Monday, 1 December 2008

Knowledge Management

Finally, the word has arrived to this blog: Knowledge. But what has that do to with viability or fragementedness. Well .... everything.

Knowledge, together with innovation, were THE hypewords of the last two decades. Both are however, barely understood in practical terms. But lets focus on knowledge first.

In the old days, say the middle ages, knowledge was exclusive to the rich and the church. Books were rare, even long after invention of the printing press. So the impression remained for a long time that knowledge was stored in books and transferred by teachers from book to student. Well, these days are over.

Based on the same mechanisms so familiar in the Dark Ages, Nonaka and Takeuchi, touted the conversion of Tacit (skilled) knowledge to Explicit knowledge in their 1995 book The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Misunderstood by many, and largely helped by ICT firms, Knowledge Management was advocated as " write down everything you do".

Ofcourse it didn't help much as most practical work is done just because it has to be done in a practical manner. Humans are lazy, so if there was an easier way ....

A good step forward came with the introduction of communities of practice, popularized by Etienne Wenger. He made clear that people best learn from each other when they are interested in each others problems and create possible solutions amongst them. And it worked, well, in cases were community membership was voluntary.

And that resonates quite well with the next phase in KM that advocates the narrative approach. A well known saying is that you cannot command people’s knowledge; you need to encourage them to share it, directly followed by we always know more than we can tell, and we can always tell more than we can write. What does this mean for practical used in organizations?

First of all it tells us that there is little to be gained by forcing people to write down what they know. This is what the ICT advocates did and why it failed so splendidly (but please don't delete your KM system yet, you will need it for other purposes). The second saying gives us a first clue why it failed: we cannot write down all we know. Even worse, we cannot even tell all we know.

There is a third famous saying in narrative based KM circles saying we only know what we know when we need to know it. The easiest way to understand this is by realizing that valuable knowledge in one situation is worthless of even damaging in others. So knowledge is very contextual. One level deeper this saying makes clear that people will share there knowledge when the situation urges them to. In general no human will stand back when a somebody else needs help that can be offered by that human.

So, when going from knowing, to saying, to writing we are loosing LOTS of knowledge and therefore a good KM approach involves doing and telling in all combinations and approaches p0ssible/applicable. To make this a bit more explicit (yes, don't shred the KM system yet), Dave Snowden and his co-workers have developed the ASHEN acronym to indicate some forms of knowledge that are easily recognised:
  • Artifacts - Anything that is produced: reports, prototypes, buildings, drawings, databases, photos.
  • Skills - The applied expertise to get a job done, solve a problem, etc.
  • Heuristics - Rules of thumb that apply to the situation.
  • Experience - Gained by previous encounters with similar situations
  • Natural talent - Innate, instinctive, given qualities that cannot be learned.

It is clear that any project of activity creates some artifacts, uses, develops and hones skills of the participants and draws quite often on their past experiences while creating a brand new one. And often, especially when thing go sluggish or wrong heuritics are appliced by the most experienced people in the group to base important decisions on. And natural talent? Well, often humor breaks down barriers that cannot be scaled by logic or reason. So there is a place for such talents in a good KM approach. And a good nose for picking the right people for a project is also a form of natural talent.

I hope to have shown today that knowledge is fragmented too. It is not a bulky thing to be stored solely as blobs in databases. A good KM approach is a blended approach using technology, concepts and methods that fit the situation and honour the context. Don't give sleek PDA's to garbadgemen and let people stick to paper when they want do. Sometimes things are so simple, not always, but lets save some of those situations for later.

1 comment:

Samuel Driessen said...

Nice post, Harold. Of course I fully agree with you! ;-)