Dave Snowden

Narrative as mediator

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Screen shot 2010-02-12 at 10.38.41.png I was half way through writing KSS4 when I realised I was taking some language for granted, so expect a longer blog tomorrow. The model above belongs to Boisot and is elaborated in Explorations in Information Space. I claim some co-ownership of this one however as it was first drawn on a paper table cloth in a cafe in Sitges just south of Barcelona when I was staying with Max. We were working then (as now) on integration between our bodies of work and the model was designed to show the place of narrative in the knowledge space.

It’s a simple model, but a profound one. If we start with the two dimensions:

  • The vertical dimension contrasts codified with un-codified knowledge, this can be translated as knowledge which can be acquired independently of experience or deployed independently of the knowledge holder. The goal of much early KM practice, over influenced by the SECI model (it launched a thousand failed knowledge management initiatives) was to codify material. Now this is understandable, the more something is codified the faster and lower cost the diffusion of knowledge. It’s the whole raison d’être behind publishing papers and books. However it is never complete.
  • The horizontal dimension is less familiar. It contrasts knowledge which practices, acquired and refined through experience. It is what Polanyi meant when he talked about tacit knowledge, something which cannot be fully articulated or represented. Codification establishes discernible differences between phenomena on the one hand, and between the categories to which they are assigned on the other. In contrast abstraction minimizes the use of categories by only drawing on those that are relevant for a given purpose. The italics here are direct quotes from Explorations in Information Space. A simpler way of understanding this is to say that abstraction involves create a field of work with specialist language, training etc.

Embodied knowledge then is un-codifed and concrete, it is the knowledge of the Zen master, obtained by years if discipline. Codification is strongly resisted by Zen masters as the act of codification and abstraction will involve creating a boundary between subject and object that will weaken the knowledge. An equivalent I often use is the London Taxi Driver who has to live two years, driving the streets of London on a motor-cycle until then know the name of every street and can describe any route out and back naming all turns and landmarks without error. The pass rate is less than fifty percent and their hippocampus is changed by the experience. I spent a few weekends restoring by tacit skill as a carpenter and discovered as my father had before me that describing things to your son can only go so far, sooner or later they have to act within the field, to learn by doing and becoming one with the tools and wood. Dissolving that boundary between subject and object.

Now for all knowledge to be embodied would be equally in error as to codify everything. The process of abstraction and codification is critical to the advance of science and industry alike. But the cost of increasing diffusion capability is substantial in depth and adaptability. The more I create categories, the less I see connections between categories. The more I specialize the less I can blend concepts to enable insight and innovation. A SatNav is a good substitute for a map, but it can never substitute for the Taxi-Driver, it lacks the adaptability, resilience and practicality of The Knowledge.

We can now see the critical role that narrative, and linked concepts such as metaphor play in human understanding. Narrative acts as a half way house between the embodied knowledge of the taxi-driver and the abstracted and impersonal voice of the Sat Nav. Narrative mediates the embodied and the symbolic. Any good teacher uses stories and metaphors to enliven their papers (or those of others). Talk to a taxi driver and they can tell stories that help get you close to their knowledge. The stories of my father when we build three boats together in the garage not only inspired me to go through the grind of eight coats of varnish, but also taught me why things were necessary and gave me clues that I recall today when I encounter a tricky issue with a troublesome piece of timber. (Oak has a very different temper from Pine and you need to speak softly and with respect).

Without the mediation of narrative then can be no knowledge transfer or learning

WIthout the symbolic learning will not diffuse to broad populations and their will be no advance

Without embodied knowledge there will be no wisdom