KM is not an oxymoron

“Knowledge Management” is not an oxymoron, the term is merely being read the wrong way round.

One primary argument against the term “Knowledge Management” is that knowledge cannot be managed. Knowledge is an intangible, is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right, so how can it be managed?  Therefore the term is an Oxymoron.

However the management of intangibles is common practice in the business world. Talent management, Quality Management, Customer Relationship management, Brand management, Reputation management, Environmental management; all are established disciplines which make up part of good management practice in many businesses, and are concerned with managing intangibles.

Take Safety Management. Safety is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right, and yet nobody seems to object to the term “Safety Management”. Nobody calls it an oxymoron. Safety management is not about the collection and movement of items of safety, but its about attitudes and behaviours. It’s about how you manage, when you want to improve safety. Its Safety-based management.

Why is Knowledge Management different? Knowledge management is not about the collection and movement of tangible particles of knowledge – herding knowledge as if it were sheep –  but it is about attitudes and behaviours.

Knowledge Management does not mean “the Management of Knowledge”, it means “Knowledge-based Management”, or “Management with attention to Knowledge”.

The management of any intangible – Safety, Risk, Quality, Knowledge – requires putting in place a Management Framework where decisions are made, and actions are taken, in full cognisance of the importance and value of that intangible. Knowledge management requires means putting in place a Knowledge Management Framework where expectations are set, roles are assigned, processes and tools are available, actions are taken and behaviours are developed and sustained, to maximise the value of the know-how of the organisation.

Knowledge needs Management just as much as Management needs Knowledge. The term is not an oxymoron.

(For those of you who prefer the term “Knowledge Sharing”, this is part of knowledge management, but you also need knowledge seeking, knowledge creation, knowledge synthesis and knowledge re-use. Sharing on its own is not enough).

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3 types of Tacit Knowledge

In an interesting New Scientist article, Harry Collins (author of “Tacit and Explicit knowledge“) describes three types of Tacit Knowledge. 

Image from wikimedia commons

We know about the concept of tacit knowledge, which originally was described as knowledge which cannot be expresses (although often nowadays people use the term for knowledge which has not been documents. Collins describes it as “knowledge that is not and sometimes cannot be made explicit”.

Tacit knowledge is “unspoken knowledge” and it remains unspoken for one of three reasons.

Collins describes Somatic Tacit Knowledge, which is the knowledge stored in the muscles, nerve pathways and synaptic connections. This is theoretically describable – “in principle, if not in practice, science could describe all of this. We still wouldn’t be able to use it to guide our actions, because we aren’t built for that”. In other words, you can read a book that gives you the basic tango steps, but you can’t learn tango from a book.

 You can express the way to balance a bicycle as follows – “In order to compensate for a given angle of imbalance α we must take a curve on the side of the imbalance, of which the radius (r) should be proportionate to the square of the velocity (v) over the imbalance r~v2/α.” – but the only practical way to learn this is to feel it (and to fall off a few times as well).  The only way to transfer somatic tacit knowledge to someone is through long term coaching, demonstration, observation and feedback.

He describes Relational Tacit Knowledge, which is about social interaction and how this keeps some knowledge unspoken. Basically its the things you could explain but don’t, for one reason or another. It includes secrets, the things you don’t know that you know, and the things you can’t explain because you don’t know what the other party needs to know.  This knowledge remains tacit for social reasons, and the work of the knowledge manager is to go through the social barriers and retrieve this knowledge through questioning processes – for example in Knowledge Interviews.

Finally, there is collective tacit knowledge. This is about the way WE work. Its about knowledge held socially and collectively. He gives the example of riding a bike. The mechanics of riding a bike are all about somatic tacit knowledge, but the knowledge of riding a bike in London traffic are collective and tacit; you need to understand the unspoken social conventions, otherwise the taxis and buses will get you.  It is the collective tacit knowledge that the interviewer seeks for in team knowledge processes such as After Action Review and Retrospects, and the facilitator seeks to exchange in Peer Assists and Knowledge Exchange meetings.

Tacit knowledge is not always tacit because it CANNOT be made explicit. Some of the knowledge from some of the three types may be shared and documented, some may not.

The role of the knowledge manager is to ensure the right approaches are applied to the right knowledge.

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The link between Big Data and Knowledge – the classic Walmart story

This is a short analysis of the story of WalMart’s preparation for hurricanes, in order to explore the link between Big Data and Knowledge.

Hurricane Irma Food Distribution
Hurricane Irma food distribution, by City of St Pete on Flickr

One of the earliest and most famous “big data” stories is around Walmart and it’s analysis of sales data related to hurricanes.  Let’s look at this story through the lens of “Observation, Insight, Lesson” to see the link between Big Data and Knowledge.

According to the New York Times in 2004 –

A week ahead of (Hurricane Frances) landfall, Linda M. Dillman, Wal-Mart’s chief information officer, pressed her staff to come up with forecasts based on what had happened when Hurricane Charley struck several weeks earlier. Backed by the trillions of bytes’ worth of shopper history that is stored in Wal-Mart’s computer network, she felt that the company could “start predicting what’s going to happen, instead of waiting for it to happen,” as she put it.

The experts mined the data and found that the stores would indeed need certain products – and not just the usual flashlights. “We didn’t know in the past that strawberry Pop-Tarts increase in sales, like seven times their normal sales rate, ahead of a hurricane,” Ms. Dillman said in a recent interview. ” 

And the pre-hurricane top-selling item was beer.”Thanks to those insights, trucks filled with toaster pastries and six-packs were soon speeding down Interstate 95 toward Wal-Marts in the path of Frances. Most of the products that were stocked for the storm sold quickly, the company said. Such knowledge, Wal-Mart has learned, is not only power. It is profit, too.

This story is a classic example of the power of Big Data, but let’s look at it through a Knowledge lens.  The Military model of knowledge development is that it comes through a 3-step process of Observation, Insight, Lesson, and that the Lesson then leads to Action. The New York Times suggests that the big data algorithms delivered knowledge, but I suggest that what they delivered was Insight, and that the Knowledge is applied when you know what to do with those insights.

  • The “trillions of bytes’ worth of shopper history” is a collection of Observations
  • The correlation of shopper behaviour with imminent hurricane landfall is an Insight
  • The lesson, on which action will be based, comes from an analysis of the insights with a background understanding of Walmart’s business and strategy. 

I would disagree with the New York Times. I think that what the data-mining experts found was Information in the form of a Correlation. The Knowledge would come in knowing what to do with that information (Knowledge, after all, being what enables correct action).

What would you do, dear reader, if you were a Walmart Executive who had been given this information on beer and pop tart sales? What action would you take?

  • Should you (as the New York times suggests) stock your stores with extra supplies to increase profit?
  • Should you (as this article suggests) put Pop-Tarts near the store entrances during hurricane season so that sales can “soar”?
  • You could even consider raising the margin on these items, following the principles of supply/demand pricing?

All of these solutions will increase sales and improve profit, but would Walmart really want to use a hurricane solely as an opportunity to increase profit? That might not go down so well with the public.  As Peter Drucker said, “Information only becomes knowledge in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it” and luckily Walmart has the knowledge they need to use this information wisely.

What Walmart actually do 

Walmart have built their own “best practice” for disaster relief (here, from page 177)  In the US this includes

 As a result WalMart is seen as a lifesaver, and it’s disaster response procedure has been compared favourably with that of FEMA. They have won the hearts of the public, and of the administrators.

Walmart are winning on three counts. They have plenty of observations in the form of shopper data, they analyse this data to derive insights, and they have knowledge (based on experience and codified in best practice) that allows them to take the correct actions. 

It is that knowledge that allows them to know what to do with the insights they mine from Big Data

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Charts and Pilots – an illustration of tacit and explicit knowledge

If you are a competent ship’s master, what types of knowledge do you need to be able to navigate on a new voyage to an unknown port?  You need two types – explicit and tacit, charts and pilots.

The charts, and the associated tide tables and weather forecasts are the explicit knowledge, whether these are paper charts or electronic. They record the unchanging features of coastlines, currents, buoys and lighthouses. With a good set of charts, any competent mariner can navigate any sea anywhere in the world, provided they have their own set of tacit knowledge – how to read a chart, how to determine position, how to plot a course allowing for wind and tide.

A chart is never complete – there are often uncharted hazards – but they as being constantly improved, and it is now possible to order a set of charts which are updated as of the day of ordering.

But when it comes to entering the narrow congested waters of an unfamiliar foreign port, the ship master’s tacit knowledge is not enough, even bolstered by the explicit knowledge in the charts and manuals. Here you need a Pilot.

A pilot is a sailor who maneuvers ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbors or river mouths. They are navigational experts possessing knowledge of the particular waterway such as its depth, currents, and hazards.

The economic and environmental risk from today’s large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot essential. Pilots possess detailed knowledge of local waterways, and most ports have compulsory pilotage for big ships. Pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel, and it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The complexities and risks of close navigation make pilotage essential.

Pilotage is an example of deep tacit knowledge which cannot safely be codified, and the master and pilot work together, combining their knowledge of the ship and knowledge of the harbour, to finally berth the ship and end the voyage.

Similarly your knowledge workers need access to two types of knowledge.

They need the documented guidance of the “broad areas” of their work, so they can be guided through most of the job. Then they need access (through communities of practice, or subject matter experts) to the deep knowledge of the most risky or complex tasks that can never be made explicit.

Once again, this takes us back to the dual nature of KM – Connect and Collect, Tacit and Explicit. These both need to be components of your Knowledge Management Framework,so that you can take your knowledge workers to the mouth of the harbour, and then guide them to safe anchorage.

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Why "Knowledge" needs "Management" and vice versa

There are many people who really don’t like the term Knowledge Management, and would much rather use some other terminology. But logically, these two words go together. 

There is a common view that the term “Knowledge Management” is an oxymoron; that “knowledge cannot be managed” and therefore the term makes no sense.  They start to use terms like “Knowledge Sharing” instead of “Knowledge Management,” and KM becomes a taboo term – something to be avoided.

However there are a number of reasons what Knowledge Management is not only a valid term, but a combination of two words that need each other.

Firstly the term “Knowledge Management” does not mean “the Management of Knowledge,”  nor does it imply management by control. Management is about  creating and maintaining organisational structures, frameworks, systems and processes to optimise the value of some area of focus, and in the case of KM, Knowledge is the area of focus.

“Knowledge Management” is therefore “Management with a focus on Knowledge”.

This is the definition you will find in ISO 30401:2018, the management systems standard for Knowledge Management, and we based this on the definition of Quality Management in ISO 9001.  With this definition, there is no oxymorom. KM is Management with Knowledge in mind.

Management is what we do to make organisations work; to make them prosper and succeed. And if they don’t manage with knowledge (together with risk, quality, safety, money etc etc) in mind, then they won’t prosper and succeed to the same extent.

Divorcing “management” from “knowledge” also means divorcing “knowledge” from “management”. If you are talking to managers, then they need to understand that these two cannot and should not be divorced.

They cannot manage properly, if they ignore knowledge.  And if we manage with due attention to the value and importance of knowledge, then this is Knowledge Management, and this is what we should be doing. Management needs Knowledge, and Knowledge needs Management, in the sense that it needs organisational structures, frameworks, systems and processes.

The two words belong together.

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What is the core objective of Knowledge Management?

What is the purpose of KM? Why do we do it? What is it’s core objective?

This is a subject worth exploring. If we are 100% sure about why we need, or why we do, KM, then we can be clearer about what sort of KM we need, and what knowledge most needs our attention.

I would like to explore the subject using the 5 Why’s to dig down to underlying objectives |(although I think I got to the real reason after the fourth Why, so I stopped there).

Why do we need knowledge management?
We need KM because knowledge needs to be “managed” better. I put “managed” in quotes because knowledge is not an item to be managed directly; it is instead “managed” through creating the conditions by which knowledge will be generated, flow, and be applied. Follow the links for discussions about whether KM is an oxymoron, and the meaning of the “Management” word in “Knowledge Management”
Why does knowledge need to be managed better?
Because knowledge workers need knowledge to do their work, and because in many organisations the knowledge does not reach the knowledge workers easily, efficiently, effectively, or securely.  Maybe the knowledge remains in the heads of individuals, maybe it does not cross organisational silos, maybe it is at risk of loss, or maybe it is shared, but is very poor quality. This blog often uses the metaphor of KM as a Supply Chain, supplying knowledge to those who need it in their work. KM is a way to build the supply chain, and make it effective, efficient and lean.
Why do knowledge workers need knowledge?
They need knowledge to make better decisions and take better actions. One useful definition of a knowledge worker is someone who makes judgments and decisions for a living, and better access to knowledge allows better decision making and better actions. Peter Senge tells us that Knowledge is the ability to make effective decisions, and the new ISO standard 30401:2018 tells us that knowledge is “human or organizational asset enabling effective decisions and action in context”.

Therefore the more knowledge, and the better knowledge, you can supply through the supply chain, the better the decisions your knowledge workers make. They make fewer mistakes, they follow better practices, they innovate where innovation is needed and follow standards when standards are appropriate.

Why do we need knowledge workers to make better decisions?

Here, on the 4th Why, we can no longer give a generic answer, because this answer will be different for each organisation. Maybe we want people to be more efficient in order to eliminate wasted cost. Maybe we want them to be more effective in selling services and closing deals. Perhaps we want happier or more prosperous customers, or we need to save lives and protect property. The answer to this question will depend if you work in a legal firm, an engineering company, a public utility or a fire service. Or even if you are doing personal knowledge for your own benefit. However you answer it, this final step links knowledge Management to the strategic goals of the organisation or individual that is applying it. 

So we can summarise the core objective of KM as follows:

By providing a more efficient and effective supply of knowledge to the knowledge workers, KM supports better decisions and more effective actions in service of the goals and objectives of the organisation.

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The 3 different types of knowledge, and how they are managed

There is more than one type of Knowledge, and KM needs to decide which type requires the main focus and effort.

Both linguistically and philosophically there is more than one type of knowledge. This is important, and is an area where the English Language is less than helpful to the KM practitioner.

The linguistic differences in types of knowledge

It has been a long running thread within this blog, that the English language is inadequate when it comes to talking about Knowledge.  Where other languages describe two or more forms of knowing, we have only one word for both. It is this inadequacy that is at the heart of many disagreements about Knowledge Management. 

We use the same word when asking “Do you know her name” as when asking “Do you know her”. However we are describing two types of knowing here – the first is a Fact, the second is a Familiarity.  If you know someone’s name, then you can recall a fact about them. If you know someone, then you are familiar with them.

Similarly we can ask “Do you know what a bicycle is?” and  “Do you know how to ride a bicycle?” The first is recollection of a Fact, the second is an Ability. In English we use the same word for both, but in other languages we use different words.

The philosophical differences in types of knowledge

I am not a philosopher, I have not studied the philosophy of knowledge and knowing, but I am aware of some of the ideas, and I know that for philosophers there are two or three types of knowledge:

  • Propositional knowledge or Declarative Knowledge, which is knowledge of facts (like who won the FA cup, or what last month’s sales figures are);
  • Procedural knowledge, which is knowledge of how to do something (like ride a bicycle);
  • A third type – sometimes called Knowledge by Acquaintance, sometimes called Strategic Knowledge,  or Conditional Knowledge. This is knowledge of when and why to apply different procedures, use specific approaches or makce certain choices, which comes from deep familiarity. 

I really recommend this article about procedural and declarative knowledge, and the links between the two, and the two camps when it comes to the links between the two:

  • Intellectualism, which believes that all procedural knowledge either can be made declarative, or already is declarative;
  • Anti-intellectualism, which believes that the two are different.

The three types.

The table below discusses these types of knowledge

Declarative knowledge

Procedural knowledge

Familiarity/Strategic knowledge

“I know that ….” “I know how to …” “I know … (a person, a place, a topic)”
Savoir in French Connaitre in French Savoir Faire in French?
Wissen in German Kennen in German
Gained through instruction and memorisation Gained through coaching, experience, or shared experience from others Gained through long experience, apprentice-ship, and working closely with experts
Transmitted easily through written means Often difficult to transmit through written means Impossible to transmit through written means, although recorded stories can help share experience
Machines and IT systems can store facts faithfully Machines and IT systems can store some aspects of procedural knowledge but not all Machines and IT systems cannot (or at least cannot easily) store familiarity
Does not give ability Gives ability to act and decide Gives ability to act and decide in unique conditions, to think strategically, and to predict
Entirely explicit, mostly codified A mixture of explicit, implicit and tacit. Variously codified. Usually tacit and uncodified.
Declarative knowledge has value to an organisation Procedural knowledge has LARGE value to an organisation Familiarity has MASSIVE value to an organisation

In Knoco, we tend to focus our Knowledge Management support on ways to develop Procedural Knowledge and Familiarity (without losing sight of the need to provide access to facts). This is because we feel that:

  1. Much declarative knowledge is already managed through Information Management tools and approaches, and requires little new from KM;
  2. You can argue that the purpose of KM is to enable actions and decisions, thus requiring a focus on Know-how and Can-do.
I know this is arguable, and Luc Glasbeek suggested in a comment to an earlier post that the field of knowledge should not be divided, and expanded his discussion here.

However the fact that many languages already have more than one word for knowledge suggests that there is already a recognised division of knowledge into more than one type. In French, Knowledge Management is Gestion des Connaissance – “une démarche managériale pluridisciplinaire qui regroupe l’ensemble des initiatives, des méthodes et des techniques permettant de percevoir, identifier, analyser, organiser, mémoriser, partager les connaissances des membres d’une organisation” according to Wikipedia – a discipline focused on Connaissance, rather than Savoir; on Know-how rather than Know-what.

KM can support the management of Procedural and Familiarity knowledge in a number of ways;

  • Using knowledge management to allow new staff to become rapidly familiar with organisational processes and procedural know-how;
  • Developing a shared familiarity of an operation or activity through discussions within a community of practice;
  • Using team learning processes such as Peer Assist and After Action Review to help a team “climb the learning curve of know-how and familiarity” more quickly;
  • Applying a Knowledge Retention Strategy to ensure that an organisation does not lose know-how familiarity with crucial processes, practices and relationships when key people retire;
  • Setting up processes of on-the-job coaching, reflection and learning that help build deeper familiarity;
  • Sharing stories;
  • Using Lessons Learned to ensure that teams become familiar with pitfalls, workarounds and know-how from previous projects.

Keep this difference in mind as you plan your Knowledge Management strategies. Knowledge is not a simple thing; you will need to pay attention to these multiple ways of Knowing, and decide how best to focus your KM initiative.

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What is the nature of Knowledge Management?

Is KM a Science? Is KM a Philosophy? No – it’s a Management Discipline. And here is why that is a useful viewpoint.

I have met many people over the years who treat Knowledge Management as something entirely unique – a philosophy, almost, or a “world-view”. For these people, there is nothing quite like KM.

Our view in Knoco is that KM is not unique, but is rather the latest in a range of management disciplines.

Knowledge Management represents a way of managing work, paying due attention to the value and effect of an intangible (namely, knowledge). And it’s not the only management discipline which deals with intangibles. Risk management, quality management, customer relationship management, brand management, reputation management, talent management, safety management – all deal with intangibles.

This view – of KM as one discipline among many – is derived from recognising knowledge as one organizational asset among many. For centuries, organisations have managed their visible assets, such as money, people, property and equipment. More recently organisations have been addressing the intangible assets, such as their reputation, their IP, their customer base, the diversity and talent of their staff, their ability to work safely and sustainably, and now their knowledge.

This view is entirely compatible with the recent introduction of ISO 30401:2018, the ISO Management Systems standard for Knowledge Management, which treats KM exactly the same way that ISO treats quality management or asset management, and which defines KM as “management with regard to knowledge”.

The value of treating KM as a management discipline

The first great value of treating KM as “one among equals” – as another component of good management discipline – is that you can then place it within the same governance framework as you do the other disciplines. You can position it in the same structures and expectations. You can review it using the same review processes (the stage reviews of the project management framework, for example, or the Plan/Do/Measure/Learn cycle). You can audit it as you do any other management discipline. In other words, you can embed it easily within “normal work”.

Maybe that’s a pragmatists approach rather than a theorists or idealists approach, but if you are looking to embed KM in your organisation, you will find that this is an approach that works.

The second great value of treating KM as “one among equals” is that it gives you an analogy for the practical issues of implementation and sustaining KM. You can look at the closest analogue discipline that is already embedded in your organisation, and ask

  • “How did we implement this? 
  • What lessons can we derive about implementing such a discipline? 
  • How are we sustaining this? 
  • What lessons are there for sustaining KM?”

Probably the closest analogue disciplines for KM are safety management and risk management. Both of these disciplines are not about the management of tangibles – neither safety nor risk are things you can pick up, weigh and put in your pocket – but more about how you manage your organisation so that safety and risk are given priority, and so that people’s safety behaviours and risk behaviours change.

So if your organisation has, in the past, successfully introduced risk management and safety management, then you should be greatly heartened as a knowledge manager, as KM can then follow a proven implementation path.

Treat KM as just another management discipline, and you will find this gives you so many models and analogues to help you. 

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Why "Knowledge Sharing" doesn’t work as an alternative title for KM

Many people prefer to use the term “Knowledge Sharing” instead of “Knowledge Management”. However as a synonym “Knowledge Sharing” is inadequate and misleading. 

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Sharing is Caring by Fabian Rosdalen on Flickr

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