An expert on complexity ponders the end of the millennium.
Y2K may spell chaos for some, but it doesn't have to mean out of order for anyone. Read on to learn: - What natural disasters can teach you about Y2K - Why the Y2K challenge is as much human as it is technical - How to think of Y2K as an opportunity rather than as a problem There's a scene in Jurassic Park where the chaos theorist played by Jeff Goldblum says, with equal parts foreboding and hope, "Life will find a way.
Life always finds a way." Talk about Y2K with Margaret J. ("Meg") Wheatley, the chaos theorist best known for her 1992 book Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organisation from an Orderly Universe (Berrett-Koehler), and there comes a point when she says, in so many words, the same thing.
Coincidence - or life imitating art? Your call. Just keep in mind that the movie character had resurrected dinosaurs on the brain, while Wheatley is preoccupied with something far larger and a lot less predictable.
And Wheatley, a partner in two Provo, Utah-based organisations concerned with exploring new ways of organising human endeavor-Kellner-Rogers & Wheatley Inc. and the nonprofit Berkana Institute - approaches the Y2K beast with a similar admixture of fear and excitement: She characterises Y2K as a technologically induced problem that represents "an unparalleled opportunity for either social transformation or social disintegration." In seeking to nudge events in the direction of the former, Wheatley talks a lot about the nature of life and the universal behaviour of similar systems that lies at the root of chaos theory. In fact, those reference points seem to inform all her views. "As we understand the processes by which life organises itself," she says in a barely audible hush, "and as we learn how to work with life's creativity rather than controlling against it, we are discovering a path filled with new possibilities for how to work and create together." If at times she comes across to the business audience as disconcertingly cerebral (a clue to her muse: An ongoing Berkana conversation series features the author of The Tao of Physics), Wheatley finds a way to tie every meditative observation into some practical application. A Harvard EdD in administration, planning and social policy, she spent two years in Korea with the Peace Corps and five in education before moving into writing and consulting. Along with longtime collaborator Myron Kellner-Rogers, she works with groups as diverse as the U.S. Army, public schools, communities and international corporations. The pair published A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler) in 1996, a gentle philosophy positing that life is always moving toward organisation. In their consulting work, they combine the ideas and language of complexity, physics, biology and chemistry to help organisations understand themselves as living systems.
Wheatley spoke with CIO Senior Writer David Pearson on how complexity science, the body of mathematical and logic processes that includes chaos theory, might be applied to contingency planning for Y2K.
CIO: On what aspects of complexity science can CIOs draw in planning contingencies for Y2K? Wheatley: I think very rigorous scenario planning can be extremely informative.
By taking into account all kinds of factors and players and actions, you can incorporate some real complexity and richness in your planning. I was talking to an executive from a power company on this, and he said, "Personally, I'm looking at not being able to travel for several months, and I'm storing several months' worth of food." Now can you imagine what the social conditions would be if people couldn't get food for three months? Do you think it would matter that you had these stores if the situation was that dire? Scenario planning lets you map out a rich, logical cause-and-effect tree. And just going through the scenario planning process forces you to become aware of how events might logically trigger other events you wouldn't otherwise foresee.
CIO: But when you consider that many may never come to pass, the exercise could amount to an enormous waste of time.
Wheatley: Well, it's a matter of seeing this as a top priority and having perspective on it beyond your basic business concerns. What we're really talking about is preserving not only individual enterprises but also communities and social infrastructures. If there are some CIOs out there for whom [Y2K] still isn't at the very top of the priority chain, watch how it pushes everything else aside when news of the first failures starts trickling in. Practically speaking, CIOs and their companies should at least map out how they'll make do if they can't get foreign supplies for a while. You definitely want to be thinking in terms of your supply chain.
CIO: Have you heard of anyone so overwhelmed by the complexity that they're simply saying, "There are so many variables I can't do anything about. When it breaks, we'll fix it." Wheatley: Yes, actually. There have been some corporations that have stopped their efforts because they've realised that no matter how much money they put into this problem, they can solve only one small fraction of it. In fact, that's one of the learnings: Because of the vast interconnectedness, there is no one place of safety. You can't just take care of your own fires and think you're out of danger.
CIO: What would you have done up to this point about Y2K if you were a CIO? Wheatley: By this time I would be very much engaged with my colleagues on the nontechnical side of the organisation to figure out how we're going to bring the organisation together and apply everybody's mind and everybody's capacity to preparing for the various potential scenarios. What are we going to do if three suppliers fail? What are we going to do about our banking? What are we going to do about the fact that we're in a major metropolitan area and people may not be able to get to work? One of the frustrations has been that, even among the companies that started early, there isn't the feeling that someone has a handle on it. They may feel that they're in good shape internally, but having been in the Y2K trenches a couple of years they recognise how deep into their organisation the tentacles may reach from outside.
One of the interesting things we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew was that people were willing to go back to work, but they couldn't get any day care. And that was a major snag to bringing the area back - until they started bringing in retired people to provide day care. So I think I'd be doing that sort of contingency planning now at the level of the individual lives of the employees and how we're going to sustain them, up through the communities where we reside. And then I'd want to be preparing internally, really working hard to develop relationships within the organisation and between the organisation and all the other entities with which it regularly interacts.
CIO: You seem to see Y2K as much less a technical challenge than a human one.
Wheatley: Yes, and this is particularly interesting if you think about it from the CIO's perspective. At one level, CIOs appreciate the interconnectedness of a vast system better than most. But if those systems go down, I don't think it's necessarily in the CIO's consciousness to consider how to take a system that was built on technology and now develop it in terms of human relationships. How do we trust each other and rely on each other? Can we move past the idiosyncrasies or the competitiveness that underlie so many of our relationships? To get through Y2K, people will need to look far beyond the narrow boundaries of roles and job descriptions they're comfortable with. We're all going to have to work with different people than we've worked with before, and we'll have to work with everyone in very different ways.
CIO: Do you see any use in developing a best practice for Y2K contingency planing? Wheatley: None at all. You know, some organisations are doing extraordinarily interesting things. But someone from another community would look at it and, since they're not operating from a centralised, controlled commission, they would simply say, "Well, that's interesting and some of it would work here, but the rest of it would not." Which of course is what happens when you're transferring best practices in any endeavour.
CIO: So CIOs shouldn't be telling people what to do about Y2K; they should be telling them how to learn about it? Wheatley: That's right. The real need here is to get everybody focused on how we could operate if things start moving more slowly - how we can adapt if a system should fail for any reason. What's really neat in a corporate environment is figuring out how you're going to engage everybody in preparing for different scenarios. Particularly, how will you engage people who would suffer from slowdowns and stoppages? You want people to know how to handle those things. If they're not invited in now, and they're just surprised by it, then you haven't created any capacity and people are going to get panicky.
Also, who will feel offended that they weren't told earlier and allowed to contribute? It needs to be like a wartime effort: We're all in this together.
You'll get extraordinary levels of support with that approach if you're sincere. But if you exclude people now and then ask them to come in and rescue you later, they're going to need some coaxing.
CIO: You write a lot about nature - the ways disorder always gives way to higher order. Is there a corollary between nature and Y2K? Wheatley: People have been making the analogy that this is going to be like an earthquake of about magnitude nine on the Richter scale. You know it's going to hit but you don't know exactly when, and you don't know where the shock waves are going to go. One of the other lessons from nature is that nature uses these great periods of upheaval to create evolutionary leaps - but often at great cost. The potential for mass extinction is there, but what new and superior systems will arise that otherwise wouldn't have had a chance? CIO: It sounds like you're excited about the possible Y2K meltdown because organisations will be able to learn about themselves.
Wheatley: No, I'm not looking forward to it, because I think some of it is going to be pretty bad for some people. And I'm also not sure that we're necessarily going to learn from it, at least in the ways I would like us to learn. You and I and four other people can all look at a problem like this and some of us will respond to it based on our old [ways of] learning. Some could come in very heavy-handed, dictatorial: "Someone's got to take charge." And others might say it's a great opportunity to really access the intelligence in the organisation. I find in every organisation, people are just waiting to be asked to exercise their intelligence on behalf of the corporate mission. This is a great opportunity for them. But I fear that it will not be approached that way in most organisations. Some will just see it as an absolute need for heroics and Patton-style leadership.
CIO: How would you analyse current preparations for Y2K through the lens of complexity? Wheatley: In a complex, adaptive, living system, individuals do what they do in their own locations. And when they are also connected through good communication pathways and they're aware of what's going on elsewhere, they are able to create very sophisticated and complex systems that have much greater capacity than you'd ever have predicted in your little localised activity centre.
Right now it seems people are seeing what kinds of synergy and additional capacity is possible once they start learning from each other. But it's not being approached in the "Let's find the one best practice and broadcast it across the country" vein. It's "Let's just find a way to connect people so that they can index the information categories and find what they need to know very quickly." Be that as it may, none of this is our traditional, top-down planning and dictating. It's very bottom-up. And in that way you really replicate the nature of complex adaptive systems. Connecting to each other is a critical need. The communication has to occur; otherwise there is no learning and no stepping up to another level of competence.
CIO: What makes the contingency planning process so complex? Wheatley: Because these contingency planning processes are not centralised, not controlled, they can look incredibly messy and chaotic. Each one is different.
That's one of the great lessons of complexity science: You're going to see enormous levels of diversity of thought based on localised conditions. This is something we just have not looked at from a management perspective because we've felt there's one best way, a best practice, and you just need to incorporate it into your organisation. And complexity theory says exactly the opposite. You support local initiatives, make sure they're learning about other local initiatives and stay out of it. They should be getting ready to think about how they'll deal with a lot of things happening on a lot of different fronts, all related in one way or another to this precipitating turn of events.
Senior Writer David Pearson can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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