Originally published May 23, 2019

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This is the 44th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Alice MacGillivray is a systems thinker, most interested in complexity thinking, who enjoys helping groups and organizations work through challenging problems and opportunities. She strives to work her way out of jobs, leaving organizations with greater capability, capacity and resilience. Although often asked to make presentations, Alice believes that engaging people in different forms of dialogue and deliberation is much more powerful and effective.

Alice’s work involves the strengthening of leadership throughout organizations or communities, and improving the generation and flow of knowledge across boundaries. It is frequently inspired by principles and examples from natural systems. One of her areas of interest and expertise is the design of learning environments where people build their knowledge, confidence, and skills for work with complexity.

Her specialties include:

  • knowledge management
  • leadership development (especially for complex work)
  • qualitative research to help organizations better understand key issues
  • communities of practice
  • park and environmental management
  • organizational culture
  • organizational development
  • application of complexity thinking and natural systems principles to organizations

Alice and I got to know each other virtually through our blogs, tweets, and communities. I first met her in person in June, 2008 in Fairfax, Virginia. Here is a photo that she took of John Hovell and me on that occasion, when I presented to Mantech on authentic leadership. She traveled there from Canada to interview me as part of the research for her PhD dissertation, Perceptions and Uses of Boundaries by Respected Leaders: a Transdisciplinary Inquiry.


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Alice helps people in organizations and communities gain new insights, adapt to changing environments, lead and learn. One of the key ways in which she does this is to use principles from nature. Without even realizing it, we have adopted terms, phrases and habits that are very machine-like. They once served a purpose, but in most modern work contexts, they cause harm. They can dehumanize staff, kill innovation, and hamper learning.

A more ecosystem-like workplace can have many benefits. Connections among the groups you care about, such as employees, departments, clients, customers, suppliers, and citizens are recognized and enriched. Ideas can flow through many conduits. If an employee leaves, the system can repair itself more easily. Leadership can emerge as needed. Shifts in the environment bring many existing ideas to the surface. People and their knowledge are respected and work becomes more interesting and rewarding.

During her doctoral studies, Alice worked with leaders in all sectors who were mastering these new, more organic forms of working. Her PhD is in systems from Fielding Graduate University, which specializes in human and organizational development. Alice also has degrees in leadership and in human development. She began her post-secondary studies in biology to complement her work with natural systems in three major government organizations. Alice has worked with public, private and not for profit organizations, has published several papers and book chapters, and speaks at international conferences.

Almost all of the research, consulting and teaching relates to work with knowledge and the related development of leadership in our modern, increasingly complex work environments. Knowledge is the most valuable asset in many organizations. We are gradually learning that skills with the creation, acquisition, sharing and use of knowledge are critical for survival, growth and progress. Alice’s work in this area influenced being chosen by MindTouch as one of the Top 10 Knowledge Management Influencers.

Alice always tries to have one foot in the world of practice and the other in the world of scholarship. She graduated from secondary school at 16, but it was many years before she went back to formal education and did so to be a better practitioner. Alice’s background is eclectic, but there are themes that flow through almost everything:

  • appreciation of the natural world
  • belief in the use of powerful questions
  • deep interest in leadership, including leadership as an emergent property
  • passion for understanding how groups acquire, develop, share and use knowledge
  • commitment to ways of working effectively and fairly in a complex and rapidly changing world
  • Fielding Graduate University
  1. PhD, Human and Organizational Systems, 2004–2009
  2. Certificate, Dialogue, Deliberation & Public Engagement, 2007–2008
  3. MA, Human Development, 2004–2005
  • Royal Roads University, MA, Leadership, 1998–2000
  • Athabasca University, BGS, education and environmental management, 1992–1998


I would say that BI greatly impacted KM but not the reverse. We did use a few home grown KM-like techniques in the BI project (similar to Action Reviews and Peer Assists), but the BI work was the catalyst for people from different fields and organizations sitting down and talking in depth when they hadn’t before. We didn’t map social networks, but the changes in knowledge flow were dramatic.

Instead of a sort of contradictory, one-upmanship, zero sum kind of process for land management decisions, the ad hoc reporting from the BI tool (Oracle Discoverer at that time) prompted people to:

  1. share new knowledge
  2. agree or disagree with the increasingly refined priority lists generated through BI
  3. justify decisions
  4. collaborate in their implementation


Book Reviews


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  1. Table of Contents and Summary
  2. Chapter 1: Cultural context — A complex whole
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  1. Table of Contents and summary
  2. Chapter 7: Knowledge leadership on the edge
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Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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