Towards a ‘natural’ knowledge management (part 2, nature of knowledge)

Knowledge is almost by default inaccurate, incomplete, unreliable, partially outdated, and changing… The reason it’s all of these things is because it’s personal. What does this mean for knowledge management (KM)?

Knowledge Management Needs a Plan

KM takes a bit of planning… great image by HikingArtist.com

If you’re a knowledge manager you’re basically faced with the task of managing people. Unfortunately their manager is already managing them.

Let’s assume you convince a team to get a handle on their knowledge. What, out of all their knowledge, do you want to document in some system? And what can you document anyway? I’ve talked about these questions in my earlier post Why knowledge management is like herding cats. Things I’ll mention here are best practices, process-related content, and knowledge about your clients.

The nature of knowledge versus knowledge management initiatives

One of the (old?) ways organizations have tried to manage knowledge is by making employees enter stuff they know in a system. But knowledge tends to disintegrate into information inside a system.

  • It’s no longer knowledge transferred from one person to the other. There’s a non-intelligent medium involved which takes away the non-verbal feedback, the adjustments one makes during a conversation.
  • You need to describe your knowledge outside the context where you actually need it.
  • Often there is no real recognition for the effort you put into it.
  • If you show some hesitation, you may well hear convincing arguments like “look, the bottom line is, you have to”.

Just because your company’s interest is in squeezing the last drop of precious knowledge out of your brain before they let you go doesn’t mean it’s got to hurt. The process of entering your most precious asset into an indifferent system on pain of ‘pain’ is not exactly motivating, is it?

The nature of knowledge: learning and expertise

The learning process you’ve undergone in the course of many projects has resulted in your professional expertise. You have learned, re-learned, and even un-learned (check part 1 for more about un-learning). The ‘meta’ level of your knowledge is the veteran professional’s treasure and its the bit that tends to be missed the most when you retire.

To make knowledge sharing more personal, dynamic, and fun, your alternative is to put professionals together and have them talk about their projects, clients, and the like. My impression is that most organizations start doing that kind of thing after they notice:

  • that knowledge can actually walk out the door
  • that having a beautiful system to capture knowledge doesn’t make their problems go away.

In short, they don’t start moving until they notice what’s happening on their watch – and what that could mean for the organization. Last time they noticed some KM guy suggested a system. This time it’s clear that either the system doesn’t work or there’s more to KM than a bit of software. At this point, it’s really important to snap out of the “sh*t-we-need-knowledge-management-NOW” reflex!

One way to make knowledge management ‘work’ (I hope)

What if we tell everyone to spend 5% of their time sharing what they know with others? It could work, but it’s still something “you just have to” do.

Would a culture in which anyone can achieve the position of ‘mentor’ work? In order to avoid it turning into a punishment, I think there are three aspects which may support each other.

  1. Becoming a mentor should be a natural step in one’s career. (Let HR figure out how to make it happen.)
  2. Give ‘mentors’ the resources to document their knowledge. Which means you give them the time they need, away from their other duties. And it means arranging things so they can share their knowledge in a format that suits them.
    1. Writing (blog, article, web page, data in a system)
    2. Talking. One way to get around the ‘stupid (KM) medium’ is being interviewed and capturing the conversation on video.
    3. Training colleagues in a workshop
    4. Making a presentation
    5. Drawing cartoons (here’s a nice one on Mark W. Schaefer’s {grow} blog)
  3. Mentors need to take part in projects with others. Their sole aim is that of identifying areas where expertise is still lacking (to a degree). They either share the necessary knowledge themselves or help find the right people and learning materials to remedy any knowledge issues. Plus they will log what they found and how they resolved it. This way you form an understanding of what people in your organization need to know, but don’t.

Some people have a knack for teaching/mentoring. You don’t need to make it to senior manager before you start sharing what you know! How will you share your knowledge today?

Why the nature of knowledge frustrates knowledge ‘management’ (part 1)

What do we know about knowledge? This is the kind of question that bites its own tail. Even so, thinking about the nature of knowledge may give you some idea of how managing it might work. Since there’s a lot to the topic of knowledge management this is going to take more than one post. Not because it wouldn’t fit into one post, but because I’m still thinking…

The central question in this post is:

What is the nature of knowledge?

Let’s skip definitions and get down to a few basic rules that seem to apply – unless you prefer a holistic, universal view of knowledge.

Knowledge is personal

Ladder Of Knowledge

Ladder Of Knowledge, Barcelona [Click to view Flickr image]

  1. Limited to a person. If you bend over sideways, knowledge tends not to run out of your ear as the by-product of an intellectual ear infection.
  2. Limited in subject matter. Some people seem to know everything about everything, but omniscience is usually attributed to a single divine being. Humans spend their whole lives accumulating knowledge. We tend to know a lot about a little, and a little about a lot of things.
  3. Based on your own experience. It’s rare to run into someone who’s actually reviewed every bit of new information on its merits. You live life, bumping into random facts, and construct an image of what the world is like.

(Talking about the ‘personal experience’ aspect: you can see the need to get the world sorted out in kids of 3 – I have a handy specimen upstairs in bed. It’s quite a challenge to pry bits of fresh knowledge out once they’ve found a way into such a little head. Offering a bit of context, or examples where newly found truths don’t hold up, is often the only way to influence loudly-stated facts.)

What other characteristics does knowledge have?

Knowledge is subject to change

Knowledge evolves. You’re always learning. Which means you find and assess new information. You end up acquiring knowledge. Sometimes that means you need to review things you knew (things you thought were true).

In the book Dune by Frank Herbert, Paul Atreides got some unexpected advice upon reciting what he’d been taught. He was told that he had some ‘un-learning’ to do. Somewhere around the age of 20 young adults go through a phase when they assume they know how the world works. I know I did, and I’ve witnessed the same thing in others. In many cases that opinion is revoked or at least toned down a bit some 5 to 10 years later. A mature brain is one of nature’s wonders, and running into a few of life’s metaphorical but painfully unyielding walls sure helps too.

Knowing ‘everything’ is something you will only achieve if you live in a stable and uncomplicated environment which only changes in nearly unnoticeable detail (until the volcano erupts, anyway). If you’re reading this blog, that place is probably somewhere else.

Knowledge can be taken beyond its original context

You learn certain skills or ‘facts’, and at the same time you learn the methods you need in order to learn, or in order to solve a problem. Whether or not you take those methods and learn to apply them in different contexts depends on the environment in which you live and work. In a more or less static environment you may never need to apply your knowledge to any other field than the original one.

Examples of when you need to take your knowledge one level up:

  • When changing jobs, especially if it involves moving into a different branch, if you switch to a different career or start your own company, you may find yourself scraping the bottom of your knowledge barrel for anything you can use in your new situation. This is the moment when even the most unlikely bits of knowledge can prove useful. You’re forced to get creative.
  • At university you’re supposed to acquire an academic attitude towards information, methods, knowledge – but it’s still up to you to actually make the connection between one specific situation and others. If you do, you find yourself zooming out to see similar situations in which your knowledge applies, and then, if you’re very lucky (intelligent?), zooming out still further to notice how scientific methodology is relevant outside the academic realm. As a final step in this recipe, don’t forget to add a dash of social skills to avoid looking like a total wise-ass off campus. But that’s a different story 😉

Read more:

If you feel I missed anything major about the nature of knowledge, or if you have any other thoughts on the topic, just let me know. In my next post I will briefly (if possible) discuss a few ways in which knowledge management teams have tried to herd the curious cats of knowledge, and go into a central issue that has to do with the nature of knowledge management – and probably with a couple of other recurring business issues as well.

New knowledge: how to breathe creativity into your business

How do you instill creativity in places where it seems to be lacking big time? In an earlier post I mentioned that an investor’s mindset seems to chase away innovation. But what invites creative thinking? What sets us off on the hunt for new knowledge?

Why knowledge acquisition and the creative process grind to a halt

Firstly let’s add a bit of detail to my earlier thoughts about why inventors leave a company (after an IPO). Money seems to have an oddly familiar impact if you’re a business owner: it burns in your pockets, leading to buying decisions based on affluence. You have the money. This fact severely reduces your need to employ creative brains. If you choose your resources based on their availability, you can either put in creative thinking and the time you need to realize your ideas, or you can chuck in a bag of money at any given moment to buy the results of other people’s efforts.

When and how does creativity leave your business?

San Matteo by Caravaggio

San Matteo by Caravaggio [Fragment
of image on Wikimedia Commons]

  • Following my instincts I’d say the first awkward moments arise when you find that your best ideas no longer lead to reactions like “that sounds great – go do it and let me know when you’ve got something”. Instead you get “that sounds interesting – is there anything out there we could use?” or “okay, draft some requirements we can use for our vendors”.
  • The absolute get-out-of-here-right-now trigger is when decisions for further development are made without consulting the company’s innovative minds. It makes sense to leave when no one cares enough about your opinion to ask for it before taking a major decision. The best (or most independently thinking) inventors will leave at this point.
  • The other inventors may choose to deliver what’s being asked for. However their ‘inventions’ are probably the products of ideas born from the minds of investors, market researchers, and the like. No wonder they don’t match the level of the ‘breakthrough inventions’ done by pioneering innovators!

What does this tell us about factors that’ll get innovation and general creative thinking into a team or company? It’s not just “leave them alone and great things’ll happen”.

Apple or IBM: two methods to bring creativity into your business

1. The survival method: be creative or else

To draw upon my own education, one of my teachers in art history argued that Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) would not have reached the peak of his own ingenuity if his patron had accepted some of the paintings he made. As an inventor you may well need someone who will warn you not to become complacent – push you out of your comfort zone – tell you they know you can “do better than that” and will not settle for anything but the best.

To me this is a part of the Steve Jobs approach – if engineers come up with new adaptations of old inventions you demand they think of something better. I can imagine this method does not go down well with people who are either independent thinkers themselves, or who aim for ‘okay’ solutions that lack a ‘wow’ factor. It’s a method that smells of survival basics (and can inspire real terror for that reason): either you come up with a solution that works, or you starve because all the animals run away. How’s that for a creative spark?

2. The cocreation method: the benefit of having different points of view

Another part of innovation at Apple which Jobs was probably good at, is the ‘naive outsider’ approach (I’m borrowing from a Forbes article on creativity in marketing here) – taking a fresh look at familiar things and asking the questions that experts overlook. But there’s a definite downside to having one person doing ‘creative quality control or CQC (I just made that up for the occasion).

If you’re into social or ‘open’ business like IBM you can get input from people outside your company and even your industry. If you have your creative process in full operation, this should give you plenty of alien points of view – forcing you to rethink what would otherwise pass for ‘obvious’ arguments.

Creative quality control: which method suits you?

In view of the possibilities offered by social media and the like, and the psychological effects of each individual method, my vote goes to the ‘many voices’ option of social business. But depending on the type of company your in and the goals you’ve set, another method may be more viable.

More reading:

How do you foster innovation in your organization? Let’s talk about new knowledge, “CQC”, creativity, business, and social media in the comments!

Why knowledge management is like herding cats

It struck me quite recently:

Knowledge management shows some uncanny similarities with herding cats

The moment you try to get a whole company to embrace knowledge sharing, storage and the like, you just know at least one cat will scoot off under the sofa and another will claw its way up the curtains. And that’s before you reveal you prepared a nice B-A-T-H for them 😉

Interior with cats

Interior With Cats – Amsterdam Museum Collection (Willet Holthuysen)

Previous IT (tool) projects thought to support knowledge management often delivered digital archives where knowledge either went to die or refused to show up at all.

People who still ‘do KM’ focus on separate activities that should amount to a more mature way of handling knowledge. They also typically try to instill the basics of a new attitude towards knowledge in one team after another – dealing with one cat at a time.

Why is it so hard to get people to take knowledge seriously enough to share, store, and acquire it in a structured way?

Let’s go back to where the trouble starts.

1. The nature of knowledge

The point about knowledge is that it has little in common with concepts like truth. Your knowledge is what you know about the world and bits of that world. Personal knowledge is by default incomplete, and in large part inaccurate, irrelevant, and possibly obsolete (and an information specialist’s nightmare).

2. You can’t manage what’s in people’s heads

Think about yourself for a moment. You can barely manage what’s in your own head. So-called ‘critical thinking’ doesn’t seem to start even until the age of 8. Your own most unshakeable ‘truths’ were probably instilled in you before that age. If a situation gets awkward, and you catch yourself talking nonsense, remind yourself it could well be your inner 5-year-old talking. Surely that’s a great reason to snap out of it already 😉

3. Knowledge management does (not) equal a lot of things

Crystallized applied knowledge that results from any key process in your organization is in essence your archive. Most organizations are required to store this kind of information for some years.

Then there’s basically know-how, know-what and know-who:

  • Knowing the best way to get things done (procedural knowledge).
  • Knowing the essential and other useful facts about your organization, its peers and competitors, et cetera. Who did what in a similar situation? (archive)
  • Your network as a part of the organizations ‘relation grid’. Who has had contact with whom, when, what topic? And so on. (customer database)

And there is content resulting from research or activities conducted by your organization. Which is not generally seen as archive, but (perhaps for that very reason) it can be notoriously hard to determine what content your organization has produced in its outlying regions 😉

There are more elements to knowledge, but they’re not often the major focus of KM: that’s trying to stop knowledge from walking out the door.

I think it’s time to pull the rabbit out of the hat…

Possible motivators to start managing knowledge

  1. Responsibility: Here’s all this knowledge sitting in my head, took years to collect, don’t get hit by a bus now…
  2. A love for teaching: What’s the point of gathering knowledge if you don’t intend to share it?
  3. More time for challenging tasks: Here I am instructing new employees again… I’ve explained the same thing 4 times this week. Got to write the basics down. Hopefully then they’ll only come to me for the complicated stuff.

These are my personal reasons for wanting to share knowledge. Starting with the last potential motivation: I did record most, and before I left a previous employer, all the knowledge I had about some vital procedures. And having them documented somewhere really helped me and the company. Documenting procedures was recognized as important in making processes less dependent on the good health and availability of employees. Part time employees tend to be more understanding in these matters 🙂

How to avoid beating potential knowledge sharers into submission

Would you encourage people to benefit from sharing their knowledge freely? Would you help them share their knowledge in a way that suits them? Getting buy-in from everyone means you need to sit down and figure out (together with them if possible) what is important to them and recognize what obstacles they see. At this stage it’s so easy to slip into the ‘expert’ mode and tell them how to solve their issues. Or rather: their company’s issues. Don’t!
This is where your knowledge-of-the-world meets theirs. Try to understand the picture they are painting for you. Recognize your own urge to take over – stay in listening mode. Identify the knowledge sharer’s needs. Perhaps they need to know it’s official that they can spend 10% of their time as a mentor. Perhaps they’re more comfortable being interviewed about their knowledge than to document it all in some system. Or they’d love to ‘teach’ new employees if only someone would ask!

Sometimes all there is to herding cats is to put down a bowl of milk.

More reading (found via LinkedIn: Gurteen Knowledge Management community):

I hope you enjoyed today’s post! Please add your thoughts about knowledge, management, and the art of cat herding in a comment!