Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Systems & Complexity

Sometimes you just have to write

Yesterday, I read an article in the Economist that inspired this poem:

with apologies (and credit) to John Godfrey Saxe

There were six tweeps in Cyberspace
exploring a mistake.
“How could exec’s have gone so wrong
when so much was at stake?”
So in <140 characters
Each shared a different take.

The First (who wore a black belt)
said “defects had crept too high”
No doubt because of variants
allowed to go awry.
“So, tight controls could fix this up
(Through experts such as I).”

The Second, sketched connecting dots,
and said, “It’s very plain.
The data held the wisdom
but were siloed; such a shame.”
“A data warehouse architect
Could prevent this flaw again.”

The Third concurred but added that
“The data are one piece.”
“Economists have thought this out,
It’s story skills we need”
“We call them ‘Data Scientists’:
a sexy growing niche.”

“The IT’s just a symptom of
a mechanistic view.
They lost their innovative edge;
the workers were their glue.”
The Fourth concluded that execs
ignored what workers knew.

The Fifth (who had an OD blog)
proposed a four-pronged plan
“If we were there, we would have used
environmental scans.”
“Through PAR, effectiveness
continually expands.”

The Sixth, had followed all the tweets,
debating how to share
that complex wholes are more that parts,
where MBAs despair.
“You’re claiming truths in retrospect
for which you can’t prepare.”

And so these tweeps in Cyberspace
had shared their thoughts and fears,
from in their fields & disciplines
supported by their peers:
Their efforts to collaborate
constrained by their careers.

© Alice MacGillivray

Digital Habitats & Tech Stewardship

If you are interested in communities of practice and related technologies, there is an exciting new book in print. Recently, I wrote a review of the book through a complexity lens, which you can find here.

The authors’ blog about the book is here and a nifty little online interview about it (Ward Cunningham interviewing John D. Smith) is on YouTube.

As a PS; Nancy White called my attention to blog posts on a similar topic by Chris Rodgers.

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.

Bridging KM and D&D

This morning, Sandy Heierbacher of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) asked about my views on the intersections of knowledge management (KM) and dialogue and deliberation (D&D). Briefly:

I think the fields have considerable overlap, but have been isolated from one another for several reasons. The networks of practitioners don’t overlap much, knowledge management work is associated with organizations much more than communities and society, and dialogue and deliberation work is associated with the public, communities and society much more than with organizations.

Their purposes are similar. Knowledge management can help people in organizations make better decisions: decisions based on learning, context, varied input…and decisions that are better understood and more readily adopted. Here are obvious links with deliberation. KM can also help people in organizations generate new knowledge and enable innovation. Again, deliberation has the potential to generate knowledge that gives us a new way of looking at intractable problems.

Tools are similar. Sometimes they overlap directly (World Cafe, for example).

They both have many layers. I still enjoy Karl Wiig’s piece about the four facets of KM, including the social movement layer.

There are many ways in which the fields could learn from each other, including:

  • underlying theories
  • enhancing dialogue in KM processes
  • using KM practices to learn about D&D
  • getting support to work across boundaries
  • comparing and contrasting practices & tools
  • measuring value
  • finding new ways of thinking about value
  • supportive social media
  • sharing of innovations in different settings.

For people familiar with D&D and less familiar with KM, here is a wonderful site with KM resources by David Gurteen. For those more familiar with KM, sample sites include the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), the International Association for Public Participation and the Kettering Foundation. Several organizations and universities offer workshops and programs in both fields; I’ve taken the D&D program from Fielding.

From One Idea to Many Experiences

A friend of my daughter’s–Mimi Law–had an idea: that a group of women metal workers assemble a show. The proposal was accepted by The Pendulum Gallery in Vancouver; the exhibition is runs from a few days ago to July 4, 2009..

One of the women said that she hoped this exhibit would provided each artist with the opportunity to do her best work yet. I think that is the case for my daughter, Sage.

Sage working on bird cage sculpture

Sage working on bird cage sculpture

The exhibit is called “Rare Birds” because of metalwork being unconventional for women, and Sage intended to avoid a bird theme, but when the idea came to her for this piece, she could not resist it.

Sage's sculpture: top view

Sage's sculpture: top view

Sage's sculpture: side view

Sage's sculpture: side view

The media release states the exhibit will “showcase works of 11 women and celebrate the evolution of women’s roles and status.” It includes over 30 pieces, with this sculpture and a coffee table as Sage’s contributions. Watching from a distance, this complex

project has had many twists and turns for my daughter and other artists. One stopped to buy a coffee on the way to the gallery and had to chase a thief running down the road with one of her sculptures. Sage struggled with how to effectively bring the group together in some aspects of preparation. She met new people, learned some fundraising skills, and has been one of several women involved with radio, TV and media coverage. Collectively, I am sure it has been an eclectic, sometimes surprising, and very positive experience for the women.


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

Metadata on Steroids

Recently, Lisa Petrides posted this tweet:
“listening 2 interesting talks on metadata (really!). we have 2 get away from narrow def of it, to include user-generated, annotations, etc.”

This reminded me of a work I had done with Andrew Faulkner in which we used data warehouse infrastructure (his specialization). I created views of data integrated from several sources so that front line managers could quickly access basic and customized reports related to particular tasks, challenges and opportunities. They had no interest in technical metadata, but did care about what the data meant, from where it was drawn, how recent it was, and why each report option could be helpful.

Although Andrew and I never wrote about what he calls metacontent in this context, he did write a paper with Henry Kucera titled “Managing Metacontent: Metadata + Meta-information in the BC MELP Data Warehouse,” which I am sharing here with his permission. kucera_oow98

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.

Horizontal & Vertical Collide

As I was fine-tuning my dissertation about how respected leaders work in horizontal, boundary spanning environments, I read a story in the Washington Post.

In Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages, Kornblut writes “Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts. What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.” (A March ’09 update appears here:

This brought to mind so many stories from my research participants about the challenges of bringing innovations from the horizontal into the vertical, as well as stories about the tensions between knowledge management and information technology shops.  I’ve added a postscript in the dissertation about watching the strategies Obama and his staff use to integrate two very different ways of thinking and working.