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The Cynefin Centre: Life after IBM

This article appears in the issue July/August 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 7]

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 Since gaining its independence from IBM in July, 2004, the Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity ( is catalyzing a network of academics and practitioners in diverse fields who see the network as a new way to be more competitive with the big consulting firms while bringing a more powerful collective intelligence to bear on critical issues in management and organizations.

 SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT REVISITED Cynefin was created by Dave Snowden and a dedicated global team of colleagues as an outgrowth of work in narrative and complexity at IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management. But Cynefin was about applying the ideas beyond KM, based on new insights from numerous fields in science.

 However, today's sciences are very different from the models and methods applied by Frederick Taylor. "Science, at the turn of the last century, was empirical and assumed causality. Biology, physics, chemistry, anthropology and the cognitive sciences have all moved on," Snowden explains. "We're taking that new understanding and applying it to management—while recognizing the uniqueness of human systems."

 The transition last year was an opportunity to explore new trans-disciplinary and participatory approaches to distributed research. Cynefin was also involved in the creation of a hybrid academic-practitioner quarterly journal on social complexity, Emergence: Complexity & Organization (

 A Networked intelligence

 Former Microsoft Knowledge Network Group director Mary Lee Kennedy and ex-IBMer Cory Costanzo are leading a US network in establishment of Cynefin North America ( Les Johnson, Martyn Laycock and Bruce Cronin of the University of Greenwich are leading European adoption. Vivienne Read, Bruce McKenzie and others of the Society for Organizational Learning Australia (, are building the Cynefin network in Asia/Pacific while researching ways in which Cynefin approaches are complementary with SoL concepts.

 "Through the years, the Cynefin phenomenon has always attracted people who have added to its collective capacity, and the trend continues and grows as new forms of the organization surface," says independent researcher Cynthia Kurtz, who is leading collaborative documentation of Cynefin concepts and methods, to be published under Creative Commons license.

 To date, about 1000 people have participated in workshops and training courses; about 100 have already become certified in the methods and are applying Cynefin techniques in their work. Linked together, they populate an "open source" approach to consulting.

 "Just as Linux can compete with a single company by using the power of its network, Cynefin can do the same thing in the services sector," Snowden explains. At he same time, he adds that some of the big consulting firms are seeing participation in the network as a way to complement their own capabilities.

 However, Cynefin is not about creating dependence on its services. "Cynefin trains and mentors clients, so they can do the work themselves." he says. "We've removed the role of the outside expert, whether an academic or a consultant, in interpreting data within an organization."

 Cynefin also recently secured outside investment to build a suite of software applications to be launched in the US at KM World in November. Rather than pretending to perform sense-making on people's behalf, these applications are designed to facilitate the kinds of pattern recognition that humans are best at. Some applications include identity-based marketing, capturing knowledge from an aging workforce, changing employee habits to improve heath and safety, and decision support systems that detect weak signals by capitalizing on—instead of ignoring—multiple perspectives.

 New Ideas 

Snowden himself has logged some 900,000 air miles in the past 12 months, working with business and government organizations, lecturing at universities and keynoting at conferences. Much of that time is spent in Singapore, where he was recently named a "sense-making" advisor to the Ministry of Defence. Increasingly, he using sense-making as a frame to integrate perspectives as diverse as cognitive sciences, anthropology, philosophy and complex adaptive systems. "We got into knowledge and realized the importance of narrative. That got us into complexity, which got us into sense-making, which gave us the potential for a ‘united field theory' in the emerging new management science," he says.

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