ASHEN reused

December 23, 2020

Philip swinburn vS7LVkPyXJU unsplashOne of the purposes of ASHEN was to change the way we talk about knowledge retention.  Instead of saying What will we do if X leaves the organisation we can instead say How do we replace the combination of artefacts, skills, heuristics, experience and natural talent that X brought to the organisation.  It also allows a better sense of the level of vulnerability to loss.  If the balance is towards artifacts and skills then we are at less risk than if the balance is towards experience and natural talent.  The sequencing of the ASHEN aspects is important.  One of the other uses of ASHEN in knowledge mapping was to challenge the idea that all of the knowledge could be codified.  In the early days of knowledge management, it was common for people to justify significant expenditure on codification/digitisation of knowledge on the basis that the companies’ knowledge assets walked out of the door overnight.  A few of us argued it might be a lot cheaper to focus on getting them to walk back in the next day.  As a part of its use in knowledge mapping and the generation of knowledge projects it also focused people on the need for apprenticeships and the like.  So ASHEN as a perspective question could be used at a very simple level in conversation or in more sophisticated strategy engagements.

A couple of days ago, in conversation with Hannes and Anne we realised it had a wider use in the context of understanding leadership.  Long term readers of this blog will know the I find the whole idea of leadership competencies (especially universal ones retrospectively fitted to ‘great’ leaders) pays insufficient attention to context and also confuses emergent properties with causes.  This is a strong tendency, even in people who engage with complex thinking.  They observe qualities present in leaders they admire and assume that those qualities if trained, will produce similar results.  It won’t do any harm per se.  This is a wider issue, for example in Agile where people want to adopt the Spotify Model even though Spotify will tell anyone who asks that there is no model, there is just the current manifestation of an evolving process.  Actions as ever speak louder than words and we can’t just programme a human to have certain values.

So how does ASHEN help?   Well, we come back to where I started.  I leader will need to have (or have access to) the use of artifacts (anything wo/man-made including things like spreadsheets as well as more conventional tools) and be able to deploy a range of skills.  If they know and can communicate a set of heuristics then they have a control mechanism, a type of enabling constraint of high utility.  The experience starts to become more significant.  I remember when I decided to go on the General Manager development programme in Datasolve I had to first gain a year’s of experience in sales, production, and support before I was eligible.  Once you have lived a job for a year you see things in a very different way than if you only know about them in the abstract.  During the days of Scientific Management people were generally developed through a series of apprenticeships acquiring experience as they go.  Now it is not uncommon for someone to get a BA in Business Studies, followed by an MBA in an elite company before joining a major consultancy company and slipping sideways into a CEO role.  They have no experience to understand the context so their management ends up based on spreadsheets and explicit processes rather than judgment.  Natural talent will always be a factor and we have to learn that some people are simply gifted in different areas of human activity than others.  No one has a problem understanding this in sports or the art world so why they don’t get it in management I will never understand.

So this gives us some interesting ways of thinking differently about leadership.  Learning how to use artifacts and acquiring skills is the easiest aspect and the leader does not need to be the performer if one or more of their inner team can do the work for them.  I’m leaning here crews, where roles and role interactions are defined, and while there will always be a pilot on a plane, who the pilot is can change.  Heuristics stand a little apart here, but training leaders to use them and illustrate them with stories from their own experience has utility.  When we get to the experience we can look at defining a minimal viable range and then map additional experience needed that the leader can acquire directly or vicariously via core members.  Experience may also trigger different types of delegation.  Natural talent provides a base starting point, a certain level will always be needed and it is either there or not, but some will possess it more naturally and with less effort.  An interesting twist here, those who are not in the top layer may outperform those who are by simply working harder.

Things like adult maturity models, whose use in leadership theory I have always found dubious, may now have utility within the context of E and N if not ASH. Mind you experience may be just that, it may not require maturity per se, although that may arise from it.  We can use different tools and techniques for different aspects of the leadership function and overall this will link in with the typology of roles I started to define in my earlier post on entangled trios.  Those can also provide a support structure in which the named leader is a nexus point rather than the be-all and end-all of things.  By using ASHEN in the context of the leader’s immediate support network we can see that changing over time based on the leader’s own development.

I need to write more on this including some detailed mapping of what it means for leadership development and I may do that tomorrow, but it is more likely to be after the new year.


Banner picture is from  Lectures on Human Nature, a book cover illustration by an unknown artist referencing Prof. W.G Alexander used under a creative commons license

Carpenters tool bench from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum is by Philip Swinburn on Unsplash



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