Create contrast, enable insight

June 11, 2014

A long day, starting with an early morning alarm to make the 0701 from Swindon and ending up with a late night arrival in Trieste for State of the Net 2014 of which more over the next few days.  The reason for the early morning train was to give the opening keynote at KM UK.  David Gurteen opened the event as Chairman by referencing the fact that this was the eleventh year at the conference.  I started my keynote (available as a podcast) by referencing my surprise that this was the eleventh year at which I have given a keynote at the event and that in that time I had seen three cycles of knowledge management adoption with the same mistakes being made each time.  The opening minutes of the podcast will give you my views about that.

One of the main points I made, and the purpose of this post, was the need to work with reality, to manage the evolutionary potential of the present rather than starting with an idealised statement of how things should be.  That meant I ran through the complex domain of Cynefin making the point about the need to start a programme with safe-to-fail experiments and the need to understand the existing flow patterns of knowledge use in the organisation.  That means two key outputs which fortunately are part of the same process.

  • Mapping how decisions are made within the organisation, and how information flows between those decisions together with resources used.
  • Building a portfolio of knowledge projects which are mapped in turn against things that keep current senior decision makers awake at nights.

The process of creating both of those is technique we teach on day three of the training programme (not to late to book any of the stand alone one day sessions next week in London by the way, there are a couple of places left on most days).  It can be run as a consultancy exercise, or at wider scale & more objectivity/persuasive power with SenseMaker®.  The latter approach means that your knowledge mapping exercise also creates a first narrative based knowledge system which is a side benefit.    I describe it briefly in the keynote but the key point about the decision map is that it is built bottom up.  The process is pretty simple:

  1. Identify by engaging as many people as possible (with SenseMaker® that can be everyone) in identifying the decisions then make on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.  Ideally this is done by self-journaling but it can be a more conventional questionnaire or interview process.
  2. For each decision ask the decision maker what information is used to make the decision and how its communicated, then find out what resources are used to facilitate those decisions.
  3. The decisions are then clustered and the information flows connected (workshop and/or consultancy exercise).  You frequently find that there are hanging links – information out from one decision does not connect to information in on another or an end point.  If this is the case you go hunting!
  4. You end up with a messy flow diagram that can be tidied up in concept mapping software.  It does however represent the reality of what happens in the organisation.
  5. Then, and only then do you contrast the messy flow with the formal process map of how things should be that most post-BPR organisations have.    In many years of doing this I've yet to see any major conformance; reality has met the ideal and the message is rarely comfortable but it does create the ah ha moments that explain anomalies at a senior level.

Now this contrast is key to allowing senior executives to see things for themselves, it also urgent knowledge projects to be defined to close the gap.  A choice is always made then between conforming the actual to the real, the real to the actual or something between the two.   At the same time the decision clusters allow key knowledge to be identified and then the dependency of the organisation to be mapped into a portfolio of projects.  More on that in a future post (stages 6 plus) as the overall method is undergoing revision and greater formalisation to accommodate the wider capabilities provided by SenseMaker® so watch this space (or book in for next Wednesday).  It is one of the first formal methods I created over two decades ago and the utility is undiminished by the passage of time.

The main point of all of this is to create a contrast, or gradient of meaning to lapse into specialist language for a moment.  Contrasts enable insight, and insight based on descriptive self-awareness.  People are far more likely to change if they can see something for themselves and this method does that.  Another of those key complexity principles, change the gradient and the system changes.  Its consultancy guided by heuristics and principles not a recipe; an artisan approach not a manufacturing one.  The artisan creates unique and contextually appropriate solutions, manufacturing standard product is too compromised for the nuances of effective knowledge management.



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About the Cynefin Company

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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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