Knowledge Management 101?

Sometimes we just want someone to tell us what needs to be done and how to do it.  For those moments, there are hundreds of “how-to” books that purport to tell us how to “do” knowledge management — beginner’s guides, dummies’ guides, idiot guides, lazy person’s guides, etc. They are in the bookstores and their advice is regurgitated in any number of blog posts.  Unfortunately, too many of them are a waste of time. They will point you in the direction of KM 1.0, which invariably requires lots of people and technology to attempt the nearly impossible task of compelling your colleagues to convert their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and then capturing and organizing the relatively small amount of converted information that results from your efforts.  Too few of these “helpful guides” actually explain how to align your activities with the strategic goals of your organization or the futility of trying to comprehensively capture knowledge.  Further, they encourage us in the delusion that it is possible to “manage knowledge” in a controlled, top-down manner.  In other words, few of these guides have a realistic view of how human nature invariably trumps neat centralized schemes and how critical it is to work directly with the workforce in a grassroots way if you’re serious about creating and perpetuating an effective knowledge sharing culture.

In short, these guides make fundamental errors that folks wiser than me (in this case, John Bordeaux) have already identified:

Believing that knowledge is only transferred once it has been made explicit leads to mechanistic, engineering approaches to knowledge management that have not proven their worth.  Crank it out of people’s heads, churn it into a shared taxonomy or tag it somehow, and then – and only then – is it useful to others.  I would like to know the exact date that the apprentice learning model was made obsolete by advanced information technology.

While a tidy approach to KM (actually more an approach to information management), the call to “make tacit knowledge explicit” ignores much of what we know about how the world actually works.  To be more precise, we are learning the limitations of what we can know as a result of research across the disciplines of sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, and others.

A far better approach is to think hard and then think harder again about human nature — how we learn, how we know and how we share what we know.  And then, put your organization and colleagues under a microscope and study them until you have an accurate understanding of how the knowledge ecosystem within your organization works.  When you’re ready to do this, here are some useful guides to help you along your way:

These are not idiot guides — they are invitations to deeper study and thought.  Better still, they contain truths that will outlive the quick take-aways of the how-to guides.  The best way to use these recommended materials is to read them with a critical eye, and then find some trusted colleagues with real KM experience and discuss* with them what you’ve learned through your reading and work.  Then, rinse and repeat.

* I’d be delighted to have that conversation with you online.  Just let me know by leaving a comment below.

[Photo Credit:  tsmyther]