The Complexity of Learning Design

Trying to map out the complexity of learning design and to use the Cynefin framework as a way of thinking about what's involved.

I’ve been thinking about learning design as a profession, the kind of work it is, and what we do, and trying to map it to the domains of the Cynefin Framework. This is to help explain what we do as a team to others in the institution and to look at what structures would support our work, especially in an environment of scaled-up development.

The Cynefin Framework contains four domains:

  1. Simple.
  2. Complicated.
  3. Complex.
  4. Chaotic.

Things in the Simple domain are, for better words, simple. It’s essentially an easy-to-follow process from input to output, with the process being both knowable and controllable. This simplicity usually applies to the process, not necessarily the tools or technology used, so much manufacturing can fall into the simple domain.

The Complicated domain requires many more steps in the process. It relates to very complicated work with many steps and stages, but it is still knowable and controllable. It can be helpful to think of the Complicated work as tasks that can be programmed; it might include if-this-then-that statements and for-loops, but it can be mapped and has a predictable output.

The Chaotic domain, on the other hand, doesn’t behave predictably. In many cases, the actors, objects and actions aren’t even clear. Inputs don’t necessarily equal outputs. Things don’t make sense, and it’s very challenging to map out what's possible within the domain with any clarity or reason.

That leaves us with the Complex domain. Many actors and forces exist in the Complex domain, and their effect on outputs isn’t predictable. This inconsistency in output is the key to understanding the Complex domain. While a process might be knowable and, in some cases, mappable, even to a programmatic level, how things influence and affect one another isn’t predictable. Small changes can have significant consequences. There are many points of potential behaviour. How things may or may not interact and relate isn’t predictable.

And there’s a clear reason for this unpredictability - people.

Work that involves groups of people tends to reside in the Complex domain because people themselves are complex. They are individualistic, organic, adaptable and unique in their skill sets, knowledge and behaviours. Every facet of a person will have different impacts on how they work, behave and contribute. So it's not just that the process is complicated; when you add people into the mix, they create variation, which creates complexity.

This is the reality of Design as a practice and profession – with Learning Design being an application of design practice to a specific context (like web or graphic design). Design is the kind of work that is suited and required for the Complex domain because its nature is to creatively adapt and problem-solve to a change and work with variables and constraints.

If we look at some of the factors that Learning Designers have to work with:

To that list, you have to add in the roles that they are required to interact with throughout the development of the course:

Each factor and each person involved in the process requires not just an action but an interaction. That interaction might produce the necessary outcomes and outputs - or it might not because people are Complex. They might be stressed, not in the mood, be sick, with family, hungover, unprepared, or short of time - there are thousands of ways each individual could be affected by their lives and what is going on outside of work, let alone what happens within the job!

That Complexity I’ve just outlined is for just one course! When you multiply that complexity across multiple courses, a team, a program of study, and faculties and departments, you add multiple complexities. These multipliers of complexity create a relatively new and unique environment to manage. It is an environment with no levers of control and no direct way to manipulate outcomes. Management relies on relationships, negotiation and compromise - elements that traditional management structures struggle with. Within the University environment, where hierarchy reigns supreme, it is a fundamentally different and often incompatible way of working.

But this is why the Cynefin framework is such an important tool - by identifying the domain you are working in; you can adjust your ways of working and the common practices and structures to match.

That’s where I’ll leave this post. I want to discuss the challenges of working in the Complex domain and unpack what it’s like to manage a team and a range of projects in that space. I’ve also got some suggestions for improving our ways of working in the Complex space to help feed into institutional and management discussions.