seely brown modelOne problem of blogs is that, since they are principally organized in reverse date order (i.e. most recent at the top), some profound wisdom falls off the bottom of each page every day and, unless special effort is made to keep it in people’s minds, it is effectively lost forever. Euan Semple brought to my attention one such wise post, by the incomparable Doc Searls, written almost three years ago about the essence of knowledge, and what that implies for the role of blogs in business and for Knowledge Management (KM).

For the past two weeks I have had the honour of moderating the Association of KnowledgeWork (AOK) online forum, in a wide-ranging discussion of precisely this topic. Here is what I learned from that experience:

  • Hierarchy, and background knowledge of the other conversants (i.e. relationships), factor strongly in trust, and trust is a critical precondition to knowledge sharing. Specifically, we trust peers more than either bosses or subordinates, and hence share what we know with them more readily. And we trust people we know well (by virtue either of face-to-face contact, or from reading their blog and other writings), and hence accept and share knowledge from them more willingly.
  • We need to learn, and teach, how to organize, create, and record excellent stories (both oral and written) and great conversations (both face-to-face and virtual), and one key to doing so is to be sensitive to who the audience is and what their needs are.
  • We need KM leaders to encourage those who could most obviously benefit from them (newsletter writers, Subject Matter Experts and Community of Practice co-ordinators) to experiment with weblogs and other fledgling PCM and social networking tools in business, and we need KM leaders to use them themselves, so that they understand their true potential and so they can advise the designers of the next generation of such tools how to build them right.
  • Improving the effectiveness of front-line knowledge workers is a delicate balancing act, requiring both
    1. consistent, reliable, accessible top-down knowledge transfer, education and instruction, and
    2. tools and resources that enable and encourage human agency, i.e. the freedom to apply individual experience and peer learning to solving always-unique customer and business problems.
  • We have perhaps put too much stock in ‘teaming’, collaboration, and ‘community’ enablement. Although communities are very useful for identifying ‘like minds’ and expertise, and projects that involve many participants do need coordination, I believe most useful knowledge transfer, and most valuable conversations, are iterative and between two people (though it is possible for one person to carry on several ‘binary’ conversations at a time, and the upcoming generation is quite adept at it), most collaboration comes down to individuals agreeing who will do what and, while consulting regularly, largely staying out of each other’s way, and most innovation is the application of insight that one individual had while listening to another. We are at heart, at least in the West, incorrigibly individual thinkers and workers, and the general ‘mess and imprecision of meaning’ makes effective knowledge transfer almost impossible other than one-to-one. That is why the best speakers make everyone in the room believe s/he is talking exclusively to them.

And here are five verbatim excerpts from Doc’s brief, brilliant post, words of wisdom that still hold true three years later:

  • Blogs are somewhere between conversation and writing [for publication]. They’re printed blurts that lithify into word balloons that float in cyberspace for the duration, making them searchable transcripts of thinking-out-loud.
  • Most of what we know isn’t highly explicit, and our expressions of it start with approximations of what we mean, or think we mean, or might eventually discover we mean ó often with the help of the other person in the conversation. But when we speak, every word vanishes like snow falling on water. If we’re lucky the other party reflects back a sign of understanding, or an improved expression of the same point. Whatever else happens, if the conversation is successful it proves that we traffic in meaning more than words.
  • Blogs are heaps of words that stick to the water: annotated transcripts of conversations that have no sides. They are the accumulata of What We Know, of open-ended conversation with who-knows-who. And perhaps I mean that last phrase a bit more literally than I intended when I wrote it eight seconds ago.
  • Polanyi’s point was that knowledge is profoundly personal, and his only quotable line to that effect was “we know more than we can tell.” (That he worked seven single-syllable words into one sentence is such a remarkable exception that it may by itself provide evidence of God.) What we know is tacit and what we can tell is explicit… John Seely Brown outlined* an epistemology that began by borrowing Polanyi’s classification of personal knowledge ó tacit and explicit ó and extending it to the social space, showing (see the drawing above), in other words, that lots of knowledge is social.
  • Blogs organize themselves around whatever topic gets us going, for as long as the topic stays interesting. Then we ó whoever we are ó move on, keeping safe in the tacit what those who operate only in the explicit will never understand, much less “manage.”

(* This presentation by John Seely Brown includes a wonderful story about the profession of troubleshooting, and how it’s best accomplished by conversations and co-developed stories — not through expert systems and repositories of ‘best practices’)

Together, these ten statements — about trust, stories, conversations, experimental incremental improvement of tools, top-down knowledge transfer, human agency, the inherently personal and individual nature of learning and innovation and work, the unfeasibility of teamwork and collaboration, communities as merely collections of one-to-one connections, learning and teaching by thinking out loud, conversation as process not content, blogs as open-ended conversations with people with know-who, knowledge as both personal and social, and the transience and ‘self-organizability’ of knowledge and blogs — distil the essence of a decade of critical learnings about knowledge in business, about blogs, and about how we learn and do work.

But much of what KM has been ‘about’ since its inception a decade ago — bringing about ‘culture change’, creating vast repositories of content for reuse, and designing standardized, centralized knowledge architectures, infrastructures, and taxonomies — has ignored the axioms implicit in these ten statements and mostly overlooked the fourteen concepts in red above. In other words, most KM to date reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of knowledge, learning and work.

What KM should have been about was understanding and accommodating people’s behaviour, which is almost invariably well-intentioned, and, thanks to human ingenuity, usually quite efficient. And, as Drucker has been telling us for a generation, KM should then have been ‘about’ improving front-line knowledge worker effectiveness, not by burying them in mountains of unnavigable and context-free content, but by providing them with simple tools, training and suggested processes to help them learn better, and do their mostly conversational, consultative, social, individual jobs, better.

If your organization doesn’t have a deep understanding of the fourteen concepts listed in red above, and programs to leverage its understanding of these concepts to help improve front-line knowledge worker effectiveness, then it’s probably wasting much of its IT & KM resources, and much of the time and energy of its front-line people. And its approach to Knowledge Management is probably seriously misguided.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    Although you have written many, many fine posts, IMO this is one of your all-time finest (with respect to things KM and organizational) – a clear and articulate synthesis of why trust, dialogue, openness to sharing, purpose and values, mechanisms (like blogs) that honour and/or enable these components of the knowledge-creation dynamics.Trust a conversation with Euan to bring it all up-and-out. A grand champion-and-channeler is he – and I’m not just saying that because I am sitting here in his guest room.Thanks, Dave for this great post.

  2. Denham says:

    “the inherently personal and individual nature of learning and innovation and work, the unfeasibility of teamwork and collaboration, communities as merely collections of one-to-one connections” – this is not my experience. – Dave I think this underestimates some very important and fundamental knowledge related dynamics that go beyond 1:1 stuff. Think of shared, emergent meaning, group distinctions and self organization within a community, think distributed cognition, tacit exchange and shared practice, Think boundary objects and cathexis around artifacts.Seems real advances and opportunities in knowledge work may come from collective practices & communial sense-making rather than paired or individual insights and strong ties.Hey just my bias showing!

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