Sense-Making and Knowledge Management

Dave Snowden, of Cognitive Edge, laid out the most thought-provoking session I have heard on knowledge management. (My head is still sore from trying to assimilate his presentation. ) He is posting his podcast of the session and the slides from his presentation.

Dave espoused his theory on naturalizing sense-making. We should focus on how we make sense of the world so we can act in it. Knowledge management should be about decision-making and innovation.

He takes the position that knowledge management lost the battle and is becoming a subset of IT. He is seeing a revival of knowledge management because of the Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 technologies. He thinks there will be much more success working on fragmented information rather than structured information. People like a mess. Put too much structure around information and people lose their place.

I have to agree with him. Whenever I hear someone talking about a KM system, I shudder. Knowledge management needs to be built into and latch onto a person’s regular workflow. You can ask them to make some changes to what they do so that information is better captured. But you better offer them lots of concrete, easy to show benefits for changing their workflow.

Dave moved onto systems theory, talking about ordered systems, chaotic systems and complex systems. With an ordered system, the system constrains agent behavior so with a particular input, you can expect the output. With a chaotic system there is no agent constraints resulting in turbulent and unstable process. But, with the use of statistics and probabilities, it can give you a predicted outcome. In a complex system, the agent constrains the system and the system constrains the agent. These two-way constraints make it harder to handle than the chaotic system. It is also highly sensitive to starting conditions and cannot be broken into simpler subsystems.

He used planning a kid’s birthday party as a metaphor for various management theories and how they relate to these three different kinds of systems. First being uncontrolled management, which is just giving the kids a few bottles and let them run free until the house burns down. Second, he moved onto a structured management approach, starting with a PowerPoint presentation to the party-goers with a set of goals for each attendee to achieve and various incentives for them achieving the proscribed milestones of happiness. (Listen to the podcast; he’s much funnier than I am.) Lastly, we moved onto the complex system. You use a few strict ground rules to limit behavior, throw in a few activities and adjust activities to the behavior. This is easier to manage and how people actual act and react to their environment.

Dave moved onto a session about pattern recognition. The slides showed a sets of dots, the lines you can make with the dots and various patterns you can make from these various lines. As the number of dots increase the number of possible patterns increases by many magnitudes. The lesson was that hindsight can be 20/20, but is highly unreliable to predict future behavior. Seeing all the data points, with the outcome in front of you , it easy to see how the data showed the future behavior. But those data points could lead to a multitude of possible outcomes.

He also did an experiment with a group of people passing basketballs. Our assignment was to count how many times the people in the white shirts passed a basketball. The video had three people in white shirts and three people in black shirts moving around quickly passing several basketballs. Dave then asked the audience how many passes we saw from the white team. Then, to the surprise of most members of the audience, he asked who saw the gorilla. Replaying the video, someone in a black gorilla suit walks right through the group passing basketballs. In hindsight the gorilla was obvious, but the audience was focused on other data.

Humans are built for pattern recognition and pattern matching influence, not information processes. People do not remember the same thing twice, because we are never presented with exactly the same set of circumstances. People have fragmented memories, blending multiple patterns to reach decisions. People scan a small percentage of the information presented to them and match it to remembered patterns.

Failure leaves a stronger impression than success. People are more afraid of failure than they enjoy rewards of success. We need to be sure to capture the lessons from our failures as much as we capture the lessons from our successes.

Dave finds narratives to have more impact than databases or lengthy best-practices manuals. He finds that when people hear patterns this creates pattern recognition. Fragmenting information into narratives is better than the big bang approach of a full size manual.

Knowledge Management should embrace social computing. He finds the messiness of it along with the narrative and flow of knowledge as a more effective way of conveying knowledge to one big overarching database.

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