KM Should Be An Absent Clockmaker

During the Enlightenment, philosophers described God as an “absent clockmaker,” who created the world and then stepped out of the way — letting the creation run itself.  I found myself thinking about this as I read Andrew McAfee’s excellent post, I Know It When I See It.    In his post he describes the criteria by which he identifies whether an organization really has become an Enterprise 2.0:   “Is it freeform?  How frictionless is contribution? And is it emergent?”

These criteria are critical and worth unpacking a little.  Here’s how Andrew McAfee explains them:

Freeform means that the technology does not in any meaningful way impose, hardwire, or make and enforce assumptions about
– Workflows
– Roles
– Privileges
– Content
– Decision right allocations
Instead, people come together as equals within the environment created by technology, and do pretty much whatever they want.


Frictionless means that users perceive it to be easy to participate in the platform, and can do so with very little time or effort. One measure of friction is the total time required between having an idea for a contribution (while sitting in front of the computer, carrying the iPhone, etc.) and the appearance of that contribution on the platform.


Emergent is both most intuitive of these three terms and the hardest to pin down. It really does bring to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s famous yet unhelpful definition of obscenity “I know it when I see it.” My best-effort definition of the phenomenon is the appearance over time within a system of higher-level patterns or structure arising from large numbers of unplanned and undirected low-level interactions.

In the E2.0 world, you put the mechanism in place and then you step aside, allowing the users to do what they will.  The proof of your abilities is the degree to which those users actually are free to realize their own goals using the tools you’ve provided.  For knowledge management, this means using our expertise to design effective systems that can operate effortlessly without us.  We are no longer exercising command and control.  We no longer run the risk of being a bottleneck in the system. We neither manage nor manipulate the system.  We simply let it be.

For insecure knowledge managers, this is a terrifying prospect.  After all, if you aren’t in the middle of things how do you prove that you are still relevant?

6 thoughts on “KM Should Be An Absent Clockmaker

  1. I’ve actually experienced the opposite problem, where my colleagues think that it’s my job to contribute their work product to repositories, to build the structures and then maintain them! This is a nice, clear expression of the aspirations of KM. Good luck to us all in achieving them.

    1. Wendy –

      That phenomenon is familiar to lots of KM folks. It’s a challenging situation when your colleagues are stuck in a KM 1.0 frame of mind and aren’t ready (or willing) to think about the pleasures of self-sufficiency. It’ll be interesting to see how they cope with KM 2.0.

      – Mary

    1. Atul –

      I didn’t mean to suggest that KM should own the content or the interactions. However, KM sometimes finds itself solely responsible for locating and contributing content or exercising quality control over the content contributed or moderating the discussions. And these aren’t always situations caused by KM, but rather imposed on KM by colleagues who don’t feel fully authorized to act themselves or simply are disinclined to help themselves. (See, for example, Wendy Reynolds’ comments.)

      – Mary

Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑