posted 25 Aug 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 1
A natural KM narrative
In its efforts to develop a collaborative culture, English Nature was determined to steer away from technological applications to address its needs. Ron Donaldson shares his experience of applying techniques of narrative and complexity to encourage knowledge sharing at the organisation.
The concept of ‘knowledge’ is best summed up by F. David Peat, who believed that western education was encouraging people to think of knowledge as factual information that could be structured, then passed on through books, lectures and programmed courses. He pointed out that many of us believe that knowledge is something that can be acquired and accumulated, rather like stocks and bonds. However, Peat maintained that, “The act of coming to know something involves a personal transformation. The knower and the known are indissolubly linked and changed in a fundamental way.”
The journey begins
My own personal transformation began in 1998. English Nature was one of the pilot organisations used by Dave Snowden, director of the Cynefin Centre, to test out various narrative and complexity-based approaches and techniques. I was attracted to the theory that knowledge management was essentially organic, and should be about apprenticeships, story circles and anthropological observation. These ideas, delivered by Snowden in a series of stories, seemed to resonate with my personal values and beliefs. I recalled how my father (now a retired shipyard worker) used to tell us tales of being an apprentice, and how he eventually employed and trained his own apprentices. Over the years, I have encountered various KM theories and narratives, including Steve Denning’s ‘springboard stories’ and Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’. The amalgamation of these ideas has shaped my vision of what knowledge actually is.
Last year I qualified as English Nature’s first in-house Cynefin practitioner. The Cynefin approach is all about sense making, networks and narrative. I was introduced to theories based on complexity, including those of attractors, patterns and emergence.
My subconscious and behavioural patterns were irrevocably determined by my experiences and influences. Gradually, I gave up my career in information systems for the unknown and relatively untrodden path of organic KM (or as we have titled it at English Nature, ‘knowledge ecology’).
In the organic realms of ecology, we believe that the world is self-organised, from the lowest to the highest level of organisation. At every level, from a single cell to a brain, from an individual to a community to a society, properties emerge that are greater than the sum of the parts. Crucially, these properties are unlikely to have been predicted from the interactions of the parts. This is the domain of ‘un-order’. Snowden can best document and explain Cynefin’s theories , but English Nature has been involved with various studies that have encompassed these ideas.
Into the wilderness
Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist and scientist, believes that we are shaped by what we extend ourselves into; our attending and participation inform our lives. We must, he argues, be very careful with the objects and actions we present to ourselves and to our children because they invariably change us. In 2003, English Nature commissioned a research programme from OPENspace (the research centre for inclusive access to outdoor environments), based at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. The researchers took a user-led approach, involving focus-group discussions, and collected a vast array of raw anecdotal material. A considerable amount of this anecdotal material was presented in the report word for word.
At English Nature, most of the research reports are full of tables and charts, proving illustrations of theories and concepts. The OPENspace report was distinct as the anecdotal nature of the evidence presented meant that the readers were able to get an idea of how respondents reacted to questions almost in their own voice. In addition, the patterns that emerged within the report were perceived differently by each reader because of the inherent ambiguity of the anecdotes. Several archetypal patterns emerged within the report concerning the connection to nature that were fundamental to our greater understanding of the concept of knowledge.
The wildlife sites studied in the OPENspace report are all located in the Midlands area of England, but I believe that the anecdotes are universally accurate.
The most important narrative pattern that emerged – which was a key finding in the report – was that a significant proportion of those questioned claimed to have been fairly frequent visitors to green areas as children. The report findings revealed that people tended to go to back to the same sites in adulthood that they had frequented as children, suggesting that preferences for types of green space are affected by childhood memories. Previous research conducted in Denmark by Laessoe & Iverson found that “a person’s childhood experience of landscape/nature does have a particular and lasting significance”.
As I read the report I began to wonder how the Cynefin approach could make sense of all of this. The relationship between individuals, communities and nature is complex. The use of a narrative-inquiry approach allowed the patterns and themes to emerge, rather than be stifled by standard pre-prepared questions and analysis techniques. The pattern that emerges when studying these anecdotes is that of a childhood visit to a natural place. Where there is a pattern there is usually an attractor: the natural place, a school outing, or a day out with parents are obvious contenders in this case.
An attractor can be an idea, story, person, activity, event or place. Attractors are often quiet, hidden or difficult to identify, but patterns that emerge from narrative can often illuminate the attractors and give their location away. Of course, identifying the attractors is just the beginning. Identification provides us with a target for intervention and the next options available to us (derived from our nature-reserve-management experience) include replicating and distributing as multiple attractors; re-introducing lost or ailing attractors; and ensuring that the conditions needed to sustain these attractors are optimal.
The intervention method in the OPENspace case was obvious. Parents and teachers needed to get children out into their nearest natural places to ensure that ownership of nature and budding naturalists were encouraged in the future. When focusing on knowledge-sharing attractors, the implications of this scenario are that the attractor and the patterns are managed, rather than the knowledge itself (which is an emergent property). This is a scaleable approach that can be applied to an individual, group, community, organisation or society.
Attractors from childhood
One intervention recently initiated at English Nature’s headquarters in Peterborough involved a series of lunchtime seminars from in-house experts. The only guidance experts were given by management was that they must tell their own personal story, not simply the corporate version of their current job. Responses to the series were positive and attendees reported that they felt a greater bond with the organisation as a result. English Nature later realised that a renewed sense of connectedness with employees had emerged and many new connections have since been developed. Looking back at the talks, the speakers revealed three fascinating patterns:
All had an early introduction to nature and were encouraged to explore this;
All coveted specific natural-history books at their local bookshop when they were children, and despite high cost, persevered until they were able to obtain them;
All were inspired by naturalists or influential teachers.
Several mentioned the British naturalist David Bellamy as an inspiration. A quick skim through his autobiography, Jolly Green Giant , shows that Bellamy’s upbringing was also subject to similar patterns, illustrating that patterns beget patterns.
Listening to these tales of childhood that have eventually led to major breakthroughs in ecological research and policy,
I recalled my own upbringing. I spent my childhood exploring cliffs and caves, and beachcombing along the North Sea coast, first with my parents and later with school friends. As a direct result I studied geology and ecology at Sunderland Polytechnic, and aimed to become an expert in rock-pool habitats, cliff formation and coastal flora and fauna. This summer I have found myself on those same cliffs as part of English Nature’s involvement with Durham Heritage Coast Partnership’s ‘Celebrating our coast’ initiative, obtaining stories about the area from locals and conservation workers, both past and present. The childhood visits, the university course at Sunderland and this celebration event are all attractors, each having a long-lasting effect on the people they attract and the patterns that emerge.
The outcome of an encounter with any of these attractors cannot be guaranteed, but in my case, without them there would be less connection to natural spaces, less commitment to conservation and less understanding of the serious environmental issues facing us today. So why did I spend 21 years lost in the wilderness of information systems? The prime attractor in this case was money.
Time for tea
I recently facilitated a ‘lessons learnt’ review of a major public inquiry in which English Nature had played a key role. I used my new-found complex consultant skills, remaining context free and endeavouring to ambiguously encourage anecdotes.
After several hours of narratives of legal, media and logistical lessons, we were almost done. At this point, the most junior member of the project pointed out that almost every major breakthrough in consensus and clarification of stance was achieved during pre-meeting chats, tea breaks and during journey times rather than in the formal meetings. This was a pattern I recognised from my studies of communities. Formal meetings commonly have a fixed agenda controlled by the chair, and with so much material to get through there is little or no time for discussion and clarification, questions or even social niceties. In other words, they are strictly ordered.
However, tea breaks, train journeys and even walks to stations are unordered. In these environments, social networking can occur and, given enough time, a shared understanding and a limited level of trust can emerge. The attractor is therefore the social space, which represents an amalgam of time, place and opportunity for members to meet, socialise and share knowledge and experiences.
My recommendation for future public inquiries, and indeed all projects, is to make time for discussion: take longer tea breaks, share transport, travel in groups and even co-ordinate meal times and overnight accommodation in an effort to maximise social networking. In other words, provide the optimal conditions for this social-space attractor to flourish.
The lonely butterfly
Take the case of the lonely Durham Argus Butterfly, found only on the cliffs near the Castle Eden Dene national nature reserve on the north-east coast of England. This beautiful butterfly is only found at this one location. Studies of its associated species and habitat have identified a number of attractors, including:
- Magnesian limestone cliffs on which the rock-rose grows;
- Rock-rose is the only known food plant of the Durham Argus caterpillars;
- Red ants lick off the sugar that is exuded by the caterpillars. The caterpillars would die of mould and fungal infection if this were not done with regularity and precision.
In such a complex ecosystem the butterfly itself cannot be ‘managed’, only the attractors and patterns associated with it; that is, plenty of rock-rose and a habitat suitable for red ants to thrive.
Breaking down walls
When I first implemented Cynefin narrative inquiry techniques back in 1999, I brought together several site managers and plenty of tea and biscuits, and the following story emerged.
Bob was young, full of ideas and eager to involve the local community. He was given site-management responsibility for the Norfolk side of the Wash. Bob proposed a new initiative to layout and signpost walks around the edge of the reserves. The launch was to be accompanied by a write-up in the local paper.
Imagine the shock when the item duly appeared under the headline “Circular walls around reserve”. Transposing an ‘l’ for a ‘k’ had changed the power of initiative from a minor to a major attractor. Irate local people inundated the paper with complaints and Bob was contacted and challenged by members of the community about rights of access and other contentious issues.
Bob finally managed this negative interest in his work by offering to talk at all the local societies and group meetings in order to seed multiple attractors. This approach succeeded because it allowed the community to learn about what English Nature stood for, the initiatives it was currently undertaking and the organisation’s plans for the future. It is often said that any news is good news and, in this case, a tiny spelling mistake proved extremely positive for the reputation and awareness of conservation efforts in the local area.
The benefit of retrospect
An important feature of these attractors, patterns and outcomes is that they only make sense after the event and it is difficult to guarantee the same outcome. The initial approach when studying such a situation is therefore to encourage and collect anecdotes, look for patterns, identify attractors and decide if interventions are appropriate.
The narrative-inquiry techniques that make up the Cynefin approach are purposefully ambiguous and aim to encourage the patterns that emerge from the stories to be identified by the storytellers. I have found that this ‘self-realisation’ makes a much stronger impact on the group you are working with.
Traditional consultancy often goes looking for the patterns it predicts will be there. I am reminded of this fabulous recollection in Richard Mabey’s wonderful Flora Britannica: “In the summer of 1977 the Wiltshire police carried out a drugs raid at my secondary school looking for Cannabis plants. They confiscated and left with a Horse Chestnut in a pot.” The police found exactly what they were looking for.
Face to face with the dragon
Returning to the childhood connections with green spaces mentioned earlier, at a recent conference Justin Mundy explained that in many parts of the world there has been a mass exodus from rural to urban areas. “Previous cultural norms no longer apply within a modern urban society and the previous belief system has no time to adapt and is therefore jettisoned. So yet another generation comes of age without the broad range of cultural values that can act as a reservoir or a safety valve. It is then just a short step to polarised political views, which often embrace fundamentalism to provide meaning to life.” The overall outcome is worrying but one solution could be to employ narrative techniques. “Narrative is inherently collaborative, strengthening connectedness,” says Steve Denning.
Connecting with a community
The feeling of being connected to a place emerges when the experience of nature is contextualised. Hearing stories about all the studies, myths and folklore associated with a location creates a stronger bond. An expertly guided nature ramble can make the most ordinary of walks sing with inspiration and imagination through this sharing of narrative.
‘Community’ is thought by some to be the complex property emergent from the occurrence of narrative, and is often itself defined as a group of people who share common narrative. This has become an integral part of English Nature’s vision – a population of rooted communities that share a common bond. This vision can become reality through simple actions of sharing stories about experiencing nature.
I am regularly asked how I am taking these ideas forward as practical deliverables, and I have given a few examples in this article. However, lately I have been more conscious of the effectiveness of seeding multiple attractors. These attractors take many forms and I believe that some patterns are already in evidence in the following three ‘house rules’ that our CEO, Andy Brown, now gives to all staff on their induction course:
- Talk to at least ten other staff before starting work/switching on your computer each day;
- Ensure you create an opportunity every six months to get out of the office and visit an national nature reserve or site of special scientific interest;
- Once a year, delight at least one other member of staff, without them knowing it was you, making sure that at the same time your action pleases you.
In 98AD Tacitus famously warned British people to be wary of the Roman influences that were swamping their enlightened and traditional culture. This warning can be applied to organisations that are gradually being led into the demoralising temptations of knowledge bases, taxonomies and collaborative spaces. The unsuspecting KM community speaks of such novelties as ‘knowledge management’, when in fact they are referring to technologies that can only destroy narrative processes.
Whoever you are, wherever you live, put away your laptops, mobile phones and iPods and get yourself, your family and friends out into the countryside – the benefits to your health should be reason enough.
1. Pleat, F. D., Lighting the Seventh Fire (Carol Publishing, 1994)
2. Kurts, C.F. & Snowden, D.J., ‘The new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world’ in IBM Systems Journal (volume 42, number 3, 2003)
3. Nature for People: The Importance of Green Spaces to East Midlands Communities (English Nature Research, 2003)
4. Laessoe & Iverson, Naturen I et hverdagslivs-perspektiv (National Environmental Research Institute, 2002)
5. Bellamy, D., Jolly Green Giant (Random House Audiobooks, 2002)
6. Mabey, R., Flora Britannica (Sinclair Stevenson, 1996)
7. Mundy, J., Trees, Environment and Security (RSA 250th Anniversary Tree Launch, 2004)
8. Denning, S., Squirrel Inc. A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2004)
For the past 15 months I have been ably assisted in my efforts to collect anecdotes, identify patterns, seed attractors and make sense of it all by Karen Goodwin, knowledge ecologist at English Nature.
Ron Donaldson, senior knowledge ecologist, English Nature, firstname.lastname@example.org