Reflections on a journey

September 18, 2007

Sonja speaking: I was first introduced to Dave and the then Cynefin set of methods around 4 years ago when the first practitioner training took place. Back then I was still working for IBM, and it was an uphill battle to find any projects to work on. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to do some really interesting work, specifically in the financial sector. Last year I struck out on my own, and I’ve never looked back. Prophets of doom in IBM said that the application of complexity and narrative in business would never be a sustainable business model, but I’m happy to report they were proven wrong! I recently started a new company together with 2 other practitioners, one of which, Aiden Choles will be blogging with me (Sonja) this week. We are the official Cognitive Edge accreditation partners in South Africa, and therefore have a good understanding of Cognitive Edge related activities. In this first entry, we’d like to reflect on the journey of building a Cognitive Edge network and capability in South Africa.

We started out with a single client, Absa bank. We successfully completed several interesting and innovative projects for them including a narrative enquiry to understand customer experience, a narrative culture survey and a comprehensive knowledge strategy. The very first project was pre-hypothesis research to determine the best way for them to enter the unbanked mass market, they subsequently went on to become market leaders in this space, partly based on insights gained from the outputs of this project. Since then, we’ve engaged with several other clients including a parastatal scientific research group, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a large Mobile Telecomms company and several other banks. We also have a network of approximately 70 accredited practitioners, many of which have gone on to run successful projects within their organisations.

Recently we’ve noticed a distinct shift in the market with regards to perceptions around the value of these ‘weird and fluffy’ (not my words) approaches. In the past it was extremely difficult to sell Cognitive Edge based projects. Since the middle of 2006, there has been a positive shift in the way that executives react when they are introduced to these approaches. This is especially true in the mining industry. At first glance one wouldn’t think that such a ‘hard’ industry would be interested in such a ‘soft’ approach, but now that we’ve engaged with these companies we’ve come to realize that they face tremendously complex issues.

Our most recent project was with a large Gold Mining concern. We conducted a narrative based culture audit in the supply chain, and I must say, this has been one of the more interesting projects I’ve done to date. For example, we had to adapt the methods to accommodate different levels of literacy as well as multiple languages. This project is nearing conclusion now, and over the next week Aiden and I will be reflecting on the process, as well as the learnings we’ve gleaned through this process. We hope that these will be of value to other practitioners in the network as well.

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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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