It’s not easy staying on the edge of chaos

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

I just read this very excited article about the use of wikis and blogs to revolutionise the US intelligence community: SSRN-The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community by D. Andrus. Its giddy praise of Wikipedia amused me (especially as I found it as a linked reference from a Wikipedia article), but it does include a clear exposition of the principles of complexity theory. Dave Snowden at the ISKO event in April discussed complexity theory, and I remember an emphasis on “light touch” control of complex systems. This seems to be an emergent paradigm at the moment. Obvious examples are “shepherded folksonomies”, which seem to be working better than uncontrolled folksonomies (one example is the Records management 2.0 – thanks Danny – another is the occasional tagging suggestions made by the editors of – thanks to Liz for this tip – and even Flickr’s category clusters are an attempt to impose a little bit of order on chaos).

The theme is also cropping up in a number of posts on the future of knowledge management. For example, Should Knowledge Managers look for a new job? emphasises the need to allow individuals to become custodians of their own knowledge stores rather than teaching them to access centralised repositories. This has been bewailed as the end of the Knowledge Manager as a role. I think this fails to understand how difficult “light touch control” actually is in practice. Authoritarianism is big clunky expensive and arguably inefficient, but at least within it people know what they are supposed to do and how to do it. You can learn the rules and follow them. Anarchy is also easy – it might make a big mess and not get you what you want – but nobody has to worry about whether or not they are doing the “right thing”. Applying this to KM, the anarchic system simply lets individuals sink or swim – if they are very skilled in their own area of expertise for example – but hopeless at managing their personal knowledge repositories or accessing information – they will gradually become less effective and productive (presumably ending up losing their job). It may seem like a cheap and easy solution for organisations, but actually the lost productivity (not to mention human potential) has a serious cost. Under complexity theory, the most creative, flexible, and adaptive systems are those on the “edge of chaos”. Keeping a system balanced on a knife-edge is far harder than just letting it stagnate in authoritarianism or fragment into anarchy. Identifying those individuals who aren’t doing so well, figuring out what they need to help them, and making sure that each individual intervention contributes to the improvement of the whole system is actually fantastically complicated and difficult. It requires all sorts of skills ranging from the ability to notice who needs help in the first place, how best to help them on a personal level, and how to leverage technological and social developments to keep everyone moving forward. The Knowledge Manager of the future therefore needs to be more highly skilled, multitalented, and personally adept than ever before. This strikes me as an upskilling and increase in the importance of the role, not a downgrading. The fact that individuals are doing a bit of self-organising as well doesn’t diminish the KM role, it makes it more sophisticated, subtle, and critical.

New browser tab concepts

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I was very pleased to be sent this link: Mozilla design challenge showcases new browser tab concepts – Ars Technica. The winner is a lovely hierarchical visualisation that could work really well with concept maps/visual thesauruses/taxonomies. It preserves parent/child relationships using a radial format, which is more flexible than traditional trees, in that you can follow several pathways at once and maintain an overview.