Cynefin as place: a respectful enquiry

[A slightly risky post, this, given the unfortunate history between myself and Dave Snowden: but I want to emphasise that it is in good faith, as a genuine enquiry that I believe would be of real value to those of working in enterprise-architectures and to the broader Cynefin community.]

I’ve been delighted to see a useful and clarifying discussion between Dave Snowden and Cynthia Kurtz on the origins of the well-known Cynefin framework. It’s been important to me because in my work I use some parts of that framework, and not others: the question of origin and authorship of the various parts of the Cynefin milieu (so to speak) has, until now, been decidedly blurred, and it’s been very difficult to know who to acknowledge without insulting one party or another. There does seem to be a lot more clarity now, which helps a lot.

Most people know Cynefin only from the simple visual frame and its four main ‘repeatability categories’: Simple [Known], Complicated [Knowable], Complex and Chaotic. Yet, as Dave has explained on various occasions, the term cynefin is actually a Welsh word, rather inadequately translated into English as ‘place’ (much like how another key Welsh word, hiraedd, is thinly translated as ‘homesickness’, when it’s more like ‘homesickness to the tenth degree’ for a ‘home’ that may exist only in the heart and soul…). And during that discussion on Cynthia Kurtz’s blog, Dave Snowden cited an early paper on his ideas:

Snowden, D. (2000) “Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities” conference proceedings of KMAC at the University of Aston, July 2000)

I’ll admit straight off that I haven’t seen that paper: but it seems it might be an important one to refer to, because of that explicit inclusion of place. What’s frustrating, though, is that it seems to be both the first and last point at which ‘time and place’ are explicitly linked to the (later) ‘Cynefin’ approach to sensemaking (the categories, the dynamics and so on, and, later, the Cognitive Edge ‘Sensemaker’ software). And I’d love to see more.

To me ‘time and place’ is a very important theme in sensemaking, because the relationship between people and place is extremely complex: there’s an interaction between people and place, and in some ways it seems that the place itself has choices too. We see this interaction described explicitly in the Australian-aboriginal concept of the Dreaming, or (as Cynthia Kurtz describes) in the native-American notion of the Medicine Wheel (though in both cases it’s almost more an experience than a mere concept). It would seem to be in other cultures too, if perhaps less explicitly: for example, as Dave indicates, and as can be seen in other references to the Welsh cynefin, much the same would seem to apply in Welsh culture. And the same would seem to be true of people’s relationship to time – or times, rather – at any given place.

There are a fair few groups working in this space: for example, the English charity Common Ground, whose work on ‘local distinctiveness‘ I would very strongly recommend, along with their projects on parish maps and the book From place to PLACE, and the essay “Losing your place“. (Enterprise-architects especially should be able to see the direct application of those to the enterprise context, with the enterprise as metaphoric ‘place’ that people inhabit.)

And there are also a handful of more academic-oriented disciplines, such as psychogeography (popularised by the London writer will self, but with its origins more in 1950s France), and archaeography or ‘deep mapping‘, a kind of bridge between archaeology, art and culture. I’ve been involved in some aspects of those fields myself over the years, with my 1978 book Needles of Stone (updated 2008 edition here), and more recently in collaboration with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska, developing formal disciplines to bridge the objective and subjective aspects of academic-archaeology (as in our joint paper in the archaeology journal Time&Mind). To some people the content and context of these various fields may be a bit too weird in places – even in the peer-reviewed ones such as Time&Mind – yet to me they all have real and practical applications in the complex processes of sensemaking for something as large as an entire enterprise.

The point here is that I do believe that the ‘place and time’ aspects of the original Cynefin would be highly relevant now in enterprise-architectures and the like, especially if brought up to date with the other deep work that’s been done on Cynefin over the past decade. The catch, of course, is that I’m definitely not the right person to talk about it: the only right person to present that, of course, would be Dave Snowden. And again, this weblog isn’t the right place: if anything new is to be written on this, it should be in Dave’s Cognitive Edge blog, perhaps, or some other academic paper.

Anyway, that’s the request: for an update on how ‘time and place’ fit into Cynefin sensemaking, and into the overall themes of organisational complexity and the like. Given the other crosslinks I’ve summarised above, I do believe it would be useful now.

Beyond making that request, it’s none of my business, so I’ll stop now. But if Dave or someone else does write on this, perhaps let me know? Many thanks.

3 Comments on “Cynefin as place: a respectful enquiry

  1. Interesting post Tom and said with grace which is appreciated. I have as it happened just written a first paper on “place” which is a progress towards this. Its in the International Place Branding Handbook and I tried to shift the agenda there from the physical features and attributes of a place to the interaction of that space with people’s histories over time. I’m just starting related work with some of the transmedia guys to see if we can weave alternative realities that are more attractive that the myths of drug cultures. Its a bit area and the more people who talk and think about ti the better.

  2. Thanks very much for your response, Dave.

    As you can appreciate from the above post, I’m delighted to hear that you’re looking at the role of ‘place’. I do hope you find the links above useful – I would especially recommend anything by Common Ground (such as their book ‘England in Particular’, which you’ll find linked to on the site); also Michael Shanks’ work on archaeography at Stanford University may well link well with transmedia.

    Please do let me if you write anything further on this?

    Thanks again, and best wishes.

  3. Dave – one further comment in relation to Common Ground’s ‘parish maps’ concept and its possible use for both the projects you mentioned.

    In the original approach, as described in their book ‘From place to PLACE’, each community creates its own map, in whatever form they choose. Yet it’s only a single map, in effect the chosen worldview of whichever community group created the map. In my work with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska, one of the tactics we discussed to present her work and activities at the Belas Knap neolithic site was to get participants – ranging from schoolchildren to families to tourists to professional archaeologists – to each build their own ‘parish map’; and then use the differences to highlight the differences between perspectives, each of which is ‘true’. This kind of tactic could fit very well with current Cognitive Edge methods, perhaps especially if preceded by a Sensemaker-style enquiry.

    For the drug context, do take a look at the exploration in ‘From place to PLACE’ on the ‘privileging’ role of the mapmaker. The main example there is the Ordnance Survey in 19th-century Ireland, but would no doubt ring all too true to Welsh sensibilities as well. The tension in this distinction between ‘privileged’ (‘official reality’) versus ‘unprivileged’ (the drug-culture narrative – but which becomes ‘official reality’ within that sub-culture) could again fit very well with Cognitive Edge techniques.

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