How knowledge can be "the thread through the labyrinth"

“The thread through the labyrinth” is a metaphor for allowing others to follow our steps safely. This is what Knowledge can do. 

When Theseus negotiated Daedelus’ labyrinth in order to kill the Minotaur, he left a thread behind him (provided by Ariadne, daughter of Minos) so that the way through the Labyrinth would be clearly marked.

Cave divers do something similar, unreeling a line behind them as they explore the labyrinth of flooded passageways; both so they can find their own way out, and also so that others can follow the path without getting lost, or without having to explore the same dead ends and blind alleys that the first divers did. 

Sometimes, negotiating our projects feels like making our way through a labyrinth, especially when the project has to negotiate complex regulatory or bureaucratic hurdles, or technical difficulties.

When we successfully negotiate these hurdles, which sometimes can be long and taxing, we need to leave a thread behind us for the sake of the next project.

Imagine the first project of its type in a country – the first factory, or the first branch office. Imagine you have eventually worked your way through the maze of rules, regulations and red tape, contracts and logistics. The thread you leave behind is not string, but the collected knowledge (the “knowledge asset“) that enables the second factory, or the second branch office, to successfully follow the path of the first.

That knowledge might include;

  • The list of activities you need to undertake
  • The order in which to undertake them
  • The people you must contact, and how to contact them
  • The letters you must send, and how to write them
  • The evidence you must collect, and how to best present it
Without leaving this trail of knowledge behind you, the second factory or the second branch office will approach the maze of logistics and legislation with the same ignorance as the first, and may get just as lost and confused.

If you are the first to try something, then leave a guideline of knowledge for others to lean from.

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Three styles of Knowledge flow – centre-out, out and in, or multiflow

There are three common styles of knowledge flow that you can see in organisations. We can call them centre-out, out and in, and multiflow.

In our picture here, the red dots are the central group of experts, the white dots are the knowledge users or knowledge workers, and the white arrows are the flow of knowledge.

In the centre-out model, the knowledge is created by the experts in the centre, and “pushed out” to the knowledge workers, in the form of doctrine, work instructions and policies. The centre owns the knowledge – they are the Knowers – while the knowledge workers apply the knowledge – they are the Doers.

In the out-and-in model the knowledge is managed by the experts in the centre. Knowledge is gathered from the knowledge workers, synthesised and validated in the centre, and transferred back out to the workers. There are feedback loops such as lesson learning systems which mean that the central knowledge is always tested against reality and updated regularly. The centre stewards the knowledge and validates it, while the knowledge workers both apply and improve the knowledge.

In the multiflow model, the knowledge flows between expert and worker, worker and worker, worker and expert. Knowledge is created, updated and validated by all parts of the system, and is available in real time. The knowledge is managed and owned by the Community of Practice, while the centre manages and stewards, not so much the knowledge itself, but the knowledge-creating and knowledge-validating system.

The first model seems very old fashioned nowadays, and the third model seems much more attractive, and is becoming more common (see for example the use of Wikis to develop Army doctrine).

However in reality all three models may be needed simultaneously in any one organisation, to deal with different types or different levels of knowledge.

  • There may be mandatory knowledge, such as knowledge of company law, or knowledge of policies such as anti-money-laundering or anti-corruption policies, which has to be mandated and controlled from the centre.
  • There may be strategic knowledge, driven by company strategy, which can certainly be tested in the business, with clear (and welcome!) feedback, but which needs to be owned and coordinated centrally and strategically.
  • There may be operational and tactical knowledge which is owned by the Communities of Practice, and handled within wikis and blogs and discussion forums (and indeed the Army wikis mentioned above were specifically for tactical knowledge).

So it is not as simple as saying “model 1 is old fashioned and rigid and Bad, model 3 is free and liberated and modern and cool and Good”.

It is, as is so often the case in Knowledge Management, a case of determining which model is most appropriate for which knowledge.

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7 failure modes for knowledge transfer failure

There are at least 7 ways in which Knowledge Transfer can fail. Here are 7 of the most common. I am sure you can suggest others.

This post is inspired by this article by John F. Mahon and Nory B. Jones, authors of the book “Knowledge Transfer and Innovation“. They identify 5 failure modes of knowledge transfer. I have added one more

1) Knowledge is transferred, but too slowly to make a difference. This is a failure in the efficiency of the knowledge management process – your “KM clock speed” is too low

2) Knowledge is shared, but in an inadequate way so that the user cannot understand it. Maybe it is written in fuzzy statements, or statements of the blindingly obvious. These are both byproducts of the curse of knowledge, whereby an expert assumes that if something is obvious to them  it is obvious to everyone else They underestimate the difficulty of transferring that knowledge to a non-expert
 and so write the knowledge in the form of bullet points or aphorisms. This is a failure of a) km training, b) KM facilitation and c) KM quality control.

3) Knowledge is corrupted by inadvertent omission – for example, as Mahon and Jones say, “your neighbor accidentally leaves out a critical step or ingredient in a recipe. When you make the dish, it is not what was intended”. This is difficult to guard against, and you need to make sure your KM system is self-correcting, so that inadvertent omissions are corrected later.

4) Knowledge is corrupted by deliberate omission – for example if it is not politically comfortable to transfer the whole truth. Mahon and Jones give the example of the Gulf of Tonkin incident – “There were actually two such incidents reported, and there is credible information that one and possibly both reports were false. Based on this erroneous knowledge, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson legal justification for deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam and commencing open warfare”. This is a failure of culture and therefore of leadership.

5) Knowledge doesn’t get shared at all. This is the problem of knowledge hoarding, which affects many organisations. People hold on to their knowledge, largely through fear that it will leak to competitors – either to industrial competitors, or to people within the same job who are competing for the knowledge holders budget or job.  This is also a failure of culture and therefore of leadership.

Now my two

6) Knowledge gets shared, but not used.  This is the re-use barrier – potentially the most difficult barrier in KM, and there are several reasons why people may be unwilling to re-use knowledge – it’s difficult to find, difficult to understand, they don’t trust it, or they can get away with not using it. This is a failure of many things – the KM system, the culture, the incentive system – and often comes from treating KM as a supply problem rather than a demand problem.

7) Knowledge is not co-created. We often have a simple view of knowledge transfer; that it leaves one head and enters the other. In reality knowledge is often co-created through conversation and through collaboration. Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.  Ignoring co-creation is a failure in the KM philosophy as much as anything else. 

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The curse of knowledge and the danger of fuzzy statements

Fuzzy statements in lessons learned are very common, and are the result of “the curse of knowledge”

Fuzzy Monster
Clip art courtesy of

I blogged yesterday about Statements of the Blindingly Obvious, and how you often find these in explicit knowledge bases and lessons learned systems, as a by-product of the “curse of knowledge“.

There is a second way in which this curse strikes, and that is what I call “fuzzy statements”.

It’s another example of how somebody writes something down as a way of passing on what they have learned, and writes it in such a way that it is obvious to them what it means, but which carries very little information to the reader.

A fuzzy statement is an unqualified adjective, for example

  • Set up a small, well qualified team…(How small? 2 people? 20 people? How well qualified? University professors? Company experts? Graduates?)
  • Start the study early….(How early? Day 1 of the project? Day 10? After the scope has been defined?)
  • A tighter approach to quality is needed…. (Tighter than what? How tight should it be?)
You can see, in each case, the writer has something to say about team size, schedule or quality, but hasn’t really said enough for the reader to understand what to do, other than in a generic “fuzzy” way, using adjectives like “small, well, early, tighter” which need to be quantified.

In each case, the facilitator of the session or the validator of the knowledge base needs to ask additional questions. How small? How well qualified? How early? How tight?

Imagine if I tried to teach you how to bake a particular cake, and told you “Select the right ingredients, put them in a large enough bowl. Make sure the oven is hotter”. You would need to ask more questions in order to be able to understand this recipe.

Again, it comes back to Quality Control.

Any lessons management system or knowledge base suffers from garbage In, Garbage Out, and the unfortunate effect of the Curse of Knowledge is that people’s first attempt to communicate knowledge is often, as far as the reader is concerned, useless garbage.

Apply quality control to your lessons and de-fuzz the statements

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Knowledge Transfer is the wrong concept – Knowledge co-creation is nearer the truth

In another post from the archives (with some updates) let’s look at the common phrase “knowledge transfer” and discuss whether this is the wrong concept.

Knowledge transfer, when illustrated graphically, often looks like the picture below – knowledge leaving one head and entering another. 

image from wikimedia commons

This model is wrong in at least 3 ways.

Firstly when knowledge is shared, it doesn’t leave the first head – it stays there. You do not lose anything when transmitting knowledge to someone else. You do not pass knowledge to someone in the same way that you pass money

Secondly, in many or most acts of “knowledge transfer” the giver also learns and gains.  A Peer Assist is a prime example – the people who come to share their knowledge often some away with more knowledge than they started.

Thirdly knowledge changes as it is exchanged. The receiver adds their knowledge to the knowledge of the donor, and makes something new and better. In fact, the concept of donor and receiver is probably wrong as well. Both parties give, both receive, and collectively create something new.

Knowledge is more often co-created than it is transferred in a one-way direction.

Think of the following examples;

  • A Peer Assist, where peers from all over the organisation pool their knowledge to create new solutions and insights for a project team. This is not a case of one group of peers lecturing to another group; it is a setting for dialogue, where the peers collectively discuss how to apply knowledge from the past to challenges of the present and future.
  • A meeting within a Community of Practice where SMEs come together to create best practice, pooling their knowledge to create something new. This again is not a meeting where people sit passively and listen; it is a setting for dialogue where practices are discussed with the intention of co-creating something better.
  • A Knowledge Retention meeting between a senior and a junior – theoretically for the junior to learn, but where skilful questioning means the senior develops new insights into the practice. Both parties learn.
  • An After Action Review where the team comes to a collective understanding of the lessons from an activity. This is not a meeting where the team leader briefs the team on what he or she learned; it is an all-hands discussion so the collective learning of the team can be identified, discussed and developed.
  • People collaborating on a knowledge asset. This is not, or should not be, someone publishing a document for another to read. It should be more like collaboration on a wiki, containing knowledge supplied from many people and from many documents, and combined into something none of the people knew individually. Or collaboration on a checklist or a procedure, making sure the checklist is regularly updated as new knowledge becomes available, so that it becomes the record of knowledge from many many sources and the means to avoid all the mistakes of the past.

In each case this is not the transfer of something from one head to another, but co-creation of knowledge, or co-learning.

This co-creation is the C in the Nonaka and Takeuchi model – the idea of Combination of knowledge, so often missing in KM programs.

Perhaps Peter Senge said it best, in the following quote

“Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something,or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes.”

The co-creation process therefore looks more like the picture below than the picture above.

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Extending SECI – 9 transitions of knowledge transfer

The SECI model is a common model in KM. This blog post from the archives suggests a way to expand this model.

One of the basic models of Knowledge Management – often discussed, frequently challenged – is Nonaka and Takeuchi’s SECI model. This is a 2×2 matrix, looking at the transitions between tacit and explicit knowledge (and the challenges to the model is often whether tactic knowledge can ever be made explicit, or whether it needs to be, or whether explicit knowledge is the same as documented knowledge).

I would like to extend this model, because when we start to work with Knowledge Management in organisations, we find that knowledge actually lies in three natural states rather than two, and that we therefore need a 3×3 matrix rather than a 2×2.

The three states are as follows;

1. Unconscious “Knowledge in the head” – the things you don’t know you know.
2. Conscious “Knowledge in the head” – the things you know you know (of course the boundary between states 1 and 2 is gradual, and more of a transition than a boundary).
3. Recorded Knowledge (captured in documents, audio, video etc).

The most powerful knowledge – the deep knowledge  that experts possess – is in state 1. However if knowledge is to be transferred easily between people, it may need to change it’s state in order to allow transfer. The 3×3 matrix above represents the 9 possible transitions.

The dark blue squares are where Knowledge Management traditionally focuses (you can see that traditionally we only cover about half of the diagram).

It should be stressed that  every one of these transitions involves loss of value and loss of knowledge. We know (unconscious) more than we can say (conscious), and we often say (conscious) more than gets captured.

Here are the 9 transitions or transfers.

  1. The transition from one person’s unconscious knowledge to another’s can be called “Emulation“. This is how a baby learns, or how a craftsman can pass deep knowledge to their apprentice – by working together over years, often wordlessly. This is effective but very slow.
  2. To make unconscious knowledge conscious requires some form of analysis – usually self-analysis, as the knower has to be deeply involved in the process. Group self-analysis, or sense-making, is a powerful technique, and a good interviewer, facilitator, coach or psychotherapist can also help make knowledge conscious. Coaching and mentoring is a useful tool in this box, as are tem reflection exercises such as After Action review or Action Learning.
  3. To record unconscious knowledge is difficult. About all you can do is record what the knower does – through videoing them at work for example – for later analysis. But to be honest, it’s not yet knowledge, as all these recorded work products have to pass back through an analysis step in order to draw out the conscious knowledge. Maybe you can call the things in this box “latent knowledge”.
  4. The transition from conscious to unconscious knowledge is habituation. At one time you were conscious of your golf swing, your fishing cast or your ability to drive a manual car, but over time it becomes unconscious.
  5. The transition between one person’s conscious knowledge to another’s often comes through conversation and discussion (particularly dialogue), and through techniques such as demonstration and teaching. Here is where discussion processes and structures such as Communities of Practice and Peer Assist become useful.
  6. The transition from conscious knowledge to recorded knowledge comes through interviewing, writing, documenting, capturing lessons – all the standard tools of knowledge capture.
  7. The transition from written knowledge to unconscious knowledge is a tricky one, but we know it happens. If you are brought up on a diet of Fox News, you end up “knowing things” that are different from those you would “know” if you were brought up on a diet of the Washington Post. I don’t have the correct term for this box, but “Indoctrination” may be a good term.
  8. The transition from written knowledge to conscious knowledge is also difficult – here we can use the term “Internalisation” for that whole chain of “Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest
  9. The transition between various forms of recorded knowledge we can refer to as Synthesis – the bringing together, combination and “making sense” of disparate recorded sources into Knowledge Assets.

Depending on the sort of knowledge you are dealing with – the deep unconscious knowledge of the experts, or the shallow knowledge of company procedures – you may need to deal with more or fewer of these 9 transitions.

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Knowledge suppliers and users

We often get hung up on treating knowledge as if it were impersonal pieces of content; instead let’s look at it as an interaction between supplier and user.

Image from wikimedia commons

All knowledge, if we think in terms of “Know-how” originates from people, and is re-used by people.  Sometimes it passes from person to person through conversation, and sometimes the interaction is more remote – through written or recorded words and diagrams.

Knowledge Management, therefore, is a systematic and structured approach to transferring strategic and operational knowledge from suppliers to users through whatever interactions are most effective and efficient. And in many cases co-developing the knowledge as well as transferring it.

In a recent blog post, I explained about Collect and Connect as being two routes for knowledge transfer between the supplier and user, but now let’s look at the supplier and user themselves.

Knowledge is created through experience, and through the reflection on experience in order to derive guidelines, rules, theories, heuristics and doctrines. Knowledge may be created by individuals, through reflecting on their own experience, or it may be created by teams reflecting on team experience, or communities of practice engaged in collective sense-making. These are knowledge suppliers.

Knowledge is applied by individuals and teams, who can apply their own personal knowledge and experience, or they can look elsewhere for knowledge – to learn before they start, and benefit from shared experience. These are knowledge users. One of the challenges for knowledge transfer, is that often the user is unknown and the supplier has limited ways to interact with this user.

Knowledge management consists of building an enabling environment, or framework, where the users are expected to, and given the tools to, seek for and re-use knowledge whenever they need it, and where the suppliers are expected to, and enabled to, share and/or store their knowledge, wherever and whenever they have something of importance to share, using either Connection or Collection, depending on which is appropriate.

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How bullet points kill knowledge.

Bullet points may have their place in helping punctuate meetings, but are no way to capture knowledge. 

image from wikimedia commons

Discussion and dialogue are still the most effective ways of transferring knowledge from person to person. Although”we know more than we can tell”, we can still tell enough of what we know to transfer useful understanding and insight to someone else when they are standing in front of us, asking questions, and taking an active part in trying to understand. That’s why techniques such as Peer AssistKnowledge HandoverKnowledge Exchange and so on are so powerful.

However the nature of the human memory is that as soon as we hear something we start to forget it.

Notes from the meeting are crucial, even for the people who attended. Traditionally, facilitators of such events stand up the front of the room and write bullet points on a flip-chart. However when a good discussion gets going, there is no way that you can write bullet points quickly enough, and in enough detail, to capture the details, the subtleties and the context of what is being discussed. And most importantly, bullet points don’t capture the stories, and we learn best from stories.

Bullet points may be useful aides-memoire for those who were part of the discussion, but even then they are only useful for a very short time, and are totally useless for anyone who could not attend.

You can do a better job sat at the table, taking shorthand, but for the best results, you need to audio-record the meeting.

Then, what do you do with the recording?

  • Option 1 – transcribe it yourself. This is time consuming, but accurate. My favourite approach is to use voice recognition software trained to my own voice, and dictate into the computer while simultaneously listening to the recording (slowed down to about half speed).  The transcription can be used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset containing advice, good practice, stories and examples.
  • Option 2 – use a transcription service. This is quicker, but the transcription service will not understand any of the technical terms. You need to send them an entire glossary. This transcription can be also used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset.
  • Option 3 – edit the audio or video recording into a podcast or videocast. This can be useful, but a recording of an active conversation (rather than an interview) is actually very difficult to follow unless it is very well edited, and few people will sit through a recording of an entire meeting.
  • Option 4 – my preferred option – use options 1 or 2, and then in addition, get people to video-record a series of small summaries of the main points (rather like a big brother diary room).

Any one of these is infinitely better than bullet points on a flip chart.

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The "Umbrella Week" as a means of sharing lessons.

The Umbrella week (aka Knowledge Handover) is a face-to-face process for sharing lessons with the rest of the organisation. 

Umbrella week image from

You can read about a recent Umbrella week here, where Captain Scott Kuhn of the 3rd Armoured Brigade described an event last week. According to Scott, 

An Umbrella Week is scheduled by brigade-level units or higher “within 6 weeks of completion of major deployments or Combat Training Center rotations in order to share lessons and best practices, and facilitating changes to Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Policy. 

The Umbrella Week basically gives other units a chance to come and gather knowledge from a unit right after a deployment, through a structured series of facilitated discussions. The  process is as follows:

  1. There is an initial phase of lesson-gathering from the Brigade, for example through After Action reviews
  2. The team from the Centre for Army Lessons Learned who organise the Umbrella week also create a collection plan to collect these lessons, and also to look at the points of interest for the rest of the organisation, and the issues where more knowledge needs to be discussed and gathered
  3. Various departments and agencies are invited to the Umbrella week in order to take part in the discussions, which may be in a focus-group setting or may be individual discussions. Even though lessons are prepared in advance, the discussions are question-led, rather than being presentations to an audience. 
  4. At the end of the week each agency takes away the lessons they gained and updates training, doctrine etc, and the Analysts at the Centre for Army Lessons Learned also update their own materials. 
Similar processes are run in industry as well, such as the 2-day Knowledge Handover process we ran at BP after a major pipeline project. The steps were the same – gathering of the lessons first, identification of the questions which needed to be answered and the people who needed to attend, and two days of facilitated discussion to ensure the knowledge was transferred to those teams an experts who needed to know.
So this is not just a military process; it is something that can and should be done in any organisation after a major piece of work, as a way to communicate the lessons and to facilitate any changes to procedures that need to be made.  And it uses that good old-fashioned technology – face to face discussion.

“Umbrella week is our chance to contribute to future engagements. What we share this week will ensure that units deploying in the future can build and learn from our lessons learned.”

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Using MOOCs to transfer knowledge at WHO

When it comes to transferring knowledge to a massive audience, MOOCs are a potential solution.  Here is a fantastic example from the World Health Organisation.

Image from wikimedia commons

There are some Knowledge Management cases where knowledge is created through research and analysis, then needs to be spread around a wide audience. There are challenges to this sort of knowledge transfer, and just sending our reports and emails often does not work. MOOCs – Massive Open Onloine Courses – can be an answer.

This article describes an approach taken at WHO, and contains the following quotes from WHO scientists and doctors:

  • “The major epidemics we have seen this century highlighted the need for a system that quickly transforms scientific knowledge into action on the ground,”
  • “The key is actionable knowledge. For us the value of knowledge is when it is shared – and it is especially important that responders have enough knowledge to protect themselves and do good work. We had information on diseases like Plague, MERS and Ebola, we had a number of courses but they were on paper, not accessible from the field.”

WHO have created 34 online courses in multiple languages on a Portal they call “Online WHO”, covering 4 areas

  1. pandemics and epidemics
  2. emergency response operations
  3. soft skills such as risk communications, social mobilization and community engagement, and 
  4. preparation for emergency field work.

So far response has been very good, and more than 25,000 people have signed up for the course.
Let’s finish with a couple more quotes that show the critical importance of the effective transfer of transfer.

“We don’t call it training – we call it knowledge transfer. OpenWHO allows us and our key partners to transfer life-saving knowledge to large numbers of frontline responders quickly and reliably,” 

“Too many people have died from lack of knowledge. We want these online courses to help save lives.”

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