The digital workplace as a ‘wicked problem’; practitioners as doctors.

I wrote this ages ago (at least a year) when I was writing “digital workplace user experience”and for some reason I didn’t publish it. I found it in my Scrivener blog post file. It is provocative, and probably entirely wrong. Hey ho.

To misquote George Orwell, most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that information and communication is in a bad way. The complex of communication and information appears to be grinding inexorably towards some form of maximum level of attention, and there doesn’t really seem to be a way out.

I would argue that the life of information and communication within businesses is a wicked problem, but practitioners attempt to solve these problems as if they are simple problems.

A wicked problem is a problem that is impossible to solve because of deep complexity and interdependencies, usually involving people and their choices. The more people involved the more wicked the problem.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formalised the characteristics of wicked problems in 1973:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. [There is no way to predict if they will stop]
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

There are lots of examples of wicked problems such as global climate change, nuclear weaponry, drug legislation and trafficking, and virtually every societal problem conceivable.

These are massive problems, what has this got to do with us, questions the critical reader. Well we are surrounded in our trade of information, knowledge and communication with problems that don’t seem to get any better, no matter what solutions that are thrown at them. The tools of we have such as email, content management, collaboration and social platforms were once solutions to problems. Each of them, in turn, has become a massive problem. That is the nature of a wicked problem.

Email as a wicked problem

We increase the speed and a synchronicity of communications within organisations to a point where people are overwhelmed by email. Any initiative to attempt to calm the swell becomes a further overhead: Spam filters; automatic rules; the bureaucracy involved with managing broadcast email; employees spending time deleting emails to remain within quotas.

Enterprise Search as wicked problem

We want to have enterprise search because it should be cheaper to re-find information that create it, or ask someone to remember it for us. We index the corpus. We fail to find the information we seek, so we then need to spend money for someone to manage the index. That fails too, so we pay people to improve the corpus. That fails too, so we buy another enterprise search platform.

Content management as a wicked problem

We want to codify useful explicit information within an organisation. We build a system to do so, then fill it with what we think will be useful to know. It becomes out of date and out of brand. Authors and content owners depart and entropy asserts itself. We throw redesigns and content inventories at it. Perhaps a new content management system would help so we build another and migrate all the content over. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Internal communication as a wicked problem

We want people to understand the direction the business needs to move in. We publish news stories and other electronic channels for people to read. They do not read them, nor to they improve their understanding of the businesses strategy. So more are sent at increasing volumes and costs. Different groups of communicators are created at various levels of the business requiring a bureaucracy to manage messages and timing

The fundamental wicked problem

I could go on and talk about virtually any area of specialism, but we really need to face the fundamental wicked problem. Communication, information and attention within large groups of people is hard. Solutions to any of these problems become problems themselves. There is no such thing as a solution.

Everything in our trade, in the light of wicked problems, are therefore tools of mitigation and not engineering. All we can do is attempt to make things less bad and less painful. We cannot fix these problems and to claim we can makes us an attempted solution to a wicked problem. And what do those turn into? Exactly.

So instead of being engineers and scientists set to fix a problem, perhaps we should be in the business of care. Doctors can’t cure death. They deal in mitigating its risks until it becomes inevitable and therefore maintain life with tool that are:

  • Diagnostic – understanding what’s wrong. We need to spend more time looking at the problems people are having in their work before we charge in with a solution whether than be some that we have ready to take off the shelf, or before we start designing and building more technology.
  • Analgesic – relieving pain. Our patients’ first requirement is an absence of discomfort. What can we do?
  • Antiseptic – keeping things clean to encourage natural healing
  • Antibiotic – treating infections so the healing process can start
  • Surgical – removal of the bad for the good of the whole. As a last resort what needs to be excised?
  • Palliative – care for terminal cases. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Help make the poor thing comfortable for its last hours, and help its loved ones and dependents move on.
  • Hippocratic – do no harm. Fellow professionals, look guiltily at your shoes and repent the times that you have made things worse in the name of progress.

So next time you are tempted to believe you, the lone digital workplace professional, can fix or solve these massive and complicated problems, please frame your mind with the words “heal” and “care”.

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2 Comments on “The digital workplace as a ‘wicked problem’; practitioners as doctors.”

  1. richarddennison says:

    Great post Chris – reminded me of this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpkRvc-sOKk We need to change our goal as a species from ‘more’ to ‘better’.

  2. Paul Levy says:

    Excellent post. I really like the medicinal metaphors as well as the use of wicked problem applied to digital working. Wicked problems not only defy solution, they often defy definition. A friend of mine, Jack Martin Leith also often reminds me that even framing something as a problem may result in the critical essence of an issue eluding our very seeking of it. Problem framing is sometimes a narrow way of meeting a challenging reality.


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