Dave Snowden

Humans are not ants, agents or angels

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201008071140.jpg First day of the Academy of Management today and my session with Jim Hazy, Max Boisot and Pierpaolo Andriani was one of the first up. We’d got together for a meal the night before (less Max, plus Renata) and roughly sketched out what we were going to cover in between multiple enjoyable arguments health care, research methods, the validity of information theory and the like. The basic idea of the session was to look at new research methods associated with complexity. More on that tomorrow when I have had time to reflect a bit.

Given the time, I had to get a two minute overview of what complexity is about before I went on to describe abductive techniques and more specifically SenseMaker® . I did that with a side reference to the Children’s Party Story and elaborated on the magnets and modulators metaphor. The main point I wanted to get across was that complex adaptive theory in human systems is different from in the physical world, or that of all animals without the capacity for metaphor based language (more on that tomorrow as well).

I have been arguing this for some time, and over the years have found various ways to express it. On this occasion I found a neat way of summarising the differences with three I-words relating to the individual, and 3 C-words relating to the community of collective. In outline it looks like this:

In respect of the individual human complex systems are differentiated by:

  • Intention, in that humans can choose to do things for a range of reasons, many of which may not make sense for the individual. This includes altruism and sadism alike, its not a matter of some simple rule or primitive darwinism
  • Identity is fluid for humans, we move between them with ease, often triggered by ritual and are capable of acting in several simultaneously.
  • Intuition or as Prusak calls it compressed experience, references the way the human brain builds patterns of actual and vicarious (stories) experiences to allow rapid decision making under conditions of uncertainty.

In respect of the collective aspects of human interaction with other humans, their environments and ideas, complex adaptive systems are distinguished by:

  • Cognition in this aspect means the distributed aspects of human intelligence and consciousness, our ability to interact with others to create entities that are more than the sum of the parts, and critically to formalise that capability (wisdom of crowds, crews etc.)
  • Constraints references the ability to create/evolve social systems that provide constrains on actions, and also (through myths etc) on the way we think and act.
  • Coherence is not only an important new concept in the area of evidence based strategy, but it relates to the human capacity to collectively reason about reason.

One of the many implications of this is the necessary limits of models, but that is for another day. Now I am not going to wall for the above, its a consolidation of a few years of thinking and it probably isn’t right yet. I do want to break away from having complexity theory interpreted solely in the lights of post-Shannon information theory and/or models that work for termites nests but are contextually inappropriate for human systems. All of that needs more work, but its very important.

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