4 ways to increase knowledge flow – lessons from fluid dynamics

If we look at knowledge flowing through a company as an analogue of fluid flowing through a porpous medium, can we draw any conclusions to help us with KM?

In their 2011 presentation, Tim Stouffer and Reid Smith did just this. They took an interesting look at the flow of knowledge, and likened it to the flow of oil, water or other fluid in a fluid-bearing rock.

In such circumstances,  flow is governed by the equation shown here, which is known as Darcy’s law. Flow is governed by the permeability of the rock, the dynamic viscosity of the fluid, the pressure difference, and the distance the fluid needs to travel.

Stoufer and Smith used this equation as analogy to draw some conclusions about how to increase knowledge flow in organisations, and focused on four factors.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to make the organisation more permeable to knowledge. This is the area most KM programs focus on – providing the tools and the organisational structures that remove or reduce the barriers to knowledge flow, making the organisation as transparent as possible as far as knowledge is concerned. They do this through the introduction of community forums, good search, well constructed knowledge bases, lessons management systems with good workflow etc.. This is vital to success of a KM program, but is only 1/4 of the equation.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to reduce the viscosity (the stickiness, or flow-resistance) of the knowledge itself. Many organisations will claim on the one hand that knowledge does not flow round their organisation, while on the other hand agreeing that gossip spreads like wildfire. That’s because gossip is low-viscosity knowledge – it will find any little gap through which to flow. We need to reduce the viscosity of technical knowledge to a similar level, through packaging it well, through the use of stories, video, examples and lessons. Well written, catchy, punchy, and speaking directly to the reader/listener/viewer.

  • If we want to increase knowledge flow, we need to increase the driving pressures – both Push and Pull. This is the cultural side of the equation, the pressure to share and (more importantly) the pressure to Ask and Learn. The pressure is the sum of Pull and Push, and is the sum of peer pressure and management expectations. The more attention you give to creating expectations for both sharing and learning, the faster the knowledge will flow. 

Stoufer and Smith conclude as follows:

“Getting Knowledge to flow is much like the physics contained in Darcy’s Law  

  • Increase “Permeability” 
    • Improve access to knowledge
    • Build knowledge connections: P2P and P2K
  • Increase “Pressure” 
    • Management leadership
    • Metrics
  • Decrease “Viscosity”
    • Turn tacit knowledge into explicit, actionable knowledge
  • Decrease “Distance” (make things easy)
    • Bring people, knowledge and communities closer together.

So although Knowledge flowing through an organisation is unlike Oil flowing through a rock, the factors of Darcy’s law can still be used as an analogy to give us insight into 4 ways to improve the flow of knowledge. 

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