Kurtz and Snowden on inter-organisational learning networks

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 2, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden have written a thought provoking chapter on inter-organisational learning networks. I’ve seen their ideas develop over the last few years (on listservers, Skype chats, rare meet-ups and presentations) and this paper is an excellent synthesis and application of three key ideas (in my words):

  • idealistic approaches predicated on predictability, analysis and the depiction of ideal future states are total nonsense for making progress in a highly connected, complex environments.
  • dispassionate and objective observers can carefully analyse and diagnose ‘the problem’ then implement a solution—more nonsense. The fact is observers impact what they observe and every diagnosis is also an intervention.
  • experts have the solution—even more nonsense. The knowledge required to change and successfully adapt exists within the group and participatory approaches seed and harness natural social processes.

The chapter goes on to say:

Two of the most important elements of the naturalistic sense-making approach are narrative (as one of the primary mechanisms of complex knowledge transfer, creation and interpretation in human society) and networks (as one of the primary realities of human life – we are still, unless artificially constrained, tribal and clan-like in our needs and perspectives).

The rest of the chapter looks at inter-organisation learning networks from the perspective of tangible benefits delivered by this type of organisational structure. K&S note that “Inter-organisational learning networks are valuable yet intangible: while participants feel that they and their organisation have benefited, they struggle to explain what exactly those benefits are and how they can be expressed.” According to K&S, the broader literature points to speed of innovation difussion and improved knowledge creation as tangible benefits of these types of networks, but Cynthia and Dave suggest three more:

  • improved negotiation of multiple identities
  • increased discourse regarding trust and rule structures
  • greater productive conflict

I’m not going to give a blow by blow description of the paper. Instead I will highlight a few of the ideas that grabbed my attention—mind you, it sparked many thoughts.

Naturalistic approaches … seek to understand a sufficiency of the present in order to act to stimulate evolution of the system. Once such stimulation is made, monitoring of emergent patterns becomes a critical activity so that desired patterns can be supported and undesired patterns disrupted.

Most Significant Change is an obvious technique for monitoring because of its participatory nature and it’s story based. I know Dave has a slight reservation about MSC because he sees it as privileging some stories over others. I think Dave makes a fair point and MSC done badly will focus on the selection rather than the dialogue that’s created by the selection process. This is a danger to keep in mind for MSC practitioners.

Many employees do their work without being able to answer the question, “Who are you in this organisation?” (And possibly just as importantly, “Who are the others in this organisation?” and “Who is this organization?”).

When I was in London last week I met Martin Clarkson from the Storytellers and their business is entirely focussed on using a story approach to address “Who is this organisation?”

I was reminded at this point of the simple test I use to assess the likelihood a community of practice forming. If you can sensibly complete the sentence, “I’m a <blank>”, then there is a chance a community might form. For example, I was helping a Defence organisation start a community of practice for project managers. I asked them, “do people ever say, ‘I’m a project manager.’?” Absolutely! Great … people identify themselves as project managers so we could get a community going. The next community was more problematic. They wanted to create a community around the competency of ‘technical.’ Does anyone say, “I’m a technical.” No… I suggested they think of another possible community to establish.

One of the ways people have always talked about identity has been through the telling of identity stories which feature the individual or group as a coherent character with certain highlighted characteristics – the lone genius, the band of principled rebels, the misunderstood nobility. Stories told for purposes of identity negotiation (both individually and collectively) are fundamentally different from stories told for other purposes.

K&S point out three characteristics of an identity story:

  • the story is well known
  • they tend to have a dramatic or performance nature
  • they are apparently useless; they appear to be about nothing

These stories help people understand what it means to be part of the group. I heard this story last week which I think is an identity story:

A new salesman joined the company and a week after joining was told by his manager that the team was meeting in Jervis Bay. On the day of the meeting the salesman got up at 4am and made the trip down the coast and on arriving at the bay phoned his manager on his mobile to find out the exact location of the meeting. The salesman was told the Jervis Bay is the name of the meeting room of their conference centre in the city.

The example of a sacred story of the nine day fortnight reminded me of the importance of trying to find these stories in organisations. One way might be to ask, in the middle of an anecdote circle, whether anyone is aware of stories that are told and retold. I did this a couple of days ago and the fellow I was talking could immediately recall two negative stories. I’m not sure these are the sacred stories described in the chapter but I’m sure they are important to how things get done.

I loved the analogy between a Tour de France team (a peloton) and an organisation dealing with complexity.

K&S suggest a set of three heuristics for ethical narrative work:

  1. always declare up front the use of narrative techniques (no stealth story work)
  2. if asked any question about what sort of narrative intervention you are doing (such as instructing executives in how to tell stories for cultural change), answer honestly
  3. appoint an independent arbitrator for any dispute over the use of narrative techniques in organisations

The last section of the chapter is about productive conflict. I have to admit that before reading this section and before chatting to Dave about the use of debate in a variety of forums I was sceptical about its effectiveness. As I saw it practised it seemed to be very much “I’m right, your wrong” approach that seemed to me less that productive. But I think if productive conflict is practised as described in this chapter I can see how a level a friction can be extremely beneficial. K&S’s main point, as I understood it, is that if a group focuses on conflict around ideas (cognitive conflict) and avoided conflict associated with interpersonal relationships (affective conflict) and conflict over who should do what (process conflict) a product outcome can emerge. This also assumes the group has a desire to improve the understanding or has a group problem to solve. Using a sporting metaphor, “play the ball, not the player.”

This chapter is well worth a read. The only criticism of have of it is the slight feeling of disjointedness throughout. Each section was interesting and useful but I couldn’t always see how it fitted into a larger picture.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ken says:

    And where would the footballer be without friction between ball and boot 🙂
    Friction’s one of those odd words, a little loaded (connotations of wasted heat/energy), a little counter intuitive, in defiance of conventional wisdom (desire for frictionless efficiency, when opportunity exists out on the edge). Productive friction, creative abrasion… Dare we say use of the word friction is to be-provocative, that’s a tag line I like, though the principles (play the ball..) are vital, to keep us on track in the heat of the moment. De Bono’s parallel thinking is also aligned with the dislike of argumentative head to head debate (“winning” an argument, destructive energy lacking creativity).
    Dale Carnegie talked of “When two partners agree, one of them is not necessary”, which gets at the need to know the other, the trust of a team that has normed, gotten past the polite shared-monologues, and can get on with performing/storming. Someone else said “Anger has size, what it lack is direction”. Apathy may be more problematic that abundance of energy?
    What’s neat about friction is that it needs two. It evokes images of two bodies, revolving around a source of energy, beautiful symmetries but does change, a jump to a new level of creative order needs a little interaction, a little friction?
    I always liked this little story, it seems appropriate..

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