Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Research & Scholarship

Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog:

KM Certification

Art Schlussel posted his views on knowledge management (KM) certification in a LinkedIn conversation here:

This was my reply:
It’s interesting how some KM questions–including certification–keep cycling around year after year.

Statements such as “rigorous standards to be considered true ‘certification’ programs” frequently come up. We might make some progress by digging into these statements more.

We all know that KM work is highly contextual and wrapped up in the complexities of human and social systems. Yet we either cling to the hope of a 2+2=4 kind of approach in education, or we elevate ourselves to the bleeding edges of new sciences where we hope for some version of a scalable Theory of Everything. Neither works for a typical practitioner.

In 2000, when we were planning the graduate degree in KM at Royal Roads, the advisory board members wanted (rightfully in my view) to emphasize human and social elements of the field. There were technically focused elements, but they were positioned as flexible, responsive and driven by context. Fortunately at that time, the university had a list of institutional abilities, which ideally permeated all programs and courses to guide instructors and the evaluation process. These included themes such as critical thinking, the ability to work in diverse groups and communication skills. All courses bridged theory and practice; several assignments were learner-designed to fit with their professional contexts.

We did not hit the $/# goals (which were better suited to more mainstream programs such as leadership) and the program was dropped (one more person will probably graduate). However, there was some amazing learning, growth and exciting progress with projects in the real world.

Initially, the approval body that oversaw university degrees gave permission for an “MKM” professional degree, but we asked this be changed to an MA in KM because several learners wanted to move into related doctoral work.

This may sound like the kind of thing you are working towards or encouraging. But at the same time, I saw it as very different than certification. We spent much more time on “why” and a range of “how”s than on checklists of processes with reasonable predictable results. When I hear the word “rigor” I always wonder if the speaker or author is thinking of rigor in a quantitative, positivist kind of way (objectivity, scientific method, transferability to other contexts…), or whether qualitative measures of rigor (such as trustworthiness, reflexivity and prolonged work with clients/participants) are being considered instead or as well.

Perhaps we avoid these conversations because they can create a sort of hierarchy of practitioners (reflexive better than efficient; technical better than social; organic better than mechanical…or vice versa)?

A down side of open access journals

The latest notable milestone in the open access journal movement is the announcement by Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and U of C Berkeley that they have formed an open access journal compact in order to share research more widely.

Most peer-reviewed journals are not available to the general public (or even the thoughtful public). Annual subscriptions are expensive. The people who read scholarly journals are the ones who tend to write for scholarly journals: faculty members working in universities and paid for doing research as part (or all) of their responsibilities. To compensate for the subscriptions costs, some open access journals charge authors for publishing accepted papers.

According to Harvard professor Shieber who authored the five-university agreement, “Universities and funding agencies ought to provide equitable support for open-access publishing by subsidizing the processing fees that faculty incur when contributing to open-access publications. Right now, these fees are relatively rare. But if the research community supports open-access publishing and it gains in importance as we believe that it will, those fees could aggregate substantially over time. The compact ensures that support is available to eliminate these processing fees as a disincentive to open-access publishing.”

It’s comforting that he acknowledges fees as a potential barrier. However, the article seems to assume research is done by faculty members. What about the independent scholar-practitioner who does good research to enhance his or her work and vice versa? I have seen many exciting presentations at conferences by people who have little or no formal association with universities. My guess is that their university associations are often with young, innovative institutions rather than “top tier” institutions with large endowments. They are an interesting and marginalized group. If we want scholarship to influence practice and have practical experience influencing scholarship in real time, will open access journals with author fees be another barrier to that integration?

As Clarke and Kingsley point out, the unlocking of intellectual property is an idea in-progress; hopefully its directions will be studied from many perspectives.

Universities and Community Engagement

My PhD is from Fielding Graduate University, which is well known and respected in some spheres, and largely invisible in others. Its model is quite unusual, so it isn’t surprising that conventional measures do not always highlight its strengths. Recently, work by Associate Dean Katrina Rogers and others led to some interesting recognition. As Dean McClintock wrote in a recent upate:

  • A highlight of the past year was the designation by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching of Fielding as a university distinguished by its commitment to community engagement. This important classification was made in recognition of the work of our students, faculty and alumni in social justice and change in communities throughout the United States. Key to this recognition was the focus we bring to Fielding research and practice projects through our Institute for Social Innovation. Fielding is the first free-standing graduate university to have earned this designation. We are in good company with the other institutions designated by Carnegie including Colorado State, Duke, Iowa State, Ohio State, Purdue, Swarthmore College, Tulane, U Mass and Washington State.

One of the elements of this recognition I find quite interesting is that the community engagement happens in many ways. Although Fielding’s Institute for Social Innovation does organize opportunities for community engagement, many initiatives are initiated through the interests, activities and professions of the PhD students (who are usually mid career professionals). Two of my friends and colleagues–Alex Bennet, the former CIO and CKO of the American Navy, and Juanita Brown of the World Cafe–are two examples of program graduates who have done work that has had influence across many parts of the globe. The 1:1 learning contract approach in many facets of Fielding’s graduate programs provides a rich–though ambiguous–landscape in which to develop new perspectives and skills, and make a difference in the real world. Many academics struggle with how to make time for real-world contributions and many practitioners struggle with how to make use of academic studies. It’s wonderful to see recognition of this bridging of scholar and practitioner worlds through the Carnegie Foundation.


A comment in twitter by Luis Suarez got me thinking about the fact that some communities of practice spend a lot of time in dialogue or debate about definitions. Sometimes I value the deep dives in which theoreticians work to solidify a discipline. At other times I am irritated by the balance between these discussions and a focus on practice.

After reflecting on why people may choose to focus on definitions, I replied to Luis (@elsua): “You’ve got me thinking about how some people use definitions to help with common context, and some for single Truths.”

He responded “That’s a brilliant point, Alice; funny enough I used to be part of the 2nd group & through the years progressed into 1st group.” That transition has fascinated me for a long time. How do people shift ways of knowing? How do specialists—trained deeply in a single discipline—become pluralists?

X-disciplines or lose relevance?


News and conversations are filled with challenges that cross disciplinary divides: climate change, poverty and effective education to name a few. In my consulting practice, I work with leaders who are struggling with complex, knowledge-related challenges. As a researcher, my scholarship hovers around the intersections of leadership, complexity theory and knowledge management. Increasingly, I appreciate the strengths and relevance of people who can make connections across boundaries to enable innovation, ethical decisions, and environments in which people can learn and thrive.

Last night I attended a small house party where people were associated with at least five universities. Several individuals—who knew little or nothing of my background—spoke to me about leadership, complexity theory and/or knowledge-related challenges. Almost everyone spoke about spanning, linking or integrating disciplines. Some described the challenges of communicating with single-discipline-focused colleagues. One had been told by a supervisor at their university that they had too many interests: they could not be an “expert” in all of them.

In my world of practice, important learning can occur rapidly, across many boundaries. Someone posts a request for help and within hours there are stories, references, provocative questions, practice examples and tool suggestions posted by experts from many organizations and countries. These conversations sometimes continue through cycles of experimentation and improvement. For better or worse, such learning does not require terms of reference documents, project charters, grant proposals, approvals through hierarchies, publication, peer reviews or evaluation metrics.

What are the risks and benefits of universities’ maintaining discipline-based structures and values? I suggest formal education in some fields will quickly lose relevance of universities do not find meaningful ways of honouring and rewarding their boundary-spanning faculty and students.

Photo of hands from

On Synchronicity

We’re trained—as Rupert Sheldrake points out—to treat what we might call synchronicity (or coherence, or connection and alignment, or the power of the mind as something larger than the brain, or the power of attraction) as coincidence.

That may be true. Yet I have had that experience that many of us have had, where if you open yourself up to new possibilities more than usual, synchronicity is amplified.

Take the last few hours, for example. I was working with a coach for the second day in a row: a sort of post-doc transition treat. Somewhere around 2 in the afternoon we spent time exploring the potential for a new level of working relationship with a colleague (we’ll call “Barry”) as we might collaborate on a project. A short time later, we moved to explore my picking up new or dormant hobbies and interests, such as the uninsured motorbike in the carport that has a dead battery, gummy cylinders and a rider who has lost confidence. I talked about how challenging it had been to learn to ride a bike in my late 40s (or was it really 50?). I thought it would be easy for a frequent bicycle rider who drives a stick shift, but it was probably the most difficult and exhausting thing I’ve done in my life.

I got home an hour later to find an e-mail from “Barry,” which had arrived at 2:20 Pacific. He apologized for being out of touch, but he was exhausted from the beginner motorcycle course he was taking. By the way, I am pretty sure Barry is older than I am.

I opened an online forum, thinking I’d share this story in a thread about synchronicity. A call for papers about social justice caught my eye because a colleague—Kurt Richardson—is on the journal’s editorial board. I’ve never heard Kurt talk about social justice, and I was curious what threads were woven together in this special issue. The first thing I see is that I know one of the special issue editors from a totally different stream of my life (Fielding Graduate University). Even more curious, I go to the journal website. There I see the names of two other board members: they edited a book in which I’ve just had a chapter published (different thread of life, different content, different continent, no connections I’d known of). I then open the “Call for Papers” link and the first item is an [expired] call about research and reflexivity (a topic I’ve been discussing with a person with whom I hope to co-author a book).

I must say this deluge of coincidences feels too intense to be, well, coincidental.