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Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities


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This paper outlines one of several sense making models developed by the author based on fieldwork across a range of organizations. These models are designed to pass the ‘paper napkin ’ test: they can be drawn from memory on the back of a paper napkin and used to make sense of a situation in normal conversation. All such models are designed to force communities of practitioners to recognize the need to introduce requisite levels of variety into their thinking, and avoid single models of practice and strategy. The Cynefin model focuses on the location of knowledge in an organization using cultural and sense making aspects of four different forms of community, both formal and informal. Three of these communities are a part of the day-to-day life of any large organization, the forth is domain of innovation and strategies for forcing innovation are discussed. Allowing self-organization of knowledge within an organization, utilizing but not being used by the informal or shadow organization is seen as key to effective knowledge management. The paper distinguished between mechanical, Newtonian models of management science and the emerging organic approach, which draws on concepts from complexity theory. This paper is a much-abbreviated version of a chapter in the forthcoming book Knowledge Horizons: The present and promise of Knowledge Management edited by Charles Despres & Daniele Chauvel due for publication in September 2000.
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Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place:
an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in
Formal and Informal Communities
David Snowden
Director, Europe Middle East and Africa, Institute for Knowledge Management, Visiting
Fellow in Knowledge Management, European Management School, University of Surrey.
This paper outlines one of several sense making models developed by the author based on fieldwork
across a range of organizations. These models are designed to pass the ‘paper napkin’ test: they can
be drawn from memory on the back of a paper napkin and used to make sense of a situation in normal
conversation. All such models are designed to force communities of practitioners to recognize the
need to introduce requisite levels of variety into their thinking, and avoid single models of practice and
strategy. The Cynefin model focuses on the location of knowledge in an organization using cultural
and sense making aspects of four different forms of community, both formal and informal. Three of
these communities are a part of the day-to-day life of any large organization, the forth is domain of
innovation and strategies for forcing innovation are discussed. Allowing self-organization of
knowledge within an organization, utilizing but not being used by the informal or shadow organization
is seen as key to effective knowledge management. The paper distinguished between mechanical,
Newtonian models of management science and the emerging organic approach, which draws on
concepts from complexity theory. This paper is a much-abbreviated version of a chapter in the
forthcoming book Knowledge Horizons: The present and promise of Knowledge Management edited
by Charles Despres & Daniele Chauvel due for publication in September 2000.
Cynefin (pronounced cun-ev-in) is a Welsh word with no direct equivalent in English. As a
noun it is translated as habitat, as an adjective acquainted or familiar, but dictionary
definitions fail to do it justice. A better, and more poetic, definition comes from the
introduction to a collection of paintings by Kyffin Williams, an artist whose use of oils creates
a new awareness of the mountains of his native land and their relationship to the spirituality of
its people: “It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the
environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.” (Sinclair 1998).
It differs from the Japanese concept of Ba, which is a “shared space for emerging
relationships” (Nonaka & Konno 1998) in that it links a community into its shared history –
or histories – in a way that paradoxically both limits the perception of that community while
enabling an instinctive and intuitive ability to adapt to conditions of profound uncertainty. In
general, if a community is not physically, temporally and spiritually rooted, then it is
alienated from its environment and will focus on survival rather than creativity and
collaboration. In such conditions, knowledge hoarding will predominate and the community
will close itself to the external world. If the alienation becomes extreme, the community may
even turn in on itself, atomising into an incoherent babble of competing self interests.
This is of major importance for the emerging disciplines of knowledge management.
Organisations are increasingly aware of the need to create appropriate virtual and physical
space in which knowledge can be organised and distributed. They are gradually becoming
aware that knowledge cannot be treated as an organisational asset without the active and
voluntary participation of the communities that are its true owners. A shift to thinking of
employees as volunteers requires a radical rethink of reward structures, organisational form
and management attitude. It requires us to think of the organisation as a complex ecology in
which the number of causal factors renders pseudo-rational prescriptive models redundant at
best and poisonous at worst.
We have seen early signs of a shift from hierarchical forms to one in which the organisation is
seen as a network of communities, hopefully united in a common purpose. In the knowledge
management arena this has meant an increasing focus on communities of competence or
practice. Here the place, or Ba, of knowledge exchange and creation are groups of individuals
logically organised by common expertise or interest. These logically constructed groups are
often supported by sophisticated systems designed to enable collaboration and exchange
where the group members are dispersed in space, but not in time. Such logically constructed
groups are not necessarily communities, common interests and educational background are
not enough in their own right to forge a community and most organisations will use meetings
and social space, both physical and virtual to induce a sense of belonging and social
obligation, but again this is limited in its effectiveness.
Culturally based sense making
Any model of community has to recognise the need for diversity, ambiguity and paradox.
Too many of the modern day practitioners of scientific management have overused its
Newtonian base and abused the thinking of its founder, Taylor, by the attempted creation of
universal and overly simplistic models. We
need to recognise that human society is
diverse and multi-dimensional. Volunteers
can and do resist mandated behaviour.
Ambiguity provides scope for individual
interpretation and more rapid adaptation to
change; the neat and tidy structures required
by traditional IT systems design oversimplify
complexity in order to achieve deliverables
and consequently fail to reflect the richness of
human space. Paradox allows humans (but
not computers) to work with apparent
contradiction, and in consequence create new
meaning. .
An early form of the Cynefin model using
different labels for the dimension extremes
and quadrant spaces was developed as a
means of understanding the reality of
intellectual capital management within IBM Global Services (Snowden 1999a). It has been
used subsequently to assist a range of other organisations to understand the ecology of
knowledge and the representation in Figure 1 reflects that experience and thinking. It is
designed to create a holistic understanding of the different types of community and
community interactions within an organisation, rooted in the historic, cultural and situational
context of both that organisation, its changing environment and the network of formal and
informal communities that make it a living entity. As such, it is designed to acclimatise the
informal communities to their responsibilities within in the wider ecology of the organisation,
and to acclimatise the organisation to the reality of its identity that is in part, if not principally,
formed by those communities.
The dimension of culture
In seeking to understand culture we will draw on a distinction from anthropology. Keesing
and Strathern (1998) assert two very different ways in which the term culture is used:
Cynefin model: cultural sense making
Figure 1
Expert Language
Symbolic Language
Emergent Language
Common Language
1. The socio-cultural system or the pattern of residence and resource exploitation that can be
observed directly, documented and measured in a fairly straightforward manner. The
tools and other artefacts that we use to create communities, the virtual environment we
create and the way we create, distribute and utilise assets within the community. These
are teaching cultures that are aware of the knowledge that needs to be transferred to the
next generation and which create training programmes. They are characterised by their
certainty or explicit know ability
2. Culture as an “…ideational system. Cultures in this sense comprise systems of shared
ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the
ways that humans live. Culture, so defined, refers to what humans learn, not what they do
and make” (Keesing & Strathem 1998). This is also the way in which humans provide
“standards for deciding what is, ... for deciding what can be,.... for deciding how one feels
about it, ... for deciding what to do about it, and ... for deciding how to go about doing it.”
(Goodenough 1961:522). Such cultures are tacit in nature: networked, tribal and fluid.
They are learning cultures because they are deal with ambiguity and uncertainty
originating in the environment, or self generated for innovative purposes.
The cultural dimension encompasses technology (considered as a tool not a totemistic fetish)
and implicitly rejects the false dualism between culture and technology of much current
knowledge management.
The dimension of sense making
The function of knowledge in any organisation is to make sense of things, both to oneself and
to the communities with which one is connected. Knowledge is our sense making capability.
The developing practice of knowledge management has seen two different approaches to
definition. One arises from Information Management and sees knowledge as some higher-
level order of information; often expressed as a triangle progressing from data, through
information and knowledge to the apex of wisdom. Knowledge here is seen as a thing or
entity that can be managed and distributed through advanced use of technology. Much of the
thinking in this group is really not very new: the issues and problems of human interaction
with information systems have been articulated for many years (Dervin 1998). The second
approach sees the problem from a sociological basis. These definitions see knowledge as a
human capability to act. Like the first group, knowledge is still seen in a linear continuum
with data, information and wisdom, although the sequence is sometimes reversed with
wisdom as the base (Saint-Onge 1996).
In effect both groups are correct, knowledge is both a thing and a capability at the same time.
A parallel situation exists in physics where an electron is simultaneously both a particle and
wave; if we seek particles then we see particles, if we seek waves then we see waves. The
same is true of knowledge. One of the problems is that things are superficially easier to
manage, and as a result early knowledge management has focused on knowledge as a thing
that can be captured and codified in databases. More recent thinking is less directive and
more holistic, seeing knowledge as “a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual
information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluation and incorporating
new experiences and information” (Davenport & Prusak, 1998, my italics).
Sense making requires a knowledge user to create meaningful messages that inform other
community members and which allow the community to comprehend complex and
ambiguous situations without either drowning in data, or accepting the restraints of a pseudo-
rational simplification. Language is key. The use of language to include or exclude gives us
the extremes of our sense-making dimension. We see communities sharing a common expert
language that effectively excludes those who do not share that expertise: this is restricted
sense making. The restriction generally results from the need to have invested time to acquire
a skill set and the associated expert language within training cultures, or it can be the private
symbolic language of common experience referenced through stories of learning cultures. At
the other extreme, expertise is either not necessary or is inappropriate: this is open sense
making. In, teaching cultures it is open to anyone who speaks the language of the dominant
culture of the organisation, in learning cultures it is open in the sense that no expert language
has yet developed as the situation is new.
The Cynefin Quadrants
It is important to remember that models such as this are designed to assist in developing self-
awareness and the capacity to describe the ecology in which one works. The borders between
each quadrant are ambiguous in most organisations, although it will be argued later that there
is considerable advantage to be gained by creating and building strong borders between the
quadrants and increasing the ritual elements of transfer between them. Each quadrant
represents a particular coalescence in time and space of a form of community with varying
degrees of temporal continuity.
common language
This is the formal organisation; the realm of company policy, recruitment procedures,
financial controls, internal marketing; the entire panoply of corporate life that has emerged
over the last century. It is a training environment. Its language is known, explicit and open, it
the commonplace day to day language of the dominant linguistic group.
The organisation has high volumes of information and embedded knowledge to communicate
on a regular basis to a diverse population. Some of this needs to be done within the context of
skills training, some via company publications, or increasingly the intra-net and other forms
of virtual collaboration. Increasingly the volume of information communicated by
organisations results in data glut and a failure to create meaningful messages; messages that
do not inform the recipient remain as data. In many organisations corporate communications
are de-facto ignored by field staff who have too many other demands on their time. Filtering
and the shift from push to pull information provision is one solution. Organisations are also
starting to re-discover the value of human filters and human channels through the re-
employment of Librarians, the use of story, video and other communication forms that convey
higher levels of complexity in less time consuming form.
In looking at the other quadrants of the Cynefin model, we always need to remember that the
formal organisation will always attempt to creep into other spaces through measurement and
control, and this partially laudable endeavour needs to be controlled and channelled so that it
does not inhibit the capacity of the organisation as a whole to develop to meet the demands of
its environment.
Professional /Logical
Restricted expert language
The most commonly understood form of expert language is that of the professional: an
individual who, through a defined training programme and associated job function, acquires
an ability to use explicit specialist terminology; generally codified in textbooks and via
references to key concepts or thinkers. The expert language and the time and basic skill it
takes to acquire that expert language are form the barriers to entry and define the nature of the
restriction. Although the opportunity to acquire the skill is known and available to all, in
practice it is further limited by opportunity. Opportunity may be the most important and the
most often forgotten as it frequently depends on patronage or access to decision makers rather
than need. Lack of opportunity may also result from social deprivation prior to
commencement of a career, or during that career. There is logic to the creation of
communities around these visible common affinities. Little or no ambiguity exists over their
nature or the barriers for entry.
Such communities are working at a high level of abstraction. Abstraction is the process by
which we focus on the underlying constructs of data. As Boisot (1998) admirably
demonstrates, the process of abstraction is
focused on concepts, not percepts. Percepts,
“…achieve their economies by maintaining a
certain clarity and distinction between
categories, concepts do so by revealing which
categories are likely to be relevant to the data-
processing task” or information creation.
“Abstraction, in effect, is a form of
reductionism; it works by letting the few stand
for the many”. In practise it is easier to create
a construct for knowledge as a thing; the
atomistic nature of things lends itself to
codification. Knowledge as a capability
presents different problems, mostly
attributable to the constant mutation of such
knowledge as it accommodates itself to
different contexts.
Expert communities are able to convey
complex messages more economically than non-expert communities within their domain.
Figure 2 illustrates the way in which the cost of codification decreases with the operational
level of abstraction of that community. Attempts to share expert knowledge at too low a level
of abstraction mean that the cost of effective codification increases exponentially and the act
of codification becomes a negative act: the real experts dismiss the material as not worth of
their attention, its back where they were in high school. Codify at too high a level and,
although costs are reduced, the level of restricted access can increase to the point of elitism.
In working with expert communities it is vital to understand the appropriate level of
operational abstraction, and to understand the speed of decay in the uniqueness of the
knowledge being shared. Highly complex knowledge with a high decay factor will rarely
justify the cost of codification. As can be seen from Figure 2, the tolerance for ambiguity is
broader for complex knowledge. This is because the populations able to use complex
knowledge are generally smaller and will tend to have more homogeneity of value/beliefs
Restricted symbolic language
Informal communities are more rigidly restricted than Professional ones. The community, or
individuals within it use criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of members that are unspecified
and rarely articulated, but intuitively understood. Members in the grey zone between
acceptance and rejection may be unaware of the process itself. Membership is always
ambiguous and if lost can result in bad feeling arising from a sense of personal betrayal that
goes beyond the normal cut and thrust of organisational politics in the formal organisation. In
some cases groups are absolutely restricted; they are linked to past unique experiences and in
consequence are not open to new membership. Such groups are also more readily
Operating levels of abstraction
Figure 2
Cost of Codification
Increasing Abstraction
Highly complex
Tolerance of ambiguity
Not complex
identifiable. Membership of an informal community generally transcends other loyalties and
organisational boundaries. Such groups coalesce as a result of some form of stimulus:
common experience, common values or beliefs, common goals or common enemies or
threats. They are used to make things work – phoning an individual with whom one has
worked on a previous project to help fix a problem, draws on previous favours and creates a
future obligation. A relationship between individuals in field in bureaucratic functions and
field operations can result in the processes of the organisation being used to facilitate rather
than obstruct.
An examination of primitive symbolic or pictorial languages reveals some interesting
features. Primary of among these is the ability of symbolic languages to convey a large
amount of knowledge or information in a very succinct way. Each symbol has a different
meaning according the combination of symbols that preceded it. The problem is that such
languages are difficult to comprehend and near impossible to use unless you grow up in the
community of symbol users. In some primitive societies the symbols are stories, often unique
to a particular family who train their children to act as human repositories of complex stories
that contain the wisdom of the tribe. The ability to convey high levels of complexity through
story lies in the highly abstract nature of the symbol associations in the observer’s mind when
s/he hears the story, It triggers ideas, concepts, values and beliefs at an emotional and
intellectual level simultaneously. A critical mass of anecdotal material from a cohesive
community can be used to identify and codify simple rules and values that underlie the reality
of that organisation’s culture (Snowden 1999b). At its simplest manifestation this can be a
coded reference to past experience. “You’re doing a Margi” may be praise or blame – unless
I shared the experience of Margi I will not know, if I shared the experience then a dense set of
experiences is communicated in a simple form.
Organisations need to realise the degree of their dependence on informal networks. The
danger is of chronic self-deception in the formal organisation, partly reinforced by the
camouflage behaviour of individuals in conforming to the pseudo-rational models. A mature
organisation will recognise that such informal networks are a major competitive advantage
and will ensure scalability through automated process and formal constructions while leaving
room for the informal communities to operate.
emergent language
So far we have dealt with the two forms of restricted communities in which a specialised
language, explicit or symbolic, is developed to make sense of incoming stimuli. We now
reach a domain in which such language does not exist because the situation is new. It may be
that a completely new market has emerged, or that new competitors have appeared from
nowhere or by lateral movements of brand: for example the entry of Mars into ice cream. The
newness may be technology- induced, creating new possibilities: the growth of the internet is
an obvious example, but we will see increasing levels of uncertainty as the impact of
pervasive commuting starts to bite. This is the ultimate learning environment. We have no
ideas of what it is that we need to train, and the language of our previous expertise may be
inappropriate at best, or appear to be appropriate (even though it is not) at worst.
Faced with something new the organisation has a problem; it will tend to look at the problem
through the filters of the old. The history of business is littered with companies who failed to
realise that the world had changed and who continued to keep the old models and old
language in place. In hindsight such foolishness is easy to identify, but at the time the
dominant language and belief systems of the organisation concerned make it far from
obvious. This is particularly true where the cost of acquisition of acquiring knowledge within
the organisation is high as this tends to knowledge hoarding and secrecy that in turn can blind
the organisation to new and changed circumstances. Other organisations deliberately share
knowledge, depending on speed of exploitation as the means of maintaining competitive
advantage (Boisot 1998).
The requirement in Uncharted space is to make sure that the past does not blind us to the
possibilities of the present and to the opportunities of the future. Assuming that the
organisation realises that the situation is new, there are three models, derived from the other
three Cynefin quadrants, which are used to deal with the uncertainty created:
1. Bureaucratic Quadrant: The organisation sets up a task force or allocates responsibility
to individuals trusted within the organisational hierarchy and established within its
command and control structure, including candidate members for such groups:
management trainees, protégés and the like. The tendency of such formally constituted
groups is to ensure that all interests are represented and functional conflict may result in a
failure to understand the nature of the change.
2. Professional Quadrant: individual competence groups may have a responsibility to
monitor changes and produce organisation response, or the task may be assigned to such a
group by senior management. The danger of sectional interests is more extreme than for
Bureaucracy. The restricted nature of this language, a strength in ensuring rapid and
effective knowledge sharing, becomes a handicap where a significantly new situation is
encountered. Individuals in Bureaucratic communities are concerned with power through
the manipulation of resources and can adapt and change to new circumstances: they don’t
mind what they manage, as long as they are the managers. In Professional communities
the individuals will have invested years in developing a particular skill or expertise and if
they have made the wrong bet on the longevity of that skill set, they will be more
3. Informal Quadrant: Solutions emerge without organisational intervention and are either
used or more frequently ignored until it is too late. This can happen when individuals or
groups within the organisation see or perceive that something has changed, and attempt to
make the organisation aware of the issue or keep it private until they feel safe to expose
the idea to corporate scrutiny, by which time it may be too late. A more recent
phenomenon is that the individuals concerned take the idea out of the organisation in a
business start up, often in competition. . Using Professional or Bureaucratic communities
as least has the benefit of visibility: the decision makers are aware that something is going
on and will often have been involved in its formation. With visibility comes
responsibility. Making new sense in an Informal community is a fundamentally flawed
behaviour. Facing a new situation requires awareness at all relevant levels of an
organisation: it cannot be left to chance.
The organisation needs to recognise that in new sense making we ‘see as through a glass
darkly to a greater truth’ to quote St Paul. New sense making takes place at a high level of
abstraction with extensive use of metaphor and paradox. Most corporate decision makers are
unhappy with both metaphor and paradox and it may be necessary to create mediating
communities between the innovation new sense making group and the decision makers, or
they will be listened to, but not heard.
How can we avoid the dangers discussed above? None of our current communities, formal or
informal will make sense of the new without problems, some of which may be fatal. Based on
an idealised representation of elements trialed over a series of engagements we can identify
four elements that should be present for new sense making.
1. Team selection. Most organisations do not really know what they know, and in many
cases the solutions are already known somewhere in the richness of the Informal
community space. In new sense making what matters is to find the individuals who have
access to the knowledge of the organisation together with a natural networking capability
to access external knowledge assets. Psychometric tools such as Belbin analysis are
useful to check that the necessary skills are present. However direct access to knowledge
net-workers can be obtained by use of Network Analysis (Foster & Falkowski, 1999).
This approach requires a series of “who would you ask if you wanted to know about X”
questions, asked, re-asked and developed across appropriate segments of the organisation.
The results of the answers are fed into a software tool borrowed from the Telecom
industry and designed to reveal traffic density and nodal points. The graphical result of
this work reveals the key individuals across a community and the key communities, within
an organisation who even if they do not know themselves, know someone who does.
These key individuals are often sidelined middle managers, secretaries and administrators.
They are often more motivated by connecting people than progression within the
organisation. These individuals, or communities have access to the knowledge assets of
the organisation, and their selection by this indirect disclosure method prevents the
competing self-interests that are likely in the event that the individuals are formally
selected by virtue of their status in the Professional or Bureaucratic quadrants.
2. Language Disruption. The team selection process above may bring together different
expertise and may be enough to disrupt the language norms of the organisation. However
it will normally be necessary to include other knowledge assets. This may include key
customers, particularly those who are troublesome! Breakthrough developments can also
usefully involve Lead-Users (von Hippel et al 1999) or competitors’ customers. It is also
effective to use knowledge assets from parallel environments. To take an example from
the author’s own direct experience: confronting experts from the marketing department of
a major retailer with experts from missile defence systems. The two groups realised that
they faced similar problems; there was very little difference between and incoming
ballistic missile and an outgoing disloyal customer when you look at the problem without
the constraints of previous assumptions. Disruption may also need to be continuous or
directed at key points in the programme.
3. Humour and ritual. The disruption of language can be reinforced by a degree of ritual
around specific negative acts on behaviour. Another direct experience of with a team in a
crisis on a systems delivery issue will illustrate this. The group concerned were over
reliant on process and assumed that key checks were taking place because the process said
that they would be. Increasing pressure of time, client dissatisfaction and the threat of
legal action were increasing this particular fault. A simple ritual involving the use of a
comical hat with elephant ears and an elephant trunk achieved the behavioural change.
Following agreement by the team that assumptions must not be made, the first person
caught making an assumption had the wear the hat until someone else was caught in a
similar mistake. Judicious advance planning meant that the most senior member of group
made the first assumption, which prevented victimisation of junior members until the
ritual was properly established. Over the course of the next three days the hat rotated on a
regular basis until it was no longer necessary: a significant behaviour shift had been
achieved. Humour was critical as it diffused tension and criticism
4. Time, Space and Resource. Innovation and lateral thinking are not always achieved
through resource provision. There is some evidence that starvation of resource, provided
it is not excessive, increases creativity and with it innovation; there are overlaps between
creativity and innovation but they are not the same thing, although often confused in
organisations. Starvation may also force groups into changing the rules of the game with
consequent benefit to changing customer requirements and/ or innovation. In one
experiment two groups of children were asked to compete in building a hut. One group
were given inferior materials and were unable to build as good a hut as their competitors.
The disadvantaged group then attempted to introduce new criteria into the competition by,
amongst other things, building a garden around the hut (Kastersztein & Personnaz, 1978).
There are no simple formulas to apply here, and the environment or direct threat for which
the intervention is planned may constrain the ideal allocation of resource. There are some
principles that can be applied: the time allocated should always be less than is estimated,
this increases pressure and forces the team to use other resources but their own;
conventional tools and approaches that lead to conventional or forecastable solutions
should generally be avoided and consciously removed; part time or full time is always a
question, part time will naturally create more networking into the organisation, full time
ensures focus; a unique physical as well as virtual environment is important, a social space
where things can be pinned on walls, non team members can visit and conversations can
take place.
The Uncharted space is one of the most interesting in the Cynefin model. We have explored
some of its aspects and some techniques for intervention. However there are many other
models and interventions that have been and could be devised. In particular, the above
techniques relate to point rather than continuous intervention to force new sense making.
Good fences make good neighbours
The value of a concept-based model such as Cynefin is in its ability to assist in descriptive
self-awareness within an organisation and to understand the flow of knowledge. By
presenting clear boundaries between different forms of community, the organisation is more
likely to recognise diversity and create alternative approaches to strategy determination and
investment (Snowden 1999b). The nature of the flows can indicate the sort of organisation
that we are dealing with and to some extend its likely future direction. Maintaining
boundaries between communities can be vital in ensuring knowledge exchange. There is a
wonderful poem by Robert Frost entitled Mending Wall that makes this point. It tells the
story of two farmers who go out in spring to “set the wall between us once again”. One
farmer challenges the other as to the point of the task and receives a response which
summarises the importance of boundaries:
“He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’”
The point is a profound one. The current circumstances may not require a wall, but the
presence of the wall means that we are secure in our boundaries. Individuals need to know
that the private learning they share with trusted confidents in Informal space will remain
private. If they believe it may become public then the degree of disclosure will be inhibited.
In a virtual community there are a broad range of interventions that can encourage this. In
IBM Global Services the best part of 50,000 private collaborative workrooms exist de facto in
Informal space, while Professional space is organised into just over 50 competences. The
self-organising capabilities of Informal space allow a vast quantity of knowledge to self
organise, allowing investment to be concentrated into Professional space. What then matters
is the creation of flags and search techniques that allow the Informal communities to
volunteer their knowledge into the Professional and Bureaucratic communities when it is
needed (Snowden, 1999a).
The Cynefin Model was not designed to mandate behaviour but to allow an organisation to
understand, within a holistic framework, the diverse portfolio of communities that constitute
it. It focuses on developing a self-aware descriptive capability from which action can be
determined through collective understanding. Such self-awareness has to be rooted in the
multiple birthplaces of the different communities and their developing history to which their
members are naturally acclimatised.
Cynefin is different from Ba in that it is less concerned about tacit-explicit conversions; partly
because it rejects the mind-body dualism implicit in Nonaka’s SECI model, but in the main
because of its focus on descriptive self-awareness rather than prescriptive organisation
models. Cynefin provides a different and more holistic space for the “cyclical cultivation of
resources” (Nonaka & Konno 1998) than that offered by the heirs of ‘scientific management’.
Those Newtonian models continue to apply, but like the Newtonians are confined to a known
context. In an increasingly uncertain world we need new organic models that embrace
paradox, utilise the ambiguity of metaphor and recognise the dynamic interdependence and
interactivity of human agents and their tools, technology based or otherwise. We too often
forget that Newton himself lived at a time of profound change, and was simultaneously both
an alchemist and a scientist.
Dave Snowden can be contacted via e-mail:
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... The domain is characterized by clear cause and effect, and is in the realm of the "known knowns" (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003;Snowden and Boone, 2007). As such, decision-making is highly predictable and anticipated, as one can sense the situation, categorize it and respond, based on best practice (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003;Snowden, 1999;Snowden, 2000;Snowden and Boone, 2007). An appropriate management model for the simple domain would be top-down control, coordinated by a central manager (Van Beurden et al., 2013). ...
... The domains are merely used to describe the situation facing the organization to assist with creating meaning and deciding on appropriate action. The underlying tenet of this sense-making framework is the recognition that situational awareness is critical to provide structured and conscious insights that help shape and frame informed decisions by leaders (Snowden, 1999;Snowden, 2000). ...
... It is noted that models, such as the Cynefin framework, are designed to elicit self-awareness and to develop descriptive capability from which action can be determined through collective understanding. Therefore, the borders between the domains are fluid and represent an amalgamation of understanding bound in specific time and space (Snowden, 2000). ...
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After the unprecedented changes experienced in higher education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a need to integrate initial thoughts and reflective experience to decide on the way forward. This study aimed to reflect on, and make sense of the events related to South African higher education institutions HEIs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by using the Cynefin framework. Data from a rapid review of online media at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and a collaborative autoethnography session 1 year since lockdowns were implemented are used to present perspectives for the sense-making process. This offers insights to both ends of the spectrum as it highlights the evolution of processes taking place at multiple levels from government policies to institutional practices, as well as how this impacted on both staff and students. The Cynefin framework demonstrated sense-making efforts in the disordered, to the chaotic, to the complex, then to the complicated and eventually to the simple domain. Each domain ushered in its peculiarities and highlighted the issues ranging from vulnerabilities experienced in the higher education sector, to trying to reconfigure the academic year, to dealing with wicked problems, to eventually relying on expert assistance to navigate the virtual university space. Trying to establish causality in the simple domain proved challenging as the information available during the time was sparse. Despite these challenges, the lessons learnt include the importance of the sense-making process among all academic staff, the significance of collaboration and team efforts and the need to adapt leadership and self-leadership approaches to the changed ways of working in higher education institutions.
... The qualitative approach considers the main investigative principles and practices to describe and analyse data generated in FaceBook during the period of 2020 to 2021. FINDINGS Our findings are presented in four categories underpinned by Snowden (1999;2014) that were described in our introduction: chaotic/innovative; complex/informal; complicated/professional and obvious/structural. Each category group contains data that were selected and interpreted using the concept of state of relevance by Meister (2012) whose components are time (action e.g. ...
... Cultural sensemakingNote.Snowden (1999). ...
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This exploratory study examines how knowledge is created in virtual networks with social media in the context of resilience and adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of this study is to explore social network interactions to improve informal learning. Participants were members of the COLEARN community including educators, students, researchers and professionals from Brazil interested in Open Education enhanced by technologies for Responsible Research and Innovation. This community, started in 2008 on the OpenLearn Moodle platform, became an open education network in 2012 expanded with FaceBook. It is currently focused on the open schooling approach to promote partnerships between universities, schools and society on real socio-scientific issues with the multi-network platform of the CONNECT project in Brazil and Europe. Findings suggest that informal learning can be enriched with the possibility of establishing networks of investigation, knowledge and innovation based on the understanding of how knowledge is constructed in virtual social networks and by observing the movement of collective intelligences instituted in them. Keywords: Social networks. Open schooling. Informal Learning. Collective intelligence. Responsible Research and Innovation.
... In the Cynefin framework, D. Snowden (2000) has modelled a decision-making process based on the nature of the topic to be addressed that may be classified as simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. Each type of problem calls for a specific type of response: simple problems are solved by best practices, complicated problems are solved with good practices that require analysis, complex problems are solved with emerging practices that require experimentation and chaotic issues require novel practice. ...
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In an always more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous environment, companies must adapt to keep their context in check. The purpose of this paper is to share and discuss the Systemic Agility model, that explores the adaptation of an organization to its context. The model is rooted in the existing literatures and uses quantitative methods to investigate on organizations’ adaptation. Inner organization’s observations are used to position its culture in a continuum bounded by modern and postmodern perspectives. Outer observations are used to quantify the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) characteristics of the environment. The association of all the observations reveals the fit level of an organization to its context; the unfit consequences may be associated with tensions and stress that may impede efficacy. The model and the questionnaire appear consistent under the lenses of the gathered observations analyzed with the Confirmatory Factor Analysis. This suggests that the Systemic Agility may be used to further explore the adaptation of an organization to its context, the creation of wellbeing and the reductions of inner tensions.
... A new focus area can be on problem-solving in different situations. This prospective study requires the combination of semiotic theory and the change of behavioral expression matrix to the Snowden's (2000) Cynefin model of problem-solving, where problems are recognized as simple, complicated, complex, and havoc systems. In a simple system, the responsiveness when recognizing the sign can be in a reflexive mode. ...
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This study explores the theory of semiotics and how it is processed in the cognitive space of a person (a complex adaptive system) with a focus on an individual’s response to persuasive arousal, how behavior is altered, and how habits are formulated. The study involves reviewing on the theory of semiotics, attitude altering, and behavior enactment. An SIAB framework is constructed from the combination of multiple fields of knowledge domains. The proof of the framework construction validity is verified by systematic literature review and meta-analysis techniques on the past marketing semiotic research. The framework can explain how humans incept the sign, how the sign influences attitudes, and how behavior is expressed. The SIAB framework can be the foundation to explain how individual knowledge is constructed, which can support many future studies.
... The government must begin to think carefully about the software solution that is wanted and based on models that help decision-making such as Cynefin [12], determine the complexity of the system and consider dividing the functionalities in several projects with different processes bidding for each set of functionalities. This would make it possible to reduce the typical uncertainty in traditional projects, in which, with the application of fixed price contracts, suppliers run the risk of being involved in projects, where the complexity of the development is not measured; since preliminary requirements are usually established in advance and it is easier to correct the course with the realization of partitioned projects that can be reconsidered for other functionalities and continuous changes [S15]. ...
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Context: Agile approaches are the answer to the rigid framework for traditional software development. These focus on creating products based on communication and continuous collaboration between the client and supplier, which are detailed characteristics in documents; it is also true that the contractual agreements for such approaches continue to be structured according to the restrictions of the traditional development of software products. Meticulous specifications and restrictions such as time, cost and scope are just some of the fixed conditions of the contractual agreement. In this sense, traditional contracts do not respond adequately to agile software development and, for this reason, agile contracts emerge as a framework of agreement that stipulates the conditions that are clearly necessary to allow development under these approaches. Methodology: a systematic mapping of the literature is presented that aims to show a current panorama of agile contracting for software development and its application in different sectors of the economy with an emphasis on the public sector. Results: The results obtained show few examples of the application of agile contracts, especially in the public sector; suggesting research opportunities and the generation of proposals in this context. Conclusions: It has been concluded that the contracting methods used by public institutions can be an obstacle to agile approaches. In addition, this document presents recommendations for adjusting contracts that seek to facilitate developments approached from the perspective of agile approaches in the public sector.
... 1. To analyze and identify the structure of the organizations and communities behind open-source projects [45]. 2. To identify the difficulties and complex dynamics [46] of these organizations and communities when dealing with the agile transition and scaling process. 3. Understand what factors determine these organizations and communities in the agile transition process and how to manage them for successful scaling. ...
... To answer this question, the Cynefin framework (3)(4)(5) (Figure 1) proves to be helpful. This conceptual framework is used to aid decision-making and offers a possible categorization, which can be reasonably applied to situations similar as the current corona crisis. ...
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The Medical Intelligence and Information (MI2) Unit of the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) is experienced in crisis support in military missions since several years. It gained additional experiences during the current coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on different levels of the response to crisis and was requested to share the findings and expertise with the overloaded civil public health agencies inside Germany. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the unit is constantly developing new products for crisis communication, knowledge sharing techniques in new databases, dashboards for leadership, and training for laypersons in contact tracing. Hence, trying to innovate in crisis since the first severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV)-2-disease wave. During the second wave, the unit was requested to evaluate the outbreak management of different national civil public health agencies in southern Germany, and to support the development of dashboards in a comprehensive public health approach as a necessary start toward digitalization.
... The CYNEFIN framework and health-care complexity Snowden's CYNEFIN sense-making framework, illustrated in Figure 1, has been shown to have a degree of applicability to health care (Baker et al., 2006;Burman and Aphane, 2016; Kempermann, 2017;Mark and Snowden, 2006;Snowden, 2000;Snowden and Boone, 2007;Van Beurden et al., 2013). Recent applications have been proposed to assist with managing the COVID-19 pandemic (Rubin and de Vries, 2020;Snowden and Rancatti, 2021). ...
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Purpose The complex and occasionally chaotic nature of health care has been previously described in the literature, as has the broadening recognition that different management approaches are required for different types of problems rather than a “one size fits all” approach. The CYNEFIN framework from Snowden outlines a consistent cognitive approach that offers the leader and leadership team an ability to urgently apply the correct actions to a given situation. This paper proposes a variant CYNEFIN approach for healthcare. Design/methodology/approach Consistent and accurate decision-making within health care is the hallmark of an effective and pragmatic leader and leadership team. An awareness of how one’s cognitive biases and heuristics may adversely impact on this cognitive process is paramount, as is an understanding of the calibration between fast and slow thinking. Findings The authors propose a variant CYNEFIN approach for health care of “act-probe-sense-respond” to resolve complex and time-critical emergency scenarios, using the differing contexts of a cardiac arrest and an evolving crisis management problem as examples. The variant serves as a pragmatic sense-making framework for the health-care leader and leadership team that can be adopted for many time-critical crisis situations. Originality/value The variant serves as a pragmatic sense-making framework for the health-care leader that can be adopted for many crisis situations.
The need for a better solution to manage facilities have for a long time been evident. This is because of the need to replace, the willingness to adapt, and unforeseen damages during the life cycle of the facility usually in Norwegian homes causes the life span of the facility to decline. A proposed solution to this challenge is the Remote Facility Management System (RFMS). In this study the primary property ownership structures considered are properties with joint ownership and properties with housing associations. This study aims to assist in the development of the RFMS by applying Systems Thinking. The study finds several contributions by applying systems thinking methodologies to the development of the RFMS assist by providing essential unknowns to the development process.
Higher Education Institutions around the world are all facing the challenge of delivering coursework online. Following a decade of evolving online education options, in 2020 ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ emerged as an accelerated intervention to enable the rapid implementation of wholly online coursework delivery during the COVID-19 crisis. There is ongoing uncertainty about how to ensure quality offerings in such online learning environments, to meet national and international programme accreditation requirements. The authors undertook an exploratory study of engineering educator experiences with online curriculum delivery during the COVID-19 crisis. The Cynefin framework was used to conceptualise a structured narrative for considering the institutional context likely to be present in a given crisis, to then provide a pathway for educators to consider curriculum delivery options where the pedagogical tools must be changed but the underlying desired competency development remain unchanged. Semi-structured interviews with educators were conducted to help appreciate the spectrum of challenges faced in one university. Synthesising the findings, we present a summary of ERT concerns and opportunities to support educators in rapid curriculum renewal during times of crisis. We conclude the significant opportunity to replicate this study’s exploration with a larger sample size, to manage online curriculum renewal going forward.
An essential knowledge management element is an organization's network for sharing information. This article describes Organization Network Analysis, a tool that enables companies to map the information exchanges among employees and determine how to identify and leverage knowledge brokers and boundary spanners, and to integrate cliques, bottlenecks and isolated groups. Copyright © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Cornwallis Emmanuel Ltd.
The Sense-making approach to studying and understanding users and designing systems to serve their needs is reviewed. The approach, developed to focus on user sense making and sense unmaking in the fields of communication and library and information science, is reviewed in terms of its implications for knowledge management. Primary emphasis is placed on moving conceptualizations of users, information and reality from the noun-based knowledge-as-map frameworks of the past to verb-based frameworks emphasizing diversity, complexity and sense-making potentials. Knowledge management is described as a field on the precipice of chaos, reaching for a means of emphasizing diversity, complexity and people over centrality, simplicity and technology. Sense making, as an approach, is described as a methodology disciplining the cacophony of diversity and complexity without homogenizing it. Knowledge is reconceptualized from noun to verb.
This article introduces the Japanese concept of "Ba" to organizational theory. Ba (equivalent to "place" in English) is a shared space for emerging relationships. It can be a physical, virtual, or mental space. Knowledge, in contrast to information, cannot be separated from the context—it is embedded in ba. To support the process of knowledge creation, a foundation in ba is required. This article develops and explains four specific platforms and their relationships to knowledge creation. Each of the knowledge conversion modes is promoted by a specific ba. A self-transcending process of knowledge creation can be supported by providing ba on different organizational levels. This article presents case studies of three companies that employ ba on the team, division, and corporate level to enhance knowledge creation.
Most senior managers want their product development teams to create break-throughs--new products that will allow their companies to grow rapidly and maintain high margins. But more often they get incremental improvements to existing products. That's partly because companies must compete in the short term. Searching for breakthroughs is expensive and time consuming; line extensions can help the bottom line immediately. In addition, developers simply don't know how to achieve breakthroughs, and there is usually no system in place to guide them. By the mid-1990s, the lack of such a system was a problem even for an innovative company like 3M. Then a project team in 3M's Medical-Surgical Markets Division became acquainted with a method for developing breakthrough products: the lead user process. The process is based on the fact that many commercially important products are initially thought of and even prototyped by "lead users"--companies, organizations, or individuals that are well ahead of market trends. Their needs are so far beyond those of the average user that lead users create innovations on their own that may later contribute to commercially attractive breakthroughs. The lead user process transforms the job of inventing breakthroughs into a systematic task of identifying lead users and learning from them. The authors explain the process and how the 3M project team successfully navigated through it. In the end, the team proposed three major new product lines and a change in the division's strategy that has led to the development of breakthrough products. And now several more divisions are using the process to break away from incrementalism.
The Paradox of Story
  • D Snowden
Snowden, D. (1999b) " The Paradox of Story " Scenario and Strategy Planning Vol 1, Issue 5
The ASHEN model of knowledge disclosure " Knowledge Management Ark Publications
  • D Ark Publications Snowden
Ark Publications Snowden, D. (2000) " The ASHEN model of knowledge disclosure " Knowledge Management Ark Publications April 2000 Vol 3 Issue 7