Archive for May, 2010

Complexifying Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge, SenseMaker

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Toward the end of April, TEKRI hosted a conference in Edmonton on Making Sense of Social Media. Dave Snowden keynoted the event. I’ve “known” Dave for about eight years. First through his Cynefin model, then the ACT-KM listserv, and more recently, through his blog. He also spoke at several online conferences I organized while at University of Manitoba. It was a pleasure to meet him in person. Unfortunately, opportunities for dialogue were somewhat limited.

Dave delivered a great keynote – slides and podcast are here. TEKRI will post video soon. He combines of deep knowledge on a fairly wide range of subjects (more on that soon), with great wit, and an engaging presentation style. Most importantly, he presents his ideas in a manner that resonates with the audience. Great ideas need to be presented in a manner that sparks new connections and a desire for creativity in an audience. Dave delivered on both accounts.

I agreed with much that Dave had to say – I’ve been addressing similar topics under the umbrella of connectivism: distributed cognition, coherence, social learning, pattern recognition and expertise, and decentralized narratives.

After the conference, Michael Cheveldave (from Cognitive Edge – the company Dave founded to advance his theories and methods) very ably ran a three day accreditation workshop at the TEKRI office. On Tuesday night, Dave stopped in for a two hour informal presentation.

And that is what I’d like to address.

First, information is not power. And, neither is money. Or any of the other terms that get equated with power. Quite simply, integration is power. How an individual or organization forms a coherent view (integrates elements) internally and how it is related to the entities (venture capital firms, government officials, vendors, clients) that either enable or constrain their actions, that ultimately determines success.

What, for example, gives Goldman Sachs their “power”? Is it their wealth? No – other firms and countries have significant wealth but lack the capacity for influence of GS. Is it the location of their headquarters – i.e. New York? No – many top banks are headquartered in London, Hong Kong, or other major cities. No, the real power of GS is how they have managed to integrate their company with businesses and government. The bailout of AIG benefitted GS more than almost any other firm. The fact that former GS leaders hold influential government positions reinforces the company’s integration with government. Power and influence, then, are not single points but rather the capacity of an organization (or individual) to construct an integrated network that not only frames a certain reality or addresses certain problems or situations in society, but also creates very situations that only they can solve.

Goldman Sachs is a great example. When GS created financial instruments of growing complexity, the government needed to hire their employees in order to make sense of the new financial climate. This in turn created a structure that reinforced the power structure of GS, ensuring “too big to fail” status.

What does this have to do with Dave Snowden?

I’m going to make an imperfect leap from power as an integrated network in corporate and government settings to power as integrated knowledge in conversations, education, and society in general. Dave has a wealth of knowledge, drawing effortlessly from poetry, philosophy, organizational theory, and historical events. However, after a few minutes of listening to Dave weave Hegel’s work with complexity science, neuroscience, throw a shot or two and Peter Senge and others, you end up with an entity that is conceptually challenging to interrogate. After Dave had the floor for about 2 hours (with periodic questions from the audience), in the session, he had created a context of discussion that gave him full control to direct and redirect the conversation according to principles and terms that he had established during his presentation. If someone builds a house, you are left with only the option of arranging furniture once they let you in.

I’ll probably insult both people by saying this, but Dave Snowden shares some attributes of certainty in his reasoning with Stephen Downes. They know what they think. They say it clearly and forcefully. Doubt, vagueness, and uncertainty, if they are part of the process of formulating their views, are well-disguised in dialogue. I, in contrast, (as Stephen has noted in his post the vagueness of George Siemens) do not possess this certainty. I’m somewhat at peace with ambiguity, vagueness, and uncertainty. As philosophers, both Stephen and Dave have been trained for precision in word use and thought.

Dave’s ability to bring a broad knowledge base to bear on knowledge, complexity, and organizations change (with an air of knowingness) results in many nodding heads as he speaks and very little debate when he is done. Essentially, his mode of dialogue creates an integrated cognitive structure (i.e. power base) that is largely unassailable without attempting to interrogate and dismantle each element that he has already connected. This is, I’m sure, why he is a sought after speaker and consultant.

About SenseMaker

During a Cognitive Edge accreditation workshop, I encountered SenseMaker. SenseMaker is an important tool. Grad students conducting research that involves narrative analysis will find this to be an exceptionally useful piece of software. SM takes qualitative data (narratives) and adds a quantitative overlay through a process of self-signification. There is much to be excited about here.

I signed some sort of NDA, so I haven’t a clue how much detail I can go into about SM. Basically, as a narrative-driven tool, SM offers researchers, business people, politicians, policy makers, and others to make sense of complex situations. But is narrative capturing and self-signification sufficient to “make sense” of complex subjects? In the edfuture course, we’re exploring trends and patterns. These will be used as a basis for considering long term implications in society and education. The value of tracking trends – drawing on reliable data sources (World Bank, Unesco, UN, US gov’t) as well as narratives – rests in challenging our existing views, thereby reducing our rigid existing frame of reference and increasing our capacity for adaptivity.

The inclusion of external, non-narrative data sources, are not part of SenseMaker. Perhaps I’m looking for a tool that does too much, but I can’t separate narrative from the tremendous amounts of data now being created and captured by organizations (and by our constant externalizing of our activities and thoughts through social media and mobile devices). As Stephen Wolfram has stated, the future of science, and the biggest innovation of our era, is computation. I’ve been playing with the concept of learning analytics for several years, but I see analytics as part of a larger integrated information structure. It’s nice to know what learners are doing, but I want the ability to situate this information in a larger context of economics, societal trends, and other influencing factors. I’ll tackle this in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, I want to emphasize the value of SenseMaker for research and express my desire for a complimentary tool that offers a more integrated data-driven approach to sensemaking.