8 demand-side principles for Knowledge Management

In 2008 David Snowden published a landmark article on 7 KM principle, mainly focusing on the supply side of knowledge management. The post below, upcycled from 2012, aims to present similar principles from the demand side. 

Principles by Nick Youngson 
CC BY-SA 3.0
 Alpha Stock Images

David’s 2008 post is currently (Nov 2020) unavailable, but his principles are as follows:

  1. Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted. 
  2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
  3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
  4. Everything is fragmented. We evolved to handle unstructured fragmented fine granularity information objects, not highly structured documents.
  5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
  6. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
  7. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.
All except number 5 addresses the expression and presentation of knowledge.  There is of course another side – the demand side, or the user side – which represents the transition from expressed knowledge to conscious understanding and to unconscious knowing. Here I offer a set of principles which apply to the other side of the equation – the learning side
These principles are based on our own experience in Knoco, and there is some overlap with the established “principles of learning” used in the educational field.

Here are our principles

  1. People don’t pay attention to knowledge until they actually need it. People won’t  absorb knowledge until they are ready, and they won’t be ready until they feel the need.  I could give you detailed driving instructions of the quickest way to travel from Bath in Somerset to Woking in Surrey, but you wouldn’t retain them because they are of no immediate value to you. Then one day, you are at a garden party in Bath and your boss calls and says “can you get to Woking as quickly as possible, we have a potential big deal to close and I need you here right now”. THEN you will be highly receptive to the knowledge. The consequence of this “attention when needed” is that it is more effective to set up “just in time” knowledge sharing processes than “just in case” knowledge sharing processes (although these also have their place).
  1. People value knowledge that they request more highly than knowledge that is unsolicited.  I don’t know the psychology behind this, but it seems to be true.  The best way to get knowledge into people’s heads seems to be by answering their questions. The old fashioned “show and tell” is far less effective than “question and answer”, and the blog is less effective than the discussion forum.  The company where the most questions are asked, is often the company that learns the quickest.  This principle is behind the design of most effective knowledge management processes, the majority of which are based on dialogue, and the primary focus of communities of practice should be answering questions rather than publishing ideas.
  1. People won’t use knowledge, unless they trust its provenance.This is the “not invented here” principle, which is a very strong factor in knowledge management terms.  People won’t use knowledge they don’t trust, and they don’t trust knowledge if they don’t know where it has come from.  They need either to trust the individual who gave them the knowledge, or the organisational construct (such as the CoP) which provided the knowledge.  The source may be an expert, or a wiki (many people trust Wikipedia for example, despite its shortcomings), or a community of practice, and building credibility and trust has to be a key activity when building these constructs as part of the knowledge management initiative.
  1. Knowledge has to be reviewed in the user’s own context before it can be received.  One of the knowledge receiver’s first questions is “is this relevant to me?” Everybody always feels their own context is different (even though the difference is often less than assumed), and they need to test the knowledge for relevance before they really pay attention.  We were recently facilitating a peer assist, where people were bringing knowledge from Africa, from India, from China, to be used in an Indonesian context.  For each of the learning points, we needed about half an hour to an hour’s discussion around context, before we could even approach discussion of how imported knowledge might be used. This means that transferring knowledge in a written form is difficult, unless you can introduce a process by which people can interrogate this within their own context.
  1. One of the biggest barriers to accepting new knowledge is old knowledge.  This is the curse of prior knowledge. People have to unlearn, before they can learn.  Old assumptions, old habits, “the way we have always done it in the past” may all have to be challenged before people can absorb and make sense of new knowledge.  This can be hard work! As an example, see the story about the war of the hedgerows, where the U.S. Army completely missed the implication of the Normandy hedgerows, assuming they would not be a factor in tank and infantry warfare after the D day landings
  1. Knowledge has to be adapted before it can be adopted.  If people are provided with guidance, tips and hints, or even a “recipe to follow,” they will always tweak it and adjust it in order to “make it theirs”.  Sometimes this tweaking and adjusting is necessary to fit the knowledge to their own context; sometimes it is unnecessary in practical terms despite being necessary in emotional terms.  So when you are providing people with guidance, tips and hints or even a “recipe”, you have to give them some idea of where they can still adapt it, and where dangerous tinkering should be avoided. Otherwise they may “adapt” the wrong thing. We see this all the time in our Bird island exercise – they all want to tinker with the final design, and you have to let them tinker, but try to guide them to tinker in non-fatal ways!
  1. Knowledge will be more effective the more personal it is.  The more personal, emotional, and highly charged the learning situation, the more the knowledge will be easily adopted.  Discussion, story telling and coaching can be personal, and motional and highly charged, but it becomes difficult to translate this into the written word.  The use of stories is very helpful, the use of video even more so.  Obviously this has profound implications for knowledge transfer mechanisms.
  1. You won’t really KNOW it until you DO it.  We very often see in lessons learned meetings, teams that say  “we picked up this learning from the previous project, we tried it and it really did work!  That was a great learning for us”.  When they picked it up they knew it intellectually; after they had tried it they knew it practically and emotionally.  Seeing is believing, trying is trusting, doing is internalising.  This sort of positive reinforcement of learning is a massive boost for your knowledge management program; as people try things and find they work, this reinforces the belief that knowledge from others is of real practical value.

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