posted 2 Jul 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 10
The knowledge: Dave Snowden
Simon Lelic talks to Dave Snowden, director of IBM’s newly created Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity
Dave Snowden’s personal involvement in knowledge management began almost 20 years ago when he first began working in the field of decision support systems. Although he, like many others, lived through what he describes as “the techno-fetishist” period in KM (which he believes is still in its death throws), Snowden very quickly came to accept the importance of the human element in decision making and innovation.
“It was during this period that I first started to use anthropology and narrative as a means to discover knowledge, which was a major insight and determined the future direction of my work,” he says. “We have since done a lot of practice-based research into narrative as a means of both storing and revealing knowledge, although we didn’t come to story as a means to communicate but as a means of discovery.”
This work in turn led to the crystallisation of Snowden’s principles of ‘organic knowledge management’, which focus on using the natural contours of the organisation to allow knowledge to self-organise and self-manage, minimising formal structures and thus saving cost, improving effectiveness and reducing time to deployment of KM solutions.
More recently, Snowden has focused on the application of the science of complex adaptive systems to KM, and it is this area of research that has brought him to his current position as director of IBM’s recently formed Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity. “The centre is really exciting, as it will bring together practitioners, independent consultants, academics and many others, all of whom have had enough of applying mechanical models to human organisations,” he says.
Named after a Welsh word that loosely translates as ‘the place of multiple belongings’, the centre is a virtual, membership-based network that will look to apply complexity theory to organisational decision making. Much of the work carried out there will centre on what Snowden feels is the biggest single issue currently facing knowledge management initiatives: breaking away from approaches to KM that are based on “recipe books” and the “associated tyranny of best practice”.
“Knowledge management solutions are unique to the organisational context in which they are created,” he argues. “Over the last few years I’ve seen too many organisations decide to ‘do KM’ and immediately assume that this means setting up communities of practice or creating yellow pages, competence models and the like.” Snowden believes organisations should instead concentrate on adopting a philosophy of what he calls “just-in-time KM”, a deliberate reference to the theory surrounding JIT manufacturing processes.
“We used to hold stock on the factory floor until we realised it was too expensive, at which point we pushed the problem back to suppliers, saving cost, improving productivity and increasing communication in the supply chain,” he explains. “KM, for the past seven years, has been making the same mistakes. It has assumed that it is all about making the knowledge of an organisation explicit and storing it in databases. JIT KM focuses on creating an infrastructure in which the informal or shadow organisation can self-organise or self-manage large amounts of knowledge, which we may never need, and enables the stimulation of just-in-time knowledge transfer.”
Yet while Snowden is convinced that this type of ecological – as opposed to mechanical – approach to knowledge management will only grow in importance, he is less certain that this will be reflected in the evolution of the KM industry as a whole. “The number of vendors will increase, the number of credible vendors will decrease,” he says. “I think the non-credible vendors will continue to try to solve KM problems by throwing any technology in their kit back at the problem. The credible ones will be linked with (or possess for themselves) deep knowledge of the human aspects of KM and will deploy technology as a tool in support of that.”
From a personal perspective, Snowden expects to continue working in the area of creating knowledge-based tools that enable greater cross-cultural understanding and improved decision making under conditions of uncertainty, together with more detailed work on narrative as a means of revealing and communicating knowledge. “Plus four or five things I haven’t thought of yet,” he adds, “but which I will when I read the right books and get faced with the more difficult client situations. My skill is in the lateral application of ideas from one field to the next, which always creates interest although it can be a roller-coaster ride for some of my colleagues.”
He is also looking forward to KM Europe 2002, an occasion he describes as being theevent in KM. Snowden’s keynote presentation will look to update people on some of the work he has been involved in with the US government that led indirectly to the formation of the Cynefin Centre, as well as on the new uses of metaphor to create innovation programmes and some of the more advanced work in the area of narrative databases. As he says: “KM Europe is the biggest and the best networking opportunity. I’m pleased to be there, and I’m looking forward to meeting old friends.”
For more information on KM Europe 2002, and for details on how to register your attendance, visit www.kmeurope.com or call Henry Anson on +44 (0)20 8785 2700.