Saturday, November 22, 2014

Leadership in the knowledge economy

Something is missing from our conversations about the 21st century Extension professional, skills of the future knowledge worker, Extension Reconsidered and the Second Machine Age. This missing piece is the discussion on what leadership for the knowledge and rapid changing environment should look like. 

_-_  complexity [1]Leadership in today’s globally connected, technology-charged, and democratized economy is not the same that as leadership that drove the industrial age--where goals were achieved with directed and controlled with top-down hierarchies. Traditional organizational theory focuses on the ability to avoid uncertainty. In the knowledge economy, knowledge producing organizations focus on organizing, creating, capturing, and distributing knowledge and information. Today’s leaders need to find ways to achieve adaptability and ongoing learning from within and outside of the organization in order to improve the capacity to address complex challenges with innovative solutions.

Mary Uhl-Bien, (mbien2 at, Russ Marion, (marion2 at, and Bill McKelvey, (mckelvey at developed the Complexity Leadership Theory which is a framework that describes three leadership functions--administrative, adaptive, and enabling of a modern knowledge organization.

Administrative leadership is the formal managerial functions of planning, controlling, coordinating, acquiring resources, building a vision, and managing organizational strategy that represents the hierarchical and bureaucratic functions of the organization. Complexity Leadership Theory suggests that administrative leadership exercises authority with consideration of the need for creativity, learning, and adaptability, so that its actions can have significant impact on these dynamics.

Adaptive leadership is an informal, emergent, and complex dynamic rather than a person of authority. The creative actions and learning that emerge from the interactions of adaptive systems are the sources of change for the organization. Tensions of constraints and conflicting needs, ideas, preferences, and cooperative efforts produce flexible outcomes in adaptive social systems.

Enabling leadership fosters and facilitates conditions for adaptive leadership to emerge and accelerate adaptive system dynamics. Enabling leadership is about creating conditions and dynamics that allow for cooperative interactions and knowledge flows to allow shared creativity, problem solving, and learning. Enabling leadership can be found anywhere.

The framework sets the stage to create ways to lead in complex adaptive environments and enables continuous creation and the capturing of knowledge. Organizations that are “complexly adaptive (possessing requisite complexity)” are optimized for knowledge development and adaptability. The Complexity Leadership Theory is specifically designed for knowledge producing organizations.

Complexity Leadership Theory suggests that managers should enable contexts and environments where informal learning can emerge. These three leadership functions are entangled. There are conditions in which authority needs to be invoked. At other times, complex environments are needed to address complex problems.

Specifically speaking of public universities and Cooperative Extension, how can we prepare and organize to be adaptive and encourage a design mindset, virtual collaboration and sensemaking? We talked about hiring new people who have these skills. We talked about helping our current professionals adopt new skills. We have not talked about the changes in the way we approach leadership.

As I read about Complexity Leadership Theory, I thought of some examples of more inclusive engagement and how some within the ranks--faculty and local educators are pursuing knowledge broadly from diverse sources. Through seeking knowledge and connections and working outloud, they are helping the organization adapt and are enabling change. Additionally there is some discussion that Extension could cultivate the way to build more engaged land-grants. We need to start discussions on how we can become a more open, participative, continuously learning organization.

Cooperative Extension and land-grant universities are no doubt knowledge-producing organizations. Complex Leadership Theory is about creating conditions--in relation to the bureaucratic structure--for which emergent learning, knowledge, and solutions can arise. In this democratized knowledge era, there is a greater need to absorb knowledge from many sources, make sense of that knowledge, and co-create operative solutions to complex problems. Traditional top down approaches will not be effective as they have in the past. The Creative Leadership Theory provides a framework for which we should consider in our Extension organizations. 

Note: Thanks to Jeff Miller who shared the Complexity Leadership Theory with me and to Gae Broadwater who helped edit this post.

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