Transformative Approaches Project
Discontinuity: Challenge of insight cultivation
Transformative Approaches Project |
Those concerned with the crisis of governance at all levels of society
are faced with a number of dilemmas:
(a) Information overload: There is too much information purportedly
of relevance to any given policy-making situation;
(b) Vested interests of information suppliers: Insights are increasingly
subject to some implicit form of intellectual copyright, a recognition
that some form of payment is required, and to the pressures of a market
place that must necessarily distort their significance to gain acceptance;
(c) Dubious quality of insights: It is increasingly difficult
to establish the merit or relevance of any set of available insights --and
notably that supplied by those with a vested interest in the maintenance
of the status quo;
(d) Authoritative insights: To govern with authority necessitates
dependence on authoritative insights. Unfortunately those with authoritative
expertise have often contributed significantly to the conceptual processes
and decisions that have led to the crisis of governance to which a response
(e) Simplistic information filters: Efforts to reduce the information
overload and gather appropriate insights are endangered by the simplistic
conventional procedures which can be most readily implemented;
(f) Lost insights: Valuable insights are increasingly difficult
to acquire and readily lost in the complexities of crude information gathering
procedures -- typically it is virtually impossible to distinguish between
eccentric insights of little value and unconventional insights that open
(g) Unaccountability: It is frequently easier for those in authority
to avoid or evade responsibility for any potential problem rather than
to ensure that information on it is appropriately sought and processed;
(h) Cultural biases: The conventional assumption that information
is processed in the light of objective procedures obscures the different
ways in which particular cultural and subjective biases distort the manner
in which insights are selected and processed.
(i) Format: Under the pressures of the moment, the ideal responses
are those that can be briefly explained, are readily comprehensible, and
lend themselves to photo opportunities with the media. This constraint
may be impossible with responses of requisite complexity to deal with a
The combined effects of the above dilemmas leads to a form of "insight
impoverishment" within the policy-making environment. The leadership
is effectively starved of insights -- often without realizing this is the
case. On the other hand, available insights of considerable value may well
go underused. Efforts to remedy the situation are too often designed by
those responsible for creating it in the first place.
2. Modes of response
There is necessarily a variety of ways of considering the above dilemmas.
These can themselves become a reflection of the difficulties in designing
an adequate response. One approach is to consider the appropriateness of
responses in the light of distinct metaphors:
(a) Information system: From this perspective the issue is one
of designing an adequate information system. This approach has traditionally
been favoured by intelligence agencies and culminates in the presentation
of information in high-tech "situation rooms". This is extremely
(b) Biological "capture": As in any predator/prey relationship,
skills may be developed to capture insights or their bearers. This response
is favoured by corporate "head-hunters" and those seeking to
benefit from any "brain-drain".
(c) Signal "capture": By viewing insights like signals,
the challenge is seen as one of capturing such signals (as in telescopes)
and amplifying them to a significant level of resolution. This approach
may involve deploying arrays of signal detectors (such as look-out or foresight
(d) "Profligate nature": As in any natural system,
the production of insights is seen as a consequence of natural profligacy.
From this perspective there is always a superfluity of insights produced
of which only a small proportion will effectively "take" and
produce viable consequences. This view may therefore be used as a justification
for ignoring the insights that "fall on stony ground" and are
(e) Insight "economy": This perspective offers a view
in terms of producers and consumers of information. In one view there is
then an information "marketplace" in which insights must compete.
An alternative to this economic perspective derives from the "command"
economy approach in which there is a far greater control and intervention
in the kinds of insights which can be legitimately produced, irrespective
of desires expressed by end-users. Wastage of "resources" may
then become an issue.
(f) Knowledge industry: In this variant the emphasis is on knowledge
"production", suggesting that the production of insights can
be institutionalized in knowledge "factories". This view would
be favoured by promoters of major research and development programmes,
notably in relation to the harder sciences and technology.
(g) Insight "ecology": In this richer biological metaphor,
there is a speciation of insights which interact within knowledge "ecosystems"
of ideas and compete in an evolutionary sense. The co-evolution of complementary
insights may be seen as of importance.
(h) Delivery systems: The focus may be placed on the systems
through which insights are disseminated and through which knowledge is
delivered to those able to act upon it.
(i) Learning systems: Within this view society and the groups
which compose it are learning systems through which insights are produced
and to which they adapt and respond. The challenges of governance is then
seen in terms of those of societal learning and vulnerability to erosion
of collective memory.
(j) Collective wisdom: This traditional view places emphasis
on the accrued collective wisdom and the adaptive capacity of "old
boys" networks and elders in response to any crisis. This can be comforting
both to those in positions of authority and to those who depend upon them.
(k) Societal health: With society viewed as a body, indicators
of the "health" of that body become meaningful. Remedial action
in response to crisis may be seen as a form of medical intervention with
prescriptions, palliatives and prosthetics -- some of which may be essentially
cosmetic or may only have value as placebos.
(l) Collective security: The uncontrolled emergence of insights
can be seen as a potential threat to established systems that guarantee
collective security and stability. This view tends to find favour within
political, economic and religious hegemonies. It enables responses to be
articulated in terms of well-developed military and collective security
systems and strategies.
3. Metaphoric traps and opportunities
Each of the frameworks above has its strengths and weaknesses. Each
may become a trap under particular circumstances and eachmay offer opportunities
for effective governance. The challenge is to develop the quality of governance
without developing undue dependence on any one of them.
Governance is above all not a static process. Situations are continually
shifting. The media is continually offering new angles and images that
exacerbate any potential instabilities. In recent years government has
been to a large extent media driven. To recover the initiative, the processes
of governance needs to be able to continually generate more powerful images
-- or else these will be sought and generated elsewhere.
In a sense governance is in a permanent reframing competion with the
media. The processes of governance recover the initiative when they are
able to generate enthralling images or dramas of greater power than those
generated by media ingenuity and creativity. How does governance acquire
the creative independence in image work of policy relevance so that it
is not totally a slave to media pressures?
4. Insight cultivation
There is an increasing tendency for government policy-makers to rely
on special think tank units, whether internally set up or externally sub-contracted.
The manner in which such units are sensitive to, collect, elicit, and are
obliged to filter information is the key to insight cultivation. The need
to flexibly open to information when there is relatively little and to
close to information when there is too much is of course a survival attribute
of any social or organizational unit, notably as studied by Orrin E Klapp
(Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society.
Cambridge, Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1978).
Several grades of response might for example be envisaged:
(a) Minimalistic bureaucratic response: Strict adherence to the
letter of any mandate or contract. Exclude all other information, especially
that from sources that can readily be labelled as unofficial. Avoid encouraging
information which implies more work.
(b) Crisis management (survivalist) response: High sensitivity
to immediate information needs. Seek information wherever it may be found.
Filter out anything that does not reflect current short-term priorities.
Avoid consideration of alternative perspectives, notably those advocated
(c) Non-partisan, professional response: Develop sensitivity
to a wide range of sources of established quality, systematically excluding
anything that falls below that threshold. Articulate a range of options
for short and long-term governance. Avoid issues bearing on assumptions
governing selection of sources and information, especially if these may
be critical of the appropriateness of the professional posture adopted
or the relevance of the options formulated.
(d) Proactive response: Evoke information and insights by investing
significantly in the design of insight cultivation and capture systems.
Emphasis placed on configuring conflicting incommensurable perspectives
so as to evoke insights relative to governance faced with complex dilemmas.
Concern with the match between the articulation, through appropriate imagery,
of the policy challenge faced by governance and that which is communicable
through the media to wider publics from which further insight may be consequently
It is of course inappropriate to demonize the first responses in favour
of the latter. All have their place in an integrated system of insight
cultivation which urgently needs to be articulated. At present however,
the last is significantly absent, whereas the others have significantly
demonstrated their inadequacy in recent years.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential