Dave Snowden was the opening morning keynote speaker at KM Australia 2007 and presented on narrative and sensemaking. He emphasised that one of the problems with management and business strategy was the reliance on past performance and hindsight to predict the future. Hindsight cannot predict the future – the context is different and hindsight selects the important events after the events have passed, and not before. Similarly, simulation is not the same as prediction and correlation does not give causation.
Snowden explained how human decision-making is based on pattern recognition. Our brain sees multiple fragmented patterns assembled to fit our needs in particular contexts. In decison-making, our brain makes a first-fit pattern from which we act.
Snowden regards “messy” as normal, based on our fragment-based pattern recognition. By linking knowledge fragments within real time contexts, we will be far more likely to take action. Snowden favours in-action reviews – continuous capture of fragmented narrative-based learning, particularly the impact of negative experiences since negative experiences provide good lessons. He suggested we move away from similarity of knowledge experiences to fragmented knowledge (anecdotes and stories are good examples) that can be reassembled to fit new contexts.
Knowledge is very context dependant – exemplified by his New York story of using a map to get back to his hotel by commuter train late at night after a concert – the map gave good directions and established spatial knowledge but it completely failed to provide meaning as to the likelihood, in this case, of being mugged. Whilst Snowden’s New York associates later told him he was crazy to be walking around that area in the middle of the night, there was an erroneous assumption that one just knew that information and what it meant for map-holding, station-searching, tuxedo-dressed foreigners in unsavoury locales. Meaning is therefore significant and needs to be considered within any knowledge management framework. Knowledge and the use of knowledge is personal and individualised and highly context dependant.
Fundamentally, knowledge is shared according to need rather than in anticipation – a good point for content and knowledge managers wanting to capture everything and put it all into a database for the just-in-case someone may need it some day in the future scenario.
Snowden also emphasised that establishment of trust for successful knowledge sharing grows over time and best suits small-sized network groups [Etienne Wenger, who concluded the conference, disagreed about the size of groups having to be small to have trust, regarding a large community of practice as having the capability for good trusting relationships]. Snowden also commented that we should use the multiple tools within knowledge management and emphasised the fact that much of what we use is low cost and facilitated by interactions.
One key recommendation from Snowden was to switch from outcome-based measurement and evidence-based policy to actually measuring impact. He gave the example of the Slavery Museum in Liverpool (England) in which visitors record the impact of their experience of what they have seen and heard. The recordings are then tagged and become part of the museum itself [the new International Slavery Museum opens in Liverpool on 23rd August – check out some of the innovative, interactive activities already underway].
Snowden concluded his presentation emphasising the power and immediacy of the network – distributing cognition throughout a network rather than through the centre.
Having heard Dave Snowden present on a couple of previous occasions, I was still impressed with what he had to say and how he says it. Not everyone appreciates Snowden’s delivery but I like the confident, challenging quality and the thinking surrounding the talk. For me, the reaffirmation of context to knowledge management and learning was important. In addition, the emphasis on human complexity and the personal and individual nature of people within networks was a solid reminder on how critical connections can be in improving organisational performance. Lastly, the importance of in-action reviews is something I will look to use in future, having initiated and undertaken after-action reviews in my previous job.