7 magic words to challenge the wisdom of systems: getting your head around Claudio Ciborra’s Labyrinths of Information

The late Claudio Ciborra (1951-2005) was an information systems researcher, organizational theorist, and Chair in Risk Management at the London School of Economics. Energetic, pioneering, unafraid to take a contrarian position, his work remains thought-provoking for readers today – even though he wrote on information, communication technologies, and organizational theory for a pre-smartphone age.

The Labyrinths of Information, published three years before Ciborra’s death, is a slim but densely written volume which sets out to “challenge the wisdom of systems”. It puts the complex and ambiguous realities of human existence and interaction at the heart of research into information systems and business processes.

Among other questions, Ciborra asks: Why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? Are age-old practices valuable for dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and emotional concerns in influencing how we think and act?

As he reminds us, “the very definition of information systems as a set of technical […] and human resources devoted to the management of information in organizations spells out the composite nature of the field.” Humanity is always woven into the fabric of information systems.

Ciborra challenges our tendency to describe how information technology is used in terms of rationality and formal method. Academics, management consultants, journalists and other commentators tend to frame what is happening in business in terms of established concepts, neat little pigeonholes for the messy business of the world.

They tend to share basic assumptions: “there is a complex problem to be solved or a task to be executed; a corresponding strategy is deployed to achieve the goals and solve the problem; and a new structure is put in place to implement the solution.”

“To be sure,” Ciborra goes on to say, “decision makers would admit that day-to-day management is run in a more organic, ad-hoc fashion, and that textbooks and journal articles seldom seem to capture the intertwining of market events and managerial responses.”

Often rationalizations are brought in after the fact, and the “gap between what theoretical, ex post explanations and models can deliver and the actual garbage-can style of managerial choice is considered to be a fact of life by practitioners, and an unavoidable result of the limitations of any modelling approach[.]”

Yet Ciborra wants to move away from this approach, attending precisely to what he calls “the hidden or dark side of information systems […] focussing on the obvious, the workaday, and the very well known to any practitioner in the field.” He’s not excited by the latest management buzzwords or theories, and he’s disdainful of their “hospitality on PowerPoint slides by consultants and practitioners.”

Ciborra seeks improvisations, hacks, awkward real-life experiences, and the hard work involved in taking care of complex systems. He probes at the blank space papered over in presentations by phrases such as “You know no organizational model will fully capture the actual flow of events”, “The strategy was well laid out, but then, as you know, life is interesting because it is full of surprises”, and, simply: “You know what I mean.”

He builds his collection of essays around seven words, deliberately chosen for their unfamiliarity to English speakers – words that are meant to stop us in our tracks, shake us out of routine thinking, and apprehend the world of organizations and information systems anew.

No précis can fully do Ciborra’s rich, complex little book justice. But I can take you through a tour of those seven magic words to get you started. Magic for beginners, if you like.

Krisis

Ciborra began talking about a crisis in the late 90s, when no-one else was keen to. “Companies are busy seeking strategic applications of ICTs, savouring the delights and pitfalls of more and more sophisticated networks; they are experimenting with groupware applications and Intranets; they are re-engineering and re-inventing multiple processes, ranging from customer relationship to international business and training…always with ICT.” Crisis? What crisis?

Yet for all the methodologies being taught to students of management and information systems, Ciborra pointed to ongoing signs that his colleagues were in more trouble than they thought: major systems failures which proved beyond rescue, delays and sky-rocketing costs, failures of business process re-engineering, and design or implementation of methods which didn’t comply with the tenets of the approved systems design methodologies. (Re-reading Ciborra in London during COVID-19, it’s impossible not to think of the British government’s test-and-trace fiasco).

Ciborra uses the Greek word krisis, which he tells us in its original meaning “implies a pulling apart, a separating.” In his field, he perceives a separation from the vague forms and inconsistent interactions which characterise life as it is actually lived and work as it is actually done: “ideal entities are substituted for reality and the human subjects who move around it are dismissed or simply forgotten.”

He resists the emphasis on measurement and the need to express everything in numbers so that it can be controlled, arguing instead that “it is the messy life world […] that is fundamental, in the sense that it grounds the abstractions and idealities and lets them become understood and appreciated.”

Krisis, for Ciborra, also generates an opportunity to think differently. “A representation which does not work, or which does not deliver as promised,” he says, “provokes a breakdown, and through this breakdown we (at last) encounter the world, possibly with different eyes.” He pushes us to seek “the unveiling of what lies hidden […] what is concealed beneath the phenomena of work, organization, information, and technology” and describes an approach in which we ditch tidy models, attending instead to the world as it presents itself in everyday experience:

“We rely on evidence, intuition, and empathy. We listen to managers and we participate in their dealings with puzzles and riddles, and, on the other hand, we do not confer any particular relevance on words like ‘strategy’, ‘processes’, ‘data’, ‘system’, or ‘structured methodology’.”

Approaching the everyday life of organizations in this way can be discouraging; it feels too humdrum, too frustrating, too messy and characterised by gossip, confusion, and frustration to help us “really” deal with the issues. Yet, for Ciborra, this is the place where the real issues arise: “plans that keep being diverted, surprises that arise constantly, opportunistic adjustments that must be carried out on the spur of the moment. We see that, although planning is espoused, circumstances compel managers to improvise, and the implementation of the technology, too, is punctuated by unexpected outcomes and turns that require frequent adaptations if not re-inventions of the initial system.”

Bricolage

To English-speakers, or at least those who took high school French, this might be the most familiar word in Ciborra’s repertoire; an evocative term which captures something of tinkering, something of hacking, and something of Do-It-Yourself.

Damaged solar array on board the MIR Space Station

Ciborra takes these workaday practices and stretches them a long way; in fact, he takes them into orbit, reminding us that even the long-lived MIR space station has experienced its degree of bricolage.

Ciborra points out that “up there, revolving in space, one could find, hand in hand, advanced, robust engineering solutions, rustic design, and widespread virtuoso tinkering […] to keep the equipment and the system going as a whole. MIR has been a staccato technology, able to defy the passing of time, the inevitable downgrading of performance, and major and minor breakdowns[.]”

(It’s interesting to compare Ciborra’s vision of MIR to the blend of ambition and systems thinking which characterises the modern vogue for talk of “moonshots”).

Ciborra reminds us that the “early days of the Internet, and its predecessor ARPANET, are also full of bricolage, hacking, improvisations, and serendipity.” ARPANET wasn’t funded and built to do the work of interpersonal communication, but rather to let researchers share computer resources remotely. A networked time-sharing system gave birth to e-mail via a clever hack: “an inspired piece of programming developed by a local user to exchange messages between minicomputers at a host site.”

The new programme was cleverly piggybacked onto the ARPANET’s newly defined file-transfer protocol. “Situated add-ons and serendipitious piggy-backing substitute for absent plans and visions, absent because very few specialists were then paying attention to electonic messaging.” Yet within a few years, three-quarters of all ARPANET traffic was e-mail, and a research network which hadn’t been seen as an undisputed success became the germ for a globally revolutionary form of communication; “the largest single surprise of the whole program was the unplanned and unanticipated success of electronic mail.”

Even now, fifteen years after Ciborra’s death, and many decades into the information revolution in which ARPANET played a key, if unplanned, early role, even when “hacking” has lost much of its pejorative edge, “innovation” has become a desperately chorused buzzword, and organizations begin to explore working with greater flexibility, many institutions still seem to prefer established systems, stability, control, and formalized routines. Ciborra pushes us away from such comforts, preferring that we stay close to “the realm of hacking; practical intelligence; the artistic embroidery of the prescribed procedure; the short cut and the transgression of the established organizational order[.]”

He calls for organizations to bolster incremental learning in seven steps:

  • Value hacking and tinkering strategically: make sure there is a place where creative applications that have strategic impact can be invented, engineered, and tried out.
  • Design to allow bricolage: arrange activities, settings, and systems, so that end-users can play with them and prototype them. Does your organization deliberately create arrangements that favour local innovation?
  • Establish systematic serendipity: experiment openly, allowing for incompleteness. When conception and execution are simultaneous rather than sequential, chance discoveries can lead to unexpected solutions.
  • Thrive on gradual breakthroughs: ideas and solutions often arise that do not square with established procedures and routines. They are the raw material for innovation. Can managers resist the urge to assert control and return to “business as usual”, instead finding ways to appreciate and learn from rogue and emergent practices?
  • Practise unskilled learning: innovation comes from stretching yourself beyond the current ways of thinking and working, which necesitates stepping outside of existing expectations and competencies. Structures that are already in place can confine our perspectives, and challenging them is a necessary part of unlearning old ways in order to find new ones.
  • Strive for failure: Striving for excellence suggests trying to do the things we already do better, or imitating the high standards of others. Yet the road to new ideas is indicated by the places where we fail, where we are uncertain – and that, Ciborra argues, is the road we must seek.
  • Achieve collaborative inimitability: You can’t copy and paste innovation. Good strategy is not about doing what everyone else does, but having a unique insight that creates value. Ciborra recommends collaboration, even with competitors; exposure to new cultures and ideas; “improv[ing] the skills of learning by intrusion”, and finding clues to future change in the day-to-day realities of other organizations.

Precisely because bricolage is about dealing with local circumstances, “tinkering through the combination of resources at hand”, it is valuable. Highly situated problem-solving exploits the local context and resources at hand, instead of the world as our model would like or expect it to be. “Let the world help you”, Ciborra writes: “bricolage is about leveraging the world as defined by the situation. With bricolage, the practices and the situations disclose new uses and applications of the technology and the things.”

Gestell

Just in case the relatively familiar bricolage lulled you into a false sense of security, the next word Ciborra hits the reader with is Gestell, a term drawn from Heidegger’s philosophy. Etymologically it comes from a German prefix meaning gathering or reunion, and a word which can mean “to put, place, stand, or regulate.” Gestell, says Ciborra, is “literally the reunion of the placing, arranging, regulating, ordering — but of what, and how? And what has such a reunion to do with technology?”

In Ciborra’s organizational thinking, Gestell is the bringing together of different actions of ordering, requirement, demand, and supply in a chain which “captures all that is extant and makes it available through a stock to be put in circulation”. People are not masters of this process, but its subject; giving the example of newspaper supply, Ciborra reminds us that the citizen whose habit is to read the newspaper is as much part of the Gestell as the forester working for the logging industry.

Ciborra uses this term Gestell to complicate our understanding of ICT infrastructures – what we’d today call digital infrastructures – as a “self-feeding process” of development and diffusion. Gestell converts everything into “an undifferentiated standing reserve of resources ready to be deployed”; the real world in which our existence unfolds is chased away, and this is the threat of Gestell, the threat of all technology. “The danger,” Ciborra tells us, “lies in the fact that Gestell delivers representations of all that subsists, and these become the real world.”

The technological infrastructure, and the thinking that underpins it, become the lens through which we see the world. A man with a hammer sees only nails, and subsumes the whole world into an inventory of hammerable or non-hammerable objects, hammer-makers, hammer-wielders, and those who have never so much as lifted a hammer.

To heal the Gestell, Ciborra argues, we need to be able to jump tracks, get into new styles and domains of thinking, where we can start asking fundamental questions anew. We need to value moments of insight and vision, when something gets in through the cracks in the system, “beyond the pervasive influence of the Gestell”. (I’m inevitably reminded of the ideas of unlearning, unfurrowing, and the “a-ha” moments of realisation triggered in scenario planning).

Opening our perspectives up to what was hidden or made mysterious by the strictures of the Gestell, allowing ouselves to be astonished by what’s really out there in the world, also means taking responsibility not just for what comes from our own decisions and actions, but for those elements which are unforeseen, uncertain, or largely beyond our control – the systemic, turbulent, and relational effects which Ramírez and Ravetz have described in their work on “feral futures”.

In Ciborra’s vision, we attend to marginal and insignificant things, since they resist the totalising drive of the Gestell to make everything yield maximum value according to its understanding; we take marginal practices and put them at the centre of the system. This isn’t Ludditism, a rejection of technology, but a refusal to see the world in terms of the chain of order and meaning which has engendered that technology. We release ourselves from being “for” or “against” technology per se by saying “yes” and “no” simultaneously: “We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside”. We don’t give up on the Internet and its gifts just because we dislike the worldview into which we have been lured or coerced by its tech-giant parents; instead we rethink it.

Dérive

Does the introduction of new digital systems increase productivity and sharpen managers’ control? Do these systems lead to efficiencies, decrease costs, and create new markets?

Given Ciborra’s interest in what lies in the shadows of organizational theory, you won’t be surprised to know that during his lifetime, he saw and answered those questions differently to many. He takes the word dérive from French to explore how “the information infrastructure might have enhancing effects but it also drifts.”

Ciborra gives the example of a piece of group decision support software introduced within the World Bank. It had been intended to improve collective decision making within the bank’s policy meetings, helping the many internal cultures and political interests come together to make sensitive investment decisions. Voting was a key function of this software, but the usual culture of the Bank was for these highly sensitive decisons to be prepared outside of the formal deliberations; rather than take advantage the new system as intended, users treated it as a facility for brainstorming and focussing attention on key issues – not as a tool for collective decision making.

Guy Debord theorised the dérive as a revolutionary strategy, an unplanned journey through a landscape in which travellers slip the bonds of everyday life and allow themselves to be drawn by the terrain itself and chance encounters along the way.

Debord’s Guide Psychogeographique de Paris

“The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account.”

Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography

Ciborra took the dérive as one of his magic words in order to address his concern that “we can only fully figure out the meaning of new technology in businesses and institutions after the fact; and that we plainly have to live with such impossibility and such a state of ignorance. All this offers a tremendous opportunity to finally rid ourselves of naïve models and fameworks, and explore anew the still uncharted grounds of our relationship with technology.”

Ciborra’s dérive is about how technology itself drifts in role and function according to the real-world conditions of its use, as opposed to what was planned, assigned, and envisioned for it by users, executives, sponsors, vendors, or management consultants. Drifting can be beneficial and can occur as both success and failure; it is caused by a range of processes, from sabotage, to passive resistance, to learning-by-doing, little local discoveries, and serendipitous stumbling.

“In a corporate world without drifting, service technicians would have no war stories to swap, coffee machine chats would only deal with football, cars, and dirty jokes,” Ciborra writes, “and office automation ethnographers would be out of work.”

Xenia

“Since ancient times,” Ciborra tells us, “hospitality has been an important (even sacred) institution able to establish a much needed bridge between the nomads, the pilgrims, the strangers, and the settlers of the cities; more generally, between the inside and the outside of a settlement, a house, or a persona. Hospitality has worked over the centuries as a time-economizing institution: it is an institutional device to cut down the time needed to merge cultures, and to integrate alien mindsets and costumes. Hospitality can precipitate the turning of an ephemeral contact into a relationship that has the look (and the feel) of long acquaintance.”

Xenia is the ancient Greek rule of hospitality shown to travellers and guests. Ciborra uses the concept to show how, when we create abstract methodologies and forget the messy details of everyday human dealings with technology, the “guest” of a new technology can struggle with, and be rejected by, its host organization.

Jupiter and Mercurius receive hospitality from Philemon and Baucis in this painting by Rubens

He gives the example of an application of Lotus Notes as part of a large consumer goods company’s world-wide organization for new product development. The project was carefully constructed and configured to enable multidisciplinary and multinational teamwork, implementation was based on a participatory, incremental approach, and usage was “immediate, ubiquitous, and successful.”

That happy ambiance lasted right up until a top marketing manager sent a cheering message across the entire network from their office in London.

Suddenly, users realised that headquarters could use the new transparent platform to scrutinise any aspect of operations worldwide, any working document or discussion forum, however distant the team. Usage dropped swiftly and significantly; the guest was being ejected, seen now as an ambivalent and even threatening stranger. Hospitality was only restored when a redesign reintroduced the routines and structures which had existed before, losing many of the innovative capabilities which the application had offered.

For Ciborra,

“Thinking, behaving, and acting in terms of hospitality should improve our encounters with technology and unleash those energies we usually invest in the straitjacket of methods. The ubiquity of processes like bricolage, tinkering, and improvisation in the design of organizations and the use of complex technical systems […] can then be appreciated in a different light. […] They express the many subtle ways in which we ingeniously discover, discern, interpet, and act upon the shades of our encounter with new technology as an ambiguous stranger.”

How do we ensure that hosts and guests play their roles well, in a world where we view systems innovation through the lens of hospitality?

Shih

From Sun-Tzu’s treatise on the art of war, Ciborra draws a term, shih, which he renders as “the strategic disposition for action of things organizational.”

“Waging a war effectively relies, according to the Chinese strategist, on the exploitation of the contours (configuration) of the resources at hand,” says Ciborra. Thinking of organizational strategy in terms of shih releases us from the rigidity of a given approach, and encourages us to attend instead to dispositions:

“You do not want to hold to a specific methodology, or the latest managerial model: you have tried out so many in the past, and you know you will be obliged to do the same in the future, probably at an even faster rate. Thus, what is fundamental cannot be the methodologies or the models, past and future. What is fundamental is the trying out itself, the relentless experimenting and not the specific, contingent approach being implemented at a given moment in time. Forget, then, process as an object you design or re-engineer according to the latest methodology. Rather, consider and dwell on your daily business of existence at work: a process of unceasingly recombining resources.”

Ciborra’s discussion of shih introduces a case study from the history of the European technology company Olivetti. Over a number of organizational changes, it moved from the manufacture of office supplies, typewriters, and mechanical calculators, through electronics and personal computers (when it spent a season as the world’s second-largest producer of PCs) to a distribution company which subsequently bought Telecom Italia and became a telecommunications company. The process of ongoing transformation at a multinational corporation “regarded as an ‘unpredictable giant'” highlights the ceaseless work of recombination which Ciborra labels as shih.

Olivetti built its global technology strategy in a largely implict way by juggling alliances and acquisitions through the 1970s and 1980s. It formed a joint venture with Canon Italy, a more technologically advanced competitor, to revamp one of its own product lines and reinvigorate an internal design team; it acquired the UK’s Acorn Computers, not for its low market value, but for the niche it gave them in an important country. Alliances were forged to gain access to new markets, capital, new technologies or joint product development; bets were placed on who the key suppliers would be in future rounds of tech innovation, and joint research and development pursued with those suppliers to support the development of future products. “Improvisation predominated over strategic planning”, it seemed – although management themselves emphasised that their strategic responses were always aligned to forthcoming technological changes.

“The ability to implement a global technology strategy by setting up alliances of various sorts and exploiting them more for their unexpected outcomes than for their original goals became one of Olivetti’s core competencies,” Ciborra writes, “a capability that other computer companies also ended up following when they eventually had to face discontinuities in their business.”

However much premeditation there really was, Olivetti had consistently faced the need to surf through successive technological life cycles, moving from mechanical, electrical, and electronic typewriters through PCs and minicomputers to generic computer platforms. The firm had to constantly evolve its own identity: from a business in the mechanical sector to an office equipment vendor, a computer manufacturer, and then a systems integration business working mostly in the software industry. Olivetti had to “migrate from one industry to another, and even create new ones, at a pace that would have been frantic even for the simple implementation of product changes within a stable technological horizon.”

Yet there was not much benefit in standing still. Excellence in building mechanical calculators meant ever less as electronic systems emerged to replace them; pioneering production of one of the first PCs on the market, the M20 model, had to be swiftly discontinued as IBM imposed MS-DOS as a standard operating system.

The acquisition of Acorn, intended to give market share in the UK and a strong foothold in education technology, failed to deliver on these objectives. However, the smaller British firm was more innovative, and its leading researchers were transferred to Olivetti’s R&D unit, reinvigorating it. Olivetti’s vice president for strategy was able to find value in the acquisition by attending to weak signals from within Acorn, taking a bold step by appointing a foreign scientist from the new acquisition to head the Italian manufacturer’s own R&D. Olivetti was “repeatedly asking the question, ‘what business are we in?'” – and in finding new answers, discovering new ways to thrive in turbulent times.

Today many more organizations experience the upsets and rapid shifts which characterized Olivetti’s 1980s, and therefore lessons can be learned from this experience of almost forty years past. Ciborra tells us that “the search for identity across a technological or business discontinuity requires determination and commitment, quickness and passion, wisdom and detachment. In such a fluid industry, extreme confidence, caution, or attachment may hinder curiosity and openness, while an attitude tolerant of knowledge and ignorance may improve adaptability.”

Kairos

“Turbulent economic times seem to put improvisation at the centre stage of business management and organization studies,” writes Ciborra in introducing his final magic word: kairos, an ancient Greek word meaning the opportune or critical moment.

In the final essay of The Labyrinths of Information, Ciborra digs deeper into this question of improvisation at just the right time: “a special case of situated action, highly contingent upon emerging circumstances; unifying design and action; quick, sudden, and extemporaneous […] Improvisation is usually linked to the exploitation of tacit knowledge.”

He gives the example of a forest firefighter who was able to rescue himself from a suddenly exploding fire when the rest of his team died. On the spot, the firefighter invented and implemented a new procedure which later became part of the “smokejumpers”‘ manual: he burned the high grass in front of him with a match, then threw himself into the space where the grass had burned away. The forest fire passed over him because, in the clearing which he had already burned, there was no dry grass left to fuel it. The firefighter read the situation, reasoned swiftly, and took ingenious and indeed paradoxical action: creating a new fire to eliminate the fuel for a much larger one.

So far, so straightforward: improvisation doesn’t sound that different from routine innovation under such circumstances, Ciborra says. You frame the problem, find a solution, and implement it in a timely way.

However, he also points out what is missing from this strictly cognitive analysis of how-the-problem-was-solved: the fear and confusion, the other firefighters seeing Dodge leaping into his own man-made fire and calling them to join him, only to either mishear him over the crackling fire, or to assume that he had lost his mind and was committing suicide. They carefully avoided his improvised refuge, ran into the high grass alongside, and paid with their lives.

“Looking at improvisation as a special disposition or attunement with the situation, a special way of being amidst the world and being thrown into it, opens up a different point of access to the phenomenon: improvisation as mood,” argues Ciborra. “[M]oods often cannot be forcibly brought about and are not necessarily linked to a plan or an action: they are the ground or the medium for them, but not the other way round.”

Such attunements – whether the firefighter’s ability to perceive and make sense of his situation under extreme pressure, or that of an Olivetti executive understanding the unintended possibilities created by the acquistion of Acorn in the UK – serve as the basis for successful improvisation. Panic is the mood in which we lose perspective, becoming frantic as time ticks down and we fear the worst; the mood which “tends to close off all alternatives: especially the invention and implementation of new ones.” Improvisation resists panicked feeling and panicked thinking; it is the mood which finds a way to make a useful difference at the critical moment.

If panic is one threat to successfully attuning ourselves to the moment, the other is boredom, the mood in which “the world is indifferent and time never seems to pass.” Ciborra writes, “If in panic we fall victim to the world and time, in boedom we try to kill time while being immersed in a fog of indifference.” The two are entwined; time passes and we are bored, until we feel a lack of time and panic arises. In the age of endless digital boosterism and a managerial or organizational attitude which is not really attuned to the unfolding context, we can experience what is described by Ciborra as a “fake velocity”: “Alas, it is fast, it is digital: still one is bored.”

Releasing ourselves from the extremes of panic and boredom involves sharpening our awareness of time and context. “Improvisation is that moment of vision and self-revelation where all the possibilities linked to the being-in-the-situation emerge out of the fog of boredom. Improvisation is the antidote to panic and boredom because it […] ruptures the way time entrances us in both situations […] possibilities for action emerge, graspable in the situation, and give to the actor the chance of intervening […] at the specific moment and in the specific circumstances.” You look decisively into the forest fire, and then realise you must throw fire of your own – and step into it.

Conclusion: Life After Ciborra / Ciborra’s Afterlife

The Labyrinths of Information represents an attempt to answer the question, “What do we do with the fact that, over and over again, neat systems become messy once they’re implemented?”

Even today, years after the development of frameworks such as scrum, when “agile” has become its own corporate buzzword, and talk of “wicked problems” and recognition of the need for systems and design thinking is commonplace, Ciborra’s magic words still poke at our sensitive spots, reminding us of the world’s unwillingness to sweetly conform to our neat mental models – and our unwillingness to yield those models despite it all.

In 2003, Ciborra announced that “the global dynamics we are confronted with are the ones of increasing quantities of knowledge embedded in systems and shared between organizations and individuals; the increased transparency and interdependence that the new systems bring about, and hence the higher level of risk for systems, individuals, and institutions when breakdowns do occur.”

These new and denser knowledge environments, systems, and processes force us to learn new things in order to cope and thrive. Yet, as Ciborra puts it, “[l]earning by individuals, groups, and organizations, and their ensuing ability to reflect and to create new knowledge, are, in their turn, factors that permit the information society to evolve, the world to run faster, and simultaneously decrease our chances of effective control and governance given their higher levels of complexity.”

Such conditions have suggested the need for thinking which is at once more holistic and more attentive to the textures and details of life as it is actually experienced – from the perspective of many actors within the systems we inhabit. Pierre Wack described guiding an enterprise through turbulent conditions as being like a kayaker shooting the rapids. For Frederic Laloux, we may need to surrender command-and-control approaches in order to guide an organization the way we ride a bicycle: “monitoring the path ahead, adjusting our balance, keeping our destination in mind but adjusting the pressure on the pedals, brakes, and handlebars in response to the unfolding circumstances as we move forwards.” For Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz, coping with “feral futures” might look more like the practice of Zen or the “gut feelings” by which we appreciate aesthetics than the rigid systems of old.

What does seem sure, whichever approaches succeed in helping us deal with the challenges of our time, is that Ciborra’s prediction from 2003 will still stand true:

“Passion and improvisation; moods and bricolage; emotions and workaday chores; existence and procedures will become integral to systems design and use, casting new shadows and lights on the unfolding world of technology.”

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