When the boundaries blur

November 7, 2012

Day two of KM Asia opens with a keynote by yours truly – both days which is a compliment and a chance to build on some of the stuff I raised yesterday.  The slides for both along with a podcast for the second can be found in the Library section of our web site.

I opened with the picture of a swan on the River Thames last January, the temperature was below zero and the light as a result produced some fantastic effects.  The point I was trying to make was the need to understand the importance of context.   Its not necessarily the swan's colour per se, but the background against which we see the swan.   

There is much talk of swans in the foresight community these days.  In particular the ubiquitous use of Black Swan to represent things that happen that surprise us and have a major impact on our view of the world, or of the world itself.  Popularised by Taleb I remain given by background in philosophy, uncomfortable with the word if not the concept.  Black swans after all surprised no one, it was a simple example of a category error given by Popper in a lecture.  But popular, or common use (to reference wikipedia) has to be accepted so I will lock away my indignation with that for people who use methodology when they mean method.  Methdology is the, like other ologies, the study of methods.  

Mind you the number of different coloured swans has expanded, showing clear evidence of the intense need for simple categories that prevails strategic thinking.  I would say we need more shades of grey but that might be taken the wrong way these days.   To illustrate the point, at one Singapore Ministry I saw a poster with Dirty white, Red & Grey swans to add to the black and white variations, not to mention a Black Turkey.  More on that next week as its given me an idea for a sub-domain model on the complex-complicated boundary of Cynefin; but I need to work that up before publishing.

So back to context, the long neglected aspect of knowledge management.   I think I first said that in 1994 by the way, but its not an easy thing for people to grasp.  Nisbett's experiments which showed that American students tend to focus on objects in a picture, while Chinese students flick more between object and background with an emphasis on background (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August Vol. 102, No. 35, pages 12,629-12,633).  I've run Nisbett's Cow-Chicken-Grass experiment many times (and wished I had recorded results so that I could get a paper out) and the pattern he found is consistent, but with some variant.  Northern Europeans and Americans tend to see grass as the odd one out, while Asians, Southern Europeans, Celts and Africans choose Chicken.  One is thinking in categories, the other in terms of relationships.   Personally I think both of these are linked to language and cultural differences that have had enough time to impact on biology:  pictorial languages such as Mandarin require greater awareness of context;  tribal cultures think more in terms of relationships.

You don't have to go far in KM to find examples of a natural tendency to categorise things  Swans are just the tip of the iceberg (to mix metaphors).  Taxonomies that have the same effect as its near homophone taxidermy; Communities of Practice for skill groups etc. etc.   Of course categorisation has value, but only when the boundaries are distinct, when the boundaries blur as they do for most human acts of knowing, its better to focus on relationships and interactions rather than categories.  Inter-actions between agents to a large part determine identity as any parent knows.  As your children hit puberty and your influence wanes, their friends will have a disproportionate influence on how they develop.  Humans are very sensitive to contextual adaptation, standing out from the crowd can be attractive but its evolutionary advantages are limited.    We see this in pattern entrainment.  If we have always seen things in a certain way then it will be very difficult for us to see when something unexpected happens; a point well illustrated by the basket ball video we use on Foundation Courses.

On the other hand a focus on interactions means that of its nature you are focused on changes.  Its also true that if you focus on managing interactions and connections between people that a lot of knowledge management will sort itself out.  Again a technique taught on our advanced courses (book now if you want to be taught by me before we move the course into 'production') is social network stimulation.   This technique focuses not on managing knowledge per se, but on getting everyone in the organisation to within three degrees of separation based on trust engendered by working together on intractable problems.  In the earlier referenced article, written many years ago, I argued for creating an ecology of informal communities (complex) that are swarmed or clustered into more formal communities as needed (complex to complicated).  Again a focus on managing context.  Towards the end of my presentation I referenced our work using landscapes that show both the overall pattern of interaction over time, but which also bring the attention of decision makers to outlier events wherein lie threat and opportunity.

We need to emphasise managing flows, not things an adage that applies as much to strategic insight as it does to knowledge management.  And wouldn't it be nice if the latter could have some effect on the former.


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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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