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Learning lessons from history (Why ask why)

We expend so much time, effort and money in capturing the past as a way to look forward and yet I would argue that all too often we get it wrong.

We talk about creating dialogue, about lessons learned, about architecture for sense-making and yet we seem to have forgotten to ask a fundamental question, why?

Why was a decision taken; why did this situation arise; why were these people involved?  The models, stories and narratives that are constructed seem to all too often miss this key ingredient.

Take Snowden’s ASHEN model (Artefacts, Skills Heuristics, Experience, Natural Talent), a model that I believe to be a solid platform for organisational narrative, even here, the ‘why’ appears to be missing:

By asking the ASHEN question in the context of a KDP we can achieve a meaningful answer which itself leads to action. When you made that decision, what artifacts did you use, or would you like to have? What skills did you have or need and how are they acquired? What heuristics do you use to make such decisions quickly; what is the range of their applicability? What experience do you have and what experience do the people you respect in this field have? What natural talent is necessary? How exclusive is it? Who else has it? Such questions allow the questioned to produce meaningful answers with minimal interference from the questioner. How to minimise that interference to the point were it does not influence is the subject of the next article in this series.

If we are going to give so much focus to capturing and talking about our past, then perhaps it is time that we looked at how historians tackle the problem – after all, they are the apparent experts in the field.

I’m going to start with Alan Bennets, ‘The History Boys’…he poses a trilemma (made popular by Niall Ferguson):  should history be presented as “a mode of contrarian argumentation”; “a communion with past truth and beauty”; or “just one f***ing thing after another”?  (Civilisation, p. 17).  It seems that the practice of knowledge capture in organisations is too often focused on the last approach; one dominated by a narrative that fails to engage in the fundamental question of, why?  How much do we invest in technology solutions and staff time to capture lessons learned – surely we should be more focused on frameworks that develop “a communion with past truth and beauty”?

Stimulated by Ferguson’s book, I’ve been exploring the work of R.G. Collingwood and his book ‘Autobiography’.  It is here that I believe there are lessons to learn in developing artefacts and narrative for our own histories.  Collingwood was unhappy with the way in which historians approached the past; failing to engage with the whole and the rationale behind any given decision.  Fundamentally, he revisited the philosophy and method of the historical narrative; at the heart of his approach was a simple question, why?  Collingwood’s interest was in the ‘self-knowledge of mind’, developing the following guidelines for understanding the narrative of history:

i.  The past comes alive in the present through artefacts

ii.  The past is meaningless if the intended purpose cannot be inferred

iii.  History requires a leap of imagination into the mind of the person(s) whose story is being told

“He [the historian] must think that problem out for himself, see what possible solutions of it might be offered, and see why this particular philosopher chose that solution instead of another. This means re-thinking for himself the thought of his author, and nothing short of that will make him the historian of that author’s philosophy. (Collingwood, p. 283)”

iv.  “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought encapsulated in a context of present thoughts, which by contradicting it, confines it to a plane different form theirs” (Ferguson, p. 20)

v.  History provides insight – an expert historian is like a trained woodsman versus a traveller – the traveller sees the grass and the trees, the woodsman sees the tiger in the grass.

vi.  “To inform people about the present, in so far as the past, its ostensible subject matter, is encapsulated in the present and constitutes a part of it not once obvious to the untrained eye” (Ferguson, p. 20)

vii.  We use history to gain insight into the problems facing us today – a plane of current time and space into which history is summoned in our journey towards a solution.

There are lessons we can learn here, after all, what is a lesson learned if not a snapshot of a specific time and place:

First, Ask, why?

Second, create rich artefacts that transmit enough detail of the time and place for future readers to make the leap of imagination into the context of the author; perhaps then we can begin to create artefacts that stimulate rich narrative and provide a greater contribution to solving the problems of the future.

Historians as experts in the development an organisation’s future… The things we can learn!

5 comments on “Learning lessons from history (Why ask why)

  1. Guy St. Clair
    February 24, 2012

    Well done, sir. And if we are going to ask ‘why’ (which we must), as we think about applying the ‘why’ to our lives as knowledge managers, specialists, strategists, or any form of knowledge worker, I’m inspired by the work of Simon Sinek. His book “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” demonstrates a critical understanding of the modern workplace, and I have great fun applying its principles to our work in the knowledge domain. There’s also a very effective TED presentation from him, very useful: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html.

    Again, thanks for your cogent and valuable essay.

    • David Griffiths
      February 25, 2012

      Thanks for the feedback, appreciated…Good link with the TED presentation and I’ll have to take a look at the book – thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Dave Snowden
    February 25, 2012

    Umm, not sure I am happy for ASHEN to be used as an illustration of a model that fails to ask the why question. You are taking things a little out of context, or rather acting on incomplete knowledge.

    ASHEN is a mnemonic device for knowledge mapping (narrative is incidental to it) which then is used in a convergent/divergent process to develop a portfolio of knowledge projects. At that point the “Why”question is asked in the context of the the nature of the project. Its not always the same question; if the situation is complex “why” may not be a good question, it is safer to ask of the action is coherent but that is a wider topic.

    To be honest I am not so sure of the utility of asking the why question in the past. I have generally found that “what if” questions reveal more with less retrospective coherence.

    I don’t disagree per se, but I do think its not a universal.

    • David Griffiths
      February 25, 2012

      Hi Dave – Just to clarify: I was picking up on your original article and the need for “meaning full answers with minimal interference from the questioner”…What I was suggesting, to minimise that interference, is there is a need to make the leap into the mind of the knowledge holder by also understanding the rationale for a decision – the ‘why’ question.

      I can see where you are coming from, in terms of, ‘what if’; but I would say that in order to develop scenarios, emerging from ‘what ifs’, then there is a need to understand ‘why’ a scenario emerged in the first place; from there we can stat to explore those ‘what ifs’.

      I’m not sure that we are disagreeing here…just clarifying what prompted the use of ASHEN in my post.

      In the mean time… 30 mins to kick off — no ticket, so heading to the local pub in hope of a Triple Crown at Twickenham

      • David Griffiths
        February 25, 2012

        For those interested…just to follow-up on my last response… respect to England – two heavy weights in a slugging match, but…Wales! First time we have won the Triple Crown in Twickenham and Scott Williams, take a bow my son – Sam, what a captain!

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