Category Archives: reading

Knowledge Management in complex adaptive systems

How does systems thinking and complexity theory help us in designing a global knowledge management facility?

A global knowledge management facility has the goal to manage knowledge within a specific community of practice in order to improve the application of that knowledge in general or of a specific approach in particular. From a traditional point of view, important activities of such a facility would be to collect and codify knowledge, analyze good practices and there might even be a wish for standardization of the application of this particular knowledge or approach. In this sense, the facility can be seen as a custodian of the ‘right’ knowledge and oversee and certify the quality of its application. It would guard the rigor or ‘pureness’ of application of the specific approach with a view to preserve or improve its effectiveness and efficiency.

With this picture in mind I read a chapter in a knowledge management book that describes implications of systems thinking and complexity theory on knowledge management from an organizational perspectives (Bodhanya 2008). I would like to apply the conclusions of the article to the design of such a global knowledge management facility.

In his article, Bodhanya describes differences in characterizing knowledge that stem from a number of debates within the scientific community revolving around the interplay between ontology and epistemology or, to put it in simpler terms, between perspectives of knowledge as a thing and knowledge as a dynamic process. According to Bodhanya, the current debates in knowledge management, however, reduce this pluralism of the discussion around knowledge because the dominant discourse is based on what he calls a cognitive-possession perspective. He terms this ‘first order knowledge management’.

First order knowledge management is built on the following assumptions (Bodhanya 2008:7):

  • Knowledge is reified.
  • Knowledge is useful when it is objective and certain.
  • Distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge.
  • Knowledge may be managed through knowledge management.
  • Knowledge identification is a search process.
  • Knowledge construction is a process of configuration.
  • Knowledge management comprises knowledge processes such as identification, generation, codification, and transfer.
  • Business strategy may be formulated and implemented. This is a fundamental assumption across all strategic choice approaches to strategy and, at a minimum, will include the design, planning, positioning, and cultural schools of strategy.
  • Knowledge management strategy may be formulated and implemented.
  • Knowledge management strategy must be aligned to the business strategy.

The concept of first order knowledge management seems in line with the goals and traditional activities of a global knowledge management facility as described above: “Ultimately, first order KM relies on knowledge processes such as knowledge identification, generation (or more accurately configuration), codification, capture, and transfer in order to develop human and social capital, as these are considered as important in facilitating productive activity” (Bodhanya 2008:8).

In his paper, Bodhanya argues against the view of knowledge as a thing and criticizes current knowledge management of gross oversimplifications by relying on a view on knowledge as something that can be possessed. He suggests that knowledge is a much more dynamic phenomenon and suggests instead to shift the focus from knowledge to the act of knowing itself. “Knowledge is only generated in the act of knowing; everything else is information. In other words there is the perpetual potentiality for knowledge generation, but this is only transformed into actuality when information comes into contact with the human intellect. This happens in the act of knowing in the instant when there is sensemaking and interpretation. (…) [H]uman actors are constantly engaged in thought, and hence are engaged in sensemaking and interpretation at every instant, so knowledge is being regenerated afresh at every instant. This phenomenon of constant thought and action means that there is perpetual regenerating of knowledge” (Bodhanya 2008:10). Based on these insights, Bodhanya constructs a ‘second order knowledge management’ that takes into consideration the dynamic interplay between knowledge and the knower. In second order knowledge management, he points out, more attention needs to be paid to the social interactions between actors.

Bodhanya then details out how this view on knowledge and knowing is in line with systems thinking and complexity theory. An interesting debate he touches upon is the question who, from an organizational point of view, are the actors in a complex adaptive system of knowledge. The most obvious choice would be the individuals in an organization but another possibility is, for example, to see narrative themes as the actors. Bodhanya argues for a more nuanced view that includes the individuals as well as other forms of agents such as groups of individuals, departments, and human artifacts. He defines the systems of knowledge as ‘knowledge ecologies’: “A knowledge ecology is a dynamic system of heterogeneous agents that interact with each other according to their schemata. The schemata are inextricably linked to each agent’s propensity for interpretation and sensemaking on an on-going basis. Since interpretation and sensemaking are related to knowing in action, every act of interpretation and every act of sensemaking is in effect an actor creating knowledge. There are therefore multiple cognitive feedback loops being generated which in turn refresh the schemata according to which agents then act” (Bodhanya 2008:14). But he goes even further and looks for evolutionary tendencies in knowledge ecologies to an effect that knowledge structures become the primary agents that survive, vary, mutate, and are subject to retention and selection. There are, thus, various layers of interacting and interconnected complex adaptive systems with various types of actors at play, which makes the description – or prediction – of the system impossible.

Whereas first order knowledge management is based on a strategic choice view of business strategy, considerations of complexity and systems thinking show that the knowledge environment is far to complex for any one person to fully understand and, hence, to make strategic choices. This does not only change the view on knowledge management, but on business strategy itself; it shows the need for a more dynamic approach that is much more process oriented. “Alignment between business and knowledge management strategies may therefore not simply be designed and imposed, but may only be stimulated through managing organisational context and the interactions between actors within an outside the organisation. We may therefore also refer to business and knowledge management strategies as undergoing a process of co-evolution” (Bodhanya 2008:15).

What does this mean for knowledge management? First of all we have to realize that knowledge management does not have something to do with control over knowledge and its use. No single agent in a complex adaptive system can stand outside the system and direct it. “[M]anagerial orientations must shift from a preoccupation with the ordered, rational, analytical, and the fixed towards a tolerance of ambiguity, subjectivity, flux, and the transient nature of organisational life” (Bodhanya 2008:17). But this also means that there is no formula, recipe, or easy prescription on how to implement knowledge management. Rather, the conditions for the emergence of knowledge ecologies need to be developed. “The best that we can do is to facilitate rich interconnections between agents, increase agent diversity, and provide an enabling context for sensemaking and interpretation” (Bodhanya 2008:17). Bodhanya introduced an approach to second order knowledge management he calls strategic conversation, but he also points out that there is still a lot of research needed to fundamentally transform knowledge management into a systemic process co-evolving with other strategies within an organization.

One important piece of wisdom Bodhanya gives us for that journey: “As human actors and managers, we are in a sense deluded by the extent to which we think we are in control. It calls for increased humility on the part of all of us as human actors. In a systemic world, we control less than we think, because the effects of our actions are subject to many feedback loops and nonlinear responses that are outside our sphere of influence and control. (…) Our plans are merely artifacts, and to the extent that they contribute to co-evolution, they do have a valuable role. However, this may call into question our criteria for what the value of a plan is, and what constitutes a good or a bad plan” (Bodhanya 2008:19).

What does this all mean for a global knowledge management facility? Obviously, such a facility does not follow the same rules as an organization, which can be seen as complex adaptive system with a fairly obvious, if also penetrable, boundary. Knowledge sources are much more widespread and part of diverse organizations with their own agendas. One of the first insights, thus, must be that such a facility cannot exist on its own, observing, collecting knowledge, codifying it, and defining best practices, which it will then disseminate again into the system. Rather than a centralized secretarial-type entity, the facility should rather be a hub of a network of actors in the knowledge ecology with the aim to stimulate knowledge creation and exchange. As pointed out by Bodhanya, an essential step thereby is to “facilitate rich interconnections between agents, increase agent diversity, and provide an enabling context for sensemaking and interpretation” (Bodhanya 2008:17). So rather than to see the facility as a kind of library and custodian of the right kind of reified knowledge or the pure way of implementing an approach, it should much more be a place where discussions are stimulated and the knowledge is created while it is used. Thereby, diversity plays a big role. It is important to see that there is not one right way to implement an approach, but that knowledge is created from the diversity of its application.

This is just the beginning of a possible discussion and many things still need to be touched upon and many critical points in the assessment above need to be made visible and discussed. I hope, however, that this post provides some food for thought.

Reference: Shamim Bodhanya (2008): “Knowledge Management: From Management Fad to Systemic Change”. In: Abou-Zeid, El-Sayed: “Knowledge Management and Business Strategies: Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Research.” Information Science Reference. Hershey, New York.

Owen Barder on Development and Complexity


Owen Barder, Senior Fellow and Director for Europe of the Center for Global Development last week posted a talk online, adapted from his Kapuściński Lecture of May 2012, in which he explores the implications of complexity theory for development policy (the talk is also available as audio-only version on the Development Drums podcast).

The talk tells a persuasive story of what has gone wrong in international development and in the various models of growth it used; that the adoption of the concepts of adaptation and co-evolution allow for much more accurate models; a brief description of complex adaptive systems and complexity theory; and what consequences these insights have for development policy. But these positive turns in development come for a price: we can no longer ignore that we – the developed nations – are also a part of the larger system and that our (policy) actions strongly influence the development potential of poor countries. It is no longer enough to ‘send money’ and experts and think that this will buy us out of our responsibilities towards those countries.

I want to quickly summarize what I think are the key points of Owen’s presentation, starting with what seems to me an obvious point:

Development is not an increase in output by an individual firm; it’s the emergence of a system of economic, financial, legal, social and political institutions, firms, products and technologies, which together provide the citizens with the capabilities to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Owen talks about various (economic) models and theories that have neglected this systemic perspective and, subsequently, failed to deliver successes in development. The focus of the economic models shifted over the years from providing capital and investment to technology.

Since this approach of ‘provision’ did not work out, the lack of favorable policies was blamed for hindering the market to achieve its theoretical potential. As a consequence, the Washington Consensus introduced which policies needed to be adopted by a country to be able to grow. As we know, this also did not work out, although the Washington Consensus did, according to Owen, have some positive impacts in developing countries.

After the Washington Consensus, development agencies focused on weak institutions and spent (and are still spending) huge amounts of money on institutional strengthening and capacity building initiatives. The results have been modest. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that it is still not clear which institutions are really important for development.

Most recently, a new book published by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Why Nations Fail) promotes politics as culprit of failing development. According to them, the institutions are weak because it actually suits the elite that is in power to run them like this [what an insight …!!!]

All these models that were applied were actually based on traditional economic theory. After seeing all these approaches fail, Owen switches to a new way of describing economic development, based on adaptation and co-evolution in complex adaptive systems.

After making a compelling argument why complexity theory can actually better describe the real economy out there, Owen describes seven policy implications deducted from that insight.

  1. Resist engineering and avoid isomorphic mimicry. The first point mainly stems from the fact that solutions developed through evolution generally outperform design. The latter point mainly implicates that institutions that were mainly built after a blueprint following ‘best practices’ but do not connect to the local environment will have not much use.
  2. Resist fatalism. Development should not be seen as a pure Darwinian process. Smart interventions by us can accelerate and shape evolution.
  3. Promote innovation.
  4. Embrace creative destruction. Innovation without selection is no use. Feedback mechanisms to force performance in economic and social institutions are necessary.
  5. Shape development. The fitness function which the selective pressure enforces should represent the goals and values of a community.
  6. Embrace experimentation. Experimentation should become a part of a development process.
  7. Act global. We need to make a bigger effort to change processes that we can control, for example international trade, the selection of leadership in international organization, etc.

Owen is not telling any news in his presentation, but he succeeds to develop a compelling storyline on why complexity theory is relevant for development and why processes that are based on adaptation and co-evolution much better describe why some countries develop while other seem stuck in the poverty trap.

In my view this is an immensely important contribution to the discussion on how we can reform the international aid system to live up to our responsibility of enabling all people on this planet to live happy and fulfilled lives.

Is this the dilemma of complexity in development?

I have not been around for a while, so my blog has remained dormant. But I have not abandoned it! I will try to keep posting more often again.

This post is about a paragraph of a book that I have started reading recently. The book is called ‘Harnessing Complexity’ and the authors are Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen. The paragraph says:

Analyzing complex systems within [our] framework does not assure the ability to produce specific outcomes but can foster an increase in the value of populations over time.

This statement made me thinking if this is actually the dilemma we face when we want to apply principles of complexity sciences to development – or other real-world cases, for that matter. In development, we need to specify outcomes we want to achieve within a given time frame and we need to build a system that enables us to measure and report about the achievement of these outcomes. Now if the use of frameworks informed by complexity sciences does not target the achievement of specific outcomes but more generally the increase in the value of populations over time (in the case of development that would be what we call ‘well-being’), than it will be hard to sell these projects to donors. We cannot go there and tell them ‘Our goal is to make the world a better place but we don’t have any specific outcomes nor a clear time frame to achieve that goal.’

I do not really have an answer to that dilemma right now. Any thoughts out there?

‘Simplify and repeat’? Rather ‘simplify and evolve’

In a recent issue of the Economist, the Schumpeter column was titled “Simplify and repeat. The best way to deal with growing complexity may be to keep things simple.” The column reported on a new book by Chris Zook and James Allen, two consultants with Bain & Company, called “Repeatability”. The basic thesis of the book is that

most successful companies share three virtues. They have a highly distinctive core business. They make great efforts to keep their business model as simple as possible. And they apply it relentlessly to new opportunities.

The authors use examples such as Lego that lost it’s focus on their bricks and started expanding into so-called ‘adjacencies’ like theme parks, television programs, clothes, watches and learning labs. Only after hitting a wall (and getting a new boss), Lego returned to its core business and did better. Other cited examples are IKEA, McDonalds or Berkshire Hathaway. Or Apple, with its successful succession of iProducts.

The authors call this the ‘simplify and repeat’ formula with which the companies avoid complexity. The Schumpeter columnist notes, however, that

[c]omplexity is no easier to avoid than cholesterol. Companies need to keep hammering away at the simplicity mantra.

Well, I would say you cannot avoid complexity if you are acting in the global economy. It’s as simple as that, really. I am also a big fan of simplicity, I think that’s one reason I love my Apple products that much. Reduce to the max. Form follows function. And so on. Nevertheless, I think it is a false way to ‘avoid complexity’ by ‘simplifying’ ones activities.

It is probably easier to manage a company that has one core business or one business strategy than it is to manage a company like such as Samsung or Mitsubishi with their uncountable divisions (I am always surprised when I find out what things they are producing). This is, however, not the big secret why companies like Apple or Lego are so successful. It’s because they know how to evolve in an ever-changing dynamic global economy.

This is one of the fundamental theses in Eric Beinhocker’s book ‘The Origin of Wealth’, which I found a fascinating read. He writes in connection with the complexity and unpredictability of the economy and the subsequent search for the best strategy for companies:

We may not be able to predict or direct economic evolution, but we can design our institutions and societies to be better or worse evolvers.

The concept of repeatability is based on the assumption that there exists such a thing as a ‘sustainable competitive advantage’. Beinhocker is very clear in his book that such a thing does not exist and he uses many examples of successful and less successful companies to illustrate that.

Apple is a good example. If Apple had just stuck to its core business – simplified and repeated – it would still build only personal computers, improved versions of the Apple II (or most probably it would build nothing at all any more). But Apple evolved together with its clients and into new fields of business. It developed new products like the mentioned iProducts and was hugely successful with it. Indeed, Apple now makes more money with other products than the traditional personal computer. At the same time, Apple remains true to its fundamental values as the mentioned ‘form follows function’ principle and the search for the most elegant, most simple solution for a given problem.

‘Simplify and repeat’ is not the silver bullet in business strategies. Successful companies evolve and adapt. Simplicity does not hurt, though. Therefore I would rather say ‘simplify and evolve’.

Some observations on wisdom and intuition

Today I came across two texts, one was on wisdom and another one on intuition. I remembered a third text on intuition that I read some time ago. The observation of these three texts seem very interesting form a systems thinking perspective.

The first text is from The Economist magazine from April 7th. In the Science and Technology section one article writes on ‘Age and wisdom’ and asks the question ‘Older and Wiser?’ (the article is available online here). According to the study the article writes about, ‘Americans get wiser with age. Japanese are wise from the start.’ Not the differences between Americans and Japanese were what interested me, but the indicators the scientists choose to measure wisdom:

The assessors scored participants’ responses on a scale of one to three. This attempted to capture the degree to which they discussed what psychologists consider five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

For me it was interesting to read those criteria because they resonate pretty well with what we think is a smart way to work in systems. So, are systems thinker wise people?

The second text I want to quote here is from Donella Meadows’ book ‘Thinking in Systems’, which I finally opened today to start reading it. Donella wrote in her book:

Modern systems theory, bound up with computers and equations, hides the fact that it traffics in truths known at some level by everyone. It is often possible, therefore, to make a direct translation from systems jargon to traditional wisdom.

On the next page, she continues:

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here.’ It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.

Several problems, she continues, such as poverty, hunger, or environmental degradation have not gone away in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance we have developed.

This is because they are intrinsically systems problems – undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.

Intuition again. And wisdom.

Now the third text that came into my mind when reading the two texts above is a reflection by Steve Jobs about his journey to India in 1974/75, written down by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs’ biography:

Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

I cannot really put any conclusions here. For me, it is interesting to think about such things as wisdom and intuition and how it helps us to shape systems. But I guess it is also difficult to put it down in writing. It should be intuitive, after all.

Robert Ricigliano: Making Peace Last

I just finished reading an excellent new book by Robert Ricigliano titled ‘Making Peace Last. A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding’. Though it might come as a surprise to some of you that I am interested in peacebuilding, I have to say that I was mainly reading the book because it describes an approach to peacebuilding based on complexity theory and systems thinking. One of my big goals is to have such an approach for a more generalized audience and therefore Ricigliano’s book proved to be a big treasure trove for me. I have used systemic analysis methodologies before and Ricigliano’s book added some important insights and gave me some tips on how to further improve my methodology. Here’s a link to the homepage of the book:

I want to write a brief review on Ricigliano’s book here and might later pick out some of the interesting aspects he touches upon.

Ricigliano’s book is intended as a guide for people working in peacebuilding to make their interventions more effective and sustainable. In the first part of the book, Ricigliano introduces the basic principles of systemic approaches and complexity and elaborates on why they are better able to achieve real and sustainable changes. Based on his work and with a rich background of peacebuilding and system/complexity literature, Ricigliano develops a framework for systemic peacebuilding called the SAT model.

Part 1 starts out with the basic question of why we are not doing better in peacebuilding nowadays. For Ricigliano, one of the main reasons is the fact that the energy of peacebuilding work is disbursed in hundreds of different directions while the myriads of activities are not guided by an underlying grounded theory or overall strategy of change. To change this, Ricigliano sees as the most urgent task of the peacebuilding community to confront the micro-macro paradox. He describes this paradox as failure of the many programs, diverse in nature and particulars, which are successful measured by their own ability to achieve immediate program objectives at local (micro) level, to lead to systemic (macro-level) change.

Indeed, this realization is not only true for the peacebuilding community, but in my eyes for most of the development community.

As a remedy to the micro-macro gap, Ricigliano proposes a holistic approach, that goes beyond peacebuilding in the narrow sense and includes the whole development and humanitarian fields, which need to be combined under one grand strategy. Development, according to Ricigliano, is still to sector-focused with separate goals, approaches and jargon. I very much agree with this point in Ricigliano’s analysis as I have pointed this out again and again in my work. Unfortunately, however, Ricigliano in my view fails to deliver very much on this particular point in his book by again focusing it specifically on peacebuilding without explicitly including many points of contact with other disciplines.

An interesting question Ricigliano poses in this regard, though, is whether peace can serve as a supraordinate goal. He identifies the need for this question in the fact that development workers from different fields fail to agree what to call their common concern. Ricigliano identifies, however, a general consensus that various practitioners are striving for something more than economic growth, rule of law, poverty reduction, or war crimes prosecutions and labels this, following two researchers that did some extensive work in Afghanistan, Peace Writ Large (PWL). He goes on:

For peace to serve as the supraordinate goal of diverse practitioners, it must be redefined so as to avoid utopian critiques or a trade-off between peace and justice. In this regard, consider the following definition:

“Peace is a state of human existence characterized by sustainable levels of human development and healthy processes of societal change.”

I kind of understand the search for a supraordinate goal for all development practitioners. But then again I am not sure if one single supraordinate goal would bring us any further in working in complex adaptive systems. It is a bit like the question for the meaning of life. The supraordinate goal implies that there is an ideal state of a system where it is in complete equilibrium and fulfills the vision formulated in our goal. In my view, this goes against the fundamental basics of complexity theory itself, which basically says that the only systems in a stable equilibrium are dead systems. But I guess that’s rather a detail.

Ricigliano advocates for a shift of mind towards systemic peacebuilding. He introduces the basic aspects of complex systems, i.e., the interaction and relationships among parts, the interconnectedness of parts, the feedback and dynamics, and emerging patterns. He differentiates between ‘stepping in’, i.e. the analysis of the parts, their interaction, relationships and interconnectedness, feedback and dynamics, and ‘stepping back’.

The practice of stepping back from the parts far enough to see patterns or wholes is a way of incorporating lots of complexity yet still yielding a manageable and useful narrative.

With his considerations on systemic approaches, Ricigliano develops a ‘systemic theory of peacebuilding’ based on the three-part model of general system change developed by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn. Katz and Kahn identified three major components of complex social systems: norms, values, and roles. By using other references from the literature on systemic changes and his experiences in peacebuilding, Ricigliano redefines the three elements to use them as a framework for systemic change in the peacebuilding context as follows:

  • Structural: This refers to systems and institutions designed to meet people’s basic human needs.
  • Attitudinal: This refers to shared norms, beliefs, social capital, and intergroup relationships that affect the level of cooperation between groups or people.
  • Transactional: This refers to processes and skills used by key people to peacefully manage conflict, build interpersonal relationships, solve problems collaboratively and turn ideas into action.

He calls this the structural, attitudinal, and transactional (SAT) model. All three levels are interconnected and for systemic and lasting change to happen, change must take place at all the three levels. Ricigliano sees the transactional domain as a lever for driving systemic change since it is seen as the most accessible place to start a systemic change process.

I am wondering if these three domains hold also true as framework for systemic change in other fields than peacebuilding. According to Ricigliano’s logic they should, since he defines peace or ‘Peace Writ Large’ as ultimate goal of all development initiatives. I would be interested to test this on a real world example, such as in economic development.

At the end of part 1 of the book, Ricigliano asks what would be needed to promote the SAT model. Here, he points out one aspect that I find profoundly important:

The means used to promote a certain goal must be consistent with the goal itself.

This means to make the peacebuilding system more systemic, we have to look at the peacebuilding system as a complex system and adapt our strategy accordingly. Ricigliano identifies two ‘Systems Shifts’ that need to be considered for the peacebuilding system to be more systemic:

Systems Shift 1: From Solutions Focused to Learning Focused. The most important realization for me is that we should not see a system as ‘broken’ and look for a solution (an engineering approach) but we have to realize that a system is what it is. A system cannot be broken, it always works. Maybe not as we would like it to, but it works. Seeking solutions to fix problems, as Ricigliano points out, gives the appearance that situations can be controlled and that we can thus impose our will on them. But complex systems cannot be controlled and hence, there is no way we can ‘fix’ them. The key thing is to work with, not against, the energy and motion in the system.

The response of the SAT model to this insight is to propose a new type of project cycle based on ‘planning, acting, and learning’ (PAL). Hence, Ricigliano promotes the fact that we need to analyze the system and try to learn from it as we go to find the best-adapted means to bring about change in the system. As a consequence, our projects need to be transformed from problem solving projects into learning projects.

Instead of monitoring and evaluation processes that force agencies into pursuing predetermined outcomes and punishing ‘errors’, learning requires peacebuilders to be ‘error embracing’.

Systems Shift 2: Linear Change (Adding Up) versus Nonlinear Change (Interacting Out). Ricigliano points out that many programs are still operating under the erroneous notion that change happens through a linear process and program impacts will add up to long-term systemic change. Alas, reality teaches us otherwise.

In systems, change to an element in the system or to a relationship between two elements causes a chain reaction that spirals out from the initial intervention in the system. (…) So, rather than adding up, changes in a system ‘interact out’, meaning that they cause multiple and often unpredictable ripple effects throughout the system.

The response of the SAT model in this case is to build what Ricigliano calls ‘Networks of Effective Action’, realizing that no one organization can affect an entire system on its own.

Here again, Ricigliano also gives practitioners outside the peacebuilding field rich material and insights that can help us to make our work more systemic and in the long run more effective.

Having introduced the basic understanding of systemic change models and his SAT Model, Ricigliano introduces in the second part of his book a very elaborate methodology for systemic peacebuilding assessment and planning that is largely based on the systems thinking school. In Ricigliano’s words, part 2 of the book takes up the challenge of how to listen to a system to plan interventions meant to nurture systemic change. This part also contains vast resources not only for people working in peacebuilding but also for practitioners in other fields. The methodology introduced by Ricigliano has a big similarity to a methodology I have used for assessing systems and potentials for change, lately in an assessment that I did in Kosovo. Nevertheless, with his rich background of experiences from all over the world, Ricigliano makes the methodology very tangible and I could still add a lot to my understanding of how to use it.

In part 3, after having introduced us to how to listen to the system, Ricigliano maps out methods to catalyze systemic change. Compared with the two other parts, this third part is most specifically tailored for peacebuilders and in my view less accessible and less directly useful for other practitioners. You can feel that Ricigliano is on his thematic home-turf here. The introduced methodology mainly focuses on negotiations between conflict parties and how to best organize, design, facilitate or support these negotiations in a way that is compatible with the SAT model. Nevertheless, I could gain more insights in this part that can be applied to other actors, not only combatants in certain African or Asian countries, such as businessmen.

All in all, a really well written book that describes in many details a methodology to approach peacebuilding in a more systemic way, based on a rich backpack of experiences that Ricigliano brings along from his work in the peacebuilding field. The methodology can easily be adapted to other areas of intervention, such as economic development or the development of social services, keeping in mind that the goals that all development people share are not that far apart: to create a better world for all people.

Excellent blog post on Aid on the Edge of Chaos

I would like to point your attention to an excellent guest post on Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos Blog by Frauke de Weijer, policy and fragile states specialist at the ECDPM think tank on the use of complexity theory in state building and fragility.

There are two points I particularly want to point out. One is Ms. de Weijer’s comment on fragile states being wicked problems, when she says that

This is not to say that applying a different approach, i.e. a ‘complexity theory approach’, will fix the problem. Wicked problems are not particularly ‘fixable’, which is exactly why they are wicked in the first place!

This resonates well with the basic insight of the failure of a ‘problem-fix’ approach or engineering solution when working in complex systems. Systems cannot really be broken, they always work well for someone, otherwise there would not be forces that try to hold the system in place as it is.

The second thing Ms. de Weijer mentions is one of the starting points into working in fragile states she identifies:

Societal change is painful, takes time, is unpredictable and does not follow well-established paths. For external actors engaging in such settings, conflict-sensitivity is key, but the principle of doing no harm is naïve. It is a matter of mitigating these risks to the best of our ability.

I agree with Ms. de Weijer in as far as I don’t thing that in a complex system with its high number of interdependence, a so called ‘do no harm’ approach really works. As soon as we intervene in a system, we change it and since complex systems are inherently unpredictable, we will also not be able to predict whether we will do any harm or not. And as a link to the earlier posts on targeting vs. holism (here and here), sustainable and long-term change might first be painful to our ‘beneficiaries’, but in the long run be the better solution as a forced ‘do no harm’ intervention that circumvents the actual problem.

There are also some interesting comments of other readers added to the post.

Flipping through my RSS feeds

Google ReaderAfter three weeks of more or less constant work, I’m finally having some time to have a look at my RSS feeds. After the first shock of seeing more than 3000 new entries, containing over 100 unread blog posts, I just started reading from the top. Here a couple of things I found interesting (not related to any specific topic):

SciDevNet: App to help rice farmers be more productive – I don’t know about the Philippines, but I haven’t seen many rice farmers in Bangladesh carrying a smartphone (nor any extension workers for that matter).

Owen abroad: What are result agenda? – An interesting post about the different meanings of following a ‘results agenda’ for different people, i.e., politicians, aid agency managers, practitioners, and (what I call) ‘complexity dudes’. I’m not very satisfied with Owen’s assessment, though, because I think he is not giving enough weight to the argument that results should be used to manage complexity. I think to manage complexity, we don’t need rigorous impact studies, but much more quality focused results regarding the change we can achieve in a system and the direction our intervention makes the system move.

xkcd: Backward in time – an all time favorite cartoon of mine, here describing how to make long waits pass quickly.

Aid on the Edge: on state fragility as wicked problem and Facebook, social media and the complexity of influence – Ben Ramalingam seems to be back in the bloggosphere with two posts on one of my favorite blogs on complexity science and international development. In the first post, he explores the notion of looking at fragile states as so called ‘wicked problems’, i.e., problems that are ill defined, highly interdependent and multi-causal, without any clear solution, etc. (see definition in the blog post). Ben concludes that the way aid agencies work in fragile states needs to undergo fundamental change. He presents some principles on how this change could look like from a paper he published together with SFI’s Bill Frej last year.

In the second piece Ben looks into the complex matter of how socioeconomic systems can be influenced, and how this can be measured, by giving an example of Facebook trying to calculate its influence on the European economy and why its calculations are flawed. The basic argument is that one’s decision to do something is extremely difficult to analyze and even more difficult to trace back to an individual influencer. Also our decisions and, indeed, our behavior, are complex systems. One of the interesting quotes from the post: “Influentials don’t govern person-to-person communication. We all do. If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one – and if it isn’t, then almost no one can.”

Now, to make the link back to Owen’s post mentioned above on rigorous impact analyses: how can we ever attribute impacts on a large scale to individual development programs or donors if we cannot measure the influentials’ impact on an individual’s behavior? I rather like to think of a development program as an agent poking into the right spots, the spots where the system is ready to embrace a – for us – favorable trend. But then to attribute all the change to the program would be preposterous.

Enough reading for today, even though there are still 86 unread blog posts in my RSS reader, not the least 45 from the power bloggers Duncan Green and Chris Blattman. I’ll go and watch some videos now of the new class I recently started on Model Thinking, a free online class by Scott E Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan. Check it out:
For people with less time, a couple of participants are tweeting using #modelthinkingcourse

Exploring the science of complexity

Lorenz AttractorThis blog post is about what I see as one of the most important papers linking the complexity sciences to development and humanitarian efforts – at least it is for me personally, but I think it also takes a very important position in the discussion in general.

The paper has the title ‘Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts’ and is authored by Ben Ramalingam (author of the blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos) and Harry Jones with Toussaint Reba and John Young. The paper can be downloaded here.

Why do I think is the paper so important? For me personally it was the first paper I read that explicitly linked the two domains (complexity science and international development) and it does that in a very comprehensive and systematic manner.

Ramalingam and colleagues go back to the origins of complexity sciences and put it into context by showing applications in the social, political and economic realms. They unpack the complexity sciences and present them in ten key concepts divided into three sets, i.e., complexity and systems, complexity and change, and complexity and agency. Here an overview taken from p 8. of their paper:

Complexity and systems: These first three concepts relate to the features of systems which can be described as complex:

  1. Systems characterised by interconnected and interdependent elements and dimensions are a key starting point for understanding complexity science.
  2. Feedback processes crucially shape how change happens within a complex system.
  3. Emergence describes how the behaviour of systems emerges – often unpredictably – from the interaction of the parts, such that the whole is different to the sum of the parts.

Complexity and change: The next four concepts relate to phenomena through which complexity manifests itself:

  1. Within complex systems, relationships between dimensions are frequently nonlinear, i.e., when change happens, it is frequently disproportionate and unpredictable.
  2. Sensitivity to initial conditions highlights how small differences in the initial state of a system can lead to massive differences later; butterfly effects and bifurcations are two ways in which complex systems can change drastically over time.
  3. Phase space helps to build a picture of the dimensions of a system, and how they change over time. This enables understanding of how systems move and evolve over time.
  4. Chaos and edge of chaos describe the order underlying the seemingly random behaviours exhibited by certain complex systems.

Complexity and agency: The final three concepts relate to the notion of adaptive agents, and how their behaviours are manifested in complex systems:

  1. Adaptive agents react to the system and to each other, leading to a number of phenomena.
  2. Self-organisation characterises a particular form of emergent property that can occur in systems of adaptive agents.
  3. Co-evolution describes how, within a system of adaptive agents, co-evolution occurs, such that the overall system and the agents within it evolve together, or co-evolve, over time.

In great detail they explain every concept, give examples and discuss the implications of the concepts for the development system.

I like the paper because it really brings together all those important concepts in an accessible way. Although the paper is pretty long (89 pages all in all), it is not at all a boring read. In the conclusion part of the paper, the authors also describe the difficulty of presenting such an intricate matter as complexity sciences, itself being not a unified scientific discipline:

[…] it is useful to note that scientific knowledge is usually characterised with reference to the metaphor of a building. The ease with which the terms ‘foundations’, ‘pillars’ and ‘structures’ of knowledge are used indicates the prevalence of this architectural metaphor. Our difficulty was in trying to represent complexity science concepts as though they were parts of a building. They are, in fact, more like a loose network of interconnected and interdependent ideas. A more detailed look highlights conceptual linkages and interconnections between the different ideas. The best way to see how they fit together in the development and humanitarian field would be to try to apply them to a specific challenge or problem. […] Based on our reading, however, a grand edifice may never be erected along the lines of, for example, neoclassical economics. If this is the case, it may be that we need to become better accustomed to a network-oriented model of how knowledge and ideas relate to each other.

For me, it is intriguing how the science of complexity not only defies scientific practices by diverting from the pure deductive and inductive approaches and combining them but also evaded characterizations in ‘traditional’ scientific schemes such as the building mentioned above. This reminds me of the book ‘Complexity and Postmodernism’ by Paul Cilliers, which I started reading but I got stuck somewhere in the middle, overwhelmed by his theory and language. I hope that I will finish it some day and report on that here.

The authors also try to answer a number of questions around the topic of the application of complexity to development and what it means for example for international donors. A few quotes from the concluding remarks:

In our view, the value of complexity concepts are at a meta-level, in that they suggest new ways to think about problems and new questions that should be posed and answered, rather than specific concrete steps that should be taken as a result.


As well as use by implementing agencies, an understanding of complexity must also be built into the frameworks of the donors and others who hold the power to determine the shape of development interventions. This may be easier said than done – complexity requires a shift in attitudes that would not necessarily be welcome to many working in Northern agencies. For example, such a shift may require adjusting away from the ‘mechanistic’ approach to policy, or being prepared to admit that most organisations are learning about development interventions as they go along, or being transparent about the fact that taxpayers’ money may be spent on a project that does not guarantee results. It may mean having smaller, but better programmes.


At the start of our exploration, our view was simply that complexity would be a very interesting place to visit. At the end, we are of the opinion that many of us in the aid world live with complexity daily. There is a real need to start to recognise this explicitly, and try and understand and deal with this better. The science of complexity provides some valuable ideas. While it may be impossible to apply the complexity concepts comprehensively throughout the aid system, it is certainly possible and potentially very valuable to start to explore and apply them in relevant situations.

To do this, agencies first need to work to develop collective intellectual openness to ask a new, potentially valuable, but challenging set of questions of their mission and their work. Second, they

need to work to develop collective intellectual and methodological restraint to accept the limitations of a new and potentially valuable set of ideas, and not misuse or abuse them or let them become part of the ever-swinging pendulum of aid approaches. Third, they need to be humble and honest about the scope of what can be achieved through ‘outsider’ interventions, about the kinds of mistakes that are so often made, and about the reasons why such mistakes are repeated. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, they need to develop the individual, institutional and political courage to face up to the implications.

I’d recommend anyone who works in international development and is interested in complexity to read this paper. It is a perfect entry point also for people with no background in complexity science.