ASHEN

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List of methods / Knowledge management methods

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:

  • Artifacts
  • Skills
  • Heuristics
  • Experience
  • Natural talent
ASHEN explained
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
  • Remove duplicates and optimize
  • Distribute to communities that need them, in the right place at the right time
  • Respect naturally occurring artifacts
  • Separate creation and capture from analysis and distribution
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
  • Catalogue skills
  • Understand the time horizon for skill acquisition
  • Plan accordingly
  • Avoid the codification heresy (belief that once something is written down, then it is shared)
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?
  • Identify and codify heuristics as a fast and cheap way to spread knowledge
  • Get rid of false assumptions and out-of-date practices
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
  • Use storytelling, war gaming, or similar techniques to mitigate the problem of experience being implicit
  • Understand dependence from key individual or collective experiences as a potential vulnerability in the case of a change
Natural Talent What (if any) natural talent is needed? Innate or instinctive special aptitude or gift
  • Improve our ability and skill to identify and nurture natural talent
  • Foster the experience that allows to use it
  • Understand key dependencies and measure the risk and vulnerability to loss

ASHEN as a method

Purpose

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.

Approach

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
  • Judgements
  • Problem solutions
  • Lessons learned
  • Anecdotes

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.

Output

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 about experience and natural talent, the more you need to be concerned. This is why bringing awareness and unfolding understanding on what knowledge entails, based on its importance, so that appropriate measures can be taken.

Prior knowledge

Facilitators should be familiar with the principles for managing knowledge and with those of complex facilitation.

No prior knowledge is needed of participants, except... their own knowledge.

Preparation

ASHEN setting

A list of mapped KDP's (decisions, anecdotes, etc.) constitutes the main input of the method.

Physical environment

The ideal setting for ASHEN is a standup environment.

Layout

  • 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

Environment setup

  • 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

Virtual environment

  • 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.

Workflow

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...
  • ...what Artifacts did you use? What artefacts were needed to get that job done?
  • ...what Skills were needed? How were they acquired? Who has those skills?
  • ...what Heuristics or rules of thumb or practices made it easier? What habits or rituals were used? What is the range of applicability?
  • ...what Experience was necessary in terms of time and context? What experience to successfully complete that job? What experience is needed to be considered a respected member of the field?
  • ...what Natural talent was necessary? What makes some people better at this than others and who are they? How exclusive is the natural talent required? Who has this natural talent? How do we improve and nurture natural talent in the area?

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:

  • What did you use?
  • What is used by other people?
  • What should be used?
  • What may be needed in the future?
  • What was present in the past, but is no loger necessary?
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.

Virtual running

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

Tweet length

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?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Related

Principles

Concepts

Methods

Assemblages

Other related methods and approaches

  • 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

Method card material

This material will be extracted for the method cards

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Tweet length

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?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

References

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

Blog posts

  • 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

Cases

  • 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

Other references