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The Collapse of Expertise and Rise of Collaborative Sensemaking

March 11, 2015

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If organizations are going to thrive in turbulent times, they must surrender many of their most cherished assumptions and start leveraging the power of collaborative knowledge. But this won’t be easy as most continue to believe in the same top-down knowledge management strategies common to the machine age.

In the social era, the power of collaboration is key and collaborative knowledge generation–or sensemaking–is essential for staying competitive amidst the messy, complex challenges that define our hyper-connected universe.

But there’s a glitch: paying workers to collaboratively solve problems and cultivate ideas flies right in the face of traditional management thinking and its belief that the only valid source of knowledge is authoritative expertise. So, clearly, a new understanding about knowledge and the role of expertise is needed.

Traditional Management: In Authoritative Knowledge We Trust

Sociologist Bridget Jordan has observed that “The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct, but that it counts.” How true!

Jordan’s point hits home on several fronts: First, it speaks directly to management’s long-standing use of expertise to justify its own authoritative management style.  This is embodied in the belief that for every challenge there is only “one best way” to address it. This helps explain why authority is automatically bestowed upon the appointed “experts” assumed to know the “one best way”.

Jordan’s point also illustrates the false dichotomy organizations still foster between managers whose job it is to think and workers who are only there to do. This manager/worker split can be traced to the very origins of management thinking. It was a key premise that Frederick Taylor, the founding father of modern management, used in his theory of scientific management. So it’s not surprising that, even today, we still hear managers lament that their people “just don’t get the big picture!”

Integrating Expertise With Sensemaking

But I also want to avoid the risk of going to the other extreme and declaring that expertise has no value and needs to be banished. Collaborative sensemaking is crucial; yet it needs to be tempered and integrated with the broader perspective and enduring insight afforded by more rigorous and tested thought. In this way expertise becomes as an important but equal component of a dynamic and evolving sensemaking landscape.

Suggestions For Introducing More Collaborative Strategies

So what can managers do, and what about the role of leadership?

Peter Morville has said that those in positions of authority should see themselves as “decision making architects”.  This implies using positional power smartly–not to control others, but instead to create cultures and contexts in which mutually-empowering decision-making becomes the norm.

For those looking  to make a start on this journey, here are three suggestions:

  1. Look for pockets of resistance: If you know of departments or programs continually complaining that “management is out of touch”, they may be right! This may be a good place to start introducing more integrative knowledge practices.
  2. Change your story: Narratives are powerful tools for transformation; you may want to revise your own message about the power of expertise vs. workforce input. A more inclusive message valuing integrative knowledge validates workers’ knowledge and opens the door for more social sensemaking strategies.
  3. Create outlets for collaborative sensemaking to take place: Venues will differ based on the organizations’ size and type of work. But still be sure to seek out ways to incorporate social technologies for unlocking collaborative potential.

 A Deeper Awareness of Social 

As we move deeper into the often-awkward shift from industrial heroicism to social interdependence, organizations of all kinds must look closely at what it means to be “social”. Social is more than a buzzword, and it’s more than having a company Twitter account. At its center a social mindset is about a more dynamic and integrative way of seeing the world.

For organizations commited to thriving in this new era, social must be at the heart of their worldview–how its culture and leadership understands reality and their role in it. Nothing better reflects this understanding than how those in authority–day in, day out–balance their commitment between expertise and the creative processes of collaborative sensemaking.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2015 10:37 pm

    Ahhh… Was looking forward to this. As we see in the Cynefin framework, the technical/adaptive dichotomy of Ron Heifetz, and elsewhere, there IS a place for the exclusive use of expert knowledge. BUT– dealing with complex challenges and systems is NOT that place. I teach about the common behavior that, as you note, creates the “collapse” of presumed “expert” advice, and the implicit (and too often explicit) presumption that underlies this thinking and behavior.

    Hierarchical management allocates power to the few at the top. It also presumes that knowledge and understanding reside at the top. This behavior leads to the fear of ambiguity and uncertainty. That, in turn, leads managers to use experts in complex challenges, deluding themselves as they pretend such challenges and systems were predictable and controllable by the interventions prescribed by the experts. Then, when expertise fails to solve the problem, the managers look down the chain for others to blame. The “experts” accuse the client of “not doing it exactly the way we told you to do it.”

    We need the “both…and…” Forms of inquiry and sense-making, to provide optimal responses to each type of challenge we face.

    Thanks, David!

    Happy writing!

    • March 15, 2015 2:23 pm

      Bruce,

      Thanks so much for your support and kind comments. You wrote:

      “We need the “both…and…” Forms of inquiry and sense-making, to provide optimal responses to each type of challenge we face.”

      …and I could not agree with you more. At this point in our social evolution, the easiest thing to do is become polarized in one direction or another (a la Fox News or MSNBC). The much tougher–but more effective–challenge is to join together for more integrative solutions.

      Mainstream management–which is rooted in rationality–says that there’s one fixed body of knowledge that will serve us under any set of conditions. As we know, that just ain’t cutting it these days. A more dynamic and responsive way of meeting our challenges is needed. Ironically, Mary Parker Follett talked about this over 100 years ago. She said our solutions can be found in realtime, open dialogue. Now–in small pockets here and there–it appears like people are starting to catch on. (For example, in the work of your Dave Snowden and you friend and mine Ralph Stacey.)

      Thanks again Bruce! More is on the way soon….

      Best,
      ~d

  2. March 15, 2015 1:13 pm

    Reblogged this on 101 Ways to Make Friends and commented:
    Excellent short article on some essential lessons for management in our field! “As we move deeper into the often-awkward shift from industrial heroicism to social interdependence, organizations of all kinds must look closely at what it means to be “social”. Social is more than a buzzword, and it’s more than having a company Twitter account. At its center a social mindset is about a more dynamic and integrative way of seeing the world.”

    • March 15, 2015 1:42 pm

      Aaron,
      Thanks so much for the kind words and the re-blog. So glad you found the piece relevant and helpful. More is on the way soon!
      Kindly,
      David

      PS: Saw your website for Spectrum Society. I’m currently a Behaviorist with a local Arc chapter. How cool! ~d

  3. March 16, 2015 3:16 pm

    You’ve been tweeted by Royal Roads University, Continuing Studies! (@tflo behind the scenes!)

  4. March 16, 2015 3:17 pm

    You’ve been tweeted by Royal Roads University, Continuing Studies department. (@tflo behind the scenes)

  5. March 17, 2015 4:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Feed Your Mind.Body.Soul and commented:
    #futureofwork

  6. March 18, 2015 7:20 pm

    Nice post David. This is an important topic in today’s shift to social business.

  7. March 23, 2015 2:39 pm

    Great blog topic! Thanks Aaron!

  8. April 27, 2015 10:04 am

    Reblogged this on taherehbarati and commented:
    I like this article as it highlights that we are in a new era of human relationships. The traditional authoritative approach of governance is not effective; we need to step into taking a collaborative stance in relation to our fellow workers. The more we involve in collaborative sense- making process, the better and faster problems are dis-solved in organization. Excluding voices amplifies role of authoritative approaches in organization and work against organizational development/ goals in a long run. Including voices in decision- making requires new set of skills, practice and awareness to achieve what might be possible to all parties involved. Happy Possibilities!

  9. April 30, 2015 11:24 am

    Very insightful! Thank you for sharing.

  10. May 18, 2015 12:53 pm

    Excellent post, David. I could not agree more that hierarchical, silo-ed organizations are like rusting machines that must be dis-assembled in order to make space for the new socially-mediated, ad-hocist collaborations that will solve the new problems. The basis for these collaborations will be game structure (NOT gamification, improvisational game structure). The new structures will be less machine-like, more organic. Less deterministic, more probabilistic. The social fabric underlying this shift is like quantum mechanics, vs. the Newtonian physics of the rusty org structures. For more on the quantum storytelling model, you can check http://www.bigstory.biz Thanks for the post!

    • May 18, 2015 8:01 pm

      Mike,
      Thanks so much for your thoughts. I could not agree with you more. For those who wish to acknowledge it, it’s clear that formal top-down Taylorist command-and-control management has been long out-moded. However, it’s interesting to observe what is emerging in its place. Things are so fluid right now, it’s hard to say where it will end up.

      It could be said that we’re in the midst of an awkward and uncertain period of liminality; the old model is of limited value while the new has not yet taken solid form. This is why I’m particularly interested in learning more about what you’re doing because it seems you’re operationalizing what, for many, has remained largely theoretical.

      I’m checking out your site now and I look forward to keeping in touch!

      Kindest,
      ~d

  11. August 10, 2016 12:36 am

    i Spent 7 years learning from the best leadership experts in the world. So what was the result of this experiment when everybody had a notion of the top down approach to leadership.

    Remove him because we cannot control his thinking. And his thinking will make us lose control over others who just might find it a refreshing concept.

    We must not see this as shared leadership but rather as shared knowledge. People will never get to know what they know if you dontvask good questions.

    DR MAXWELL said, “A leader is someone that knows the way, shows the way ang goes the way.” No mention is made of telling them the way.

    Getting buy-in takes time and patience. What other influencers fear the most, is when a leader appears on the scene whose character is more the catylist for change than how well is known.

    Unfortunatly if you want to have a top down approach it should be to all about getting as many as those who want to, to also get to the top.

    It is lonely at the top. What leaders and followers must understand is that;
    1. This is not a sign of a leader who does not know the way.
    2. It is not a sign of a leader who wants to share accountability.
    3. It is not a leader who always will shift blame to those around him.
    4. It not a leader that want ideas to follow so ge can write a doctorate on what is being shared

    It is the believe that it is better to develope your people so that they can leave and apply what knowkedge the collective had to share then let then learn nothing and stay.

    The first rule of leaving and receiving employees or even CEO’s

    Leave because your have their blessing and always receive always people who has the potential to be better than those who have left.

    Why do i say potential? A person that is better sometimes have already attained what they believe is their best. The person who has shown that he is constantly want to grow and get better, he knows that potential is unlimited until it is released.

    Did anyone knew what the real effect of the first Atomic Bom on the world be

    My perspective on what is lacking today. We surround ourself with good people but people who has reached their Leadership Lid.

    People fear those who has a higher lid. They should not fear for their positions. Those who has a higher lid tend to aim higher and write their own positionsm

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