Search for Cynefin equivalents (and its history)

December 26, 2006

As I have travelled around the world and presented the Cynefin framework various people have given me the equivalent word from their own languages. Foolishly I failed to write them down at the time so I am appealing here for people to sumbit them by way of comment or email. I know that many of the definitions also include stories or poems, as, like Cynefin itself, the words define direct defintion. Any such stories would also be appreciated. I know that equivalents exist in Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Zulu, Maori and a range of Aboriginal Languages in both North American and Australia, and that’s from my limited memory.

The meaning of Cynefin is best defined to my view by Sinclair’s introduction to Kyffin Williams The Land and the Sea. I included the key text when I defined the Cynefin framework for the first time back in 2000. I wrote:

Cynefin (pronounced cun-ev-in) is a Welsh word with no direct equivalent in English. As a noun it is translated as habitat, as an adjective acquainted or familiar, but dictionary definitions fail to do it justice. A better, and more poetic, definition comes from the introduction to a collection of paintings by Kyffin Williams, an artist whose use of oils creates a new awareness of the mountains of his native land and their relationship to the spirituality of its people: “It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.” . It differs from the Japanese concept of Ba, which is a “shared space for emerging relationships” (Nonaka & Konno 1998) in that it links a community into its shared history – or histories – in a way that paradoxically both limits the perception of that community while enabling an instinctive and intuitive ability to adapt to conditions of profound uncertainty. In general, if a community is not physically, temporally and spiritually rooted, then it is alienated from its environment and will focus on survival rather than creativity and collaboration.

For those who don’t know the origin of my use of the word, it can be traced back to the year 2000 when I was scheduled to debate with Nonaka at the University of Aston (it didn’t happen but I prepared for it). I had been uncomfortable with the SECI model for some time. In my more polemical moods I call it The model that launched a thousand failed knowledge management initiatives and I still hold to that opinion. The model became BA in a later article and I decided that if Japanese authors could use Japanese words with semi-0mystical significance then there was no reason why a welsh author could not to the same.

My mother, knowing by love for the works of Kyffin WIlliams had bought be the book for the previous Christmas and I was reading through it at the same as preparing the lecture and associated paper. I read the above quoted paragraph, dived into my Welsh-English dictionary and had several conversations with native Welsh speakers and finally settled on the name.

It has subsequently been a tale that has grown in the telling and the model is much cited. I got a call back in 2003 from the Welsh Language Board. They had been in Washington DC and come accross the model at Government meeting there and wanted to know how welsh was being propagated in the context of anti-terrorism programs for the US Government. I never made up my mind as to whether they were pleased or upset by my use by the way.

So if you know the equivalents – please help!

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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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