‘Ba’, Cynefin, place and architecture

Just been reading (via Tweet by Bill Ives) a post by Anne Marie McEwan on ‘Loosening the Taylorist Stranglehold on the Workplace‘. Within a much larger context in a very good article, this one brief section caught my attention:

The Japanese concept of ‘ba’ came up in one of the face-to-face conversations. … Nonaka et al say that ‘ba’ roughly means place”. It is a here-and-now coming together of physical, virtual and mental spaces, which together constitute a shared “context in motion” for tacit knowledge to become explicit.

In other words, a concept of place associated with ‘ways of knowing’.

I then remembered that although Snowden’s concept of Cynefin is, in current practice, primarily viewed as “a model used to describe problems, situations and systems”, the term likewise literally translates as ‘place‘ – and that, like Nonaka’s ba, that concept also arose out of work on utilising and sharing tacit knowledge.

One problem with both of those translations is that they’re very ‘thin’: the rather bald English word ‘place’ does not really convey the richness or layered nuance of either of the original terms. (Snowden himself has made this point several times, and I strongly agree with him in this.) To gain some sense of the deeper complexity and meaning there, one of my favourite resources is the work of the small English charity Common Ground, and in particular their Rules for Local Distinctiveness, such as:

— Let the CHARACTER of the people and place express itself. Kill corporate identity before it kills our high streets. Give local shops precedence.
— Defend DETAIL. Respond to the local and the vernacular. No new building or development need be bland, boring or brash.
— Local DIALECT should be spoken, heard and seen.

The other thread that comes up here is the notion of buildings and other places as anchors for both explicit and tacit knowledge – physical structures interweaving with conceptual structures, as described by Frances Yates in her classic The Art of Memory, and typified by the post-Renaissance ‘memory theatres’ of Guilio Camillo and his contemporaries. This in turn links back to a much older concept of ‘the art of memory‘, “a loosely associated group of mnemonic principles and techniques used to organize memory impressions, improve recall, and assist in the combination and ‘invention’ of ideas” – a concept that can probably be found in some form or other in just about every culture.

Hence, to architecture, and to enterprise-architecture. If these represent the humanness of our interactions with physical, conceptual or relational space, what does that say about our present buildings and information-systems – almost all of which seem to conform to that description of “boring, bland or brash”?

Seems to me that there’s a lot that we might need to rediscover in our architectures, about the relationships between ‘place’ and collective knowing, collective remembering…?

Out on the fringes of enterprise-architectures and the like, we’re seeing some of this starting happen more now in the social-media and ‘social-business’ contexts, with much more emphasis on serendipity, tagging, cross-linking and cross-collaboration. As Dr McEwan indicates in her article, there’s more awareness of the human implications of the ‘Taylorist stranglehold’, its failures in the fundamentally-flawed concepts behind so much ‘business-process re-engineering’ and the like, and what we can learn as we rethink the entire idea of ‘the workplace’. And we’re seeing it, too, in the upsurge of interest in ideas and methods such as design-thinking and human-oriented systems-thinking, in holism, in panarchitecture and the like.

But perhaps one more useful place to start would be with concepts such as bacynefin and ‘local distinctiveness’, to re-remember what ‘place’ actually means in our working lives – and how we use the richness of place to anchor our shared memory.

Yet how do we do this in practice? How can we reclaim and rebuild ‘the art of memory’ into our places and workspaces, our information-systems and our collaborative relationships? Comments/suggestions, anyone?

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