Originally published on July 11, 2018

This is the 26th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Dave is a self-described “proud curmudgeon and pragmatic cynic” and the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge.

I have been quoting Dave in my blog since I started it in 2006. I first met him at KMWorld 2006, and have seen him there most years ever since. If you haven’t heard him in person, you should watch his videos and listen to his podcasts.


Currently working on the application of natural sciences to social systems thought the development of a range of methods and the SenseMaker software suite. Started work in an NGO post University and then moved onto HR & Training in the late 70s when he started working with computers. That together with a diploma from The Certified Accountants got him a job as Development Accountant in the same firm where he headed up the Treasury function and was responsible for computerization. An MBA in financial management saw him move into consultancy and software designing decision support systems in what became Data Sciences where he became a General Manager (creating MURCO) and the Corporate Business Development Manager where he created the Genus Program (and integration of JAD/RAD, Object Orientation and Legacy Management) which was one of the main components in the turnaround of that company. IBM acquired the company 1997 and after that his more public career started.


  • Sense making
  • Knowledge Management
  • Complexity Science applied to organizations
  • Narrative


  • Cognitive Edge — Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, 2004 — Present
  • Cynefin Centre IBM — Director, 2002–2004
  • IBM, Director Institute for Knowledge Management, 2000–2002
  • Data Sciences, 1984–1997


  • Middlesex University — MBA, Financial Management, 1985
  • Lancaster University — BA, Philosophy, 1975

Worked for Data Sciences Ltd from 1984 until January 1997. The company was acquired by IBM in 1996. The following year, set up IBM Global Services’s Knowledge and Differentiation Program.

While at IBM, researched the importance of storytelling within organizations, particularly in relation to expressing tacit knowledge. In 2000, became European director of the company’s Institute for Knowledge Management, and in 2002, founded the IBM Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity. During this period, led a team that developed the Cynefin framework, a decision-making tool.

Left IBM in 2004 and a year later founded Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd, a management-consulting firm based in Singapore. Associate professor extraordinaire at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, and honorary professor in the school of psychology at Bangor University.

Founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge. His work is international in nature and covers government and industry looking at complex issues relating to strategy, organizational decision making and decision making. He has pioneered a science-based approach to organizations drawing on anthropology, neuroscience and complex adaptive systems theory. He is a passionate speaker on a range of subjects, and is well known for his pragmatic cynicism and iconoclastic style.

He holds visiting Chairs at the Universities of Pretoria and Hong Kong Polytechnic University as well as a visiting fellowship at the University of Warwick. He is a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang University and the Civil Service College in Singapore.

He previously worked for IBM, where he was a Director of the Institute for Knowledge Management and founded the Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity. Prior to that he worked in a range of strategic and management roles in the service sector.


1. Cognitive Edge

2. A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making with Mary E. Boone

3. Volunteer not conscript

4. Complex acts of knowing: paradox and descriptive self-awareness

5. KMWorld: Everything is fragmented

  1. Ingenuity and co-evolution Posted June 01, 2009
  2. The art of “ritual dissent” Posted April 01, 2009
  3. An unusual, but effective idea Posted February 02, 2009 — Ten percent of most projects create 90 percent of the grief (change the percentages to suit your own experience), but you can handle that difficult portion using a technique known as social network stimulation.
  4. The core principles Posted January 02, 2009 — In an earlier column, I wrote about the science of complex adaptive systems (see Nov./Dec. 2008 KMWorld), which is a key piece of underlying theory to help us comprehend the increasingly interdependent and co-evolving worlds of knowledge management, social computing and learning.
  5. Complex adaptive systems at play Posted November 03, 2008
  6. Managed serendipity Posted September 29, 2008 — Technology developed for one application frequently becomes more useful for something unexpected. It’s called a freeloader in evolutionary psychology.
  7. Blog storming in six stages Posted August 31, 2008
  8. Building CoPs for knowledge flow Posted July 11, 2008 — As promised, I am presenting a step-by-step approach to a low-cost knowledge management (KM) program using social computing, and will focus on the functionality that has been touted but rarely delivered by communities of practice (CoPs).
  9. The safe-fail approach to KM Posted May 30, 2008
  10. Now, everything is fragmented Posted May 01, 2008

AOK Discussions

  1. January 2002: Third Generation KM: Separating Content, Narrative, Context

KM Generations

The first generation of knowledge management is the period prior to 1995. Here “knowledge” as a word is not problematic, it is used without conscious thought and the focus is on information flow to support decision makers. Executive Information Systems, Data Warehousing and Process re-engineering dominate this period.

In 1995 Nonaka and Takeuchi publish the Knowledge Creating Company and for the first time on common business language the words tacit and explicit are introduced, although Polanyi had explored the subject in more depth in the 1940’s. This publication with its SECI model defining four transition states of tacit-to-tacit, tacit-to-explicit, explicit-to-explicit and explicit-to-tacit proved decisive and was broadly taken up by consultants and software vendors, both groups seeking to drive revenue through the rapid growth of collaborative technologies.

The pioneering work of practitioners such as Buckman, Edvinsson, Lank, Saint-Onge and Ward amongst others, provided legitimacy and the second generation with its emphasis on conversation of tacit to explicit was born. For second generation thinkers and practitioners, most notably in central Europe, Probst and his collaborators, the function of knowledge management is to convert private assets into public assets, though the extraction of that knowledge into codified form. I have argued elsewhere (Snowden 2000a) that this approach unnecessarily focuses on the container rather than the thing contained, and this view has been strengthened by the increasing recognition by practitioners that there is much tacit knowledge that either cannot, or should not, be made explicit.

As we move into the third millennium we see a new approach emerging in which we focus not on the management of knowledge as a “thing” which can be identified and catalogued, but on the management of the ecology of knowledge. Here the emphasis is not on the organisation as a machine with the manager occupying the role of Engineer, but on the organisation as a complex ecology in which the manager is a gardener, able to direct and influence, but not fully control the evolution of his or her environment. We are also seeing a refreshing move away from programmes which seem to manage knowledge for its own sake, to those that tightly couple knowledge management with both strategic and, critically, operational priorities.

“I always know more than I can say, even after I have said it, and I can always say more than I can write down.”

This is one of the basic operating principles of knowledge management, regrettably not fully understood in the second generation. The process of moving from my head, to my mouth to my hands inevitably involves some loss of content, and frequently involves a massive loss of context. Once we recognise this we can start to rethink the nature of knowledge management. Most second-generation approaches are to all intents and purposes content management; they focus on documents containing structured and reflective knowledge that is disconnected from the knowledge holder, diffuses easily and is formal structured.

What we can say and what we know are respectively covered by Narrative and Context Management. Context management in contrast focuses on connecting and linking people through, for example, expertise location, social network simulation, apprentice models of knowledge transfer and the retention strategies for key staff. Managing context involves the recognition that knowledge cannot be disembodied from human agency either as giver or receiver, content is the exact opposite. Context Management takes control of what we know, but cannot fully say or write down. Content Management organises that which can be written.

Narrative Management lies somewhere between the two and is the focus of this chapter, it manages what we can say in conversation and in declamation, it is also cheaper and less onerous as task to capture than written knowledge and its use is closer to the natural patterns of knowledge acquisition in organisations because:

  • it is easier and less onerous to capture, because I can record to a video camera in ten minutes what it will otherwise take two weeks to get round to spending a hour or so writing up;
  • it is a natural process, in that when we face a new task, or encounter a problem we go and find people to talk to, to ask questions to provide context sensitive answers and advice that cannot be provided by past project reviews and idealised statements of best practice.

The separation of context, narrative and content management in third generation approaches in turn makes each more effective. By understanding the imitations and capabilities of each medium — head, mouth and hands — we make each more effective and the combination of the whole is accordingly greater than the sum of the parts.

2. June 2004: Comparing and Contrasting Corporate and Personal KM

3. March 2005: Complexity: The Next Big Thing After KM

Imagine organising a birthday party for a group of young children. Would you agree a set of learning objectives with their parents in advance of the party? Would those objectives be aligned with the mission statement for education in the society to which you belong?

Would you create a project plan for the party with clear milestones associated with empirical measures of achievement? Would you start the party with a motivational video so that the children did not waste time in play not aligned with the learning objectives? Would you use PowerPoint to demonstrate to the children that their pocket money is linked to achievement of the empirical measures at each milestone? Would you conduct an after-action review at the end of the party, update your best practice database and revise standard operation procedures for party management?

No, instead like most parents you would create barriers to prevent certain types of behaviour, you would use attractors (party games, a football, a videotape) to encourage the formation of beneficial largely self organising identities; you would disrupt negative patterns early, to prevent the party becoming chaotic, or necessitating the draconian imposition of authority. At the end of the party you would know whether it had been a success, but you could not define (in other than the most general terms) what that success would look like in advance.

The purpose of this article is to introduce a new simplicity into acts of decision-making and intervention design in organizations. That may seem ironic given the title, with its use of the terms “ontology” and “sense-making” which may be unfamiliar to readers; but new ideas often need new or at least unfamiliar language and I make no apology for that, although some readers may wish to skip the remainder of this introduction which may only be relevant to academics wishing to situate my language. New language aside, the basic principles that underlie this paper are very easy to understand and are illustrated by the inset example of the children’s party. Multi-ontology sense making is about understanding when to use both methods of management outlined in the story, both the structured and ordered approach based on planned outcomes and the un-ordered, emergent approach focused on starting conditions expressed as barriers, attractors and identities.

Ontology is derived from the Greek word for being and it is the branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the nature of things. In this article I am using it to identity different types of systems, and will later discuss two contrasting types of ontology (order and unorder) each of which requires a different approach to both diagnosis and intervention. In practice we need to consider three physical and five human ontologies. The three physical ontologies are order, complexity and chaos; in human systems order divides into visible and hidden forms and we add a fifth state of disorder. These are more fully described elsewhere (Kurtz & Snowden 2003). For this article I will combine complex and chaotic into a single category of unorder and ignore disorder.

Sense-making is most commonly associated with the Weick (1995) and Dervin (1998) and is starting to gain more attention in management circles. I am closer to Dervin than Weick, and in the context of this paper I am talking about sense making as the way that humans choose between multiple possible explanations of sensory and other input as they seek to conform the phenomenological with the real in order to act in such a way as to determine or respond to the world around them. Multi-ontology sense making is thus a means to achieve a requisite level of diversity in both the ways we interpret the world and the way we act in it. Requisite diversity means ensuring the acceptance of a sufficient level of divergence to enable the sensing of weak signals (terrorist threat or market opportunity) and avoidance of the all too common pattern entrainment of past success, while maintaining a sufficient focus to enable decisive and appropriate action. Above all it is about ensuring cognitive effectiveness in information processing and this gaining cognitive edge, or advantage.

The ideas and concepts may be novel and even threatening to a generation of managers, civil servants and academics who have been trained in what I will later define as single-ontology sense making. The dominant ideology of management inherits from Taylor (1911) a view of the organization based on the necessity and the probity of order. In this world things are deemed to be known or knowable through proper investigation and relationships between cause and effect once discovered repeat. It is the world of the mechanical metaphors of Taylor and most management theorists who came afterwards; it is the Newtonian universe of predictable relationships between cause and effect which can be calculated; the world of the five year plan and the explicit performance target; of hypothesis and empirical proof through observation and explanation of events in retrospect. This paper challenges that particular weltanschauung not by denial, but through bounding and limiting its applicability.


  1. Rendering Knowledge (updated 3 rules to 7 principles of KM)
  2. 1998 and all that, a return to sin
  3. Professionalism in KM: a minor rant
  4. Little Boxes: The dangers of categorisation
  5. Myers-Briggs
  6. The banality of measurement
  7. The challenge of using someone else’s Best Practices
  8. Best Practices
  9. The banality of measurement
  10. If you try and set targets for knowledge sharing you have failed to understand the subject
  11. Network Analysis
  12. Appreciative Inquiry
  13. Positive Deviance
  14. Change Management or Change Leadership?
  15. Create the demand to participate
  16. Towards a new theory of change
  17. Typology or Taxonomy?
  18. The Intranet as a Complex Ecology
  19. Facebook: the Starbucks of social networking?
  20. Blogs and Blogging
  21. Wikis as a Complex-Adaptive System
  22. Complex Adaptive Processes on a Wiki?
  23. A wiki is a more efficient form of knowledge creation than most collaboration environments
  24. Wikipedia Experiences
  25. James 2:24 & Cyborgs
  26. The blogosphere as an artifact of distributed cognition
  27. In Praise of Librarians
  28. Consultants as butterflies, not doctors
  29. Max Boisot 1943–2011
  30. A foreword to a Cynefin book

Cynefin as a framework has its origin in knowledge management, in part as a reaction against Nonaka’s SECI model and was initially stimulated by Boisot’s I-Space. The SECI model focused on tacit to explicit knowledge conversion running through four transitionary states. Observation and participation is a form of socialisation [S] allows for externalisation [E] of knowledge (from tacit to explicit) and its consequent codification [C] would then allow internalisation [I], namely the conversion of explicit knowledge to tacit. The constant flow over those spaces was designated as the knowledge creation spiral and was used to explain the process of idea conversation into products mainly in the manufacturing sector. It later became known as BA.

At the time I had just started working for IBM and was observing the way in which informal networks and communities were critical the effective functioning of the formal or explicit system. I was also being asked to codify material into the IBM intranet so that other colleagues could use the material without my engagement. Now this created significant issues. Firstly (adapting a phrase from Polanyi) I always know more than I can say, and I will always say more than I can write down; in consequence codification involves significant loss. Secondly there were some people I trusted with my knowledge at varying levels of abstraction, there were others who had proved untrustworthy. If I codified by knowledge and they used it I knew that I would not be credited if it worked and blamed if it didn’t. So I would share material in private group, knowing that people would come and talk with me before using something and would be prepared to undergo an apprenticeship. Third, there were many things that I knew, but only when I needed to know them. Context triggered application, and more critical radical repurposing. In a specific context, especially under pressure I knew things then then I would not have been aware of in some prior act of codification.

As for much of Cynefin, as I delved into cognitive science I discovered reasons for these issues, anthropology taught be more as did my original degree in Philosophy. I started to use natural science (I also studied Physics at University) to inform social practice rather than relaying on observation and interpretation of practice. That allowed me to limit issues of confirmation bias and in attentional blindness.

With that scientific enquiry I got to know Max Boisot who introduced me to complexity theory, and many other things before his tragic death a few years ago. Complexity is sometimes known as the science of uncertainty, of systems where there is no repeating relationship between cause and effect. Complex adaptive systems comprise many, changing agents with so many interactions that at best you can make statements about a systems dispositional state, about its inclinations but you can’t define outcome and there is no repeatability. What worked last time may not work this time; small inputs produce magnified changes overall and the system has properties that are not the sum of its parts. I’ve also called complexity the science of common sense and illustrated its nature by talking about how you would manage a childrens’ party. Complexity provided then, and still provides a scientific explanation for things that anyone with any real experience already knows. That for me was a critical insight and was the trigger mechanism by which Cynefin evolved from a basic two by two matrix looking at culture and codification to its current five domain form.

At the heart of Cynefin is an argument against universal approaches, in favour of using a contextually appropriate solution. It frankly amazes me that this is considered novel or revolutionary in nature. There is a British phrase that is appropriate here: horses for courses. Before placing a bet you check out the track record of horse on different ground. Some do better on heavy, some on dry and so on. Different things work or don’ t work in different contexts. Over the years I have been increasingly frustrated by advocates of valuable new things who feel that their enthusiasm should be shared by everyone else, be universal in application and involve the ritual burning of all that has happened in the past; a bonfire of vanities. Over the decades I’ve seen it with successive management fads, some of which have high utility some little, but all appropriate in context. Business Process Re-engineering provided value, but it claimed universality and failed, Six Sigma was a let’s do it harder and see if it works this time attempt to overcome that which of course made things worse. We had the Learning Organisation, Blue and Red Oceans, Balanced Score Cards and now Agile. All devoid of underlying theory other than in retrospect, mostly providing value, but only within context despite the claim of Universal application. Each fad then attracts its own followers, masters of retrospective coherence who ride the waves of fashion.

Cynefin is about saying that, in the main, most things had value within context and started to fail when they moved outside of that context. Often advocates simply failed to understand that and were more concerned to condemn heretics that to create something of lasting value. They avoided the very simply truth that condemning what went before does not of itself legitimise what you propose as an alternative. This approach also allows for change and movement between applications as a field emerges and the entry of new ways of thinking under conditions of uncertainty.

Articles by Others

  1. Dave Snowden interview by Lilia Efimova
  2. Dave Snowden Keynote: Big Data vs Human Data by Mary Abraham
  3. A Different View on Knowledge Management by TallyFox
  4. Dave Snowden on Knowledge Management by Dave Pollard
  5. Turning KM strategy on its head — Dave Snowden by Ian Thorpe
  6. What Happened to Knowledge Management? by Stewart MaderEuan Semple points out two articles that examine the state of knowledge management. In Whence goeth KM? (and Part 2), Dave Snowden concludes that knowledge management is on its way out because it has changed so much since it first appeared in the early 1990s.
  7. Patrick Lambe guest blogged the following in Cognitive Edge — Dave Snowden is particularly scathing about Appreciative Inquiry as a technique, because he sees it practiced in an (in my terms) apocalyptic/bipolar vacuum, in a “happy-clappy,” “fluffy-bunny” denial of the negative that would correspond to the manic phase of bipolar disorder. There’s no engagement with the real problems of real life, and therefore it can be at best distracting and at worst delusional, magical thinking.
  8. Dead KM Walking by Patrick Lambe — A fascinating, robust and sometimes sharp discussion with Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden on the topic “Is Knowledge Management Dead?” They think that KM as a field has been irredeemably corrupted by the many false plays and hijacks it has been subjected to, while I still have hope. Watch the podcast for the full story, and a million thanks to Larry and Dave for a great conversation.
  9. KM thinkers by Denham Grey — Dave Snowden has a good grasp of KM & complexity, appreciates the role of tacit knowledge, makes sense of the domain

Dave as Quoted by Me

1. Analytics and Business Intelligence

  • KM and big data/analytics — interview with David J. Pauleen — Analytics in the form of algorithms are imperfect and can only to a small extent capture the reasoning and analytical capabilities of people. For this reason, while big data/analytics can be useful, they are limited and must be used in conjunction with human knowledge and reasoning.
  • The whole big data idea is being over hyped — Too many of the big data guys are just assuming that information will come to them from the misty mountains of the Internet that they can process without human engagement to reveal all that is needed. The simple act of putting human sensors into the system escapes them. Solutions for nerds, by nerds that will dumb us all down to the intelligence of nerds.

2. Archiving, Document Management, and Records Management

Complex Adaptive Processes on a Wiki?

The problem with wikis has always been the collapse of two essentially different operations: Save and Publish. You edit and save a page. What happens? You publish to the world. No approval. No chance to ensure it marries up with process changes made elsewhere, compare to compliance or governance regulations, to get it buy-in from stakeholders or to get legal approval. As a rule Wikis omit Content Management and Workflow capabilities and, because they don’t deal with Approved Records, they also lack Records Management and Records Retention facilities.

3. Expertise Locators and Ask the Expert

  • Kate Ehrlich: Small Blue — It’s not just about just finding an expert, but when you find someone you want to communicate with them, but what if they don’t want to talk to you? By definition any expert location system is about communication with strangers
  • … and nearer to the Dust — Companies were experimenting with expertise location based on tracking key phrases in emails and the like. Team formation became a matter of searching CVs in a database rather than building relationships over time. The value of experience was derided as a simple failure to capture and codify.
  • Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness — Expertise location systems replace the second-generation technique of yellow pages making connections between people and communities. One example, “Tacit” will trawl e-mail records to identify where expertise lies, but allow the individual knowledge holder to determine if his or her expertise is to be public, which has many advantages in building context and trust.

4. Repositories and Knowledge Bases

How does an organization know what it knows?

How does an organization know what it knows? That question drives a lot of interest in knowledge management. It drives a lot of spending on consultants and technology. It drives a lot of effort trying to extract the “knowledge trapped inside people’s heads” with explicated and documented content in searchable repositories.

Disconnecting knowledge from its source, in terms of people and places, will remove from that knowledge the very context which infuses it with life. Because indigenous knowledge is continuously generated and renewed in the living practices of people, archiving in isolation from practice removes its ongoing relevance.

5. Storytelling, Business Narrative, and Anecdote Circles

Anecdote Circles

An anecdote is a naturally occurring story, as found in the “wild” of conversational discourse, usually about a single incident or situation. An Anecdote Circle is a way of capturing these. It is a lightly facilitated, group based Method. People are selected that have some form of common or shared experience. As an example, they will be prompted to “Share either a good or bad experience when…” in relation to this common or shared experience. Anecdotes can then be applied across a wide variety of organizational endeavors, from culture to strategy. They may also later be tagged or signified and placed in a Narrative database. The general operating principle of the anecdote circle is this. Because “you only know what you know when you need to know it”, it is difficult to get at aspects of knowledge, values and beliefs that are held in common but rarely talked about.

When people tell each other stories about their experiences, the social negotiations that take place create conditions which recreate to some extent the feeling of being “in the field under fire”, or, in the state of “needing to know”. Thus, hidden knowledge surfaces and becomes available in ways it could not otherwise do so. Anecdotes are usually short and about a single incident or situation. Contrast this with a purposeful story, which is long and complex as well as deliberately constructed and told (usually many times). Some people tell purposeful stories often; others don’t. What you are after in the anecdote circle is not purposeful stories, which are indicative of what people believe is expected of them, but anecdotes, which are more unguarded and truthful. For sense-making and knowledge sharing anecdotes are priceless. They can answer many questions that direct questioning cannot. Telling stories allows people to disclose sensitive information without attribution or blame, because the inherent distance between reality and narration provides safety for truth-telling.

6. KM Metrics and Reporting Process

  1. Sensemaking metrics such as the accuracy of the predictions they make about users’ preferences and practices, sophistication of their explanations for user behaviors, speed and accuracy of spotting anomalies.
  2. Data gathering strategies — their power and efficiency.
  3. Range and sophistication of mental models.
  4. Ability to make important discriminations, see cause-effect links, discount spurious cause-effect links.
  5. Declarative knowledge. Just the collection of facts they need to know.
  • Things a leader can do — Start thinking about shifting to VECTOR measures rather than outcome based targets. Vectors define direction and speed of travel from the present and allow novel discoveries that are often ignored in the focus on explicit targets (which we know destroy intrinsic motivation). Stop managing by spreadsheet!

7. KM’s not dead, but talking about its ROI should be

Selling new ideas to an organisation

“Funding is linked to delivery of projects and projects come into two main categories: safe-fail low cost experiments and fail-safe conventional ones. More fully described these are linked to a specific issue/opportunity/problem where the new concept can be show to have a positive impact on a business process or other objective, and where the impact of that initiative can be measured (either by positive impact or by the cost, opportunity or otherwise of not carrying out the work. ROI, EVA (Economic Value Added) and other accounting measures can work here and you will need to understand them and their application.”

8. Can you lead without being the master of a domain?

Then kill the messenger…

One of the main enemies of all of this is time and capability or understanding. I am writing this after coming off a three hour conference call trying to dumb down a complex message to the point where the CEO of a major international corporation might understand it enough to pay attention. Now that has been a depressing experience as it requires sound bites, pain points and a recognition that anything which requires thought is unlikely to succeed. Now I want this deal to work and I have good coaches but it is a depressing process.

So a final plea to senior decision makers, and a pretty direct attack on common practice. If you allow yourself to get caught up in meetings, decision making and the like to the point where you no longer have time to think and reflect then you have damaged yourself and downstream the organisation that you lead. It also shows you are not leading well as you have too little time. Paying attention is not the same thing as being busy. Some of the best executives I know have brains that can sense there is something they need to spend time on. Some of the worst make a virtue of ignorance.

Indeed the celebration of ignorance, the anti-intellectualism that dominates too much management thinking represents the immanence of death during dynamic shifts or paradigm changes. It’s not enough to simply act, you also have to think. It’s not enough to think you also have to act. They go together and the more senior you are the more you need to be comfortable with both; neither can be fully delegated. So if someone comes along and offers you a solution that doesn’t require you to think then kill the messenger.

9. 30 Knowledge Management Insights

  1. First generation focused on timely information provision for decision support and in support of business process reengineeering initiatives.
  2. Second generation focused on tacit-explicit knowledge conversion.
  3. Third generation requires the clear separation of context, narrative and content management.

— Complex adaptive systems theory is used to create a sense-making model that identifies a natural flow model of knowledge creation, disruption, and utilization.

— Knowledge is seen paradoxically as both a thing and a flow requiring diverse management approaches.

  1. Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted.
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
  3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
  4. Everything is fragmented.
  5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
  6. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
  7. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down

10. 12 Shibboleths of Christmas

  1. Breaking Goodhart’s Law: The Strathern variation — Anything made explicit will sooner or later be gamed for survival purposes and that need will corrupt practice and people.
  2. Confusing correlation with causation and the paucity of good data: Statistical tails wagging the dogs of truth — We can’t trust the data, but neither can we trust the correlation other than as an indicator of something we should pay attention to.
  3. The old ways are evil, I bear the torch of truth and enlightenment: The Popinjay — Condemning past or future practice based on evidence or theory is valid; so is offering a new way of thinking. The objection is to creating a dichotomy between the two and being highly selective in picking cases (without doing other than book or Internet searches) to support a simplistic proposition.
  4. Anything requiring you to attain levels of enlightenment: The Cultists — True religious enlightenment is achieved by years of dedication, it cannot be acquired in a simplistic training program. Scientific insight and understanding is similarly the product of years of study and practice. Both take part in a social setting that welcomes criticism and while rewarding status does not allow that status to prevent learning. The various popular management movements that attempt to ape either or both to generate training and consultancy revenue should be wholeheartedly condemned.
  5. Taking something of value, but then seeking to industrialize it: Industrialization of the craft — Development of skill takes time and effort. Tools can be industrialized; people interventions involving judgement cannot be.
  6. Using language without meaning: A lick of new paint — The addition of key words that appear to have symbolic power as tokens of meaning. The big one at the moment, especially in Agile circles is the use of the word “Lean” as noun, pronoun, adjective and even verb and adverb.
  7. The dangers of categorization: Little Boxes — Creating simplistic categorizing models is cool in stable, fully-known situations, but in complexity or uncertainty environments it is dangerous. With people, it means we can damage personal development, and we can also miss completely capabilities that we didn’t know we needed at the time of the categorization. Myers-Briggs has little academic credibility, but provides the same utility as astrology.
  8. Issues of evidence and judgement & a false dichotomy: Trials need tribulations — A single intervention using a novel approach with a lot of attention is never going to scale and it does not constitute evidence. Trials that are reported to have worked, in the main, have suffered insufficient tribulation to be resilient.
  9. Against essentialism, defining potential through action: ‘Essential’ flows — In managing culture, we are not creating, designing or determining an essence that will give us predictive or controllable behavior. Attempts to do so will drive the real culture further underground, with the surface manifestation repeating back to you the platitudes of your value statements. Humans are very good at appearing to confirm with the verbiage of power while continuing to practice what matters to them. In practice companies depend on this authentic inauthenticity to survive. The irony is that if it wasn’t for people’s willingness to work for customers and for colleagues despite the process, not because of it, most companies would fail a lot faster.
  10. Trying to get to a single causal line of reasoning: Roots determine routes? — Let’s assume we accept that statins reduce the risk of heart attack; cool, take them. But we also know that Type II Diabetes is one side effect of statin prescription, and we know one of the reasons for that is the way statins work on the pancreas. Now if you have Type II, then you are at increased risk of heart failure, so guess what happens? You get prescribed statins. Each individual causal pathway creates a prescriptive guideline. What is really needed is an artisan approach in which the multiple interactions between patient support groups and medical staff are taken into account.
  11. You can’t reduce or aggregate a complex system and trying is wrong a priori: Deal with the system as a whole please — SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is not exceptional. It’s simply following in the same path as balanced score cards; KPIs; mergers based on structure, not people; etc. The automation and mechanization of the engineering metaphor has dominated thinking for the last few decades and it is predicated on aggregation and reduction. Things like SAFe and Six Sigma are simply the last attempts to get a tired and inappropriate philosophy to work, but doing things that have failed with more intensity in the hope that this time they will work.
  12. Avoiding uncertainty and anti-intellectualism: Then kill the messenger … — A plea to senior decision makers, and a pretty direct attack on common practice. If you allow yourself to get caught up in meetings, decision making, and the like to the point where you no longer have time to think and reflect, then you have damaged yourself and downstream, the organization that you lead. It also shows you are not leading well, as you have too little time. Paying attention is not the same thing as being busy. Some of the best executives I know have brains that can sense there is something they need to spend time on. Some of the worst make a virtue of ignorance. It’s not enough to simply act; you also have to think. It’s not enough to think; you also have to act. They go together, and the more senior you are, the more you need to be comfortable with both; neither can be fully delegated. So, if someone comes along and offers you a solution that doesn’t require you to think, then kill the messenger.

11. 10 Types of Knowledge Management Strategies

Sense-making is the way in which we make sense of the world so that we can act in it. Dave Snowden describes technologies that process large volumes of data with a view to weak signal detection and pattern recognition. Another kind is naturalistic sense-making, derived from an understanding of the cognitive processes that underpin human decision making.

12. Yet Another Myth: The DIKW Pyramid Scheme

13. Are you certifiable in knowledge management?

14. Black Swan

Fooled by Randomness was a timely book, well written and useful, but then we got Black Swan which again has good examples but over generalizes its theory.

15. Citizen Journalism and KM

Whence Goeth KM?commented on by Bruce Karney

  • Comment by Bruce Karney: You listed two purposes of KM (To support effective decision making; To create the conditions for innovation) but left out two that I think are even more important:
  1. To accelerate the spread of useful innovations
  2. To allow people to solve problems more quickly by using KM tools to find answers or experts

Decision-making and problem solving are similar, so let me focus on spreading innovations. In KM efforts I’ve seen, a leading indicator of success is some sort of “pushed” newsletter, e-mail to a distribution list, or blog that informs an interested audience of important news and ideas. In my opinion, citizen journalism will be one of the lasting legacies of KM, whether KM itself lives or dies.

  • Reply by Dave Snowden:

Accelerating the spread of innovation is obviously a good thing, but I would subsume it in creating the conditions. If you don’t have an adoption policy (which may include distribution) then you are not creating the conditions in the first place. In respect of using KM tools, well I think that is a means to an end, not an end in itself. KM tools may be the right answer, but a fair number of them prevent effective knowledge flow. The danger is if you start to add in means, you end up with a long list and you prejudge the solution.

I agree that blogs, newsletters, etc. can be (but are not necessarily always) useful in KM. However again they are a means to and end.

16. Connection and Collection

Volunteer not conscript

Many years ago I formulated three rules or heuristics of Knowledge Management:

  1. Knowledge will only ever be volunteered it can not be conscripted
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it
  3. We always know more than we can tell and we will always tell more than we can write down

The first of these reference the fact that you cannot make someone surrender their knowledge in the way that you can make them conform with a process. It was originally coined in reference to individuals, but I have come to realize that it also applies to organizations… So a new formulation, or possibly extension of the first rule would be:

If you ask someone, or a body for specific knowledge in the context of a real need it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it.

17. Learning Lessons or Lessons Learned

Learning lessons or lessons learnt?

Five statements:

  1. If you start to talk about creating a knowledge sharing culture, or ask for advice on how to get people to share what they know you are missing the point.
  2. The issue is not to work out in advance what you might need to know, but rather to ensure that you can connect with people and knowledge objects in the context of need.
  3. Lessons learnt systems are not about truth — they are about meaning.
  4. The way people recall the past differs from the actual events.
  5. The more that material is improved, refined, and linked to established practice, the less valuable it is.

There is an underlying assumption here: that narrative material, anecdotes, pictures, fragments of stories is more valuable than structured documents and closer to the way we naturally share and create knowledge and learning.

Four suggested ways forward:

  1. Capture material at the right level of abstraction that’s not too difficult.
  2. Get people to record things as they do them, and then index the resulting material so the raw material is interpreted by those who created it.
  3. Allow people to talk about failure by allowing them to avoid any attribution of blame.
  4. Make capture continuous and a part of the job, not a post-job after-action review.

We need to be learning lessons continuously, not documenting lessons learnt.

18. Cognitive Edge Recommended Books

Recommended Reading

  1. Axelrod, R. and Cohen, M. (1999) Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier (The Free Press)
  2. Boisot, Max (1998) Knowledge Assets: Securing Competitive Advantage in the Information Economy (Oxford)
  3. Cilliers, Paul (1998) Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems (Routledge)
  4. Clark, Andy (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and the World Together Again (MIT)
  5. Deacon, Terrence (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (Penguin)
  6. Dervin, Brenda (1998) Sense Making theory and practice: an overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use (Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 2 Iss: 2, pp.36–46)
  7. Gabriel, Yiannis (2000) Story Telling in Organisations: Facts Fictions, and Fantasies (Oxford)
  8. Johnson, Steven (2001) Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Penguin)
  9. Juarrero, Alicia (1999) Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (MIT Press)
  10. Klein, Gary (1999) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (MIT)
  11. McKee, Robert (1997) Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (HarperCollins)
  12. Pearson, Keith Ansell (1997) Viroid Life: perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition (Routledge)
  13. Polanyi, Michael (1983) The Tacit Dimension (Doubleday)
  14. Shah, Idries (1985) The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin & The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (Octagon Press)
  15. Stacey, Ralph (2001) Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation (Routledge)
  16. Stone, Allucquére Roasanne (1995) The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (MIT Press)
  17. Weissman, David (2000) A Social Ontology (Yale University)

19. Cognitive Edge

Cognitive Edge is replacing The Cynefin Centre, which includes the work of Dave Snowden. Here is information about Cognitive Edge.

Headquartered in Singapore, Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd was created in 2006 to take on the work originally initiated in IBM as the Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity. Cognitive Edge has three main focus areas:

  1. The creation of an open source approach to the development of consultancy methods. All methods created by Cognitive Edge can be downloaded for free, subject to agreement to a creative commons license. An international Cognitive Edge Network of accredited practitioners is being created through training and practice in collaboration with a variety of organisations.
  2. The development of an approach to research based on participation and discovery rather than normative methods. Programs are created in which issues and problems in the real world of organisations are brought together in accelerated co-evolutionary processes with academic concepts to create new knowledge and understanding. This includes a conscious effort to bring insight and understand form the physical sciences into social systems.
  3. The invention of software products (branded as the SenseMaker Suite) that leverage themes of narrative, complexity and networks for impact. The software provides a broad range of tools that enable the ideas to be made operation to practical effect in organisations. They also provide support to the open source Cognitive Edge Network and provide a funding mechanism for the overall objectives of Cognitive Edge.

20. Melissie Rumizen: Profiles in Knowledge

  • 1 — Friend to many, passionate advocate of the human dimension of knowledge management.
  • 2 — One of the larger than life figures in Knowledge Management. Early practitioner and all round one of the best networked people in the movement.
  • 3 — This morning at KMWorld 2007 in San Jose we started off with a memorial to Melissie Rumizen. Steve Barth, Verna Allee and I read our own and other tributes to the background of photographs collected from her friends. Many people in that audience knew her directly or through her work so it was a sympathetic audience and a moving experience.

21. Knowledge Management and Epistemology


  1. Basic Methods
  2. Case Studies
  3. Concept Papers
  4. Influential books
  5. Glossary

Presentations and Podcasts

1. SIKM Leaders Community, July 2019: Let’s start to manage knowledge, not information

2. SlideShare

3. Understanding complex organizations: The Cynefin Model by Keith De La Rue

4. Podcasts

5. KMWorld

  1. W9: Techniques for Navigating Complexity
  2. W12: KM Strategy
  3. C203: Weaponized Narrative for Fast Change
  4. Government Executive Knowledge Exploration
  5. Closing Keynote Panel — 2020 & Beyond: Creating Resilience in Organizations & Society
  1. W12: KM Strategy
  2. C102: KM Debate: Agile? Design? Stories? Sharing?
  3. Government Executive Knowledge Exploration
  4. Closing Keynote — KMWorld Conversations With Leading Thinkers
  • 2017
  1. W12: KM Strategy
  2. C101: Stories & Storms
  • 2016
  1. W3: Complexity-Based Design Thinking
  2. W13: KM Strategy
  3. Keynote: Future-Proofing OrganizationsSlides
  • 2015
  1. Welcome & Keynote: Complexity Informed Agility in Knowledge Management
  2. W11: Creating a KM Strategy
  • 2014
  1. W12: Creating a KM Strategy
  2. Welcome & Keynote: It’s a Process Jim, but Not as We Know It!
  • 2013
  1. W11: Creating a KM Strategy
  2. C104: Finding Solutions to Wicked Problems
  3. Keynote: Big Data Vs Human Data
  • 2012
  1. W16: Creating a KM Strategy
  2. C103: Finding New Solutions to Wicked Problems
  3. Making KM Strategic
  • 2011
  1. A101: Wisdom From Bene Gesserit: Learning From Science Fiction & FantasyVideo
  2. Keynote: KM for the Future: Pioneers’ Perspectives
  • 2010
  1. W1: Decision Making: Social Techniques & Practices
  2. Keynote: The Resilient OrganizationSlides and Podcast
  • 2009
  1. W1: Gaining Foresight: Strategies for Turbulent Times
  2. Social Discovery of Knowledge Management
  • 2008
  1. W1: Leader’s Framework for Decision Making
  2. Welcome & Evening Event: Learning from Mistakes!
  3. A101: Snowden on KM: A Hot Seat Interview
  4. Closing Keynote: Putting It All Together: Project Management & System Design
  • 2007
  1. W1: Knowledge Transfer: Using Narrative & Stories
  2. A101: The Dynamics of Strategic KM
  3. Tags, Categories, & Knowledge SharingPresentationPodcast
  • 2006
  1. Keynote: Innovative Enterprises: Leaders’ Visions & Stories with Cindy Gordon — Leaders in the field describe one strategy, one tool, and one innovative organization in action. Hear experienced storytellers capture their visions and insights in vibrant, information-rich stories.
  2. A301: Controversies & the Future of Knowledge Management
  • 2005

Closing Keynote: From KM to Sense Making: From Efficiency to Effectiveness — The journey to sense making from knowledge management, represents a desire to return to the basic driver of early KM, before installing a portal was the magic key, focusing on making better decisions and creating the conditions for innovation. Drawing on theory and practice in sense making and KM, as well as highlighting patterns from stories captured from KMWorld attendees, this talk focuses on five aspects of the way we perceive the world:

  1. The nature of the physical world, chaos, complexity, and order
  2. The nature of the way we have knowledge of the world and, in particular, the role of narrative
  3. The nature of the way we perceive the world, the pattern basis of human intelligence, and its consequences
  4. The nature of the way in which we assume and create identity structures to exist in the world
  5. The way that we exercise and are the subjects of the exercise of power

Snowden provides examples of how KM practitioners can capture the high ground of strategy in an organization and shift from the electronic storage of knowledge to its deployment and creation to enrich human decision making.

  • 2004
  1. KMWorld Opening Session & Keynote: Decision-Making & Innovation: The Real Function of KM — As KM moves into its third “post-Nonaka” generation, it is leading a new organic approach to organizational design and has the potential to become a key part of the strategic agenda. Using real examples from Asia Pacific and Europe, our entertaining and knowledgeable speaker focuses on how KM can improve decision-making and innovation within complex organizations.
  2. Workshop 1: Organizational Storytelling & Narrative Patterns Master Class with Steve Denning — This interactive, full-day workshop taught by two well-known and entertaining experts, reveals insights, material, and trade secrets on the use of narrative and storytelling as a tool for management and leadership in organizations. Designed for change agents and knowledge managers, it demonstrates how stories prove to be an effective way to understand, direct, and influence your organization’s culture — essential for effectively communicating knowledge and associated learning for organizational performance and productivity. Denning shares his experience of knowing when to create and tell a story to achieve the desired response and, ultimately, the right business results. Snowden explains some easily learned techniques for anecdotal elicitation and discusses the nature of interaction in understanding the cultural attitudes of those interactions within each community of practice. The highly regarded workshop provides tools, techniques, and exercises for creating different stories and approaches to narrative for business.

Session C102: Tools for Putting Organizational Stories in Context — More than storytelling, dealing with narrative in organizational settings is becoming critical to decision making and innovation. Organizations are complex, each with its own culture, and focusing on narrative systems can help. This session describes tools and techniques used in building narrative databases which can fuel the engines of decision making and innovation. Using real-world examples, it illustrates the impact and value within complex organizations — those populated with people!

Evening Networking Event: KM Stories @ the Pub — Join Dave Snowden, Director, Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity, IBM Global Services, and Steve Denning, author of The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, conference speakers, other storytellers, and attendees for an informal, interactive networking program that brings together experts and novices for an evening of fun and learning. Participate and take away ideas to use in your organization to assist in managing change and knowledge transfer, techniques to practice to have a positive impact on your organizational culture, and more.

Workshop 1: Corporate Storytelling — The ability of a story to transmit a powerful meaning with intensity has enormous significance for performance in communication, knowledge facilitation, cultural change, and cross-cultural understanding. Organizations such as 3M, Xerox, IBM, NASA, The World Bank, Intel and Microsoft are actively using story techniques to handle complex management issues. Storytelling already exists as an integral part of defining what the organization is in terms of culture and purpose. This workshop provides an opportunity to understand the rich opportunities for the use of storytelling in your organization.


1. KMWorld

2. Vimeo

  • Storytelling in Organizations and Communities: A new methodology for capture and analysis


Keynote Speech

3. YouTube


  1. Cynefin: Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World
  2. Cognitive Edge: Making Sense of Complexity
  3. Third Generation Knowledge Management
  4. Using Narrative in Organisational Change
  5. Next Generation Knowledge Management: Transforming theory into practice — Chapter 13: Third Generation Knowledge Management
  6. Next Generation Knowledge Management, Volume 2 — Chapter 1 Comparing, contrasting, connecting corporate and personal KM with Steve Barth
  7. Measuring the ROI of Knowledge Management 2nd edition — Chapter 9: An ecological approach to understanding impact in knowledge management practice
  8. Successful Knowledge Leadership: Principles and Practice — Chapter 4: Praxis makes perfect: The nature of leadership in knowledge management
  9. A Guide to Global Best Practice and Standards in KM edited by Alex Davies — Chapter 12: Mostly harmless
  10. Knowledge Horizons, The Present and the Promise of Knowledge Management edited by Charles Despres and Daniele Chauvel — Chapter 12: The Social Ecology of Knowledge Management
  11. “A Framework for Creating a Sustainable Programme” in Knowledge Management Ed. Rock, S. London: Caspian Publishing (Republished in Knowledge Management Year Book 1999–2000)
  12. “Liberating Knowledge” Introductory chapter to Liberating Knowledge CBI Business Guide, Caspian Publishing October pp 9–19 (also editor of guide)
  13. “Story Telling and other Organic Tools for Chief Learning Officers and Chief Knowledge Officers” In Action: Leading Knowledge Management and Learning ed. Bonner, D ASTD
  14. “Narrative Patterns: the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations” in Eric and Laurence Prusak eds. Creating Value with Knowledge: Insights from the IBM Institute for Business Value
  15. “Knowing what we know: language and tools for knowledge mapping” in Managing for Knowledge: HR’s Strategic Role
  16. Strategy in the context of Uncertainty” in Patricia Coate (ed) The Handbook of Business Strategy, Emerald Group Publishing
  17. With Oliver, G.R.“Patterns of narrative in organizational knowledge sharing: Refolding the envelope of art-Luddism and techno-fabulism” in Schreyögg, G./Koch, J. (Eds.): Knowledge management and Narratives: Organizational Effectiveness Through Storytelling
  18. With Lazaroff, M “Anticipatory modes for Counter Terrorism” in Popp, R & Yen, J Anticipatory Models for Counter Terrorism Wiley-IEEE Press
  19. With Kurtz, C. “Brambles in a Thicket: Narrative and the Intangibles of Learning Networks” in Gibbert, Michel, Durand & Thomas Strategic Networks: Learning to Compete

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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