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Tag Archives: Tacit Knowledge

Restarting A Knowledge Management Program

Tseng College at CSUN Logo

My Alma Mater

I received my Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the Tseng College of Extended Learning at California State University Northridge (CSUN) in 2009. Shortly afterward, the University decided to cancel the program. Recently, I received a request to participate in a survey being used to determine if it was time to reinstate it.

 
As a result, I not only took the survey, but also shared some of my thoughts about the program and its importance. Today I am meeting with the person at CSUN who is leading the effort to make the determination of whether it’s worthwhile to start up again. I also expressed my interest in teaching a class or two.
 
I’m still quite convinced (at least my interpretation of) Knowledge Management is an important part of how organizations can make the most of what they know and how they use it to further their efforts. It may need to be re-branded, as KM seems to be a term too loaded with baggage, especially the concept of “managing” knowledge. Frankly, I’m not sure, but I’d like to be part of the conversation.
 
I’m not expecting much, but it would be nice if they brought the program back and, even better, if I can play a role in making it truly meaningful and relevant. Far too many think of it as something like library science on steroids . . . and I think that characterization misses the point. I’m of the opinion connecting people day-to-day is far more important than developing a repository of lessons learned and better practices. Not that they aren’t necessary; I just believe facilitating continuous conversation aimed toward more useful collaboration and greater innovation (especially wrt internal processes) holds more promise for most organizations.
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Craft Work is Knowledge Work

 

Steady Hands Make for Good Soldering

Soldering Jewelry

 

I’ve been following the action at #TUG2010 (Traction Users Group), reading and retweeting lots of good stuff from @rotkapchen, @vmaryabraham, @jackvinson, and @lehawes. Jack Vinson tweeted “Craft work can become knowledge work. Making it visible. narrating it. He added the hashtag for observable work, #owork, as well – indicating that was the concept he was associating it with.

My initial reaction to what Jack wrote, however, was to the implication that craft work isn’t normally knowledge work, which I don’t think is an accurate statement. Let me also say I’m not sure if Jack actually authored those words or if he was merely reporting them from the presenter at the user’s group preso he was attending and tweeting from. So I’m not taking issue with Jack. Actually, I’m not even interested in who said it; I just want to address the concept of craft work as knowledge work.

I believe all work is knowledge work. Sure, there are different levels at which the knowledge exists or asserts itself, but there’s always some component that involves knowledge; at least if it’s done by a human being. So it is with craft work, assuming I’m using the term in the same sense as Jack or whoever is using it, that is work manifested in tangible items, such as wallets or hydroelectric dams. I think of it as things like welding, carving, painting, growing, etc.

All of these things require a fair amount of tacit (in the head, as we sometimes refer to it) knowledge. As far as the concept of making this kind of knowledge visible goes, I think a lot of it gets transferred that way . . . usually in a mentor or apprenticeship kind of relationship. Making some of it more “visible” can make it more accessible, but there are necessarily limitations.

An instance of this from my life comes from many years ago when I was a jewelry bench worker. The place I was at made very high-end gold and silver shadow-box cuff links and they require some interesting soldering. I melted an awful lot of precious metal before I learned to recognize the colors, smells, and sounds that hinted I was almost at the right temperature and had to back the flame off. I believe what I gained from that experience was knowledge; hence, I was engaged in knowledge work, albeit at a lower level than, say, when I worked on the Space Shuttle Main Engine team.

Maybe the exigencies of saying something in less than 140 characters played a role in it coming out the way it did, but I felt the need to at least record my thoughts. I believe what Jack (or whoever actually made the statement) meant was that making craft work visible increases its accessibility and, therefore, its likelihood of being more easily transferred or learned. It doesn’t thereby become knowledge work, however. It already is and always has been knowledge work. Anybody disagree? Did I misunderstand Jack or the message he was conveying from the presenter?


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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