Tag Archives: Explicit Knowledge

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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