Blog for September 2022 Seminar : Conversational Leadership Café : Is this our Gutenberg moment !

This seminar was presented by David Gurteen who has been running Knowledge Cafés for 20 years. He has a growing interest in the power of conversation. He has written a blook on conversational leadership. He has researched, reflected upon and written about ‘conversations’. Conversation is a potentially powerful response to the problems that we face in the world.
Two questions : What are the roots of our problems ? What role does the individual and conversation play in responding to our problems ?

Now, when did Knowledge Management start ? Did it start in the 1990’s ?
No. it did not. It started 60,000 years ago with a ‘cognitive revolution’ which incorporated a great leap forward and a cultural big bang. Before the cognitive revolution humans evolved slowly. After the cognitive revolution anatomical evolution ceased and and we started to evolve culturally and linguistically. In the cognitive revolution we started to learn from each other through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission. As a result we could pass knowledge on from generation to generation. Thus we see the birth of Knowledge Management (KM). Summing it up :-
60,000 years Before the Christian Era (BCE) – Cognitive Revolution.
10,000 years BCE – Neolithic Revolution.
9,500 years BCE – First Cities.
4,000 years BCE – First Empire
3,500 years BCE – Invention of Writing
700 years BCE – First Library
470 years BCE – Socrates
476 years AD – Dark Ages
1,300 years AD – Renaissance
The Gutenberg printing press was invented in Germany in 1440.

History of Knowledge
1440 Printing Press
1500’s Protestant Revolution
1543 Copernican Revolution
1600 Scientific Revolution
1618 Thirty Years War
1650 Enlightenment
1760 First Industrial Revolution
1870 Second Industrial Revolution
1945 Information Revolution
2011 Industry 4.0

Going to the Information Revolution :-

1945 Early computers
1969 Internet
1981 IBM pc
1989 World Wide Web
2000 Social Media
2007 Smartphones
2011 Zoom

Looking at the impact of the web and social media as a paradigm – 1,2,3.

1) Read / write access to the world’s knowledge (the web/social media).
2) Ability to converse with anyone, anywhere in the world (social media/zoom).
3) Soon different languages will no longer be a barrier (language translation in real time).

So we have four Mega knowledge revolutions. Language led to the Cognitive Revolution. The invention of writing led to the First IT revolution. The Printing Press led to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.
Is social media (Zoom) leading to yet another Knowledge Revolution ?

A better world

Problems – Capacity to respond
Hyperlinked Complex VUCA world – High degree of literacy / education
Disruptive technology – High degree of awareness / willingness
Global warming / pollution – Cognitive Surplus
Existential crisis – Conversation revolution

Is this our Gutenberg moment ?

The printing press led to the Protestant revolution which undermined the authority of the Catholic church which in turn led to the 30 years war.
But it also led to the Scientific Revolution and the enlightenment.

Social media is leading to a polarization of society and the undermining of the
authority of experts and many of our governmental institutions.
But maybe it is leading to a second Scientific revolution and enlightenment ?

Will social media have as great an impact on the world as the printing press ?

Gutenberg revolutionized the world. Is this our Gutenberg moment ?

Where each and everyone of us can share our knowledge and can converse and collaborate globally ?

We then split into two groups and had ‘conversation’ within our group .
Then the two groups assembled all together and we discussed our ideas in a conversational manner rather than the standard ‘feedback’ mode of behaviour.
These are the salient points made during that conversation which involved every participant. N.B. The points here summarise in a sentence or two what the individual participant said.

• Is it really a revolution if it affects only a part of the population ?
• Many people are excluded from this revolution by powerful people who exploit technology for their own ends.
• What are we not allowed to say on social media ? What are we being dislocated from ? How about ‘mindfulness’. Any technology that encourages you to go out into the world is good.
• It is a complex picture – Utopia or Dystopia.
• More like dystopia when a few financiers can speculate at the expense of everyone else.
• Religion aims at morality and better standards of behaviour. Can social media help us to become moral beings. Is ‘computing’ replacing monolithic religions.
• Small minorities can get a ‘very loud voice’ on social media.
• It is often about gender.
• Marshall McLuhan predicted the world wide web almost thirty years before it was invented. ‘The global village’. ‘The medium is the message’.
• Huge social changes are not done by majorities. Well organized minorities are the most influential.
• Most people in the world don’t live in democracies. What do people who live in non-democratic countries make of their world and what do they make of our world ?
• A sort of tribalism seems to have come back and it is evident in social media.
• ‘Hate speech’ comes from a few people piling into an issue. It is not a real discussion. If your comment gets more ‘likes’ than the original comment then you have won your argument. You have ‘ratioed’ the other person.
• It is difficult to have a conversation in ‘real time’. Real conversation is ‘nuanced’ – digital conversation is not.
• The whole issue of inclusion and accessibility being tackled by ‘a technology’ is difficult.
• There has been a rise in the use of voice messaging which has led to a rise in the use of texting to answer it. Some people are uncomfortable with talking so they rely on ‘CHAT’. This is where moderators are needed.
• Will Zoom be the driving force for this revolution ?
• Most teenagers in the USA cannot read cursive text, so they cannot read letters.
• What sort of future is there going to be for ‘the book’ ? Barrack Obama’s Presidential Library is going to be digital.
• Actually, digital books have ‘plateaued’ at 15% of the market. Books are still being published.
• One participant used a kindle for a few months and then went back to books.
• It is about ‘choice’. Some people cannot access books. Digital books can be used by poorly sighted people. Books will not go away.
• One participant preferred reading digital books on train journeys or when travelling away from home. She has joined Saffron Walden Library. She has read ‘Game of Thrones’ in book form and preferred it to the TV series.
• There is still the issue of book fines with library books. Two participants feel the pressure of reading a book quickly enough to avoid a fine on returning it to the library.
• One participant commended cafes which offer little magazines, poetry to their customers. Perhaps little art exhibitions. People are being reached in these environments.
• One participant has so many books (some of which he has not yet read) that he does not go to the library.
• ‘More of the same’ was one conclusion. We are experiencing ‘information overload’ once again. It is better to read a good novel than to consume ‘threads of information’.
• We all have different forms of ‘information consumption’. One participant subscribes to blogs and other things in magazines. He employs a ‘speed reader’ to flag what he is interested in.
• One participant uses podcasts. The best podcasts are ‘conversations’. This is a different experience from slagging people off on Twitter.
• ‘Little Discourse Project’ was mentioned. One participant attempted to define the spectrum of conversations online. This covered audio and visual. For example :- interviews, debates, podcasts. Polite / aggressive debates etc.
• Is this amazing technological revolution going to improve our world ? There is a desire within us to be taken away from ‘words’. We communicate on so many levels. We communicate via Art, Music. Also, by activities such as digging the garden, riding the bike, going to the Park.
• Everyone sees the home / office duality of working as a good thing. But are we getting out of the house enough ? Are we socialising enough ? Is this a bad thing for our mental health ?
• Yes, this is a ‘Gutenberg Moment’. However, although it may well be a good revolution in the long term so far as the short term is concerned there will be more ‘social turbulence’ and a regression to a form of tribalism or clique mentalities.
• What about the environment against which this revolution is taking place. How much real social interaction takes place in Britain’s towns and cities ? In places like Antwerp and the Netherlands they have a ‘mixed culture’ expressed partly in the built environment which works well. It fosters social interaction. We do not have that sort of built environment here.
• ‘Advertising’ was seen as part of the problem. Advertising helps perpetuate myths such as ‘the earth is not burning’; ‘biodiversity has not collapsed’.
• One participant pointed out that the Chinese government has managed to control the web and social media in China. Many outsiders thought that this was an impossible goal. So totalitarianism can operate within social media.
• We are talking about a tool – social media – it can either be a good tool or a bad tool.
• One participant talked about the very different story he heard from a Chinese guide about the Tienanmen Square protests.
• One participant talked about his parents information on the world way back in the 1950’s. No TV, no internet, no car. BBC Home Service (now Radio 4) and the ‘Daily Mirror’. Any book came from the library. TV came later. Advertising back then was ‘propaganda’. How much ‘power and control’ advertising executives had in those days. However, the internet has undermined this as everything these days is much more fragmented.
• So it is ‘Gutenberg moments’ not a ‘Gutenberg moment’. It consists of spontaneity, different revolutions, different scales and times.
• Scientifically, ‘moment’ has a meaning in physics. It means – mass (strength) x velocity and you apply it across the piece. How important is it ? and how is it changing ? An interesting analogy.

Finally, David Gurteen concluded that it had been an enjoyable session.

He also said that the group had understood how complex it is, how fragmented and difficult it all is and … where are we heading ?

Looking back on the session we were all ‘bubbling over with ideas’.

Resources :-

Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Robin Dunbar. Harvard University Press. 2020.
The Printing Press as an agent of change. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. Cambridge University Press. 1980.
Religion and the rise of Capitalism. R.H.Tawney. 1926 re-published by Verso World History Series. 2015.
The Real England. Paul Kingsworth. Granta Books. 2009.


RR 12/10/2022


Blog for July 2022 Seminar: Sparks into Light. Complexity and the Development Sector

Our Seminar Speaker  was Emma Jones (BSc, MSc) who is a Senior Researcher and SenseMaker® practitioner at the Cynefin Company, and leads the Power, Discrimination and Conflict programme. Cynefin is an action, research and development hub which specialises in the application of anthrocomplexity using complexity oriented tools and applying them across research, government and organisations. They are helping people to do research differently.

Emma introduced us to the Cynefin framework which helps to unpick which system you are in, in order to act. Complex Adaptive Systems Theory posits three systems – order, chaos and complex adaptive. Each system requires different responses.

1) Ordered System – Clear Domain. Clear rules, stable agreed cause. If you do X you get Y.
Sense – categorise – respond. Fixed constraints. Best.

Ordered System – Complicated Domain. Cause and effect relationships
not self-evident. Could be a range of right answers. Sense – analyse – respond.
Expert consultation. Governing constraints. Good.

2) Chaotic System – Chaotic Domain. Relationships unclear, random,
Unco-ordinated. Act first! Act – sense – respond.
No effective constraint. Novel.

3) Complex Adaptive System – Complex Domain. Relationships deduced in retrospect. Lots of connections but all entangled. Probe – sense – respond.
Enabling constraints. Exaptive.

So, it was time to get ‘hands on’ as Emma showcased a live project that she is working on at the moment called ‘Love shouldn’t hurt’. This concerns domestic abuse. The questionnaire is carefully crafted and is aimed at getting individuals to share their stories. They start with a video which shows domestic abuse. Then they ask the individuals to tell their story. They employ ‘triads’ where the individual can precisely match their responses by moving and marking the place which reflects their experience. The interpreter / coder is ‘removed’ and the individual voice is heard.

Checking the responses shows that the main effect of coercive control is emotional / psychological rather than physical. It is long term and much more debilitating but it is not often represented in law, advocacy or charitable support. What was the hardest thing in their experience? Present threat – the need to escape? The experience of social isolation ? The need to reach out to other people? The prospect of reporting it to the Authorities? The answers will help researchers to work out how to offer appropriate support. Where are there struggles. Also, there is an attempt to see where the blame lies. Are respondents blaming the perpetrator ? Have the respondents experienced residual anger? Is there a mental health issue? Is there a lack of justice? Looking for a ‘lay of the landscape’ around these kind of issues.

Intervention design creation. How can events be improved? Do we need to have better people in the world? Do we need better laws to safeguard victim survivors? More inclusive understanding, bit more empathy? Better employment? Better housing? Do they need more resources? Better therapy?

What is the hardest part to rebuild? Mental health, self esteem, confidence? Rebuilding trust in social relationships? Have they lost their job, their house etc.? Are they struggling financially?

Reflecting then on the positive part of the experience.  In Emma’ s story was there Strength and bravery? Was there empathy and understanding? Was there learning and opportunity?

We can then look at (say) gaps in ‘lack of empathy’ and collerate it with the previous triads concerning ‘social isolation’, ‘victim blaming culture’ etc. – how does it look etc.

Looking at the mental health ramifications – anger and resentment,  depression, guilt and shame on the long term outcomes of coercive behaviour. Residual effects.

Looking at justice – is it revenge, reconciliation or deterrence?
This frames whether people are in the past, present or the future.

Do people stay in bad relationships or will they not? This could be a bit of a negotiation between partners concerned.

So, now they do data analytics and look for patterns. Distribution patterns occur. This is the strength of SenseMaker®.  The benefits come through from a contextual richness of stories and the persuasive nature of these stories. Weak ‘signals’ are treated respectfully, smaller clusters of activity are evaluated properly – not thrown in the bin.

Meet people where they are at and see local solutions to local problems.

Emma works with UNDP collecting stories from migrants from Ukraine. There is an underground team in Moldova. Ripple effect of this migration. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – gender inequality among pastors. Hubilo too.
UN Foundation – how plantation workers are able to access sexual health and reproductive health information in East Africa.

Emma finished her presentation and we then had a Q & A session.

  • Is there a Cynefin ‘dummies book’? Well, there is a Cynefin Lego Game at and a book entitled ‘Weaving SenseMaker® into the fabric of our world’ published by Cognitive Edge / The Cynefin Co.
  • ‘You need to re-gear your brain to understand Cynefin’ was a view expressed by a few participants.
  • It is a way of looking at problems akin to TRIZ. Refer to the blog for the Netikx Seminar held on 5th October 2020. TRIZ is a ‘theory of inventive problem solving’.
  • It is a good idea to give the individual time to reflect on his / her experience.
  • Emma asked us ‘where does complexity come up in your life’? – what part of your life have you treated as ordered but are in fact complex. Let us get into those discussions.
  • What does ‘exactive’ mean ? Where something is re-purposed from one end to another end in Complex Adaptive Systems.
  • Probe = prompting questions to get to the narrative. Sense = Sensing through Signifiers and Real Time Feedback. Respond = Initiatives, interventions and ideas and the patterns that come from background iterations.
  • ‘Safe to fail experiments’ can be a probe and you get to see if it works and if you can see it work you can steer away from the complex to the complicated state.
  • There is a big difference between ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’.
  • According to Donald A. Norman in his book ‘Living with Complexity’, The MIT Press, 2016, he defines complexity as something where you can understand the underlying theories and principles behind the thing in question. ‘Complicated’ is something where you cannot work out those underlying theories and principles. One participant instanced Share Point as a ‘complicated’ system and visitor search engines as ‘complex’ systems.
  • People think that they want ‘simple’ but they like ‘complexity’.
  • So, ‘complex’ / ‘complicated’ is a useful distinction.
  • VUCA acronym. Is the complex in the Cynefin system the same? Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. No, it is not the same.
  • How did you devise the ‘triads’? How did you devise the questions? Literature searches and we have a facilitation design workshop. We do pilot testing.
  • Emma was asked about her work and she told us that she had a lot ‘to juggle’. Lately, Cynefin had been working around the Astra Zeneca vaccine ‘stuff’. Also, counter-terrorism and with IKEA. It was very wide ranging.
  • Analytics can be frustrating. Senior leaders sometimes do not want to hear about them. People’s stories are honest. It can be difficult to get senior people to have the curiosity to see things differently.
  • A participant said that it can be difficult to get people to share their stories and to be confident and forthcoming.
  • Emma talked about the importance of visual clues when talking to / interviewing people. It was necessary to ‘play around’ with the narrative structure in order to elicit full responses on issues.

The session ended. It was a very informative and enjoyable seminar.

RR 14/08/2022

January 2022 Seminar: Introduction to Radical Knowledge Management

Summary :

With the ongoing development of technology and its impact on every workplace in industry and commerce we must seek to radicalise the effectiveness of Knowledge Management by learning lessons from the creative essence of art and artists. In this way we can increase productivity and liberate insightful improvements to industrial and commercial processes by encouraging innovation.

Speaker :

Stephanie Barnes is an Independent Consultant based in Berlin, Germany.

Time and Venue :

A Zoom lecture held on Thursday January 27th 2022.

Slides :

Slides will be made available to members.

Tweets :


Blog :

A blog is available to members

Study Suggestions :

The following suggestions are made :



Blog for November 2021 Seminar : Writing for the web – perspectives and practical advice

This blog is the result of the work of one of the ‘break-out-groups’ during the NetIKX seminar held by Teodora Petkova on November 25th 2021 entitled “Writing for the web: perspectives and practical advice”.

For an excellent review of this seminar please start off with a blog written by Carlin Parry which ‘sets the scene’ so to speak

Our group was asked to write a script for a short video of a few minutes. The video was entitled ‘How to propagate strawberries in a community garden’. Teodora asked us for our ‘beautiful first ugly draft’ and for ‘meaningful content’ and for us ‘to think before we ink’, which to us meant being concise. Here is the result :

The Script

An Interview with Conrad who is running a Community Group for gardeners.

Personnel : Conrad – gardener; Anke – tutor; Gerard – dolly grip/best boy/cameraman.

Robert – interviewer

Robert –

‘Here we are in Fareham House garden. Conrad and Anke are going to tell us about propagating strawberries.

Conrad is a student who planted strawberries in May and they have spread all over this raised bed’.

Conrad –

‘We only had 5 strawberries and Anke is telling me what we can do about it’.

Gerard moves camera from Conrad to Anke and also shows the strawberry bed itself and goes back to Anke for her contribution….Anke talks about the proper way to plant strawberry runners, which she regards as the easiest way to propagate strawberries.

How to grow strawberries on the ground – US video.

How to grow strawberries in pots – US video.

Conrad – ‘I think that all members of our community would like to find out about these things and then they could take a strawberry plant home to foster in their own homes’.

[In 2022 Conrad wishes to make a video of next season’s strawberry planting which will supersede the first video above].

Conrad then explains to camera how viewers can join the Community Group.

End of script.

Now, we can open this up and show the idea of ‘the strawberry’ in different socio-cultural contexts. We have foraged the web for information and found the following ‘knowledge bits’ in architecture, art & fabric design, film, food, music and poetry.

Strawberry in Architecture

Strawberry Hill House – Community Garden – website page. Strawberry Hill House is the Gothic Revival Villa built in Twickenham, London by Horace Walpole (1717-1797).

Strawberry in Art and Fabric Design

The strawberry as art in ‘The strawberry thief flower and bird pattern’ by William Morris (1834-1896) – image

Strawberry in Film

‘Wild Strawberries’ by Ingmar Bergman (1957) – video

An old University professor goes on a long car trip to collect an award and he reminisces about gathering strawberries with his girlfriend in his youth.

Strawberry in Food

Strawberries as food – How to make chocolate strawberries – video

Strawberries as food/art – How to make strawberry art decoration – video

Strawberry in Music

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ by the Beatles – original video

John Lennon used to play as a child in a Salvation Army children’s home in Liverpool  called ‘Strawberry Fields’

Strawberry in Poetry

‘Strawberries’ by acclaimed Scots poet Edwin Morgan 1920-2010 – website page























May 2021 Seminar : The status of KM in 2020, and trends for the future


In early 2020, Knoco undertook a third global “state of the art” survey of Knowledge Management. The results gave a snapshot of the state of pre-covid KM, and comparison with previous surveys allows trends to be identified.  Nick Milton, the director of Knoco Ltd has a fascinating insight into the survey results. He pinpointed outcomes that would give powerful arguments to KM professionals who need to persuade their leadership team and colleagues to take the subject seriously and allocate appropriate resources.  In particular, the survey results show that knowledge management has become more relevant after the shocks and changes caused by the pandemic.   The discussion following his fascinating talk focused on how we could use the new ideas generated for our own work situations.


Nick Milton is director and co-founder of Knoco Ltd ( with over 25 years experience in Knowledge Management.

Working with Knoco Ltd, Nick has helped develop and deliver KM strategies, implementation plans and services in a wide range of different organizations around the globe. He has a particular interest in ‘Lessons Learned Programs’, and has managed major ‘lessons capture programs’, particularly in the area of mergers and acquisitions, and high technology engineering.

Prior to founding Knoco, Nick spent two years at the centre of the team that made BP the leading KM company in the world at the time; acting as the team Knowledge Manager, developing and implementing BP’s knowledge of ‘how to manage knowledge’, and coordinating the BP KM Community of Practice.

Nick is a widely recognized coach and trainer, and has given keynote speeches at most of the leading international Knowledge Management conferences, such as KM World, KM Europe, KMUK, KM Russia, KM Egypt, IAPG Argentina, IKM Jakarta, KM Singapore and KM Brazil. In 2007 he was awarded ‘Lecturer of the year’ from Chalmers University. He was a member of the international working group which developed ISO 30401, the management systems standard for KM.

Nick blogs most days ( and can be found on Twitter @nickknoco. He is based in the UK, near the city of Bath.

Time and Venue

27 May, 2pm Zoom on line meeting




Slides for this seminar are in the Website Document Store.  You need a member’s password.  (Search with: May 2021)


There is a Blog for this month on the website.  It is an excellent report and has been written by Committee Member, Carlin Parry, and this report can also be found Here

Study Suggestions

You can find a copy of the survey’s mentioned in the seminar at Nick Milton’s website:

Nick is the author/co-author of the following books:

  • The Knowledge Manager’s handbook;
  • Designing a Successful KM Strategy;
  • The Lessons Learned handbook;
  • Knowledge Management for Teams and Projects;
  • Knowledge Management for Sales and Marketing, and
  • Performance through Learning – knowledge management in practice.

March 2021 Seminar: Working during the Covid-19 pandemic: sharing insights and experiences

Summary This meeting consisted of  eight speakers talking for ten minutes each about different aspects of their experience of working during this time, followed by the usual syndicate sessions, where experiences were  shared in more detail, so that we can manage better as we move forward into a still uncertain future. Speakers The eight speakers […]

September 2020 Seminar: TRIZ and how it can be applied to Knowledge and Information Management


This meeting introduced the little-known methodology with Russian origins, called TRIZ. Patterns that were uncovered while delving deep into the patents database during work in Russia revealed around 100 concepts, principles, and strategies that they believe will help to solve any problem. Ron has extensive experience using TRIZ in a huge range of different situations and brought his passion and expertise to pull together some fascinating examples of TRIZ being used in practical situations.  After we had absorbed all the ideas he was explaining, we had wonderful networking sessions to discuss what might be relevant to our own work situations.  Audience members left eager to see what they would apply on Monday morning, where Ron had assured us would have the capacity to think like a genius! It was a lively and productive session and even if we fail to deliver at genius level, we had certainly gained fascinating insights into a more systematic way of looking at the problem solving needed for complex situations.


Ron Donaldson is a freelance Knowledge Ecologist. Ron has a strong environmental background that includes 21 years with English Nature and an Honours Degree in Combined Sciences.

Beginning his career in systems and process improvement he was drawn towards the anthropological, people and community aspects of knowledge management within which he gained quite a high profile speaking (and facilitating workshops) about the application of story telling and complexity thinking.

He now takes an ecological view of organisational change by placing emphasis on communities and the knowledge and ideas that flow within and between them. His approach to facilitation then creates the conditions for revealing and self-realising the sense made of the stories being told. All of this is done with a deep understanding of the unpredictable nature of complex systems and some of the latest thinking in the Cognitive Sciences.

In the last 10 years as a self-employed knowledge ecologist he has absorbed methods and ideas from an even wider range of disciplines from problem solving to open innovation design thinking, collaborative community building through to using narrative frameworks to communicate complex ideas.

He believes his strongest asset is having a foot in, and being accepted by, several very different networks, from environmental story tellers, engineers, conservationists and groups working for social change, and in doing so identifying and transferring the best insights between them.

Ron introduced us to the basic principles and insights behind TRIZ and then shared with us a couple of techniques for us to familiarize ourselves and apply during the syndicate session.

Time and Venue

30th September 2020 2:30pm on the Zoom platform. This is a virtual session.


Will be made available to members soon




See our blog report: TRIZ

Study Suggestions

Study suggestions : It has already been mentioned but the most important area of study is the Oxford Creativity website at :
This contains a cornucopia of information and resources and educational material, much of which is free of charge.
Other sites which carry selective examples of the TRIZ methodology are :

The following paperbacks explain TRIZ in detail :
TRIZ for Engineers : Enabling Inventive Problem Solving by Karen Gadd.
Wiley, 2011. ISBN 978-0470741887. This is also available in a Kindle Edition.

TRIZ for Dummies by Lilly Haines-Gadd. For Dummies, 2016.
ISBN 978-1119107477. This is also available in a Kindle Edition and as an Audiobook.

Rob Rosset 13/10/2020

March 2018 Seminar: Working in Complexity – SenseMaker, Decisions and Cynefin


At this meeting attendees were given the opportunity to take part in experimenting with a number of tools and analytical approaches that have been used to good effect in dealing with intractable, complex problems.  It was a lively action-packed meeting with useful learning for Monday morning, and plenty of opportunity for networking and exchanging ideas and experience across organisations.


Tony Quinlan is an independent consultant and a member of the Cognitive Edge network of practitioners founded by Dave Snowden in 2004.  As a co-trainer with Dave, Tony has worked internationally, teaching techniques for addressing complexity to a variety of organisations.
Tony has used SenseMaker® in over 50 projects in the past decade, including in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has helped organisations such as the European Commission, United Nations Development Programme and various UK government departments work with the Cynefin framework since 2005. This mix gives him a unique combination of theoretical foundations and practical field experience.
Tony blogs at

Time and Location

2pm on 7th March 2018, The British Dental Association, 64 Wimpole Street, London W1G 8YS

Pre Event Information

In complex, uncertain and dynamically changing situations, there is a need for good, context-heavy and up-to-date information which decision-makers can access fast. The traditional approaches – such as questionnaires, citizen polling, employment engagement surveys and patient focus groups – have all had limited success in meeting that need, and they are failing to support decision- makers with appropriate strategies to deal with the inherent uncertainty of complexity.

This NetIKX seminar session will give attendees the opportunity take part in experimenting with a number of tools and analytical approaches that have been used to good effect in dealing with intractable, complex problems. In particular we will look at:

  • SenseMaker® narrative research methods, and the software tools that support them;
  • the Cynefin framework for analysing complexity;
  • ways of co-creating projects to address these

The afternoon will be interactive from the beginning – including an ‘acoustic SenseMaker®’ exercise, along with examples from various organisations; an explanation of the underlying principles; and how to make best use of these methods to intervene in evolving situations and to obtain desirable outcomes.

Time allowing, the afternoon will also include discussion and exercises around how this approach can be combined with the Cynefin framework to improve organisational resilience and decision-making. A pdf giving detail of the meeting is available at Working in Complexity


No slides available for this presentation




See our blog report: Working in Complexity.

Study resources

Tony Quinlan suggests this website:

Information Design, with Conrad Taylor and Ruth Miller

On 26 January 2017, the speakers at the NetIKX meeting were Conrad and Ruth. Conrad has written up the two talks below. A fuller account of his own talk can be found on his Conradiator site at, as he notes below.

Photo David Dickinson


For some comments on the meeting, by Claire Parry, see the very end of this report.

Conrad’s Account

The topic of the NetIKX seminar on 26 January 2017 was ‘Information Design – approaches to better communication’. Information Design (ID) is a collection of practices using visual design, clear writing and thinking about human factors, to making information easier to understand – especially information for the general public. Information designers work across a range of types of media, from road signs to government forms, user manuals to transport maps, bank statements to legal contracts, and increasingly information presented through computer interfaces and Web sites.

I was the first speaker, running through a background history and the theoretical underpinnings of ID, and showing examples with a strong visual component. Ruth Miller then took over and focused on the Plain Language side of things. Both Ruth and I have been active around the Information Design Association in the UK (IDA) for 25+ years.

Here, I’m giving only a brief summary of my own presentation; as I had prepared it in written form with illustrations, I’ve thought it best to convert that into a kind of stand-alone essay; you can find it at Ruth’s contribution, however, is presented below at greater length, as it isn’t represented elsewhere.

Introducing Information Design

In my opening presentation I explained that the awkward label ‘Information Design’ emerged in the late 1970s as a rallying point for a diverse bunch of folk committed to clarity and simplicity in information presentation. That led to the founding of the Information Design Journal, a series of conferences, and organisations such as the IDA. Some people came into this from a graphic design background; some were committed to the simplification of written language. Psychologists, linguists and semioticians have also contributed their insights.

Despite this avowed interdisciplinarity, the ID community has sadly kept aloof from people in information and knowledge management. One of the exceptional people acting as a bridge is Liz Orna, long associated with NetIKX and its predecessor the Aslib IRM Network. In her writing, Liz has long emphasised the important role of ‘information products’ as artefacts designed for conveying knowledge.

Visual examples across the ages

I then conducted a whistle-stop history tour of innovation in making complicated stuff easier to understand through pictorial and typographic means, including:

  • Tables, a surprisingly old way of handling information (reaching way back to Sumeria in about 2500 BCE). My table examples included tide-tables, ‘ready reckoners’, and text in tabular formats.
  • Diagrams/drawings, ranging from more exactingly accurate ones such as anatomical atlases and sea-navigation charts, to line drawings and schematic diagrams which remove unnecessary detail so that they can focus on communicating (for example, how things work).
  • Harry Beck’s London Underground diagram got a special mention, given its iconic status. It is often called a ‘map’ but in reality it is a service network diagram, and this approach to transport information has been copied worldwide.

Harry Beck underground diagram

  • Charts and graphs including Joseph Priestley’s first timeline, William Playfair’s invention of the line and area chart, and Florence Nightingale’s ‘coxcomb diagrams’ for presenting statistics.
  • Data maps, such as John Snow’s 1854 plot of cholera deaths around the Broad Street pump in Soho.
  • Network diagrams as used to represent links between entities or people, or to explain data flows in a software system.

I also mentioned business forms and questionnaires as an important genre, but I left this topic to Ruth who has more experience with these.

Where did Information Design thinking come from?

The above examples, which I illustrated using pictures, illustrate trends and innovations in the presentation of information. Next I looked at how the quest for clear communication became more conscious of itself, more bolstered with theory, and better organised into communities of practice.

This seems to have happened first in improving the clarity of text. In the 1940s, Rudolf Flesch and Robert Gunning proposed some objective ways of measuring the readability of text, by calculations involving the length of sentences and the average number of syllables per word.

Flesch Readability Chart Flesch Readability Chart

In the UK, Sir Ernest Gowers formulated a guide to plain English writing to educate civil servants, culminating in the famous book The Complete Plain Words, which is still in print after six decades and a number of revisions.

In the Second World War, the technical sophistication of weapons plus, in Britain, the need to engage the public in war preparedness seem to have been drivers for innovations in technical documentation and the creation of training materials, and the job description ‘Technical Author’ came into being. As this trend in technical documentation continued in the post-War era, technical communicators organised themselves into associations like the STC and ISTC. In the richer industries such as aerospace, technical documentation also pioneered the use of early WYSIWYG computer systems like Xerox Docomenter and Interleaf for document composition.

In 1943, the UK Medical Research Council formed its Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge, initially to investigate how to help armed forces personnel understand and cope with information under stresful conditions. Post-war, APU researcher Pat Wright went on to investigate factors in text legibility and comprehension; Don Norman contributed to the establishment of Cognitive Science as a discipline, and helped Apple Computer as its first User Experience Architect.

In 1978, NATO sponsored a conference in the Netherlands about human factors and the design of non-electronic information displays; the papers were published as Information Design in 1984. The Information Design Journal was set up in the aftermath of the event and was then the focus for a number of conferences in the UK. As for the IDA, it was launched in 1991.

Some issues and developments

I rounded off my presentation by touching on three issues which have been woven in and out of Information Design practice down the years:

  • Desktop publishing’, which put typesetting control and on-screen design into the hands of graphic designers, was a powerful enabler for information designers in particular.
  • Understanding the reader remains a challenge for anyone who truly seeks to communicate clearly. It’s dangerous to make assumptions about what will make sense to a user community unless you find out about that community. Today there is growing sophistication in using qualitative research methods and even ethnography to inform more effective writing and design.
  • Prototyping and usability testing – making prototypes is easier than before. Testing them with a sample of people representative of the eventual users can provide very useful insights, as Ruth would later illustrate from her own experience.

I closed my section of the meeting by speculating that the realm of information and knowledge management has hitherto tended to be dominated by librarians and like professionals, who focus on curating and organising collections of information resources. I would like there to be more engagement between this group and those actively engaged in designing and creating the information products which Liz Orna has described as having a central role in conveying knowledge between people.

Liz Orna on the chain of communication

I then handed the meeting over to Ruth.

Ruth Miller on plain language

ruth-millerRuth explained that she did not train to be a plain language communicator; she fell into it and found it a perfect match for her personality. Like many people who work on improving communication, she notices things that are odd or confusing in everyday life, and wonders how they could be organised better. She would describe herself as a Simplifier: someone who looks at information and thinks about how to make it easier for people to understand.

More recently, Ruth has had the experience of teaching English to unaccompanied minors, as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece.

Plain language is not new. ‘Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words,’ it says in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (32:8), which dates from about 200 BCE. From Ptolemaic Egypt, we have a letter from a Minister of Finance to a senior civil servant, saying ‘Apollonius to Zeno, greetings. You did right to send the chickpeas to Memphis. Farewell!’ These quotes are from a 1988 pamphlet called ‘Making it Plain: a plea for plain English in the Civil Service’, with a foreword by Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher promoted plain language writing. Early in her first government she engaged Derek Rayner, former CEO of Marks and Spencer, to commission a series of reports on efficiency in government, the ‘Rayner Reviews’. One of these, Forms into Shape (1981), analysed the use of forms in the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), and recommended the setting up of specialist Forms Units in government departments. Ruth would have more to say about forms design later, from her experience inside one of those units.

Ruth showed an illustration from the horticulture manual Flora, Ceres and Pomona by John Rea, beside an excerpt in which Rea says that he ‘has not inserted any of those notorious lies I have frequently found in books of this subject, but in plain English terms, set down the truth in every particular’. This is the earliest use Ruth has found of the phrase ‘plain English’ – it dates from 1665.

When plain language explanation should be unnecessary!

In many circumstances you shouldn’t need an explanation. Ruth showed a photo of a bathroom tap with a square knob set some centimetres to the right of it, from a British hotel. She couldn’t figure out how to make water come out of it. Evidently she wasn’t alone in this: the hotel had added a sign saying ‘Tilt Taps to Operate’ – which only made matters more confusing (the tap does not tilt, and there is only one of it). ‘Turn knob to operate tap’ would have been better – but even then, it’s an example of information as a prosthesis; had the artefact been better designed in the first place, it would not be necessary to help it with an information crutch.

Ruth also showed a photo of a fine mahogany boardroom table she had encountered at a business meeting. It’s useful to have a table on which to place your bag, so you can unpack the things you need for the meeting. On this table was placed a sign, ‘Please Do Not Put Briefcases on Tables as It Damages the Surface’. Ignoring points of dubious grammar, and the strange capitalisation… isn’t it just daft to provide a table you can’t use as a table?

‘If you go away from this meeting with only one thought,’ said Ruth, ‘it should be: think about the whole situation and challenge the need to explain, however clearly, something that is nonsense in the first place.’

Siegel and Gale experience

After working in government service, Ruth moved to the communication consultancy Siegel and Gale. This was an exciting time when computer technology and laser printers were changing how personalised documents such as utility bills and bank statements could be delivered. Now less ‘computerish’ fonts could be used; layouts could be more sophisticated; type size and boldness could be used for emphasis.

Siegel and Gale caused a stir in the 1990s with their redesign of the British Telecom phone bill. This put summary information on the front page, and more detail on follow-on pages; it used simplified language, and logical grouping of items. As a result the number of customer billing enquiries fell by 25%. BT also found that customers paid bills more promptly.

Siegel and Gale once won the Design Effectiveness Awards with a humble Royal Mail redirection form. Before the redesign, that form had an 87% error rate when customers filled it in, costing Royal Mail about £10,000 a week. The redesigned form paid for itself in just 17 days!

Siegel and Gale also moved into the redesign of bank statements. For Barclays, they changed the technical language of ‘Debits’ and ‘Credits’ to ‘Money out’ and ‘Money in’. In other words, name things the way people think about them, in the language they are used to.

Conrad had mentioned ethnographic research in passing; Ruth refers to watching people use things. Once she had worked on a booklet for TalkTalk, to help people set up an Internet router at home. They then embarked on research to see how effective the booklet design had been. What had really helped was the inclusion of photos: this is what’s in the box, this is what it will look like when you have set it up, and so on.

This project did have its moments of comedy. There was a particular router which doubled as a picture frame: you could slip a photo into a slot on the front of it to ‘domesticate’ the thing. Ruth overheard someone telling a friend that she had just about set her router up, and had managed pretty well – but she wasn’t quite finished; now she had to find a photo! (Perhaps they should have added the word ‘optional’?)

Plain language: campaigns for awareness

The case for plain language use was championed within the public sector in Britain, Australia and Canada. In the USA, the lead was taken more by private business. In the US financial sector, they wanted people to understand things like investing. The US Securities and Exchange Commission pressed for consumer agreements to be written in language that people signing up to them would understand.

In the UK, the Plain English Campaign deserves credit for raising awareness and getting the bandwagon rolling. They were and still are a force for good. They were also very clever at marketing. Doesn’t ‘Plain English Campaign’ sounds like a publicly-funded body, or an NGO? In fact, they are a commercial business.

The ‘Crystal Mark’, which the PEC invented, was a brilliant idea and a money-spinner too. Many companies believed that getting a Crystal Mark on one of their documents was a mark of quality, like a kite mark. If you saw a Crystal Mark, the implication was, no-one should have a problem understanding it. But that isn’t necessarily true, partly because PEC is financially motivated to award Crystal Marks, but also because their focus is far too narrowly set on language construction. An over-long and complicated set of Terms and Conditions, set in small and hard-to-read type, would still get a Crystal Mark from the PEC – if they deemed the language to be ‘plain’.

Recent experience

More recently, Ruth has worked freelance, and she showed some small examples of projects which have brought her pleasure. She has enjoyed working with Standard Life, simplifying their policy documents, and materials about investments and pensions. What got them walking along the road to simplification was a letter from a customer who complained:

My degree is only in mechanical engineering. I can understand differential calculus, I can design all the machinery for a sewage treatment works, I can design you a bridge but I cannot understand what my policy is worth.

In the redesigns, they introduced summaries, and contextual notes, and made use of two-colour print. She added: these may be humble documents; but when you do them well, it can actually get noticed, and besides, it improves the quality of people’s lives.

Form and function: lessons from the DHSS experience

Ruth has long enjoyed doing battle with forms. When she was a civil servant, the language used in forms was from the 1950s, and they were very difficult to fill in; no wonder that the launch of the Campaign for Plain English was marked with shredding forms in Trafalgar Square!

Ruth once worked in a unit in a government department (the DHSS); this team had a brief to radically improve such forms. The team included writers and designers, and had a decent budget for research and testing too. They had input from Pat Wright, the applied psychologist Conrad had mentioned, and the Adult Literacy Basic Skills Unit; RNIB providing input about impaired vision. They investigated what trips people up when they try to fill out a form – type size, vocabulary, question sequence, whatever.

The unit was supposed to redesign 150 forms and in the first two years they managed about eight! However, that seemingly slow progress was because the research and testing and analysis was very ‘front loaded’ (it paid dividends later).

With forms, there is sometimes a trade-off between length and complexity. Some forms in her collection are booklets of 28 or even 36 pages! People appear to prefer a long but easy to understand form. Reorganising questions so all you have to do is tick a box is helpful – but it takes space. Clear signposting to take you to the next relevant part of the form is good – and also takes space!

Many forms have an introductory paragraph which tells people how to fill in the form (write clearly, write in block capitals, use a black pen…). However, research shows that hardly anyone reads that bit. In any case, people’s behaviour is not changed by such prompts, so why bother?

If you want to provide guidance as to how to fill out specific parts of a form, provide it at the ‘point of use’ – embed your explanations, and any necessary definitions, right in the questions themselves. An example might be the question: ‘Do you have a partner?’ Then you can clarify with something like ‘By partner we mean someone you are married to, or live with as if you were married to them’.

It’s useful to establish what graphic designers call the grid – a set of rules about how space is to be used on the page to lay out the form. For example, the questions and explanations might be placed in a leftmost column, while the space for answers might span the next two columns. Ruth showed some examples of gridless and chaotic forms, later redesigned according to a grid.

Once upon a time, forms would be made up only of type, plus solid or dotted lines (for example, in letterpress printing of the early 20th century). That has created a set of norms which we don’t have to feel bound to these days. Today, lithographic printing permits the use of tints (printing a light shade of a colour by using a pattern of dots that are too small to be individually distinguished). Tints can help to distinguish which parts of the form are for writing into (with a white plain background) from those parts which ask the questions and provide help (where type is set on a tinted background). A second print colour, if affordable, can also be helpful.

Testing also found that it was very helpful to re-jig questions so they could be answered with tick-boxes. Boxes which are used to determine a ‘yes/no’ condition should follow a ‘yes’ kind of question, as in ‘Tick this box if you are married’.

Some such yes/no questions, if answered in the affirmative, will lead to others. Perhaps controversially, Ruth’s team in the DHSS reversed the usual order so that the ‘No’ tick box came before the ‘Yes’ one: this helped them to lay out the subsidiary questions more clearly. (In an online form, of course, such subsidiary questions can be made to disappear automagically if the answer is ‘No’.)

Ruth mentioned ‘hairy boxes’ – those pesky ones with vertical separators that are intended to guide you to place one letter in each demarcated space. They’ve proved to be a complete disaster. Someone mentioned the US Immigration form for filling out before the plane lands, which has this feature.

That’s not the only problem with that US Immigration form, remarked Ruth. It’s very bad at conveying the relationship between question and response space: people often assume that the space for the answer is the one below the question. Only when they come to the last question do they find that the questions are set below the spaces for answering them.

Signposting is important in complex forms, helping people to skip questions that don’t apply to them (‘If you answered ‘No’ here, go forward to Section C’).

For the benefits claim forms, the DHSS team realised that many claimants don’t have the fine motor skills to write small, so they made more space for the answers – and left a substantially larger space for the signature.

Many forms end at that point, but the DHSS team added a section to tell the form-filler what to do now, what supporting documents to attach, and what would happen subsequently. It helped manage expectations and gave people a sense of the timescale according to which DHSS would respond.

Quick exercise

Ruth got us to work in pairs on an exercise based on the competition which the Plain English Campaign used to set in the pages of the Daily Express. She had multiple copies of three or four real life examples of gobbledygook and invited us to simplify the messages; we wrote our alternatives on the small A4 white-boards which she uses in teaching, called ‘show-me’ boards in the trade, so we could hold them up to compare alternatives across the room.

One of the original offerings read: ‘We would advise that attached herewith is the entry form, which has been duly completed, and would further advise that we should be grateful if you would give consideration to the various different documents to which we have made reference.

One suggested rewording was ‘Please note the documents referred to in this form’; another was ‘Here is the entry form; please note the referenced documents.’ PEC’s original winner was ‘Attached is the completed entry form. Please consider the documents referred to’ – though she personally preferred that ‘Here is’ version. We went through another couple of examples too.

Problem areas which people noted include:

  • use of the subjunctive mood in verbs
  • use of the passive tense in verbs
  • long sentences with multiple clauses

In the wording of contracts, it may be unclear who is meant by ‘we’ and ‘you’  in something  the customer is supposed to sign. Jane Teather said that the company had commissioned the form, they should be ‘we’ and the customer ‘you’.

Something else that occupied us for a few minutes was the changing norms around the use of ‘shall’ versus ‘will’.

Four Cs

Ruth offered four Cs as ideals — Clear, Consistent, Concise and Compelling.

The ‘consistency’ ideal suggests that if you set up a convention in the communication – such as who is ‘we’ and who is ‘you’ in a text, and what something is to be called – you should stick to it. This is defiance of a literary concept of ‘elegant variation’, the idea whereby you ransack the thesaurus in a hunt for synonyms, rather than re-use the original term; that may make for a fine essay, but for these purposes, bin it. Once you have called a spade a spade, stick to it.

In written communications with a broad public, subsidiary clauses and relative clauses are probably confusing and best broken out into separate sentences, said Ruth. Likewise she pronounced a fatwa against parenthesis: anything in brackets or between en dashes. They are not bad English by any means, but you risk confusing the wider audience. In any case, stuff in parenthesis is at risk of being thought as of lesser importance (though you might move ‘bracketed bits’ to the end, she said, which is what I am doing now).

A question was raised, in response to a redesign Ruth showed of transforming a bullet list into a tabular layout, about the implications of using tabular data online for accessibility for blind computer users. My own feeling, confirmed after discussion with others, is that an HTML table will ‘linearise’ nicely when reduced to readable text e.g. for voice synthesis presentation: first the header row will be read, then the first body row, then the next, and so on. However, this isn’t good enough. A table is an inherently visual device which allows the reader pay selective attention to rows and columns. Really, the information should be completely re-organised to make an audio presentation meaningful to a vision-impaired person. (Think about how you would present the information on radio!)

Ruth’s overall approach to making textual information more accessible includes these tips:

  • Look to patterns in the text which can be exploited, for example by reorganising material into bullet lists. If Ruth sees a series of clauses linked by ‘and’, she considers bullet points as an alternative.
  • If a list of bullet points gets excessively long, analyse to see if it can be broken into two shorter lists.
  • Break up large slabs of text; Ruth avoids paragraphs which are more than three or four lines long.

Four mantras

Here are four other thoughts which Ruth offered in the course of the afternoon:

  • ‘Nonsense in plain language is still nonsense!’ – as someone in Standard Life had remarked.
  • Rob Eagleton, an Australian practitioner in plain English: ‘It’s the writer’s responsibility to be clear, not the reader’s responsibility to understand.’
  • ‘Clear writing stems from clear thinking.’
  • ‘Simplicity isn’t simple to do.’ Communicating well is an art, a craft, a skill, and it is not that simple to do well. Because writing is something everybody does daily, it’s tempting to think that everone can do it well. Testing reveals this is not true! There is scope here for learning and for training.


We would be interested to hear people’s reactions to this topic. Meanwhile here are some thoughts posted by NetIKX committee member Claire Parry:

  • Given the constraints of a half-day seminar, we inevitably only scratched the surface of this vast topic. Several participants commented afterwards that they would have liked to discuss design issues specific to online forms – maybe a topic for a future seminar?
  • I also wondered how we could take the discussion forward to apply information design principles to the Internet of Things, the need for documentation to be readable by both humans and machines, the ‘mobile-first’ philosophy and the move towards embedding user manuals in products.
  • As these are all areas where there is a clear need for interdisciplinary collaboration, it was encouraging to see participants from both information management and technical communications backgrounds contributing to the seminar and acknowledging our common aims. In an era of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, clear and accurate communication is more important than ever.

November 2016 Seminar: Evidence-based Decision Making


We all have biases. It’s perfectly natural for the decisions we make in life and work to be influenced by knowledge gained through prior experience and intuition. Most of the time this serves us well. However, we would not expect major business decisions to be made just on ‘gut-feel’.

Using an open and rational evidence base for decision making is now common practice in the Health and Third sectors and increasingly in Government policy making. Quality and timely data is becoming increasingly more important and available to provide that evidence. There’s certainly no lack of data and information around us – but are we sure we have the necessary skills and tools to effectively analyse and interpret it? Do we apply critical thinking to the data we are presented with, or do we accept it at face value?

This event challenged some commonly held assumptions on how we make decisions, and how ‘gut feel’, cognitive bias, ‘rule of thumb’ and heuristic assumptions can distort our interpretation of the data and evidence in front of us, leading us into making decisions we may come to regret.

There were some fun practical exercises. These are attached to linked here, together with Steve’s introduction; they will reveal what sort of decision maker you are!


Steve Dale is Founder and Director of Collabor8now Ltd, an organization focused on developing collaborative environments (e.g. Communities of Practice) and the integration of knowledge management tools and processes to support business improvement. He is a ‘KM Institute’ certified knowledge manager and one of three community facilitators for the Warwick University affiliated ‘Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN)’. He is the author of several published research papers on collaborative behaviours.

Time and Venue

2pm, 3rd November 2016, The British Dental Association, 64 Wimpole Street, London W1G 8YS


Not available




See our blog report: Evidence-based Decision Making

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