[Last amended: 15May 16]
How do you make sense of complex situations? Is this even possible? I would suggest that the nature of complex situations is likely to be beyond the comprehension of most human minds. This does not however mean that we should make no attempt to try. There are three recognised approaches to risk management. The first is the use of precaution, the second is to balance risk against rewards and the third is known as risk discourse. This is utilised in order to bring clarity to uncertain situations through a thorough examination of the issues.
In such situations I would suggest that, even if it is unlikely that we could understand the situation fully, it may be possible to identify the dimensions involved; that is understand the forces at play. To me this is the role of what I have labelled a "catalytic cube". I have used such cubes extensively in my work to separate out issues into different discussion spaces. Here I will describe the construct.
In research we normally talk about "variable". While this term may be adequate in many situations, I feel that it is lacks the dynamism of the term "dimension" that has its own catalytic properties. By using this term it immediately makes me think about how many facets each dimension may have. The catalytic process is consistent with my suggestions elsewhere (See Book 2) that suggests that the idea of layers (macro, mezzo and micro) be applied to any factor/ variable under consideration.
The idea of discussion spaces can be seen in a simple 2 x 2 matrix. An example of such a matrix might be "Option 1" and "Option "2 on one dimension and "advantages" and "disadvantages" on the other. This therefore creates four discussion spaces and is about as simple as any analysis can be. This does however provide the starting point for my idea of catalytic cubes by adding a third dimension, such as timescale. This might be divided into "long-term" and "short-term" where the discussion spaces grow from four to eight. If however the timescale dimension is divided into "long-term", "medium-term" and "short-term" the discussion spaces moves from four to twelve. Now add considerations of resources and again you see the multiplication of the necessary discussion spaces.
My first serious use of a catalytic cube was to justify my doctoral research. Early in my studies I was told that the work that I was doing did not constitute "scholarship". I constructed a cube using the work of three different noted scholars to show the multitude scholarship spaces open to researchers. I could show that my work sat comfortably within the description/ problem formation/ application discussion space rather than the integration/ theory building/ explanation space that is more customarily used within business PhD programs. This proved to me that such cubes have great practical application.
Now look at the well-known Enterprise Risk Management Cube. This cube provides sixty-four discussion spaces. Within any integrated organisation each discussion space will affect the outcome in another, these relationships can be seen to be truly complex. While we might not understand how each may affect any of the others, what will occur cannot be known for certain. What the cube does do is enable you to see which discussion spaces are being addressed and which are not
The idea of a catalytic cube comes into its own when an issue comprises multiple dimensions. An example of such a cube is the one I did in order to understand the construct of risk analysis. During the literature review phase of my doctoral studies I came across many different configurations of risk assessment. I extracted the fifteen that I saw being used. Some have defined sub-categories [these numbers are in brackets (#)] others are user defined.
While our brains are unlikely to be able to handle all fifteen dimensions at once, we can examine three simultaneously. Each time we can see which issues are being addressed and which are being ignored. I accept that, in this format, the process is rather laborious but it does immediately highlight where you are applying your efforts and where you are not. The complexity becomes very apparent.
The Complex Interactive Process Institute has semi-automated this cube. On their website they have a version of the cube where you can pick the three dimensions you wish to see and the software shows the reconfigured cube. A full database driven version has yet to be developed but this is seen to be the next step.
In summary, risk discourse relies on the generation of a rich debate about the nature of the problem being faced. When it comes to complex issues just recognising all the discussion spaces presents a real challenge. The catalytic cube proposed here offers a way to identify the discussion spaces involved and helps to make some sense of a complex environment.