In uncertainty lies resilience

February 23, 2017

This post is illustrated with Body of Knowledge, a steel sculpture created in 2010 by Jaume Plensa, located at the Westend Campus of Goethe University Frankfurt. From my perspective it represents knowledge as ephemeral collection of unchanging text; an androgynous form that provides a semblance of humanity at best. Ironically the search which produced this also throw up Rodin’s Le Penseur which has greater solidity. Yesterday I talked about knowledge in the context of mountain safety, both theoretical knowledge of what to do, and practical experience of when to do it. In the river crossing I mentioned I was encountering severe conditions for the first time, but I knew what to do and was with others who also knew without the need to make things explicit in the context of need. The wider knowledge not to get into that particular set of circumstances was more complex, fragmented and blended from multiple experiences, readings, conversations, failures, stories of failures and so on. In other words it was messy but coherent and enabled capability.

Now contrast that with the explicit content focus of what normally goes under the title body of knowledge. Wikipedia as of today defines it as: A body of knowledge (BOK or BoK) is the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a professional domain, as defined by the relevant learned society or professional association. The focus again is on text, on material which is written down and agreed through a consensus based process. Now don’t get me wrong, this has utility. I linked yesterday too a simple guide on how to cross rivers which is written with a few illustrative pictures; it has utility. I the absence of anything else it is better than nothing. In cross in that river I hadn’t faced exactly the same circumstances but I had partial and related experience and I had confidence in those who were with me. We had walked and talked for several hours, we had swapped stories and their practice in descending the ridge provided evidence of competence. Out body of knowledge was not just our own experience, but the links with other similar experience in others, a recognition of common shared experience.

Now that experience is not unique to those whom I or the others encountered. We are part of a flow of such experiences over a long period of time. We see this in all professions. The knowledge that allows an operating theatre to work is not just the training of those participants, but it is the accumulation of knowledge and procedures over several generations. A body of experience of failure and learning within the constraints of theory, that develops pragmatic capability. The whole idea of Cynefin as a concept, independently of the explicit representation in my framework, is that we live in a flow of knowledge and experience over time which we can only possibly understand in part, as through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). The danger in the various bodies of knowledge is that they seek to make explicit what can never be fully understood explicitly and the rendering if knowledge results in loss that may not be retrieved.

In various conversations this week I’ve talked about the need to map dark constraints, or rather the evidence of dark constraints, before you make changes. Most Bodies of Knowledge I have encounter focus on simplistic rendering avoiding the inconvenient truths of knowledge which has evolved over time. Just as people think they can render a culture into a set of platitudes in a value statement, when real culture is evolved practice over time, not fully understood and never fully articulated. In uncertainty lies resilience ….

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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.

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


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