One of my peers in the badly-named discipline of Knowledge Management is IBM’s complexity guru, Dave Snowden. Last year Dave wrote a paper entitled Managing for Serendipity, which I really enjoyed. Dave appears to share my disdain for the context-free capture and ‘codification’ of people’s business knowledge in massive ‘knowledge bases’ just in case someone else might be able to benefit from that knowledge sometime in the future (assuming they can find it).

Dave’s paper explains how senseless this expensive exercise is. I have outlined in my Personal Knowledge Management articles why I think Knowledge Management energies would be much more effectively spent (1) developing social networking applications and competencies, and (2) developing personal content management applications and competencies, focused on the specific, individual needs of the organization’s front-line knowledge workers (illustrated above).

In the above-mentioned article, Dave asks the question: If capturing ‘best practices’ and similar context-deficient knowledge in central repositories is, except in limited cases*, ill-advised, what if anything should organizations be collecting in centralized ‘knowledge bases’ and what centrally-coordinated programs should be used to encourage learning and knowledge transfer? He suggests three possibilities:

  1. Narrative Databases: Unfiltered repositories in which people can record stories about events that they learned from personally. Dave warns against imposing interpretations and rigid taxonomy on such stories, stressing the importance of serendipitous reading of them. He also sees these as a significant opportunity for recently retired employees to contribute to others’ learning. Dave offers a highly-regarded course in the craft of story-telling.
  2. Social Network Stimulation: Databases, tools and programs that encourage and enable employees to improve the breadth, depth and effectiveness of their personal networks. In a recent article in Sloan Management Review, Rob Cross, Tom Davenport and Susan Cantrell entitled The Social Side of High Performance (available only by subscription) the authors show that effective development and use of social networks correlates more than anything else with high performance rating of knowledge workers.
  3. Disruptive Pattern Breaking: Providing fresh thinking, ideas from unusual sources, and challenges to accepted ideas and procedures are healthy in any organization. By broadening employees’ exposure to such material, organizations can stimulate innovation and provide new perspectives that can sharpen critical skills and hence improve work effectiveness and decision-making.

Although many people find Dave’s writing dense, even intimidating, I find his arguments to be well-supported, pragmatic and eminently practicable. These three initiatives, in tandem with programs to develop social networking and personal content management applications and competencies, offer the promise of finally realizing the ‘Knowledge Advantage’ that those of us in KM have been striving for, for a decade.

* Dave acknowledges the value of ‘best practices’ in internet payment systems and safety procedures in a nuclear power plant, for example.

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  1. Euan says:

    And aren’t blogs “Narrative Databases”?

  2. Valdis says:

    Great article by Snowden!In a similar vein…http://www.orgnet.com/MCO.html

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Euan: I guess they are in a way, but not in the way Snowden means. Interesting thought, though :-)Valdis: Thanks for your article — love the ‘new’ E=MC2 meaning! Social Networking reduced to a formula.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Connected blog posts (not necessarily from just one blog) that are annotated with a “linker’s thoughts, pointers, questions, etc. – linked together in a tour, in whatever order someone chooses – that can form an interesting narrative arc.Small Pieces, Loosely Joined – to create chunks of or paths to some form of coherent cluster of thoughts – “first drafts” of information to be shared – which can become latent “knowledge”.

  5. David Jones says:

    Dave just finished three days of intensive presentations/meetings/engagements in Ottawa with a very wide variety of public, private and not-for-profit agencies and individuals. He is flying out tonight, leaving a lot of people in the Nation’s Capital with APCS – Advanced Ponder and Contemplation Syndrome. We may (hopefully) never be the same again.

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