Collecting documents is not the same as managing knowledge, said King Solomon

The endless accumulation of reports is not necessarily a helpful thing in Knowledge Management.

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This issue was recognised thousands of years ago by one of the reputedly wisest men in history – King Solomon – revered as a prophet, King and Wise Man by all the Abrahamic traditions. As the wise man said, in the book of Ecclesiastes –

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

I was reminded of this quote last month at a conference, where a knowledge manager asked me if I could help her with her issue. Her problem was that she was measured on one indicator – the number of reports in her repository – and she was struggling to get people to write anything. Partly people were too busy, partly it was an oral culture rather than a written culture, often they did not know what to write, they were unsure about writing in English, and they were shy of putting their thoughts on paper.
I advised her to put her collection on hold, to start to introduce conversations about knowledge through After Action Reviews and Communities of Practice, and to use those conversations both as a source of further content and as an indication of which knowledge was currently important to the organisation. But it also made me think, and conclude that;

Using the number of reports and articles in a knowledge base as a KPI is unhelpful and can be counter-productive.

I say this for the following reasons.

  • As King Solomon nearly said, of writing reports there is no end. You can write as many reports or articles as you want – it doesn’t mean they are good, or helpful, or add anything to the store of knowledge. Volume is not an indicator of quality. Must volume is just noise in the system.
  • If all you do is collect documents, then the old out-of-date knowledge is mixed in with newer more relevant knowledge, or with contradictory conclusions and advice, which may be very unhelpful. 
  • In knowledge management – volume of content is a bad thing. In their excellent book “Working knowledge”, Davenport and Prusak point out that “Volume may be the friend of data management, but it is the enemy of knowledge management; simply because humans have to sift through the volume to find the desired knowledge”.
  • This “sifting through the volume of reports” is what King Solomon referred to as “a weariness of the flesh”, and busy people looking for knowledge do not want to face a mammoth task. Here is a third KM guru quote for you – Dr Johnson, the 18th century man of letters, wrote that  “Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labour; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it”. The more documents in your repository, the more intellectual labour it takes the seeker to find the knowledge, regardless of the quality of your search engine.
  • The aim of KM is not to collect, but to combine and synthesise. The C within the famous SECI model stands for “Combination”, not Collection. The purpose of collecting new knowledge is to combine it with old knowledge and other new knowledge, and to create a synthesis – to move understanding forward; to filter out the noise and improve the signal.

The ideal knowledge base, for any given topic, really only requires one primary document, and a restricted selection of supporting documents.

  • The primary document is the Wiki, representing the current state of knowledge or the current best practice, constantly updated as new knowledge becomes available;
  • The wiki then links out to secondary documents, community discussions, lessons etc which give more detail if needed, and which provide the evidence base for the knowledge in the wiki;
  • There may also be a small collection of exemplar documents – proposals to copy, formats to use, templates and go-bys.

The secondary documents and exemplars should be rigorously collated, and old material should be archived.

Don’t aim for volume – aim for helpfulness and synthesis. Otherwise you may just be perpetuating “the weariness of the flesh”

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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