From the beginning

February 22, 2011

Looking back over my notes and doodlings, I spent a lot of time at first in exploring the domains. I looked both within the domains and at various combinations of domains. These initial, fumbled attempts to uncover what makes knowledge simple, complex and so on are a natural part of learning. Simply put, knowledge is build up from many observations. Within the Cynefin framework, my early attempts were akin to what Cynthia Kurtz describes as “contextualization” – looking at the domain boundaries – in her “Wisdom of Clouds” article (1). She describes the investigation within a single domain as a “mini-contextualization” while Dave describes this inner view as an “ontological state.” Without a background in philosophy I have found Cynthia’s explanations somewhat easier to follow.

I found a number of interesting patterns in my experiments. These patterns are useful for orientation, but it seems that most of them do hold up well under scrutiny. The boundaries between adjacent domains are more porous than they seem (2), and naïve attempts to argue have not held up in discussions with Dave and others. Only one observed pattern survived – you can’t cross on the diagonal!

To put this into a rule form, we cannot move from the simple to the complex by jumping over or tunneling through disorder. We can only approach the complex through the complicated or chaotic domains. In a similar way, we cannot move from the chaotic domain of experimentation to the complicated domain of theory (science) without regard for (simple) empirical data or (complex) phronesis.

The disordered domain is more powerful than we think and we may tend to deemphasize it when we think about knowledge management and knowledge flows. We may need to look more deeply at bureaucracy to begin to appreciate the power that disorder exerts.


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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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