This is the first in a series of excerpts from the report A Matter of Perspective: A systems approach to communication and complexity. A copy of the entire report is available here
There are times when trying to explain something complicated and hard to understand that we simply label it as “complex” and move on. But it is a mistake to reduce as important a concept as complexity to a throwaway line. A complex system is anything made up of many different parts which interact in often unpredictable and unplanned ways. By that measure just about every social, cultural, political and economic institution is complex; as is our entire natural environment. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident these days than in the realm of communications.
Communication has become the epitome of complexity, especially those mechanisms that have caught our attention of late. Social media bring together countless individuals whose unending conversations can beget unexpected results. To capitalize on “big data” analysts must examine and extract value from the trillions upon trillions of bits of information generated by people and machines. And much of this now occurs in the “cloud,” the universal term for distributed systems that are made possible by the collaboration of vast numbers of computers.
For communication professionals this presents two formidable challenges. The first is to explain ever more complex ideas and issues to broadly diverse audiences. The second is to do so through processes that are, themselves, becoming more complex. In the past we may have handled such matters by dealing with them one at a time. But just as we can’t recognize the workings of an ant colony by scrutinizing just one ant, we won’t uncover solutions to intricate communication problems by zeroing in on a single message, medium or outcome. Instead, we must move in the opposite direction and explore how all elements come together under continually changing circumstances.
This is a systems approach to communication, and it involves understanding situations in terms of their relationships, connections and context. Yet systems thinking is neither a discipline like public relations or marketing communications, nor a new technique such as social media, big data analytics or cloud computing. Rather, it is a distinct way to consider things with a more open mind. That is essentially a matter of perspective: being able to appreciate information and audiences from various points-of-view; and in the process, practicing all of the above more effectively.