Complexifying Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge, SenseMaker

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.

8 Responses to “Complexifying Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge, SenseMaker”

  1. Dave Snowden says:

    Thanks for this George – and you should be around when Downes and I intersect on line as we do from time to time.

    On SenseMaker┬« – why do you say that we don’t include “external, non-narrative data sources”? As far as I am aware (and I was the original designer and still have responsibility for software) we do and in some novel and interesting ways.

    • gsiemens says:

      Well, as the original designer, you should know :) . How do you add external data with sensemaker? What I saw in the demo on day 3 was a narrative-driven model with self-signification. If you can import OECD economic data or US Dept of Education data, I missed that part of the presentation.

  2. Dave Snowden says:

    The module SIGNIFIER is designed to allow anyone to tag any data into the system that they find, and it can sit with micro-narratives. So if you have data that you find relevant then you isolate it at any level or levels and signify it into the system. If you want to look at automatic generation, then that is a more complex service called CLASSIFIER. In addition we have an open database so we can integrate easily with other software. Core SenseMaker┬« remains focused on material augmented and explained by human metadata – what ever the source.

    You might have to expand a bit on what you would want to achieve for me to be precise in my answer

  3. I would hardly say that I have “certainty” as one of my attributes – everything I think or say is open to question and revision as and if evidence warrants it. And it seems to me the same applies to Dave Snowden as well.

    What I think we have, and attempt to share, is clarity and precision. We are working on difficult problems that have no easy solution, and our work reflects that. And in my case at least, this comes with a concordant dislike for simple answers and easy solutions.

    When I criticize you for vagueness, I am not criticizing you for certainly, I am criticizing you for imprecision. There are times (which – happily – become less and less frequent as time goes by) where you assert support for a proposition that cannot, strictly speaking, be understood.

    Like, for example, “I store my knowledge in my friends.” It sounds great, and has become almost a watchword for your theory, but it cannot be literally true, but if not literally true, it’s not clear what it means. Are your friends like a dictionary, a tape recorder, or Ann Landers?

    Or, in the current discussion, phrasing like, “power as an integrated network in corporate and government settings to power as integrated knowledge in conversations, education, and society in general.” I’m quite sure that Dave Snowden isn’t saying that “power” is “an integrated network” of any sort. It seems to be the result of some sort of invalid inference (’knowledge is power’, ‘knowledge is a network’, thus ‘power is a network’) but I just don’t know and I can’t figure it out from the phrasing.

    Clarity is not the same as certainty. You can be quite certain of unclear concepts, and quite uncertain about clear concepts. I am, I confess, rather more likely to fall into the category, and you, I fear, have a tendency to fall into the former.

    Not that I like you any the less for it. :)

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