This post could be sub-titled “Grokking Dave Snowden”, because that’s how I felt after
reading this PDF file from AOK
(Association of Knowledgework). The PDF features extracts from a proposed AOK book entitled Stars Of The
New Order: What They’re Telling Business Leaders
. The chapter that got my attention
was chapter 13: Third Generation Knowledge Management. I think it’s based on a series of
conversations with Dave
back in January 2002, but the content is just as relevant now.

Snowden is
like the Jakob Nielsen of Knowledge Management – he’s
a very influential figure in the community. In these conversations, he held sway with
other KM practitioners like Jack Vinson and James Robertson. This discussion format
brought out the best in Snowden I believe. Here are some of the highlights I picked
out and my thoughts based on them.


In recent years, it’s been difficult to pin down a definition of what Knowledge
Management is. What it appeared to be in the 90’s was Information Management in wolf’s
clothing. Or is that: mutton dressed as lamb? 🙂 Either way, what was being ‘managed’ in
the 90’s by so-called Knowledge Management Systems was not in fact knowledge – but
information. There was, as T.D.
Wilson put it

“A tendency to elide the distinction between ‘knowledge’ (what I know)
and ‘information’ (what I am able to convey about what I know).”

In the conversations, Dave Snowden put it like this:

“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 cataloged, but on the management of the ecology of knowledge.” (pg 21)

I love that term: ecology of knowledge. It emphasizes that knowledge is a fluid,
almost living, thing; and that it’s closely related to its environment – or put another
way, its context (a word which Snowden uses a lot).

Head, Mouth, Hands

Snowden went on to explain a basic principle of KM in this ‘ecology’ view of it:

“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.” (pg

Which is to say: during the act of speaking and then writing what is in your head, you
will probably lose some content and a lot of context.

To extrapolate from what Snowden said, this is how I think his body metaphor works

Head = Context

Mouth = Narrative

Hands = Content Management

The Role of Narrative

Snowden uses narrative (storytelling) to add context to information. He said:

“…as for strategy, I use narrative techniques to contextualize the
model for a company so the heuristics and boundary conditions are defined not in some
abstract language, but are rooted in the defining stories of that organization.” (pg

This is of great interest to me. As a writer, narrative is one of my skillsets. So I’m
thinking this could be a way for me to leverage my skills as a writer in the world of KM
(see, I’m even using the word ‘leverage’ with gay abandon now – I’m drinking the KM

You know what it also reminds me of? My two favourite contemporary literary writers,
Michael Lewis and Tom Wolfe. They are both pioneers of writing non-fiction using literary
techniques. I was thinking about this the other day (in another context!) and wrote down this as a note to myself:
The future of fiction is non-fiction.

To relate this to KM, I think there’s room for a literary sensibility in business

Narrative Context

Snowden talked about rejecting “generic models” of knowledge management – typified by
KM Consultants who speak in buzz words and cliches. He explained:

“If a model is rooted in the stories of an organization’s
histories and its possible futures (narrative techniques) then the model has meaning to
that group. My approach is to get the organization to tell stories and then to populate a
framework with those stories, draw boundaries between spaces and then move forward to
action.” (pg 26)

He hates “consultants who just roll out their model regardless of context”.

Be a Chef, not a Recipe Book User

The approach Snowden prefers is what he labels a “heuristic” one – heuristic meaning to discover or find
out. He has a lovely metaphor to explain this:

“Here we have the chef, not the recipe book user, with all the
differences in quality that metaphor implies.” (pg 27)

The best chefs are artists, so this view of KM plays to my artsy-fartsy nature 🙂

KM is…

So after all that, what is KM? Well Snowden defined it as “the creation of shared
context”. He said knowledge must be volunteered (not conscripted), which is where the
narrative techniques come in. When people tell their own stories, they naturally put
information into the context of their lives.

Not coincidentally that is also the pattern
of blogging, which encourages people to tell their stories on the Web and “share context”
with their particular community. The blogging communities for Web Design and Knowledge
Management itself best illustrate this to me – they both have strong communities where
bloggers constantly comment on each others sites or trackback one another.

Snowden’s own KM model is called Cynefin and he
described it like this:

“…the contextualization takes the form of gathering anecdotes
(naturally told stories, around the water cooler etc.) from that organization’s own
history, and using those stories to create the [KM] model.” (pg 29)

He later referred to this as mapping what people know, using narrative techniques (pg

As yet, I’m not sure what role literary techniques might play in this. I’ll read some
more on Snowden’s theories, plus other peoples, and see what I can come up with.

I’d like
to think that a skilled writer has a lot to offer in the KM process of transcribing peoples
stories into a compelling narrative. Just as Michael Lewis wrote an amazing narrative
based on the stories of the Oakland A’s baseball team in his book
(which I’ve just finished reading). The stories came from the Oakland A’s
people, particularly Billy Beane. But it was Lewis’ skill that stitched it all together
to produce a very insightful book – chock full of knowledge, in fact.

I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you…

Lastly, Snowden defined the generations of Knowledge Management as he sees them:

“In Generation 3, we acknowledge Gen 2 (content management) but also see
knowledge is simultaneously a flow and a thing—so for the flows we manage
channels.” (pg 37)

A flow and a thing… I love that definition, because I’ve blogged about ‘flow’

To wrap up the chef metaphor, Snowden said:

“We are chefs using prior knowledge, experience and natural talent to
create original solutions, not recipe book users.” (pg 37/38)

I like to think that describes the art of writing too. And originality is something I
place a high premium on, so I have a feeling Dave Snowden’s theories on Knowledge
Management are going to serve me very well.