tougher and tougher problems.

What’s most exciting of all?  When we apply our new metaphor … when we let our insights flow .. the feedback and new perspectives can be rapid and unexpected.  I’ve had this experience at #SMCHAT #ECOSYS and #CDNA.  As we begin to communicate and connect more easily, our ability to learn from our learning networks gets better. The pace of learning compounds at an accelerating rate.  It’s pretty exciting actually.

Here’s a quick look at some KMW12 W5 Highlight slides (PDF), pulled from my W5 master deck.

Again, I’d love to see you in DC at KMW12.  If you can’t make it, watch for takeaways at the event hashtag #kmw12 or at the workshop stream #w5insight.  As I say in my book, we’ve got lots to cover, and the current is strong. Let’s get started.

Chris