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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Satiable curtiosity

Many people like to quote Kipling's poem
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
and most of them probably assume that Kipling endorses this approach. But I think it is pretty clear from the context of the poem that "I" is not supposed to be Kipling himself but the Elephant's Child, an annoying creature, who goes around constantly asking What-Why-When-How-Where-Who questions. He gets obsessed by one such question (What does the Crocodile have for dinner?) and set off on a quest to find the answer, nearly gets killed in the process, and returns with a quite unexpected benefit: this is How The Elephant Got His Trunk. If the Elephant's Child actually learns anything valuable from the experience, this is largely thanks to the intervention of the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake who (apart from saving his life) asks grounded questions like "Try this" and "Don't you think" and "How do you feel".

If you read the whole of Kipling's poem (Wikisource: The Elephant's Child) the irony can hardly be missed.

So there are two alternative role models for the consultant here. Are you an Elephant's Child or a Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake?

Of course, not everyone sees this my way. In The One Conversational Tool That Will Make You Better At Absolutely Everything (Fast Company December 2012), Shane Snow is on the side of the Elephant's Child.

Questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” have high probability of thoughtful responses, whereas those that begin with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” can limit your answers.
And the Wikipedia article on 5Ws identifies some classical precursors.

See also

My presentation (Slideshare): The Kipling-Zachman lens
Daily Telegraph (28 Oct 2010): Picture of the day

Updated 19 December 2012

1 comment:

  1. This post keys off the poem at the opening of the post.."I keep six honest serving-men..."

    What seems to be happening is that we often ignoring the parts of speech. Especially in the who. "Who" is a relative pronoun and thus has noun properties.

    Nouns have cases. In declining a Latin noun we take it through the Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative and Ablative cases.

    These cases determine what the noun is doing in a sentence. So the nominative case is is used for sentence subjects. Accusative for direct objects, etc.

    I contend that when we look through the Kipling/Zachman lens, we do ourselves a disservice if we do not consider the "case" of the pronoun. It isn't that we need just descriptors of the who, what, when, where, why, how. It is also that we need to understand them in the contexts of their grammatical case. "Who" in the nominative is just a blank description. Used in a sentence it is the subject. "For whom" (dative case) describes on whose behalf. "Whose" describes some kind of ownership - a posessive property.

    So, it is in my view rather simplistic to think solely in terms of the nominative case - especially for who.

    Simlarly when we look at "when", there are some concepts we need to think about. For example "when?" is rather different from "by when?"

    Taking the names of the columns without grammatical context just gives us a classification scheme, not an architectural language.