CILIP Conference 2015 Day 1 Morning Session

Andrew Cox
Understanding digital futures as “wicked problems”

What is a wicked problem?

Coined by Rittel and Webber (1973). A tame problem may be tricky, complex or stressful but you know the solution to it or how to get to a solution. Wicked problems don’t have stable or familiar features and it isn’t as obvious where to start, how to find a way through the complexity towards a solution.

Delegate discussion on wicked problems in our professional lives. I talked about overlapping roles and the complexity of seamless, persistent and stable identity and access management. Authentication and authorisation still difficult and can’t easily cope with porous and multi-faceted identities and roles that cross organisational boundaries.

Characteristics of Wicked Problems

  • the problem is unique
  • there are different views of the problem and contradictory solution
  • problem is linked to other problems
  • lack of information about current state of affairs
  • cultural, economic or other constraints on a solution
  • numerous possible intervention points
  • considerable uncertainty, ambiguity and risk
  • the problem is not “solvable” (e.g. No technical solution or no one person or group who can solve it)

… plus many others on the long list.

The label problem can be problematic. Possibly has too negative a connotation when applied to messy, complex scenarios that require a holistic approach.

Wicked Problems and RDM

Is Research Data Management a wicked problem?

National policies stronger and clearer but:

  • challenge is to change research practices of every researcher
  • diversity of research
  • complexity of research process and fluidity of data characteristics
  • symbolic status of research means linked to complex political and identity issues
  • lack of consistent funding for RDS
  • lack of clarity about which existing support services would be the natural lead for RDS

Narratives reveal a number of problems in addressing RDM:

  • Lack of agreement on how to get started;
  • if you have a policy it will just happen;
  • researchers don’t know what data is, what did do when it changes, when it is active/archive data;
  • no demand for a service;
  • data management plan seen as least important part of a funding bid;
  • technical questions like when to generate a DOI and at what level of granularity

Wicked Problems and Leadership

  1. Leadership not structures
  2. Reflection not reaction
  3. Positive deviance not negative acquiescence
  4. Negative capability
  5. Constructive dissent not destructive consent
  6. Collective intelligence not individual genius
  7. Community of fate not a fatalist community
  8. Empathy not egotism

Grint (2008)

Consensus isn’t necessarily beneficial when dealing with wicked problems. You need points of difference. Though this is possible in tension with the collective view demanded by 6. The trick is to find commonality and shared purpose whilst allowing individuality and openness.

These strike me as suggesting that too often we try to solve wicked problems with policies and committees when really they start with people and communication and allowing the creative and reflective space for their relationships to succeed. It would be interesting to say think through how each could be applied to a current “wicked problem” like the renegotiation of Greek debt and their place in Europe for example.

In our discussion about Grint’s paper we agreed these capabilities were possible with good leadership. With more average leadership they might be better applied in earlier dynamic/brainstorming phases I.e welcome I. Their place. Different types of manager needed for different types of problem yet promotion and leadership training doesn’t necessarily recognise this. Getting the right leaders into the right places is crucial.

Digital Futures as Wicked Problems

Technologies are socio-technical complexes that continuously change and throw up unexpected uses and ironies of use. They require creativity, flexibility, enterprise, collaborative skills and courage to navigate. They imply new ways of learning.

Web: Wicked Ways in Research Data Management

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