The Knowledge Management Iceberg model

The KM iceberg is a common image, but what does it really mean?

The Iceberg is a very familiar model within Knowledge Management, seen in many slide presentations. I first used it myself in the public domain, in an article in Knowledge management magazine, 2000, entitled “Mining the deep knowledge – tapping into things you don’t know you know” (contact me through comments for a reprint) and I have re-used it many times over the last couple of decades.

In the iceberg analogy,the documented knowledge of an organisation is like the visible portion of an iceberg, and the undocumented explicit knowledge (things people know that they know but have not documented) is underwater, but close to the surface, in the daylight zone where it is visible.

The documented knowledge can, in theory, be seen and found easily, as it lies in plain sight.

Similarly the undocumented explicit knowledge can be found and accessed if you can find the right people to direct a query to.

However deeper down, out of sight, lies the vast mass of unconscious tacit knowledge; the bulk of the iceberg. This knowledge is invisible, inaccessible, and easily overlooked. These are the things that people don’t necessarily know that they know – the unknown knowns – and this is very often the deep-lying technical knowledge and mastery that is of real value to others.

Before this knowledge can be shared and applied, it first needs to be made conscious. A process of realisation is needed, to move the knowledge into the conscious domain, and to bring it up into the sunlight.

Much as data may need to be mined out of documents to be useful, so the unconscious knowledge needs to be mined out of the human brain before it can be made conscious and explicit, and then (if necessary) documented. This “brain mining” is a skill, which can be learnt and taught, but it is primarily a human activity that cannot be automated. It is however the highest value step in the entire spectrum of knowledge management activity.

The mining tools we use to reach this deep knowledge are Questions, and any knowledge management system that does not somewhere involve some question-based processes will never reach the deep dark unconscious tacit knowledge where the real secrets of success and failure are to be found.

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