Dave Snowdens golden rules for KM

At the KM Legal Europe 2011 conference in Amsterdam yesterday, Dave Snowden (founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge) was a keynote speaker that really brought some new perspectives on KM to the KM professional audience.

Dave Snowden has pioneered the development of narrative approaches to knowledge management with natural science insights to the human capacity to best learn from experiences in a narrative form. In his presentation he introduced and explained the concepts of narrative knowledge, distributed cognition and safe-to-fail-approaches, and - to the dismay of some of the audience - he also declared the current concepts of best practice, rigid structures and uniformity as the "death of KM".

Dave Snowden reckoned that instead of focusing on imitating success you should tolerate failure within some constraints -  the "safe-to-fail-approach" - since the avoidance of failure and learning from your own and others mistakes is a much more efficient knowledge strategy. By building in rational and rigid structures you will miss the human factor and the capability to adapt to changed circumstances and be innovative. As an analogy, he made a comparison to the recipe book user compared to the master chef. Recipe book users cannot adapt and respond to new and unexpected things, whereas the master chef can adapt to the circumstances and use whatever is available to make a brilliant meal.

This subject has also been further explores in the article "The Autism of Knowledge Management" by Patrick Lambe (founder of Straits Knowledge), which is well recommeded to read.

So, how should then KM deal with the need for retaining, sharing and developing knowledge? Should we (as KM professionals) just focus on the narrative parts in a completely unstructured and unorganized way?

No, said Dave Snowden and pointed out that you need to have some constraints and a "semi-constructive way" of collecting knowledge, otherwise it will just be chaos. The key is to capture the narrative exchange by a contextual blending of multiple fragmented resources, thus providing the lawyers the possibility to reuse the fragments and dissect them with their own perceptual filter into a new synopsis. The way to achieve this is to add a metadata layer over the fragments, i.e. some kind of index helping to structure the fragments without limiting the contributor with structural approaches. Instead of a rigid structure you create "structured patterns".

To summaries his ideas, Dave Snowden presented his three golden rules for KM:

  • Use of distributed cognition - wisdom, but not the foolishment of crowds.
  • Finely grained objects - information and organizational.
  • Disintermediation - putting decision makers in contact with raw data.

As a final remark, which is also in line with our own experiences at VQ and a beacon for our consultancy work, is that you should never implement systems based on what people say that they want. Most people never know what they want or what technology could do until the system is in place and they can play with it, and then they always want something other than what they said that they wanted in the beginning. Different people to different things differently and any knowledge system must support this by providing flexible structures, development possibilities and an attractive interface that appeals to the users in an intuitive way.

With this approach, KM can be a truly strategic and successful part of the law firm business development.


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