ASHEN is a framework than can be used as a method in the context of knowledge mapping in an organization. It's purpose is to ask meaningful questions in a meaningful context previously created, because ASHEN needs to be deployed complementary to other methods, such as Dependency matrix or Decision Mapping. The purpose of these questions is to help the formulation of implicit or tacit knowledge, so that it can be codified.
“ASHEN helps create a key shift in organizational thinking from key-person dependency to knowledge dependency. This essential step of depersonalization is critical to effective knowledge practice. It is the shift from Only Linda can do X to X requires this combination of artifacts, skills, heuristics, experience and natural talent and, at the moment, only Linda has them. The former statement has only crude solutions, the latter permits greater sophistication and the potential of lasting solutions and sustainable management action. It achieves this by using language that describes the situation at the right level of granularity to permit action without excessive analysis.”— Dave Snowden, The ASHEN Model: an enabler of action, Knowledge Management
The rich outputs of ASHEN as a method can both be used for direct management action or as inputs to other methods. Direct use helps to identify knowledge, considered assets, in situations in which retention exists. Such situations are common because, as the first Principles for managing knowledge states it: "Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted". Methods that use ASHEN's outputs include Dependency matrix and Exaptive triggers. ASHEN is also part of the Knowledge mapping assemblage.
Name and history
“Instead of saying What will we do if X leaves the organisation we can instead say How do we replace the combination of artefacts, skills, heuristics, experience and natural talent that X brought to the organisation. [...] One of the other uses of ASHEN in knowledge mapping was to challenge the idea that all of the knowledge could be codified.”— Dave Snowden, ASHEN Reused, Cognitive Edge Blog
ASHEN was invented by Dave Snowden, "in one angry workshop in Basel" during his IBM days. Among the purposes were to change the attitude towards knowledge retention and improving awareness over the limits of knowledge codification.
ASHEN as a framework
As a common sense linguistic framework, ASHEN is composed of five perspectives or "questions", which help looking at knowledge from five different angles. As such, it is also a typology.
The ASHEN acronym stands for:
- Natural talent
|Perspective||Description||Examples||Related management tasks|
|Artifacts||What Artifacts did you use? All the existing explicit knowledge or codified information within an organization, including containers and tools used to store and retrieve it||Processes, documents, files, databases, software, spreadsheets||
|Skills||What skills are needed? Competences, abilities that can be taught, trained, and measured in terms of time of execution and quality of output||Plastering walls, active listening, public speaking||
|Heuristics (also habits, rituals)||What heuristics are in play?. Heuristics: articulated or unarticulated rules of thumb used to make decisions when the full facts are not known or knowable in the time available. Usually known within the CEO's inner circle. Also means by which experts take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Habits: .... Rituals: ...||Has this been checked by someone I trust? Will this impact my bonus? Is the partner-to-consultant ratio in this advisory firm greater than 1:12?||
|Experience||What experience is necessary? Knowledge resulting from the actual observation of or practical acquaintance with facts or events. The most valuable and most difficult to capture of the tacit assets of an organization. Difficulty cames from the fact that experience can be collective rather than individual, and its replication may not be practical or sensible.||Living through a bankruptcy, undergoing an acquisition, participating in a major project in a foreign country||
|Natural Talent||What (if any) natural talent is needed? Innate or instinctive special aptitude or gift||
ASHEN as a method
The reasons for mapping knowledge can be multiple. In essence, it comes down to uncover non-codified and tacit knowledge in an organization, so that it can be used because:
- Knowledge as any strategic asset needs to be managed for retention and the risk of its loss mitigated;
- Each type of knowledge require specific management practices;
- When mapped at the appropriate level of granularity, knowledge can be decomposed and recombined in novel ways to solve problems and to produce innovation.
It could also have a wider use in understanding leadership. It is a tool that can be used to unfold human knowledge and our acts of knowing.
ASHEN helps us think differently and support a new way of talking about a given problem or a situation. On one side, its purpose is to reframe the understanding of knowledge retention, thus allowing "a better sense of the level of vulnerability to loss". On the other side, its use in knowledge mapping brings awareness about the limitations of knowledge codification.
As a method for eliciting knowledge, ASHEN offers to ask five perspective questions. However, coherently with knowledge management principles, it proceeds from the key realization that simply asking someone what they know is "a meaningless question in a meaningless context". A more meaningful question would be: “When you made that decision, what knowledge did you use?”. Therefore, in order to create the necessary preconditions for the method to work, the ASHEN perspective questions need to be contextualized.
The way ASHEN questions are contextualized by referring them on previously mapped real or fictional situations, also referred to as Knowledge disclosure points (KDP). These can be:
- Decisions and turning points
- Problem solutions
- Lessons learned
These are points in which part of the knowledge is identified. KDP's are usually identified or generated, and clustered, in advance, by applying other methods, such as Decision mapping, Future backwards, or Anecdote circles.
ASHEN provides a contextually rich way of collecting perspective that informs the interviewers of the knowledge assets within the organisation and increases the cognitive load on the respondent so they dig deeper into their memories.
The output of ASHEN comes in two main forms:
- Knowledge objects, i.e. clusters of answers that need to or should be managed together, related to core business processes and ranked according to vulnerability to loss that are going to be used in the Dependency matrix
- Management actions associated with knowledge objects that can be mapped on Cynefin in order to create a portfolio of projects.
As a general principle, the more you are dependent on artifacts and skills the less you have to worry about knowledge retention, the more it is experience and natural talent the more you need to be concerned. This is why bringning awareness and unfolding on what knowledge is based on is important, so that appropriate measures can be taken.
No prior knowledge is needed of participants, except... their own knowledge.
A list of mapped KDP's (decisions, anecdotes, etc.) constitutes the main input of the method.
The ideal setting for ASHEN is a standup environment.
- One room with enough wall space to host three adjacent work areas
- One or more support tables
Stationery and tools
- Enough butcher paper to cover the width of the necessary wall space
- Tape or bluetack to hold the paper on walls
- The prepared hexies with KDP cluster titles written on them (or printed on sticky labels and then applied to them)
- Blank hexies of 5 different colors
- Pre-printed action forms
- Marker pens for all participants
- A picture-capturing device, such as a camera or mobile phone
- Place 3 strips of butcher paper on the 3 wall spaces
- Place the hexies with KDP clusters on the first wall space
- Place the blank hexies, marker pens, and action forms on one or more tables
- Whiteboard app that allows you to replicate the respective setup as in a physical environment
- The prepared hexies with KDP cluster titles
- Blank hexies
- Action forms
Also see Virtual facilitation.
The workflow for the ASHEN method is a three-stage emergence process.
|STAGE INSTRUCTION||COMMENTARY & TIPS|
|Take each KDP cluster and ask: when making that decision...
Ask people to write down their answers on hexies.
|Sequence is relevant.
Each ASHEN question should always be asked several times, with a different emphasis:
|Take the answers to the questions asked in the previous step, unrelated from the original decisions that originated them. Then ask people to cluster these ASHEN answers (hexies), thus obtaining "Knowledge objects", i.e. something that can be managed as a whole, or the lowest level of manageable granularity.
Each item disclosed is then put on a hexy, and the results again clustered.
|This is two stage emergence which is a key aspect of sense-making in our methods - we are breaking things down, then assembling them again in a different way, then repeating that process. This is designed to break entrained thinking, detect new patterns and gain new perspective and insight.
When available, ASHEN components anticipated during input KDP elicitation (prior to ASHEN method execution) can also be incorporated. It is also useful to contrast ASHEN components directly observed in advance with those remembered under prompted questions
|Relate knowledge objects to core business processes, and rank them according to vulnerability to loss. Once we’ve obtained these insights it is relatively easy to move to action, i.e. how can we protect key artefacts or obtain ones we’re missing? How can we make sure our people have the necessary skills? The groups are tasked to come up with specific actions based on the ASHEN outputs, which are captured on action sheets and pasted on another dedicated wall.||Relating knowledge objects to core business processes allows to identify one-to-many and many-to-one relationships. This is a key pre-condition for business practice scaling.|
Do's and Don'ts
Avoid comment or judgement throughout the whole process.
The method can be run virtually, using virtual collaboration tools.
Method card material
This material will be extracted for the method cards
Possible symbols or illustrations
Front page description
Back of card summary
Text limit to come but this should be a simple summary of the key stages or aspects
How can it be used?
- Decision mapping provides the input to the method
- Dependency matrix uses the outputs of the method
- Exaptive triggers may use the outputs of the method
- Future backwards may provide alternative input to the method
- Anecdote circles may provide alternative input to the method
- Root cause analysis revisited in terms of ASHEN helps adjusting to the right level of granularity in understanding what did or didn’t work in a past event
Articles and books
- Dave Snowden, The ASHEN Model: an enabler of action (Part One of Basics of Organic Knowledge Management), Originally published in Knowledge Management, April 200 Vol 3 Issue 7 edited 2004
- Nonaka and Takeuchi, The Knowledge Creating Company, Oxford, 1995, ISBN 0-19-509269
- Polanyi The Tacit Dimension, republished by Doubleday & Company, 1983, ISBN 0-8446 5999-1
- Gilbert Probst, Steffen Raub & Kai Romhardt, Wissen managen - Wie Unternehmen ihre wertvollste Ressource optimal nutzen, 2. Auflage, FAZ Frankfurt, Gabler Verlag, Wiesbanden, 1998, ISBN 3-409-29317-5
- Dave Snowden "I only know what I know when I need to know it - embracing the active management of tacit knowledge", Knowledge Management Ark Publications, March 1998
- Dave Snowden "A Framework for Creating a Sustainable Programme", CBI Guide to Knowledge Management, London, Caspian Publishing/Confederation of British Industry, 1998, Republished in Knowledge Management Year Book, Butterworth Heinemann, April 1999
- Dave Snowden, Root ’cause’ & complexity, Cognitive Edge Blog (February 21, 2021), contains the suggestion to use ASHEN to improve root cause analysis
- Dave Snowden, On organisational change, Cognitive Edge Blog (January 30, 2021), points out the relevance of ASHEN and, more generally, Knowledge mapping in organizational change
- Dave Snowden, Twelvetide 20:04 The variety of narrative experience, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 28, 2020), historical reference to ASHEN and Narrative (Anecdote) circles
- Dave Snowden, ASHEN redux, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 24, 2020), on using ASHEN to understand how to manage a more contextual approach to leadership
- Dave Snowden, ASHEN reused, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 23, 2020), offers a new way to think differently about leadership
- Dave Snowden, ASHEN revisited, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 22, 2020), summary of the approach
- Dave Snowden, Twelvetide 19:10 The MIT Bookstore, Cognitive Edge Blog (January 3, 2020), note on the genesis of ASHEN
- Dave Snowden, The ageing workforce part 3, Cognitive Edge Blog (January 23, 2016), earlier description of ASHEN
- Dave Snowden, Of sandbanks and granite cliffs, Cognitive Edge Blog (November 7, 2014), ASHEN in the wider context and as one component of knowledge mapping
- Dave Snowden, Dependency matrix, Cognitive Edge Blog (November 6, 2014), Granularity and ASHEN in connection with the Dependency matrix
- Ian Thorpe, Turning KM strategy on its head – Dave Snowden at #kmworld, KM on a dollar a day (November 5, 2014), ASHEN in the wider context and as one component of knowledge mapping
- Dave Snowden, Purpose as virtue: mapping, Cognitive Edge Blog (December 13, 2012), ASHEN mentioned within the context of mapping-based methodologies
- Dave Snowden, The endless cycle of idea and action, Cognitive Edge Blog (November 13, 2012), ASHEN as a means of enabling knowledge exchange
- Dave Snowden, Le sens commun est fort rare, Cognitive Edge Blog (October 17, 2012), ASHEN in the wider context of an assemblage of other methods
- Michael Cheveldave, From New York to Amsterdam…, Cognitive Edge Blog (May 18, 2012), ASHEN referred to as a framework
- Dave Snowden, ABIDE - overview of process, Cognitive Edge Blog (May 9, 2012), mention of ASHEN as a step in a wider methodological approach, and of moving from ASHEN components to Knowledge objects
- Dave Snowden, Fast falls the even tide, Cognitive Edge Blog (May 7, 2012), historical connection between ASHEN and ABIDE
- Dave Snowden, Updating knowledge mapping, Cognitive Edge Blog (September 3, 2009), contains a high-level flow chart of an early form of the Knowledge mapping assemblage, and a reference to ASHEN
- ASHEN mapping has been used (see blog post above) in the Nuclear Industry to prove that they needed to increase, not decrease the number of staff using just that principle