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KM Europe 2003: Dave Snowden

November 18, 2003 :: by Lee 4 responses  

Dave Snowden sees Knowledge Management as the latest in a sequence of management practice trends (Ford, Taylor, TQM, BPR IT-led KM) that sees organisations as feats of engineering, which can be broken down into their component parts by stripping away non-essential elements to "create the perfect machine". It has been concerned with rules, which try to cover every eventuality, rather than heuristics, which are broadly applicable guidelines that do not necessarily apply consistently across different contexts. This means that many KM initiatives have been obsessed with capturing "best practice" and encouraging others to copy it, which Snowden sees as reflecting the field's US roots. Further, he makes a strong case that "best practice" management is a fundamentally flawed approach that prevents innovation and this thinking lies behind many of the most catastrophic corporate failures in recent history.

The ideas of Tom Peters and Peter Senge and the fields of organisational learning and systems thinking were a reaction to this mechanical approach, but they did not challenge the basic idea that the "designer" can stand outside a system and create processes that can be applied to an organisation's workforce.

Snowden believes Knowledge Management has not kept pace with changes in the way we understand our world. Ideas relating to complexity theory, systems thinking, emergence, chaos and tipping points between conditions of stability and turbulence have changed the way that we think about organisations and communities, and the notion of social complexity has gained currency as a way of understanding human behaviour.

He talks about a "landscape of [knowledge] management", which includes:

  • Content management - managing what can be captured in documents

  • Narrative management - managing what can be shared verbally between people

  • Context management - managing the environment in which these interactions take place

Snowden sees much of our current knowledge management practice as being locked into content management, and this certainly reflects the focus of software vendors who paid to exhibit their products at the KM Europe 2003 conference. For some time he has been arguing for greater focus on narrative management as a tool for knowledge sharing, but more recently he has also become increasingly interested in context management as well. This area encompasses ideas concerning social complexity, which draws on analysis of natural systems, such as ant colonies, flocking birds and meteorology to elicit simple underlying rules that govern the environment yet are sometimes hidden behind apparently "un-ordered" patterns. Social complexity ideas see human order as an emergent property of essentially complex systems. However, this kind of analysis can only produce retrospective coherence; it cannot predict the future. We can reverse engineer the interactions of water molecules and temperature that created the pattern of an individual snowflake, but we cannot predict what the pattern of the next flake will be.

In fact, he argues, we differ from ants in that we are not driven exclusively by the rules that control their behaviour: we have free will and can decide to be ordered according to man-made rules; plus, we are able to transfer knowledge across generations via religion, history and so on. We can also construct and use multiple identities. In order to survive and thrive within conditions of complexity, Snowden believes we are all engaged in a constant process of sense-making, where we try to find the best available explanation for something based on previous experience rather than the perfect logical solution. This is why he favours "narrative management" and story-telling as more appropriate vehicles for knowledge sharing than replicating best practice.

Conventional Knowledge Management has been too concerned with codifying explicit knowledge to aid replication, and with using categorisation (where we construct data around a framework), rather than exploration (where we construct frameworks around the data). Snowden thinks that innovation springs from emergence in complex systems, which means that we should be "managing for serendipity" by creating the conditions for creative innovation to emerge. He sees categorisation as particularly dangerous because of our inate tendency to force new data into old models, even when it does not fit.
This does not mean that we cannot influence the course of events beyond some pruning and tidying up of the ecology in which knowledge sharing takes place. Snowden is interested in how boundaries and attractors can be created, modified or removed to intervene in complex social systems in order to make desired outcomes more likely.

Boundaries can be:

  • permeable (can be crossed, but you know you have crossed it)

  • rigid (cannot be crossed but when it breaks it shatters)

  • elastic (bends to accomodate change, but reaches rigidity at a certain point)

Attractors can be:

  • single point (e.g. sole leader)

  • multi-point (e.g. oscillation between coordinating nodes; more stable than a single point)

  • strange attractors (e.g. the weather)

Snowden contrasts the mechanical approach to organisational management, which seeks to maximise efficiency by stripping systems down to their bare essentials, with organic approaches that can maximise the effectiveness of a system even though its individual agents may be operating sub-optimally. However, rather than throw up our hands and accept the anarchy of completely self-organising systems, Snowden argues that we can enjoy the benefits of emergent systems whilst also exercising some degree of control through the manipulation of boundaries and attractors.

If this is of interest, please read Dave Snowden's presentation Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World for a more detailed exposition of these ideas.


What do you think?

Mathemagenic linked here on November 18, 2003 02:23 PM
This is the growing list of other weblogs posts on "KM Europe" (see also conference presentations online ).
Ton's Interdependent Thoughts linked here on November 19, 2003 07:25 PM
At the KM in Europe conference I went to Dave Snowdens keynote presentation. The presentation sadly is not available for download from the KM in Europe website, this paper on Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World (pdf format),...
Headshift linked here on May 8, 2006 12:37 PM
KM Europe 2003 took place last week - here are some notes, reflections and links to presentations
Headshift linked here on May 9, 2006 03:39 PM
Dave Snowden gave a fascinating insight into new thinking around influencing change in complex systems such as the NHS in an online seminar for an invited audience on May 19.


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