Complexity and Communication

Complexity and CommunicationOctober 5, 2010

CEOs seem to be awakening to increasing complexity, and that it could compel them to restructure their organizations. Doing this, they think, will require greater CEO creativity, according to IBM’s May CEO survey. It’s the best known of several executive surveys tending this way. Readers may recall that complexity is also an overlay on the “five-ball” diagram describing Compression and its challenges.

As Yogi Berra would say, if I understand it, it’s simple. If I don’t, it’s not.  So it’s complex. One form of complexity is inability to process tons of information – like drowning in e-mail. Another form of complexity is systems we don’t understand, so to deal with them we make simple assumptions that are always incomplete – and often flat out wrong. The classic example is bloodletting to cure almost every bodily ill (by purging “bad humors”), which began in antiquity and continued well into the 19th century.

Today, the state of our understanding of the global natural environment may be about the same as that for disease circa 1830. We’re slowly accepting a more scientific approach to learning about it, but bloodletting remains in vogue.

The issues of Compression add more layers of complexity to those that already envelope global work organizations. For example, global shipping logistics are much more complicated than a kanban system from nearby sources: tracing, tracking, tariffs, mixed shipment allocations, damage adjustments. Without computers, the volumes shipped globally today would be impossible to manage. But aside from cost advantages (which may be deceiving), a good question is why one wants to add to routine information loads, complicating  things just because it’s possible.

On top of that, keeping up with the media used to communicate is ongoing; basics learned in grade school aren’t good for life. According to Google execs, YouTube loads 24 hours of viewing every minute, and it’s still growing.  Obviously, we have to filter what we want from this ocean of stuff. By 2015 phones will displace TV, already fragmented, as the primary channel of mass communication. Mass appeal will consist of messages or ads being relayed, or “going viral.” And 50% of all phone ads will be targeted to a specific audience, perhaps just one person, and paid for only if opened, a pull system of sorts. In this always-on communication, social chatter will measure message effectiveness. And you think you’re bugged now.

On the neurological front, the media we use are known to affect brain function, regardless of its information content. Fast-flick information is thought to increase impatience. For instance, we’re irritated by pop-up ad delays or if Google can’t pull up something we want in seconds.  This pattern of thought is unlike long, absorptive reading, and it’s not like searching a landscape for hours for evidence of game.

Evidence is not conclusive, but ability to selectively, but quickly discover a lot of codified information raises concerns. Can we take time to think critically and reflectively to connect what we find into overall patterns?  If immersed in media, can we stay connected to reality to question what we see, a doubt akin to “book learning” skepticism in an earlier era.

In learning organizations, we increasingly engage in collective tasks that no one person can possibly grasp in complete detail, designing a modern car, for example. But vehicle design and much else has thus far only nibbled at the edge of Compression problems.  Addressing such problems will require us to work in groups, assessing ever more information from different directions and distilling what we learn into simple solutions – but that may require big changes from us.

Chapter 5 of Compression barely makes a dent in proposing how to organize for this. So where can we go from here?

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