Snowden Keynote: Rewilding Knowledge: Sense-Making in a World of Uncertainty

Rewilding is about restoring the balance in nature by reintroducing both prey AND predators in an area. We have lost balance in KM by focusing on technology at the expense of people and how they work. So we now must rebalance KM.

Speaker: Dave Snowden, Chief Scientific Officer, Cognitive Edge

Session Description: We’ve been talking about resetting after the global pandemic, but our popular KM speaker looks at rewilding. Rewilding has been described as the optimistic agenda for halting the decline in biodiversity and restoring a balanced suite of ecosystem services. Snowden has been focusing on organizational knowledge ecosystems and how to optimize them for innovation and success. Hear his latest ideas about KM-related rewilding using the concepts based on decades of ecological, physical, and socio-economic research, as well as conservation experience. It’s going back to basics, not a return to the original, but a rebalancing of knowledge management to recognize the key role of humans, including distributed intelligence and sense-making. Be sparked to experiment with new practices for knowledge sharing in your organization.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld Connect 2021 Conference. I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Background
    • In his 20s he moved from a finance role into building decision support systems for large companies during the early days of computing.
    • Then he moved into logistics software to manage inventory. He dynamically adjusted buffer stock, thereby saving the company a great deal of money.
    • In those days, there was a huge naïveté about what computers could do. Therefore, people did not know what was possible and what they should ask for. So it made little sense to ask them what they wanted from their computers.
    • Even today, the capability of technology to do things for people is huge and we don’t fully understand it. In fact, the technology can now do things we may not want but we don’t know how to manage it.
  • Knowledge Management
    • While he was at IBM, knowledge management started emerging from multiple sources (Ikujiro Nonaka, Bob Buckman, Leif Edvinsson, Tom Stewart). It was not like fad where there was a single truth from a single source.
    • The purpose of KM is NOT to manage knowledge. Its purpose is to provide decision support AND to create the conditions for innovation.
    • However, too many people took an engineering approach: capturing and collecting knowledge.
    • This mechanistic approach did not match how people actually seek knowledge. 
    • Most people are not looking for a document, they are looking for a name of person they can talk to for information and guidance.
  • Formal vs Informal Knowledge Systems
    • At IBM, they studied how knowledge actually flowed within the organization. This study turned up both formal and informal knowledge systems. (The formal systems were set up by IBM; the informal systems were created under the radar by the employees themselves.) Their study revealed that there was good knowledge flow BUT the ratio of formal to informal knowledge systems was 1:64. 
      • The enormous number of informal knowledge communities was driven by the people themselves and supported by flexible tools that had been provided by the organization without too many constraints. (In this case, they were using Lotus Notes in novel and interesting ways to meet their needs, as they understood them.)
    • Much of the value of KM is in enabling and supporting informal networks, which are much more resilient and reliable in a crisis than formal networks.
  • The Key Difference Between Systems Thinking and Complexity Approaches to Work
    • Systems Thinking:
      • Where are we?
      • Where specifically do we want to be?
      • What specifically must we do to get there? (The gap analysis informs the action plan.)
    • Complexity Theory:
      • Where are we?
      • What is the next best action that will take us in a direction we like? (He recommends the film Frozen 2, which he described as a great complexity movie. In particular, pay attention to the song in it regarding doing the next best thing.)
  • Field Ethnography
    • He has used field ethnography to understand how the work really happens and how the knowledge really flows.
    • His approach was to join a work team and actually do the work with them (rather than simply observing them or asking for a report). This gave him an understanding of the actual work they do rather than what their job descriptions say. He also learned how they used informal channels to share knowledge effectively.
    • Once he established trust, he could talk to them about how to share their knowledge more broadly.
  • Rewilding
    • Rewilding is about restoring the balance in nature by reintroducing both prey AND predators in an area.
  • Rewilding KM
    • We’ve lost balance in KM by focusing on technology at the expense of people and how people prefer to work.
    • The free exchange of information and knowledge happens in the context of a conversation as opposed to a formal KM program.
    • So we need to rebalance by using technology to support people’s natural way of working.
  • How to develop a KM Strategy
    • Don’t start with a vision of the kind of organization you want to be
    • Start by understanding what kind of organization you are
    • Then create your guiding counterfactuals
      • gather negative stories on the shop floor of what kind of organization you DO NOT want to be
      • it is easier to gain consensus on negative stories than on positive stories
    • Then choose a set of possible new directions (trajectories not targets) for the organization that are opposite to those counterfactuals, and launch a set of experiments to explore these various directions in parallel. When there is a successful result, amplify it; when there is an unhelpful result, disrupt it.
    • Build systems and use your employees as a sensor network
      • Larry Prusak: “If you have $1 to spend on KM, spend 1 cent on technology and 99 cents on connecting people.”
    • Remember: You can never really capture knowledge. You can only create systems in which knowledge flows.
  • How to change People and their Mindset
    • It is hard to change a person’s mindset
    • It is easier to change the people they come into contact with. As they connect with new people, their thinking will change.
    • They have been using “Entangled Trios” in which they assemble project teams based on roles (e.g., a district nurse, a district police officer, a parent). Over the course of the project, they switch around the members of these triads, thereby creating new connections and surfacing new knowledge. By the end, every participant will be within two to three degrees of separation of each other participant, and collectively they will have formed a highly functional and resilient knowledge network.
    • Similarly, the way to break down knowledge silos is not to compel knowledge sharing. Rather, it is to increase the opportunities for connection and interaction between people across silos.
  • KM for Innovation
    • Most innovation comes from extending existing knowledge to new areas/problems
    • The KM system should enable the flow of information at the level of granularity necessary to make it easy to make knowledge from one domain translatable to another domain.
  • The Three Rules of Knowledge Management
    • Knowledge can only be volunteered. It cannot be conscripted.
      • So you must create the conditions for the voluntary sharing of knowledge.
      • He has seen time after time that people share their knowledge in response to a genuine request for help. By contrast, few people respond fully when asked: “What do you know.”
    • We always know more than we can say and we always say more than we can write down. (Adapting Polanyi).
      • The best knowledge is developed through experience over at least two to three years.
      • Most knowledge is stored in STORIES, especially stories of failure.
    • We only know what we know when we need to know it.
      • Human knowledge requires a contextual trigger to be released and shared.
      • This is why we often want to “sleep on things” in order to respond more fully to the trigger.
      • Therefore, if you can create the right context, you have access to a wider range of human knowledge.
  • Resources: 

Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑