… forever blunt and merciless

November 10, 2011

There was a speaker panel at KM World with myself, Verna Allie & Bob Buckman, chaired by Patrick Lambe. All good friends, but I was at a disadvantage as I was on a skype connection that was shall we say, intermittent at best. They also chose to represent by virtual presence by a glitter strewn purple pumpkin by way of additional containment; I think I would have preferred not to know, and I know I would have preferred not to see the picture. So in the spirit of self-morification I publish it here. I also did another session where I recorded a series of clips taking science fiction novels (Asimov, Herbert, Stephenson etc) and used them to create a lesson about KM. Those were recorded and my colleague Michael Cheveldave used them to stimulate conversation on the day. A combination which appears to have worked well. Given that the very least they could have done is represent me as a Bene Gessert (OK I know I am the wrong sex, but I like the witches) rather than a goddamn pumpkin!

My job today is to pick up on yesterday’s post which was described on twitter as forever blunt and merciless. I took that as a compliment and retweeted it as well as using it as the title of this post. I also used the picture of Homer’s brain to indicate the lack of recognition for human intelligence in most KM programmes. So what should be done differently? Well one effect of four keynotes and ten city lecture tour is that you refine your ideas while paradoxically flexing the lecture for different groups. So what needs to be done differently? Well for starters the last thing we need is a recipe based approach, instead we need some principles to apply to create contextually relevant and local solutions. Practice without sound theory will never scale. That is what I have been trying to do on this tour and I’ve argued this around where I think KM should focus.

Note to regular readers I have added a third in the last year to the original two.

What is the function of KM?

  • Firstly, to support effective decision making. That has historically been regarded as getting the right information at the right time to the right people who also have the right training. Now the multiple “right” statements starts in supply chain logistics and stands for products but its inadequate for decision support. Sometime ago during an extended project with Gary Klein in Singapore I came up with the See-Attend-Act model of sense-making. Whether I physically see data that is presented to me is one issue (and normally we scan out what we are not expecting to see), if I pay attention to it even if I see it is another process altogether and acting on what I see is a different level of magnitude all together. Good screen design can trigger attention by focusing on outliers, triggering the right patterns etc. but leading to action is harder. Self discovery counts there, but also trust validation within human networks is key. If someone I trust suggests I look at something then I do, if someone I trust asks me to take a second look I will. Get the picture? Its not enough to manage the information system, you have to manage the ecology of knowledge flow within an organisation.
  • Secondly, we need to create the conditions for innovation. Now critically that means that we need to focus on a degree of inefficiency. Innovation never happens within a formal highly efficient system. Yes, when the informal system makes the bureaucracy work despite itself you get considerable innovation. However this is generally invisible to the formal system. A key concept in evolutionary biology is exaption. Adaption (the more familiar word) is where a trait develops for a specific purpose, but then accidentally gets used for something else instead which proves more advantageous. Brian Arthur in a brilliant book, shows the degree to which technology innovation depends on exaption rather than adaption. My favorite example is the way Apple took technology deign to detect movement (in order to life the heads from your hard disk) to create screens that re-orientated according to their position. That got a lot more money, but it was not a defined need, it was a finding a new or novel use. Managing for exaption requires a degree of mess, something that the sick staggered will find it difficult to comprehend.
  • Thirdly, knowledge management is all about communication and that doesn’t just meant the top down focus that is all too common place, although it does permit it. Dealing with uncertainty often focus on things like values and mission statements. However riting your values down means that you have just lost them. All you have done is teach people the language of power and it will come back to you in slide presentations and proposals. The Bible teaches through parables, stories that carry necessary ambiguity and hence adaptability but you can’t talk your way out of their message. This is the key switch from managing rule base cultures, to enabling an ideation culture. That means understanding the micro-narratives of day to day conversations, sensing the evolutionary potential of the system. It can also involve the use of metaphor. Like the parables referenced above, metaphors carry with them essential ambiguity and adaptability which paradoxically allows them to me more precise in day to day communication both up and down. Narrative is a broad field that too many people seek to narrow and its a lot more sophisticated in both theory and practice than many people would have you believe. Its also about how we use technology to link and connect people in different ways

Moving forwards

I’ve been making the strong point that effective knowledge management follows the basic heuristics of a complexity based intervention. Those are finely grained objects, distributed cognition and disintermediation. The great thing about social computing is that is satisfies all three, but lacks sufficient constraint to move into an organisational environment unaltered. I’ve been talking a lot about social computing and those heuristics over the last few weeks and plan to create a posting on each in the context of knowledge management and learning next week. I have other goals this weekend.

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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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