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Cynefin and Communities

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an admirer of David Snowden. He formerly ran the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management and now leads the Cynefin Centre.
To be able to quote David is to feel smart in that way you do when you actually ‘get’ the arcane reference to the lesser works of Shakespeare over dinner with professorial friends. His knowledge is broad and deep.
Anyway, cynefin is one of those words like simpatico in Italian that just doesn’t translate well into English, so broadly, quoting Dave, the word “‘Cynefin’ is a Welsh word whose literal translation into English as habitat or place fails to do it justice. It is more properly understood as the place of our multiple belongings; the sense that we all, individually and collectively, have many roots: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. We can never be fully aware of the nature of those belongings, but they profoundly influence what we are. The name seeks to remind us that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by the patterns of our multiple experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience and through collective experience expressed as stories.”
His thinking about stories and social networks and the ties that bind us together and with our history can do a lot to inform our thinking on libraries. Libraries are fundamentally and foundationally based in communities – neighourhoods, research communities, learning communities, workplaces and cultural communities. (I love communities as the glue that binds strategy together as you can see here.) By reading Dave’s stuff or just listening to him, we learn a lot about the connections that make libraries great. It’s more than libraries being just the storehouses of our culture’s stories and narratives. It’s about the subtle role we play in making connections within our communities but also with our past knowledge. Libraries can be great places to find more cynefin – those places from which all our knowledge comes – our education, or experiences, our learning, our families, our culture, what we read, hear or see, our religion or faith, and on and on.
Dave’s speeches to the library community have been great. I’ve had him keynote both the Ontario (2002) and Canadian Library Association (2005) conferences to huge acclaim and he regularly does Information Today’s various KM World, Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries conferences.
Anyway, I am eagerly awaiting Snowden’s book which he hopes to publish ths year. He has a number of articles on his website here. SirsiDynix is working with a number of the Cynefin Centre’s team to collect library user and librarian narrative stories using the Cynefin Process. Already we have attained huge insights into the deeper reasons people use libraries and what they are ‘really’ trying to achieve. It’s truly fascinating. I’ll be sharing these over the coming year at various conferences. articles and especially the SirsiDynix SuperConference.

Posted on: August 28, 2005, 5:55 pm Category: Uncategorized

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  1. I’m so glad to hear someone talking about this – especially the VP Innovation for the largest maker of IL systems! It gives me hope for the future!
    Anyway, during my MLS, I did a major project on information architecture and “humanity.” I was hoping to extrapolate into the digital realm some of Christopher Alexander’s ideas about architecture, urban design, and human beings. My question was, “how can we create online knowledge environments that ‘live’?: environments that foster community and reinforce our ‘humanness’ in all its wonderful complexity.” And I think the key lies in complexity: complex, interlaced systems free us from the tyranny of heirarchies and binary oppositions. Library classification systems and catalogues are, of course, founded on heirarchies of differentiation, while emerging web technologies are the organic product of an apparently chaotic system of interconnectivity that people somehow find much more comfortable than the librarian’s carefully constructed bibliographic universe. I think, when we dig down far enough, we’ll discover that to maintain a distinction between “knowledge” and “community” is at best unhelpful; at worst: destructive.
    At any rate, if you haven’t yet had a chance, check out Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction,” (OUP, 1977) and try to envision “the knowledgesphere” built on such terms.
    Thanks for your inspiring and eminently readable posts!