learning with complexity

Author: Harold Jarche
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Two technologies — machine learning, and the internet — are changing our understanding of the world by showing that we really cannot understand large scale complexity.

“We don’t use these technologies because they are huge, connected, and complex. We use them because they work. Our success with these technologies — rather than the technologies themselves — is showing us the world as more complex and chaotic than we thought, which, in turn, is encouraging us to explore new approaches and strategies, challenging our assumptions about the nature and importance of understanding and explanations, and ultimately leading us to a new sense of how things happen.” —Dave Weinberger

Sensemaking is becoming a critical skill in our complex world. We can do this with the assistance of statistics and algorithms, as with machine learning. We can do this between ourselves by connecting and engaging with a diverse network of knowledgeable people using the internet. We definitely cannot do this alone.

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.
Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.” —Jay Cross (1944-2015)

What can knowledge workers do between flashes of brilliance? They can prepare their minds by developing sensemaking skills. Working in complexity requires constant sensemaking, connecting outside the organization with the work being done inside. Increasing awareness of new ideas, methods, and processes often comes through serendipitous encounters outside the workflow.

Getting work done today means finding a balance between sharing complex knowledge to achieve tasks (collaboration), and innovating in internet time (cooperation). A core part of sensemaking is connecting cooperative learning with collaborative action. Working and learning in complexity means letting go of certainty while continuously improving our sensemaking.

“[Jean] Boulton strongly believes, as we do, that the complexity worldview can help us navigate our world as it is, not as we believe it to be or want it to be. Practicing humility and curiosity helps us on our journey to unpacking complexity because we can never know everything, but we can learn enough to gain some clarity and perspective. Boulton explained that complexity ‘is a middle ground theory between saying we know everything and we know nothing’. It’s about learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, because inevitably things will not go according to our plan. We can adapt by becoming more resilient and refraining from our command and control methods.” —The Complexity Worldview with Jean Boulton

Image: Ross Dawson

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learning with complexity
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