Archive for August, 2005

Collective decision making – To interact or not

Another take on collective sense making/decision making I’ve been thinking about is the difference between methods that do or don’t use interaction in the process. Open Space Technology and Cynefin methods for example use group deliberative processes where people engage with each other to make decisions. Even conventional facilitated consensus approaches to strategy
require that people have to engage with each other in some way to come up with a collective decision. James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds suggests however that some highly effective predictive decisions can be taken by the aggregation of individuals’ decisions with little or no interaction in the process. For example he cites the case where participants in the stock market collectively determined which of the potential four companies was responsible for the defect that caused the Colombia space shuttle disaster, a full six months before the official investigation concluded the same. It’ll be interesting to see how methods emerge for using this type of ‘aggregated, non-interactive’ mass decision making in organisations.

Folksonomy – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mess

Folksonomy – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mess. I found this podcast fascinating. It’s a panel interview with Joshua Schachter (, Stewart Butterfield (Flickr), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) and Clay Shirky on different approaches to tags and the loose, user defined ontologies they create. The key distinction for me was the different purpose tagging has in each service. In people are tagging other people’s things (URLs) for their own benefit (so they can find them more easily than with conventional bookmarks). The ‘social software’ benefit is effectively just a handy side effect. With Flickr people tag their own things for their own, and other people’s benefit. With Wikipedia, a group of people tag to categorise content purely for other people’s benefit. This has interesting implications in terms of the way things are tagged, and whether tags can be useful combined across a range of different services.

Purple on the nose

I attended the afternoon of a full day session the Ministry of Education put on for Etienne Wenger in Wellington. Etienne is a world renowed expert on Communities of Practice. He covered some practical aspects of communities of practice in the morning, and more theoretical content in the afternoon. Those who know me will know it’s not often I wish a speaker would be a bit more tangible…

Etienne talked about knowledge being socially constructed, that it was more about your identity as a knower in a community than about storing stuff in your head. He used the example of ‘purple on the nose’ a phrase used by a friend of his who was a wine connoisseur. Etienne could not ‘know’ this in that he didn’t have the experience or competence to detect it in the glass of wine. Nor could he claim that it was in fact ‘yellow on the shoulder’ because he didn’t have the status within the wine tasting community to make such a claim. The knowledge of ‘purple on the nose’ he said was a property of the wine tasting community, and knowing it was a socially negotiated act of membership in that community. Human practices, he said, create a universe of knowledge of their own, which is inaccessible unless you join that practice. The path of learning is more about managing your trajectory through a community of knowers than it is about acquiring information.

Great stuff, but a bit like the bottle of red Etienne mentioned, it did make my head swim a bit trying to take it all in. I’ve often pondered the notion that even though knowledge is essentially ‘brain based’ (as distinct from information which is paper or electronically based) it is possible for organisations to ‘know’ things. Etienne solidified these ideas a bit further for me. I’m not sure I agree completely, but it does provide another useful lens through which to investigate the way knowledge works in groups, communities and organisations.

I also like the comments Derek Wenmouth makes about the session in his blog post on Boundary Workers.

Ownership vs Resonance in Strategy

Buy in and ownership are often touted as essential in strategic planning and in ensuring planned strategic actions actually happen. I’ve always focused more on the process rather than the output (or document) in strategic planning. I’ve attempted to make strategy memorable, to boil it down to a few key guiding principles so that it continues to inform day to day action (without people having to re-read a long document every time they make a decision).

This has got me thinking about resonance. When a group of managers go away on a retreat for example and write a mission statement or vision they go through a myriad of discussions, arguments, story telling and thinking processes to end up with something that is, for them, richly embued with meaning. Then they bring it back and present it proudly to the organisation and wonder why people aren’t all that excited by those carefully crafted words.

I think part of the answer has to do with ownership and involvement – if people haven’t been involved in something they’re less likely to be enthused about it. I also think there’s more to it than that. Involvement in the process creates resonance. The words in a strategy, mission statement or vision are semantic hooks into a set of ideas, experiences and judgements they’ve had through the process. They become a shortcut to a set of cognitive patterns, or tacit knowledge, that reinforce and affect action.

A colleague I met with in Australia recently shared with me a story about a mission statement he’d recently developed with a community group he was a member of. He knew he would only get involvement from a small subset in a half day workshop, so he devised an activity where everybody wrote down three or four words that represented what the organisation meant for them. These were clustered and used as a basis for discussion in the workshop. This meant everyone participated, many saw their words in the final mission statement, and there were different degrees of resonance based on this graduated method of participation.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Muhammad Ali