Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity?

Chris Jones recently posted On Semantics: Ambiguity is the Enemy and Steve Barth responded with insights about the benefits of ambiguity.

If I worked as a bench scientist, production line supervisor, warehouse manager or project manager wearing blinders, I would probably be fully supportive of Chris’ perspectives and puzzled by Steve’s. However, in most of my career as an internal or external consultant, my work has navigated considerable ambiguity. I’ve found that by letting go, I am regularly rewarded with surprises that might never have manifested with efficient implementation of pre-determined agendas. I have also seen ambiguity   nurture diversity: an important attribute of complex systems. Is it a bad thing–for example–if the CEO of a company or the Deputy Minister in government thinks of sustainability in a holistic way and encourages such thinking, but some employees use different definitions (draw different boundaries) and innovate in areas of financial, social OR ecological sustainability?

I like a lot of what Chris has written (and have tried for years to employ some of the practices he encourages) but I also raise some questions.

1) Can the idea of “carefully choosing our words” put too much emphasis on presentation and not enough on questioning and working to deeply understand? Surely if we become experts at choosing the best words, others should “get it?”

2) Might the description of knowledge management as “identification and capture of the critical insights” be an example of #1?

3) Does the assumption that one can “lock in” definitions put too much emphasis on objective, external truths and too little on internally contructed ones? Will people ever share the same feelings and truths with locked in definitions of “poverty,” “progress,” “ethics,” “knowledge,” or even “leadership”?

4) Might an attempt to lock in the definition of ontology in Chris’ post be an interesting experiment in the effectiveness of locking in? (“Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.”)

5) Chris writes about setting boundaries right up front. I’ve written (drawing on Churchman’s and Midgley’s work) about the ethics of boundary choices: that these choices are fundamentally about power. Could up-front boundary-setting reinforce current power dynamics at the expense of important alternatives?

6) Chris emphasizes the importance of asking “What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion?” This is standard project management practice, but–again–does it reduce ambiguity at a cost? All people working with knowledge management have seen executives rush into big-budget IT projects, which may come in within scope, on time and on budget, but not beginning to address the challenge that launched the work.

Advertisements

4 Comments»

  sourcepov wrote @

Thanks for your in depth analysis, Alice. I greatly appreciate that you (and Steve) have taken the time to dive deeper.

I think we agree on the importance of an open mind. I’m an avid student of complexity and a big fan of achieving cognitive diversity.

My take on ambiguity, however, is related to the frustration of collaborators struggling to get their views across. The basic gap seems to be in not recognizing implications of changing context.

Don’t the ‘old rules’ still apply in communication?

Perhaps I emphasized “old KM thinking” a little too much .. certainly moreso here than elsewhere in my .

In any case, while I’m organizing my thoughts on your questions 1-6 .. I’d love to get some input from others ..

Looking forward to expanding discussion on this ..

  amacgillivray wrote @

Thanks Chris. I look forward to it as well.

I’m drawn to your sentence “My take on ambiguity, however, is related to the frustration of collaborators struggling to get their views across.” I have seen a lot of this as well (with an emphasis on “views,” which can be a lot like “opinions” and “positions.”
When [diverse] experiences and stories (which are inherently ambiguous) are shared, I’ve seen less struggle and more reflection.

I also squirm a bit with some common stereotypes of “old KM.” As a few examples…

My first KM project (though I didn’t recognize it as such right away) was in the mid 90s and used data integration technology to stimulate stories, conversations and decisions about priorities. Etienne’s Wenger’s first books about situated learning and CoP came out in the 90s. Melissie Rumizen’s 2002 book included some IT and capture material but–with her inimitable sense of humour–used the term “Killer Ap” for communities of practice. Around the same time, Wiig was writing about KM as a social movement…

  Stephen Buckley wrote @

In her posting, Alice says:

“Is it a bad thing–for example–if the CEO of a company or the Deputy Minister in government thinks of sustainability in a holistic way and encourages such thinking, but some employees use different definitions (draw different boundaries) and innovate in areas of financial, social OR ecological sustainability?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m going to assume that you are NOT trying to be ambiguous when you use the phrase “sustainability in a holistic way”.

If so, then the “holistic” type of “sustainability” (i.e., “emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts”) is so broad that it DOES cover all of its parts (i.e., Economic, Environmental, and Social.)

Therefore, a discussion by employees (her example) on “social sustainability” is still within the context of general “sustainability”.

And, if someone were to offer that some part of “social sustainability” exists OUTSIDE the definition of general “sustainability”, then the onus is on that person to explain or, at the very least, give an example.

  amacgillivray wrote @

Hello Stephen. Yes, you are correct that I was not trying to be ambiguous, and also agree that a holistic approach to sustainability includes economic, social and environmental elements. My comment was specifically related to the idea of “locking in” definitions for periods of time. I’ll add some more context to the idea of some employees using different definitions and drawing different boundaries.

As I’m sure you’ve seen in your IGC work, many people feel passionately about sustainability. I’ve met individuals who think of it only in financial terms and haven’t [yet] come on board with other elements. For much of my career I worked with people who were driven by a concern for environmental sustainability to the point where other perspectives or goals were seen as tainting the agenda. Deep passion sometimes comes across as deep positivism. What I’m trying to convey is that it might be advantageous to have this kind of diversity in an organization, rather than set up dichotomies. Using this example, if “sustainability” has to include three facets, narrower definitions of the profit-driven entrepreneurs or conservation biologists would be marginalized, and they might leave the organization in frustration. If left to work within the boundaries they have chosen, they might do important work, develop timely innovations, and so on.

Does that make sense to you?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: