Monday, December 22, 2008

Harnessing Collective Wisdom and Power

The introduction by Dr. Enrique G. Herrscher provides a great summary of this book, “Few books present an idea that might change the world. This is one of the few.

The emphasis here is on the word "might." Two things are always needed to change the world, or an organization, or oneself, or anything: intent and procedure. That is: a serious desire to change, and an adequate methodology. Alexander (Aleco) Christakis' book presents one such methodology. It is called dialogue.

Not a "natural" dialogue, not any kind of human interaction, not even-important as it is-the recommendation to "put oneself in someone else's shoes," certainly not 'Just talking." But a highly structured dialogue, said (with exciting examples) to have been applied successfully for over thirty years. In fact, the whole book is based on the thesis (in my simplified version, not in Aleco's words) that (a) dialogue is important; (b) dialogue is difficult; and ( c) the only way to overcome the difficulties is through an adequate methodology, such methodology being basically the contents of the book.

But methodology alone does not produce change, and Aleco's book fully acknowledges the difficulties, constraints and pathologic situations to be overcome. Therefore, the book is not only about methodology. In my view (and I am not following the book's structure but my own), its gist is fourfold: (a) an attitude; (b) a philosophy; ( c) a call for action; and (d) a methodology}, Let me explain what I mean by these interrelated parts, expressed in my own words, surely less rigorous than Christakis'.

An Attitude
A collaborative spirit, a true regard for "the collective wisdom of the group, "the power of "mutual persuasion and respect," permeate Christakis' book. This goes beyond participative democracy within the hierarchical model, that often gets stuck mid-road because power or bureaucracy (structure) work in the shadows.

You will read the book and find more about both the ethical and practical roots and their far reaching effects in an increasingly complex webworld, but let me add two personal notes.

When I first met Aleco Christakis, at the 49th annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) at Crete in 2003, his all-embracing personality did more to show me how a group consciousness through dialogue is generated, than the axioms and laws you will read here. Particularly strong was the message delivered at the last plenary by representatives of native tribes. While most of us selected one or two spokespersons to present conclusions in the name of the group, in their case the whole group came forward, and each person expressed his or her thoughts and experiences.

When I read (chapter 20) the wonderful Winnebago tribe chairman's account of the essence of the pipe ceremonial, I was reminded of a similar tradition we had as young boys and girls at the local YMCA camp site in Argentina. At the last campfire, a half burned stick was passed around, and each one holding it "opened his/her heart" and expressed their feelings towards the camp experience and their interaction with others. A beautiful forerunner of what is said in this book.

A Philosophy
By this perhaps presumptuous term, I refer to what Christakis calls "Science of Dialogue Design" or "People Science," based on the "Wisdom of the People" ("Demosophia") paradigm, a Weltanschauung from which the above "attitude" derives. It resembles what I once termed "Science of Dialogue," characterizing that way the essence of systemics (in my incoming presidential speech at the 2004 ISSS annual meeting).

I won't reproduce the axioms, definitions, laws and measurements that, as with any science, characterize this one, because you will find them, well worded and orderly, in the text. But I do consider it a valid contribution to state here what I consider the ten major assumptions of this science, because they are the building blocks of the proposed methodology that follows:

• That the self-organizing model is spreading in all kinds of organizations in the post-industrial world

• That in a world where influence increasingly replaces control, dialogue and teamwork will be more and more the preferred methods

• That commitment, shared responsibility and real change can only be achieved by democratic participation

• That mutual purpose and a collective leadership are necessary to link the group's work with the organization and its external environment

• That practices based on the hierarchical model have only limited effectiveness because they generate negative feedback

• That without a proper process, individuals do not learn from each other (they often use the debate to persuade others, stick to a zero-sum mode or simply voice their beliefs)

• That while the generation of ideas is comparatively easy, relating them to each other is complex

• That stakeholders possess the requisite knowledge for defining and resolving systemic problems

• That stakeholders are however generally programmed to see situations in terms of the mechanistic paradigm

• That computers lessen the cognitive demands on designing partici¬pants, and therefore are an essential aid for easing consensus.

An Action Plan
The dialogue proposed here is not a case of neutral collection of observer-independent data, but rather a proposal to "enable people from all walks of life to experience participative democracy in national, international, organizational and inter-organizational settings."

To translate above attitude and philosophy into action in the real world is no easy task. Reading the book makes it clear-at least for me-that this is an instance of "necessary but not sufficient." I have my doubts-and believe Aleco would share this view-whether this kind of dialogue would succeed in the face of strong negative forces arising from power relations or vested interests. But the point I want to make is that often the situation is not so bad. However, even in a favorable setting, a positive outcome can only be assured if the right tools are applied.

In other words, numerous opportunities are lost not because those who oppose change are too powerful but because those who are in favor fail to make it happen.”

The book provides action plans and methods.

The author presents a structured design process (SDP) for enabling effective large group dialogue. This process is composed of seven components:

• Six consensus methods
• Seven language patterns
• Three application phases
• Three key role responsibilities
• Four stages of interactive inquiry
• Collaborative software and facility
• Six dialogue rules

Christakis elaborates on each of these categories and provides examples.

The author also provides an explanation of the science behind his assertion that his SDP works.

Christakis concludes his book with, “The public discourse on democracy must be extended so that it again becomes a living system of ideas and not something of the past to be sanctimoniously worshiped. Above all, democracy must grant power beyond the circle of scientific and public policy experts. It must return ownership for designing social systems to stakeholders and the common person. Democratic dialogue must return to people's neighborhoods, communities, and other social systems that are important in their lives.

For the past thirty years, the SDP paradigm has been developed to facilitate design that can bring democracy back to the common person. With focused and open dialogue that avoids cognitive overload, it encourages respectful listening, open expression, and opportunities for participants to explain the meaning of their contributions, thus creating a linguistic consensual web among stakeholders. The technological support of SDP also has the advantage of allowing participants to effectively deal with the complexity of the confounding issues of the Information Age, without being burdened with details of recording and interrelating ideas.

The advantages of the SDP are many. It is solidly grounded in systems science; it encourages individual as well as group learning; and it allows for focused and open dialogue that converges to Collaborative Action Plans. The SDP axioms are not specific to any particular culture, and apply to multitudes of cultural arenas, as demonstrated already from many applications with indigenous people. SDP provides equanimity for participants and has been proven effective in many years of application successes. The SDP paradigm is formidable in sustaining democracy, cultural dignity, and autonomy for all people. It can be foundational in realizing the ideal of a just and humane world.”

I think that this methodology is worth studying and perhaps actualizing. What do you think?

How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy, Alexander N. Christakis with Kenneth C. Bausch, Information Age Publishing, 2006, 277 p

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