Fragmentation Shmagmentation

Dave Snowden has a nice piece in the latest edition of KM World entitled “Everything is Fragmented”. The piece itself is an interesting hypothetical recipe for building naturalistic patterns of collaboration and sharing as an alternative to the formal methodologies (and platforms) for building CoPs. I’d really like to see some examples of this (NOT best practice case studies, but some nice, diverse examples showing this working), because it sounds both plausible and very human, if you’re into sitting with people and coaching them into new modes of inter-relating. It reminded me of Edgar’s post a while back on “doing KM one person at a time”.

But the title is niggling at me, in the same way that David Weinberger’s book Everything is Miscellaneous niggles at me. And given I’m likely to be at several conferences this year where Dave (S) is likely to be spinning this theme, I’d better get it out of my system.

So what’s the beef with Dave (W)’s book? It’s an enjoyable and extremely well-written book. If you look at it as a series of brilliantly portrayed tableaux illustrating the tensions between taxonomy work and the workings of the real world, it works perfectly. The problem is the title, because it suggests an argument, and so you read the book looking for that argument to be introduced, developed, deepened, with some consideration of alternative viewpoints and a triumphant, thought provoking conclusion. What you get is a series of brilliantly portrayed tableaux used to illustrate a claim “everything is miscellaneous” which is repeated over and over again, with no substantive reasoning to connect or develop the thought. It’s a bimbo of a book. It just doesn’t go anywhere beyond the obvious and then the mantra of the title. And it’s all the title’s fault and the expectations it sets up. Very frustrating. (I’m not the only frustrated party by the way – see here and here).

Back to Dave Snowden’s article. It’s a nice article. But the title makes a claim that invites an argument. There’s no argument to follow it through, and you need an argument because the claim is overweening. Not everything is (or should be) fragmented, no more than everything is miscellaneous. Some things are. Other things are (and should be) structured and ordered.

11 Comments so far

Dave Snowden

Its <b>irony<b> Patrick, on the Weinberger book.  I largely agree with your comments in respect of said book.  Although I think you are a little harsh.  The first chapter is good but then it keeps repeating.  The simple point is that if material is too fragmented it is incoherent, chaotic.  If too chunked then it is ordered and has utility but within the context of its creation.  Then there is the sweet spot of complexity with a sufficient degree of fragmentation to allow meaning to emerge over time.

Posted on July 16, 2008 at 05:16 PM | Comment permalink

John Caddell


I wasn’t bugged by either title. I think the use of hyperbole by Weinberger was in response to the conventional wisdom that everything can be organized. I didn’t interpret the title literally, is what I’m saying, I guess.

And Dave Snowden’s title I took as a reference to the Weinberger piece, again not a statement or manifesto.

Both titles did their job for me--i.e., got me to open and begin to read the work.

I didn’t get the whole way through the Weinberger book. After the first couple of chapters, I got the message. I agree with Dave S that the rest was redundant. But I guess there’s not a market for 50-page books. (I had the same beef with “Made to Stick,” by the way.)

regards, John

Posted on July 16, 2008 at 10:34 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

You’re right Dave, I didn’t get the irony at all… not in the slightest degree. What’s happening to me and how can I recover?

Posted on July 16, 2008 at 11:43 PM | Comment permalink

I roared with laughter at Weinberger’s title, but then I had the invidious task of doing Dewey Decimal Classification for a large public library between 1986 and 1989 (untrained in DDC I might add), so the “Miscellaneous” is really funny to library cataloguers.
This gives me an idea that perhaps all would be Knowledge managers should be sent on a two day immersion course in item cataloguing, subject heading classification (which is perhaps the funniest part of library work) and Dewey/UDC or LOC shelf numbering to understand the complexities that we face. No wonder librarians can be so grumpy!

Posted on July 17, 2008 at 11:42 AM | Comment permalink

Daryl Cook

Hi Patrick.  Was reading last night and came across this ancient maxim: “beauty lies between the extremities of order and complexity.”—Alain De Botton, Architecture of Happiness.  Just had to share.

Posted on July 17, 2008 at 02:21 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I like that! Dave Snowden had a very good post about his swings between chaos and order in his study. Being disorganised, I can’t find the reference. Dave?

Posted on July 19, 2008 at 10:38 AM | Comment permalink

Dave Snowden

Sorry Patrick - can’t remember which one although I speak about it a lot.  Basically chaotic systems don;t last long and ordered systems stagnate.  Complex (semi-constrained systems) evolve and create meaning

Posted on July 19, 2008 at 12:04 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Ok the reference is in your 2005 E:CO article, ‘Stories from the Frontier’ - this passage in particular is a great summary:

“The reality of life is that order does not survive the advance of time, context confuses categories and an excessive adherence to structure can prevent new opportunities being seized. We shift and move between order and unorder with alacrity. The act of degeneration into chaos and consequential restructuring involves processes or forgetting and remembering that are themselves a facet of knowledge creation.”

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 11:52 AM | Comment permalink

Dave Snowden

Thanks for finding it and you have now reminded me that I need to start rewriting that column!

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 12:30 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

No no!! Book! B-O-O-K!!

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 12:39 PM | Comment permalink

Dave Snowden

You are not allowed to talk about the book ....

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 12:44 PM | Comment permalink

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