Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can Collective Learning be mobilized to solve Wicked Problems

I’m doing the Change MOOC. In week 4, we covered collective learning. The week was very capably lead by Alison Littlejohn. The main webinar is recording is available here.

Collective learning was defined as such. “We mean how people learn through sourcing, using and making sense of the collective knowledge – the knowledge stored in people, resources, computers, networks etc. In this sense collective learning is different from ‘collaborative learning’ in that people can learn collaboratively in different configurations (such as groups, networks, etc) or can learn through direct interaction with ‘the collective.

There is a very interesting position paper to found here.

What I took away from this week of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) how useful the idea of collective learning is  away of thinking about capacity building work with networks around mental health promotion that I do. Indeed I have been seeing my current Building Resilience Interest Group BRIG project through a collective learning lens all week.

Building communities that raise resilient kids is a task that involves the skills and insights from many and the active contributions of a muitiplicity of partners. They all have many differing values, views and contributions. They are all needed to piece together a solution.

For sometime, I been thinking about my work as involving the solving of wicked problems. For this reason, I introduced the topic of the good fit of collective learning with wicked problems into the #Change11 discussion streams. It proved an topic of interest for several other #Change11 participants.

Wikipedia defined wicked problems as such:

"Wicked problem" is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”

I really like this definition because it links wicked problems with systems thinking.

A recent journal article, Conceptualizing the Challenge of Reducing Interpersonal Violence
has added to commentary on the characteristics of wicked problems in way I find very insightful.

Among the characteristics of wicked problems:
  • There is no single, definitive, or simple formulation of the problem;
  • Multiple stakeholders and participants are likely to be involved, and this leads to multiple formulations of what “really” is the problem and therefore what are legitimate or appropriate solutions;
  • The problem is not likely to be the result of an event (e.g., violence in the media) or a small subset of events but rather a set of intersecting trends that co-occur and coinfluence each other;
  • The problem is embedded in other problems, including other wicked problems (e.g., poverty, substance abuse);
  • Values, culture, politics, and economics are likely to be involved in the problem and possible strategies to address the problem;
  • There is no one solution, no single, oneshot effort that will eliminate the problem;
  • The problem is never likely to be solved;
  • Information as a basis for action will be incomplete because of the uniqueness of the problem and the complexities of its interrelations with other problems; and
  • The uniqueness of the problem means it does not lend itself easily to previously tried strategies.

Give these characteristics, wicked problems cannot be solved by a project management approach. You can’t set up a committee of experts and wham define the probems and set in train the solution and expect anything approaching progress. The NT intervention comes to mind this week as a failure as usual response to a wicked problem.

The solutions to wicked involve involve constant learning and leaders facilitate communities in this learning and in collaborative problem solving. It about coming up with a more or less coherent and shared understanding of the problems dynamics and what a solution might look like. It also about motivating, coordinating and sustaining a collective and decentralised response that emerges and evolves over  time. As we engage, with wicked problems our understanding of the problems changes as much as the problems context evolves. It’s learning as we go, growing to fit the problem.

Experts with narrow skills or a with a command control mindset are unlikely to be effective leaders in when addressing wicked problems. Evidence based practice will also be of limited relevance as every wicked problem is unique. Relationship skills are critical.  In a line, wicked problems cannot be solved with toolbox for complex problems, any more than a tyre can be changed with an orange.

When confronting wicked problems, experts need to know the limits of their expert knowledge. For that reason, I love this quote from -Laurence J. Peter:  ““Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

To solve wicked problems, it  takes methods and mindsets adapted to the complexity. People who can facilitate team learning in networks (collective learning) are the type of people to look forward to lead solutions to wicked problems.

We need to become people with skills and experience in addressing wicked problems. There seems to be very few experts in wicked problem solving.

Learning to master the tools around for dealing withe the complexity of wicked problems, means realising that a lot of the expertise one has is now bunk that is unlikely to work in such contexts. Quite a barrier in solving wicked problems.

I’m not saying one does not need advanced expertise to tackle wicked problems. I think you need a lot more skills and experience and ability to tackle complexity problems than merely complex problems.

The skills needed include communication, emotional intelligence, critical and creative thinking, advanced and diverse literacy, strategic thinking and system thinking. Being very handy with Web 2.0 tools and their associated pedagogies is a recently emerging skill set because they support  low cost collaboration and learning across large and diverse large networks.

I’m in agreement with one my fellow Change11 co-learners Sui Fai John Mak who blogged:
“It is so true that the more one explores about the wicked problems, the more one starts to question the assumptions behind the problems and solution”

For me I’m increasingly questioning what I learnt when I studies Health Promotion over a decade ago. Increasing I’m reading journal articles from key figures in my filed who are also rethinking our practice paradigm as they think about the complexity of many of the wicked problems we address in health promotion.

No comments:

Post a Comment