Cynefin and Information Technology

Having looked at challenges in Emergency Medicine and Management let us now look at those in the world of Information Technology.

The Cynefin framework can also help to explores the world of information systems/technology/software engineering from 4 key differing perspectives.. Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaos.

Let us start with the basic stuff of information science ( the binary 0 or1 , machine code stuff). This is the stuff that computing machines excel at, where 2+2=4. The rapid progress in this field (supported by Moore’s Law) has laid the foundation for much of the fast moving information revolution that we are now living through.

When you begin to abstract out binary logic, to higher level programming skills, in whatever programming language or application framework you like, the software world can begin to appear complicated.
Each programming language/development framework may have much the same elements in their makeup, but there is a huge range and variety to choose from, each tailored to their own specific niche area.

Again this is a complicated field, though with enough hours in the classroom, the principles can be learnt and put into action.


Software development rapidly gets more complex as more folk get involved as one tries to scale and then maintain software. Again it is useful here to explain the key elements of a complex system.

A complex system ;
-is  made up of many parts
– has many interactions between those parts
-is impossible to fully understand
-is impossible to control
-exhibits patterns which can be harnessed to control key elements of the system
-elements of the system will self organise

Yet again I would suggest this description fits very well with many large scale Information Technology and Software Engineering projects. There is slow but steady move to understanding this new paradigm, as many large scale IT projects have failed as they were not able to handle the complexity of the cultural change and/or process improvements required.

The traditional approach to large scale engineering, (i.e. the waterfall approach) with its long lengthy periods of requirements analysis, design, build and test before deployment (think about the airplane industry) doesn’t fit or scale with within the complexity of socio-technical change projects, hence the move towards more agile, iterative approaches to software development.

On the other hand, examples abound of small agile groups that spotted an opportunity within the diversity of the IT field and iterated through regular and rapid development cycles to then achieve great success at scale (e.g. Bill Gates and MSDOS, Linus Torvalds and Linux)


At the edge of complexity lies chaos. When IT systems that are deployed into an organisation to achieve change without the right leadership chaos can and does commonly result. Again we note the importance of effective leadership in both avoiding and tackling chaos…

After this brief run through elements of the Information Technology field, we can conclude that the Cynefin framework can help to frame related discussions.

Having explored Emergency Medicine, Management and Information Technology fields we now explore across those fields, looking for some common patterns.


Jain, N (2008) Agile is the new Waterfall

Merali, Y. and McKelvey, W. Using Complexity Science to Effect a Paradigm Shift in Information Systems for the 21st Century. Journal Of Information Technology 21 (2006): 211-215.


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