Has Knowledge Management Been Bad For Us?

In the world of Knowledge Management, we frequently talk about at least two different types of knowledge we deal with. The first is explicit, or codified, knowledge (stuff that’s captured and, hopefully, readily accessible in some useful form); the second is tacit, or tribal, in-the-head, “between the ears” knowledge. For most of my nearly 15 years of knowledge management practice in the aerospace business I have noted we spend an incredible amount of time, energy, and money working on the former.

At the same time we have continually asserted the vast majority of useful knowledge was the latter. Here, for instance, is a graphic showing the ratio of explicit to tacit as 19 to 1.

For me, this is huge! In fact, where I come from we tended to use an adaptation of the Pareto principle, i.e. an 80-20 distribution, so this graphic helps make my point a fortiori. Now let me get to my point. Last Wednesday (12 May 2010), Rob Paterson published a wonderful post at the FASTforward blog entitled “Have books been bad for us?”, where he discusses the question of whether or not the web is making us stupid, as well as his belief the opposite is true. He argues that books have actually stunted our ability to innovate and create new knowledge. You really have to read the whole post, but here’s a sample I like:

But with the book comes authority. With the advent of the book, much of knowledge development stopped. Only the in group was allowed to play. What mattered was not observation. Not trial and error. Not experiment. Not sharing. But authority. Most of the accepted authority were texts that had no basis in observation or trial and error. Ptolemy, St Augustine and Galen ruled.

Rob goes on to argue, rather than making us stupid, the web is providing us with the kinds of information and knowledge connections we used to have before the book removed the more communal ways in which most of our collective knowledge was arrived at in the past.

So, here’s where I find an analogy to the work I’ve been doing for some time. Much of of what we call Knowledge Management (at least in my experience) seems to spend an inordinate amount of time and expense on dealing with the 20% (or 5%, depending on who you listen to) of an enterprise’s knowledge that is explicit. We work on organizing share drives, federating search capability, and scanning and rendering searchable (through OCR) much of our paper-based, historical information. I’m sure there are other ways in which explicit, recorded information is analyzed and organized as a function of a knowledge management activity.

But I think we’re missing the point about the real value of knowledge. If, in fact, the largest (by far) percentage of an enterprise’s useful knowledge is locked between the heads of its employees and, if (as we frequently say about tacit knowledge) much of it can’t be accessed until it’s required, why are we not spending more of our limited funds on facilitating the connection and communication, as well as the findability and collaborative capabilities of our employees?

I’m not suggesting there isn’t value to content management, smarter search capabilities, etc. I am saying, however, that I think most organizations are missing the boat by not spending more of their resources on the thing that offers to connect their people; to create organizational neural pathways that promise to be far more beneficial to the overall health of the company in terms of product innovation and design, manufacturing processes, customer relations, project management, etc. (or on and on). I am speaking of Enterprise 2.0, on which I will have a lot more to say in future posts.

The problems we face with acceptance are monumental. People in organizations that have traditionally been hierarchical and within which silos and fiefdoms emerge, turf wars and power struggles go on, and people are both kept in the dark and made afraid for their jobs hasn’t exactly set the stage for the trust required to do any kind of knowledge management effort. Nevertheless, if we’re going to participate in the struggle, we ought to be shooting for the things that are going to prove the most valuable – in both the short and the long run.

I’m a book lover myself. My reverence for books is almost stupid, actually, but I’ve worked hard on overcoming it. Unlike Rob, I no longer wonder. I see the web, and the enterprise and its internal network, as the future of our group intelligence and knowledge. What do you see?

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About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I am an officially retired pensioner who remains intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Decision Intelligence, Knowledge Management, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowd sourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. Recently I began a new career as an editor/proofreader and have done a bit of technical writing as well. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

13 responses to “Has Knowledge Management Been Bad For Us?

  • Harold Jarche » From Mark Twain to the Future

    [...] Has Knowledge Management Been Bad For Us? by @rickladd But I think we’re missing the point about the real value of knowledge. If, in fact, the largest (by far) percentage of an enterprise’s useful knowledge is locked between the heads of its employees and, if (as we frequently say about tacit knowledge) much of it can’t be accessed until it’s required, why are we not spending more of our limited funds on facilitating the connection and communication, as well as the findability and collaborative capabilities of our employees? [...]

  • John Tropea

    Great post to re-visit Rick…

    The workings out that went into the explicit record (the “know-what”) are not observable, we need to move to making the “know-why” visible, as this is the real knowledgework.

    We need access to the “know-why” for understanding, context, interpretation, peripheral information.

    Further to this we can find the know-why fragments and re-mix them into new information that may be totally unrelated to the original context.

    A move from stockpiling to connecting to fragments (thinking-out-loud visibility).

    And in the end the result of connecting to these fragments leads to knowledge creation…kind of like KM managing itself, with the practitioner facilitating the right conditions.

    See my recent post
    The know-why tragedy : divorced from my work on the cutting room floor

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2010/07/08/the-know-why-tragedy-divorced-from-my-work-on-the-cutting-room-floor

    I also think the “know-why” fragments of observable work plays to Rob Paterson’s concept. eg. I’m not going to read a 50 page document (especially if it’s on a topic I don’t care about), but there may be something in that document that is totally related to something I need to do in a different context…

    Now if I come across the methodology, or decisions behind the methodology of a process in paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 on page 50 in a fragment (blog post), then I’m happy to find this nugget and can re-mix it into the context of my work.

    This is real KM…it works itself out.

    Even the pressing issue of “attention scarcity”…even if it’s a topic I care about I will not read a 50 page document, but I will read a blog post a day about the document, or even behind the scenes of creating the document.

    What you speak of KM to me is more just information management….it’s sad KM was branded as a library science…CoPs are basically the only thing that gives KM some respect.

    See my post

    Informal information management and knowledge management are not the same.

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2010/02/16/informal-information-management-and-knowledge-management-are-not-the-same

    This also concurs with your comment on Frank Millers paper about managing tips and tricks which I call informal information management

    I see know-how in 2 ways
    - Tips and tricks or a good practice on a good way to do something (but this can be a recipe rather than a deep skill)
    - Understanding the fundamentals behind that tip so you can use can assemble it with other fragments to make new information

    Andrew Gent’s post on the KM Core Sample si a good alternative to the iceberg diagram

    http://incrediblydull.blogspot.com/2008/07/km-core-sample.html

    Agree, that much can’t be accessed till required, and ties in with Snowden’s principles of patterns, context and recall
    http://www.cognitive-edge.com/blogs/dave/2008/10/rendering_knowledge.php

    Yes if we facilitate connections, this cascades into collaboration, more fragments (conversation), and more documents.

    • Rick Ladd

      John – Thanks so much for your comments. My brain is fairly exploding trying to synthesize all the points you’ve made, as well as those of others you’ve mentioned or provided links to. I have been following the various conversations regarding observable work that Jim McGee, Greg Lloyd, and others have been discussing, as well as Paula’s writings (I am especially mindful of one of her posts on adaptation and emergence, in addition to others you’ve pointed to). In my well over a decade of KM work at (what is now) Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, we struggled mightily with all these concepts and attempted to inculcate many of them into the culture of the organization. Unfortunately, we were not terribly successful. One of the most important was the concept of know-why, though we never called it that. One attempt we made was to provide for extensive, adaptable annotations to engineering drawings in order to provide what we called “design intent”, i.e. why a particular radius, or material, or geometry was chosen over others, etc. In 2002 I introduced, and became the project manager for, a tool called AskMe Enterprise. Although I didn’t even realize it at the time, it was one of the earlier web-based social networking tools available. It is still being used, though it never caught on as we had hoped; email still seems to rule the roost when it comes to Engineers at PWR seeking expert knowledge.

      Alas, the battle continues . . . but not with me (at PWR, that is). I am not a scholar, nor a scholarly person; more a boots-on-the-ground kind of a guy. Not being directly involved in the daily struggles of an organization (larger than me, myself, and I) is a challenge when it comes to finding useful things to say, but I’m working on it. Having people such as you to engage in conversation with is a godsend. Thanks again for taking the time to share.

  • links for 2010-07-11 « riverrun by meaghn | beta

    [...] Has Knowledge Management Been Bad For Us? « Systems Savvy In the world of Knowledge Management, we frequently talk about at least two different types of knowledge we deal with. The first is explicit, or codified, knowledge (stuff that’s captured and, hopefully, readily accessible in some useful form); the second is tacit, or tribal, in-the-head, “between the ears” knowledge. For most of my nearly 15 years of knowledge management practice in the aerospace business I have noted we spend an incredible amount of time, energy, and money working on the former. [...]

  • Rebecca

    Hi Rick, I already mentioned to you my interest in this subject. Specifically the “intangible” asset of the human element, and how we can turn that in to something not only tangible, but to be shared, embedded and built upon in growing”knowledge” as a whole; the resulting “whole” being in constant growth and constantly larger than the sum of its parts.

    It also brings to mind the discussions I see about how “creativity” is the key skill of the future (and present). “Applying knowledge in new ways is how innovation occurs, and innovation is critical to any nation’s economic and national security.” (see http://www.tcsdaily.com/Article.aspx?id=020310A )

    As I say: these elements interest me and right now overwhelm me somewhat as well, so I am looking forward to further posts and discussions refining and evolving these points.

    • Rick Ladd

      Thank you, Rebecca. I agree with the article. This is one of those things that gets me really excited; understanding the role of creativity (and play, IMO) in the innovative process. Whatever we call it, e.g. thinking outside the box; parallel thinking; etc., learning how to entertain fun, goofy, or even downright weird thoughts when analyzing problems is a valuable skill. I hope he’s right about our next generation.

      I understand how overwhelmed you may feel. I just left the corporate world after a career of over two decades (I had another two decades of experience in small business prior to that), and I’m pretty overwhelmed myself with all the opportunity – and fun – that’s available. These are challenging, and exciting, times. Thanks for the comment. I look forward to hearing more.

  • Jim Wolff

    Rick,

    I don’t disagree with many of your points, however, I do feel that KM can provide value on both the tacit and explicit side of the equation. It is really a question of balance which involves the creation of a learning organization, one that values the development of and sharing of tacit knowledge, and one that has a enterprise content management strategy that provides and infrastructure for structured, unstructured, and complex media to ensure findability in support of business goals and objectives. A key factor in an effective enterprise content management system is the people who create and use the critical enterprise content.
    Jim

  • David Smith

    Dialog is definitely the key. I discovered this in research for an assignment during the MKM (Masters in Knowledge Management) program and wrote about it. Your observation that “people are both kept in the dark and made afraid for their jobs hasn’t exactly set the stage for the trust required to do any kind of knowledge management effort” is a keen one. I’ve found that pervasive fear, ignorance, and exclusivity are systemic barriers to embedding KM practices / tools in enterprise organizational structures. Overcoming KM challenges requires courage to challenge the status quo, a focus on core values (personal, organizational, shareholder, etc.), and sense of optimism that comes from building relationships. Ultimately I think the same social networks that prevent KM from taking hold are the same ones that are crucial for building / maintaining KM efforts that make a positive difference.

    • Rick Ladd

      Thanks, David. Nilofer Merchant, Founder & Chief Strategist for Rubicon, just published an interesting article that I think makes very similar points. You can see it here.

      It was good to see you at the inaugural Innobeer (was that just last week or a week ago? Too much beer, I guess). Hope to see you again soon.

  • Martijn Linssen

    Excellent Rick!

    I argue exactly the same in http://www.martijnlinssen.com/2009/11/on-acquisition-of-knowledge-12.html:

    All these millennia of relying on people for acquiring knowledge have had great impact: we look at people to value the information they have. Whatever your parents say, is true. Whatever your teachers tell you, is true. Whatever ministers and priests tell you, is not only true, but also right, and good. It’s the way we were taught and imprinted, and only since the growing availability of information does all that become increasingly challenged

    I work for a global 100K+ organisation and similar customers, and KM hasn’t done it for me. What really works is getting a physical person who’ll speak to you handing over his unreproducable knowledge face-to-face, or phone-to-phone

    I’m not sure whether it’s cultural, a lack of organisation or talent, human, or anything in between. But personal knowledge and skill is one of the last, if not the very last itself, trump card employees hold these days

    I like books but haven’t read many in the last 2 decades. I love the web, wikipedia, blogs, twitter, and everything open and real-time. I see knowledge everywhere, and thresholds gone – and I marvel at it

    I agree with your connecting people, but also with Nick on not hoping that E20 will do it for you. I see great advantage for Twitter-like knowledge sharing, might post on that this week, it’s an old idea I submitted for Dachis’ ideascale for SBS2010 – wonder what that lead to anyway

    • Rick Ladd

      Hi Martijn:

      I will surely have more to say about this, as I think in some ways those of us who are evangelists for Enterprise 2.0 haven’t quite discussed all the issues. This is, I believe, partly because of the masters we serve (or have served) and the caution we must exert lest we invoke the corporate immune system.

      I first came to think of E2.0 as a natural extension of Tim O’Reilly’s wonderful piece “What is Web 2.0″ – http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html – which I consider to be the seminal paper on what makes up the backbone of Enterprise 2.0, the participatory capabilities now available in such things as blogs, wikis, micro-blogging, etc. It was only after I thought I really had found something of value for my organization I found Professor McAfee’s work on E2.0. I was crestfallen . . . to some extent, but gratified to know others were pushing the outside of the envelope.

      When it comes down to it, though, whatever one calls the process, tools are tools. Anyone who has been doing KM as long as I have and hasn’t figure out the value of understanding the culture within which you’re trying to operate (as well as not seeing tools as anything more than enablers – which we scrupulously branded them at PWR), isn’t paying attention, IMO. Nevertheless, the kind of connection we see nowadays would not be possible without some of these tools. We, for instance, first met via Twitter. I think you, Nick, and I (as well as many others) are working toward the same goals and are fundamentally in accord on what the issues are. I greatly appreciate the engagement. Thank you.

  • Nick Milton

    I would most certainly agree with you that knowledge management *if and when it focuses only on content and explicit* has been bad for us!

    KM did not start off this way, nor did it go down this route in all industries and in all parts of the world, and lots of organisations are spending their funds on “facilitating the connection and communication”. However certainly there are lots of other people who think “KM = content management”, which to my mind is both wrong and unnecessary (see here http://www.nickmilton.com/2010/04/km-and-content-management.html)

    However what I *would* caution against, is assuming that Enterprise 2.0 will solve the problem and address tacit knowledge. Enterprise 2.0 may just create more content – albeit in different places, and with a lot less structure.

    If you are going to address the 80% of knowledge which remains below the water line, then sooner or later you need to start to think about dialogue, and about people talking to each other.

    • Rick Ladd

      Thanks for the comment, Nick. I’m surely not surprised lawyers would find themselves in a turf battle over that overlapping area in your Venn diagram. I’ve often argued it really isn’t in the nature of lawyers to compromise and find common ground, so you can’t expect them to understand something like systems thinking :).

      There are also many who argue even what you describe as explicit knowledge is really information, cf. “I=0 (Information has no intrinsic meaning” at http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper140.html, where F.J. Miller makes the argument that even such things as tips and tricks, etc., because of the possibility they will be interpreted in a manner contrary to (or at least sufficiently different from) what they were intended to convey, can only be considered information. I make a similar argument in a SlideShare presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/rickladd/enterprise-20-km-cohort-presentation.

      Your caution is well-taken. I didn’t want to author a tome (I’m told nobody reads them on blog sites) and consider my positions to be continuously developing and in need of explication and modification as reality warrants. In my mind Enterprise 2.0 is, above all else, about dialogue whether it be in the form of a blog and comments (our example here), a wiki that provides for authoring, editing, and commenting, or a micro-blogging instance that allows colleagues to keep track of, and find, people they have common cause with or can learn something from. I also think we’ll see continuous development in both the tools and the organizational dynamics (culture, if you will) that facilitate it.

      Thanks again for the comment and visit. As I settle into my new life outside the confines of a single organization, I suspect we’ll have common cause in the future. We surely know some of the same people.

Go ahead! Give me a tongue lashing.

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