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), however might serve as an alternative. The illustrations used in this article are the same as used in the keynote.

Several people also have blogged about Dave Snowden like Lilia Efimova, Lee Bryant, or thoughts on this by John Moore and Paul Goodison, and Ian Glendinning over on Psybertron.

Dave Snowden is a well experienced presenter and does this with a lot of humour and storytelling. That makes listening easy but might trick you into thinking you understand what he’s getting at. Looking through my notes I find that I need to read a lot more to get my head around all this. But having seen and heard the man will probably help reading his texts, as Lilia already pointed out. Below are some not overly coherent picks from my notes.

Title Complex Knowledge
General quotes
Nonaka is the worst that could have happened to KM, because of it’s tacit to explicit assumptions and reducing KM to steering on a 2 by 2 where the good stuff is always in the right hand top quadrant.
Best practice is useless, we only learn from worst practice. Trying to copy the best others have done amounts to ignoring context of both place and time, and reduces you to copying which in its turn is the death of innovation.
Communities of practice too often try to formalize the informal, which is why they fail and end up killing the natural community they were meant to strengthen.

Dave Snowden works for Cynefin which is Welsh for something like origin, place of belonging. The Welsh meaning is more nuanced and complex than that, and Dave translates it as “a place of multiple belongings”, which is the combined roots we have geographically, culturally, intellectually etc. It’s more the total of context we function in and stem from. We are all influenced, be it consciously or unconsciously, by this context, our Cynefin, but we cannot precisely name this influence. This introduces a zone of uncertainty from a managerial point of view.

The difference between the US and EU
Then followed a brief description of how Snowden sees the difference in European and American approaches to KM.
The American approach to KM is likely to be something like finding 3 cases, analyse them thoroughly and then advise people to copy the actions contained in the cases.
The European approach is more like this: Find 10 acknowledged experts, talk to them, conceptualize their input, and validate those concepts by questioning and application.
The European Union would do well to stop trying to catch up with the US by emulating them, and start celebrating and leveraging their diversity more. If we all are to achieve the aim of the EU becoming the worlds foremost knowledge economy by 2010 as set in the Lisbon Summit, I think we’d do well to follow this advice.

A brief history of management
1900-1985; “We can build the perfect machine” as organisational model. Designed from a to z, and based on (non-adaptable) rules. Process re-engineering, Total Quality Management are examples.
around 1985 – now; Tom Peters and Peter Senge introduce systems thinking to management. Heuristics in stead of rules. Recognition of diversity.
now; Time to recognize that emergence and complexity will have to be accomodated in our managerial approaches as well.
Snowden says to recognize there is a space for all of these approaches like process re-engineering and the learning organization. But we have to acknowledge the fact that there are borders to their field of applicability and usefulness.

Innovation and Complexity
The last 150 years of management we focussed completely on order and creating order. But we have to open up to the unordered complex spaces also, if we are to be able to innovate. Ordered innovational processes only lead to incremental innovation, and no true innovation. True innovation stems from serendipity, pickung up on emergent patterns in the unordered areas, comes in leaps and brings true learning.
In this unordered space we can use the concepts of boundaries and attractors from systems thinking. Look for emergent patterns (in your organisation and outside it) and introduce attractors to those you want to leverage more (and ultimately move over into more ordered spaces) and boundaries to those you don’t want.

I’m not representing Snowden presentation adequately nor coherently by a long shot. I have to mull over the concepts and read some more, and hopefully I’ll then be able to reflect better on this. I left out a lot of the presentation in this post for this reason, but you can find most of that in the article mentioned at the start.

Future projects of Cynefin
Interesting enough Cynefin will have projects on Culture in 2004, and on Trust in 2005. They work with a range of universities as well. I have to look into these projects, especially the one on Trust.
UPDATE: Ian Glendinning follows up with some links to interviews, but also to a set of slides, that resemble the ones used at KM in Europe.

3 reactions on “Keynote Dave Snowden

  1. Meanwhile, in the Far East Deming’s works were taken to heart, as were the techno-philosophy of Fuzzy Logic (Lotfi Zadeh). Both originated in the U.S., yet they are little used there.

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