Dave Snowden on Rendering Knowledge

Dave Snowden has updated his principles on “Rendering Knowledge” on Cognitive Edge  These are worth reblogging. I encourage you to go in and read the full post for all the context. I have added a few comments of my own in italics. I can’t resist the meanings of the word “rendering.” At the farmer’s market last week, I could by leaf suet (rendered pig fat), candles made from rendered fat, and all sorts of things that have been transformed through heat. What is the heat of knowledge sharing?

  • Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted. You can’t make someone share their knowledge, because you can never measure if they have. You can measure information transfer or process compliance, but you can’t determine if a senior partner has truly passed on all their experience or knowledge of a case.  So for me in practice, this means creating conditions where people are more apt to volunteer. Or perhaps better said, recognizing those condtions. I don’t think we can always “create” them!
  • We only know what we know when we need to know it. Human knowledge is deeply contextual and requires stimulus for recall. Unlike computers we do not have a list-all function. Small verbal or nonverbal clues can provide those ah-ha moments when a memory or series of memories are suddenly recalled, in context to enable us to act. When we sleep on things we are engaged in a complex organic form of knowledge recall and creation; in contrast a computer would need to be rebooted. In practice, I’ve found the introduction of multiple modalities, especially visual and kinesthetic practices, allow us to stimulate recall better than just words – written or verbal.  This is not about flashing a slide, but using visuals in the charting of our knowledge.  I’m not sure how to describe this, but I am experiencing it a lot lately. 
  • In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge. A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is literally no time or a previous history of distrust. On the other hand ask people to codify all that they know in advance of a contextual enquiry and it will be refused (in practice its impossible anyway). Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts. I suspect there are layers of cultural implications when we look at this one. Any readers with a deep knowledge of the cultural implications of knowledge sharing? 
  • Everything is fragmented. We evolved to handle unstructured fragmented fine granularity information objects, not highly structured documents. People will spend hours on the internet, or in casual conversation without any incentive or pressure. However creating and using structured documents requires considerably more effort and time. Our brains evolved to handle fragmented patterns not information.  Some people are better at fragments than others. Does the current online environment favor global vs linear thinkers?
  • Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction cold provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing. So we had better get more compassionate about failure if we really are going to learn, and not hide from it.
  • The way we know things is not the way we report we know things. There is an increasing body of research data which indicates that in the practice of knowledge people use heuristics, past pattern matching and extrapolation to make decisions, coupled with complex blending of ideas and experiences that takes place in nanoseconds. Asked to describe how they made a decision after the event they will tend to provide a more structured process oriented approach which does not match reality. This has major consequences for knowledge management practice. All I can do is nod vigorously in agreement. 
  • We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down. This is probably the most important. The process of taking things from our heads, to our mouths (speaking it) to our hands (writing it down) involves loss of content and context. It is always less than it could have been as it is increasingly codified.

The next interesting thing would be to explore these items and see how they show up in individuals, groups and networks. The same, or variations?

3 thoughts on “Dave Snowden on Rendering Knowledge”

  1. Nancy, David Snowden’s background in knowledge management make him difficult to challenge, but you should know that this academic practitioner find some of these dicta strange indeed.

    The most important, says Dr. Snowden, is his notion of “loss”: we know more than we can say and can say more than we can write down.

    So: students would learn more if academic practice allowed for more orality,more recitation, less writing.


    What some of us think we have learned–from theory and research as well as practice–is quite the reverse of the practice implied by this conclusion.

    When the student–or any practititioner–writes things down, and looks at what she has written, she sees connections and possibilities that were not previously available to her, and these new combinations become a form of knowledge generation, of discovery and uncovering.

    If this is so, writing things down is a route to knowledge gain, not loss.

    It might be a useful exercise to submit each of Dr. Snowden’s formulations to similar challenge.

  2. Steve, great to “hear” from you!

    I expect Dave will eventually find this post and offer his critique, but your comments raise the issue of context. My understanding is that Dave is writing about knowledge in the workplace that is the accumulation of days/weeks/years of practice in a domain. So we can’t say or write it all. It is just too much. Is that different than the academic context? Does a professor have everything she knows written down?

    The point that I take from your comment circles back to the practice of reflection. For example, by reflecting and writing in my blog, I help clarify my own thinking. Especially as a person who “practices via intuition” and only later really understands what I did. The writing IS a critical path for me to understand my own knowledge which often operates under my own radar screen. (How’s that for weird?)

    So maybe the question is, how do we discern where to put our reflective and writing energies? For me, putting them out in public DOES allow new connections, but connections that I could not see if I were working along. Your comment is a perfect example. You expanded on my understanding of Dave’s work, and how it might be useful in mine – even if I interpret it in in new ways that Dave might not have intended.

  3. (It’s been a long time, Nancy. Good to be back in touch: you do good work!)

    On this matter of “recall” and “loss” of knowledge I think David Snowden has mixed his metaphors and his sources, and I’d be happy to have his comments on the matter.

    When he starts with “We always know more than we can say,” he is, willy-nilly, quoting Polanyi, and perhaps misusing him. Polanyi’s point was that in addition to the explict knowledge we have, knowledge that we can say and write, we have “tacit” knowledge, knowledge like knowing how to recognize a friend’s face that we just have and can’t explain. David Snowden has taken the idea and used to suggest that we have more explicit knowledge than we can say: that we can’t say all that we know explicitly, that there is loss, that we can’t :recall” it all. And he pushes this idea of knowledge in the mind as a quantity further: we can “say” more than we can “write.”


    If I begin to think about Snowden’s comments, and try to write about them, the process of engaging with him, and with you, is not a process of “recall” from my present stock of knowledge only, although that is involved, but a process of seeing new possibilities as well: a process of generating ideas that are new to me, that I am creating, not taking from the storehouse in my head.

    Perhaps the writing of a poem illustrates the proposition that writing is generative as well as recalling. I don’t take the poem from a stock of knowledge: it is an addition, not a subtraction.

    We generate knowledge as well as manage what we already have, and dialog–with ourselves or with Nancy–is one way to create knowledge that is new to us.

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