The role of technology in solving complex problems such as those Ethos tackles in domains such as health, urbanization and the future of work, needs to be carefully understood. Culture and tools work together symbiotically. Churchill once said ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’. Marshall McLuhan famously said ‘The medium is the message’. Ethos enables our current culture through widely available cloud based tools, more similar to those used by citizens than corporations. However, increasingly we are developing new software and approaches to understanding organisations horizontally and as complex social systems.
Two experimental technologies are of particular interest to us right now. The first is Linked Data. Linked Data enables us to really get to terms with ‘data as infrastructure’. Just as fossil fuels power our society right now, in the future data will be the essential ingredient necessary to get things done. Whereas ‘big data’ implies a predefined order and structure to huge datasets (databases on steroids) and open data allows the world to start to share these databases, Linked Data enables us to navigate data horizontally and dynamically, perhaps making sense of the world according to a specific problem or context.
The second experimental technology is narrative-based sensemaking (understanding complex situations through storytelling and self signification).
Narrative-based sensemaking taps into the idea that for thousands of years, humans have made sense of the world through stories. Moreover, individuals assign meaning to these stories anecdotally. We never quite get the whole story; just a fragment. Human systems are complex: they behave more like the weather than a predictable manufacturing line. I see the weather outside now and can extrapolate a minute, a day, maybe four days in the future, but not a month (complex). By contrast, I can tell you how many motor cars I will be able to produce in a year, given some assumptions about inputs (complicated). Science now exists that provides the ability to understand complex human systems at scale by capturing story fragments and getting individuals to signify the meaning of their stories. Further human interpretation of the results via clustering techniques allow interventions to be designed based on continual feedback. This is a novel approach and a departure from the current algorithmic craze being applied to ‘big data’ or the natural language processing approach applied in artificial intelligence.
Our work in Ethos centres on the design of human systems and technology systems that link all of the above together. For example, consider the following narrative: In a particular geographic area (e.g. London) we can see via linked data that employers are forecasting 180,000 new jobs being created over the next five years which will require new skills not available in the existing or planned workforce (we can see that as well). We can also see a view of the individuals who are most passionate and equipped to solve these skills problems and who might create a new delivery system. Further, we can see views showing us how existing colleges and universities and how existing capability might be available for reconfiguration to cope with supplying new education and skills for these jobs in an agile way. We can also see the NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training). The stories; the vignettes of disaffection and isolation. We can see the potential value propositions to employers, local authorities and education providers of solving these problems. The linkages are such that this emerging valuable proposition has become horizontally integrated: people, knowledge, capability and systems.
The above problem is not in fact hypothetical but real. Traditional approaches are ill equipped to cope. Big open data sets are of limited use. It is not enough even to layer new technology on top of existing organisation models and to expect solutions to complex problems to emerge. Nor will tinkering with one part of the system (recruitment, work design, organisation design, business models, leadership practice, business process design, training or leadership development) yield radically different approaches to problem solving. Innovation can’t be manufactured through installing a new process, buying some software or appointing a new manager. It is the people, new ways of organising and linked data and narrative based assessment that together can help solve problems like these.