Tackling the wicked problem of ERM: using the Cynefin framework as a lens

Publication Date25 Nov 2013
AuthorSue Childs,Julie McLeod
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Information management & governance
Tackling the wicked problem of
ERM: using the Cynefin
framework as a lens
Sue Childs and Julie McLeod
Northumbria University, iSchool,
Department of Mathematics and Information Sciences,
Faculty of Engineering and Environment, Northumbria University,
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to complement a previous article on using the Cynefin
framework to make sense of the electronic records management challenge. Its focus is on how to use
Cynefin, and the ERM framework developed using it, as an approach to addressing this wicked
problem. The aim is to provide examples of how they could be used in practice in different
organisational contexts.
Design/methodology/approach – Four examples are provided. Empirical research data are used
to underpin three of the examples and a thought experiment using published literature informs the
Findings – The examples illustrate the potential value and power of the Cynefin framework as both a
practical and conceptual tool in the ERM context. It can be used to address the ERM challenge in
different ways: as a strategic approach taking a holistic view and/or as a tactical approach at a more
specific granular level. It can be used to inform practice by helping practitioners choose the most
appropriate approach dependent on the level of complexity of the issue they are addressing, whether
that is for a specific issue, a project or initiative, for planning or for exploratory, sense-making purposes.
Research limitations/implications – The examples draw on one qualitative, empirical set of
research data and one published use. Further experimentation and practical use are required; others
are encouraged to use Cynefin to test the propositions and provide further examples.
Practical implications The examples provided can be adopted and/or adapted by records
professionals, both practitioners and/or academics, at strategic and tactical levels in different records
Originality/value – This paper provides examples of adopting a different approach to tackling the
wicked problem of managing electronic records using the Cynefin framework as a new lens.
Keywords Cynefin framework,Electronic records management,Strategic approach
Paper type Research paper
In a previous article (McLeod and Childs, 2013a) we argued that the management of
electronic records displays all the characteristics of a “wicked” problem as articulated
by Rittel and Webber (1973). Wicked problems contrast with tame ones (Rittel and
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The authors would like to acknowledge the support provided by the Arts and Humanities
Research Council (AHRC www.ahrc.ac.uk) for the research grant (ref. AH/D001935/1) which
funded the AC
erm project (www.northumbria.ac.uk/acerm).
Also to David Snowden for permission to reproduce his diagrams.
Tackling the
wicked problem
of ERM
Received 2 July 2013
Revised 8 August 2013
Accepted 14 August 2013
Records Management Journal
Vol. 23 No. 3, 2013
pp. 191-227
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/RMJ-07-2013-0016
Webber, 1973; Conklin, 2006, pp. 14-18). The latter are well-defined, belong to groups of
similar problems that can be solved in similar ways, have solutions that can be tried
and abandoned with little consequence, and have a limited number of alternative
solutions. Electronic records management (ERM) does not fit this description:
...the ERM challenge is complex, contextualised and contingent (McLeod and Childs, 2013a,
p. 7).
This was the conclusion of the AC
erm research project (www.northumbria.ac.uk/
acerm) which investigated ways of accelerating change in ERM by identifying the
issues and potential solutions, both to try or to avoid, based on empirical evidence
gathered from the literature and multi-disciplinary stakeholders worldwide. Many of
the project’s headline findings relate to people issues rather than to process or
technology issues (McLeod et al., 2011, pp. 73-4). These include “human resources and
human capacity, roles and responsibilities, vision, leadership, culture, awareness,
drivers and barriers, attitudes and user needs” (McLeod and Childs, 2013a, p. 1).
“People issues are challenging because they concern culture, worldviews, and
preferences and behaviour related to the use of RM/ERM systems” (McLeod and
Childs, 2013b). The project data about these issues are rich and nuanced and required
further analysis to gain a deeper understanding. The Cynefin framework (Snowden,
2010) was used to make sense of the issues and potential solutions. The outcome was a
re-conceptualisation of the ERM challenge and the creation of a strategic framework
for tackling it (McLeod and Childs, 2013a).
In this article, which complements the previous one (McLeod and Childs, 2013a), we
focus on how to use Cynefin and the ERM framework we developed by using it as an
approach to addressing this wicked problem. The aim is to provide examples of how
Cynefin and the ERM framework could be used in practice by information an d records
professionals in different organisational contexts. This is needed because some of the
erm project headline findings highlight the contextualisation and complexity of
the tactics and solutions for ERM, and the contingency of their success an d/or failure.
An approach such as Cynefin can, therefore, help practitioners choose which solutions
to try in a particular circumstance.
Cynefin and its use for problem solving, decision making and action taking
The Cynefin framework is a “sense-making” framework developed by Snowden and
colleagues (Snowden, 2010). It helps decision makers to make sense of problems and
situations, in different dynamic business contexts, and take appropriate action (Kurtz
and Snowden, 2003). The conceptual underpinning of the framework has its roots in
knowledge management (e.g. Boisot and Cox, 1999; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Senge,
2006) and complexity science (Burnes, 2005; Stacey, 2011). Because of this Cynefin
resonates with the problem the AC
erm project set out to explore and appeared to offer
an appropriate approach for making sense of the project data, and linking the issues to
solutions to support appropriate action for change.
Cynefin comprises five domains (see Figure 1) predicated on the construct of order
(Snowden, 2005, 2010). They represent the types of situations or environments that
organisations typically experience and need to respond to and manage (Lambe, 2007,
p. 134). The ordered domains are labelled simple and complicated, the un-ordered ones
complex and chaos and the fifth domain, the central area, is the domain of disorder.
Un-order is not lack of order but order that is “emergent” (Kurtz and Snowden , 2003).
Each domain can be described according to its characteristics, decision model and
resultant action(s), management style, work pattern and organisational
connections/networks. These are summarised in Table I and briefly explained
below, based on the publications of Snowden and his colleagues (Kurtz and Snowden,
2003; Snowden, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2010; Snowden and Boone, 2007). A more
detailed explanation is provided in the previous article (McLeod and Childs, 2013a).
The simple domain is characterised by cause and effect. The decision model is to
sense the situation, categorise it and respond based on best practice. The domain of
efficiency and best practice, there is often a right answer. The complicated domain is
also characterised by cause and effect but there may be multiple right answers. The
decision model is to sense, analyse and respond, which requires expertise to choose the
appropriate answer, i.e. good rather than best practice. The complex domain is
characterised by unpredictability and flux; cause and effect can only be understood in
retrospect. Experimentation is required to find answers. The decision model is to probe
first then sense and respond; practice emerges. Turbulence and lack of any link
between cause and effect characterise the domain of chaos. In the absence of any right
answers the decision model must be to act first and then sense and respond as, for
example, in crisis management. The (central) domain of disorder is where people are
unable to decide which of the other domains represents their situation. No domain is
more desirable than the other; they just describe the situation facing the organisation
(Kurtz and Snowden, 2003).
Important elements of the Cynefin framework are the boundaries between domains,
which are derived in the process of using the framework in a given context, and
dynamics which are related to movements across boundaries. Kurtz and Snowden
(2003, pp. 474-80) discuss both in great detail. The tetrahedrons (see Figure 1) are also a
Figure 1.
Cynefin framework from
Snowden (2010, Part 7)
Tackling the
wicked problem
of ERM

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