May 1, 2008

Hijacking Knowledge Management

Each week, Stan Garfield puts the following question to a different KM thought leader: "If you were invited to give a keynote speech on knowledge management, what words of wisdom or lessons learned would you impart?" This week's answer in The Weekly Knowledge Management Blog is from Fred Nickols, Toolmaker to Knowledge Workers.
It seems to me that KM, like lots of other things (e.g., reengineering, change management, and communities of practice to name three) has been hijacked by the information technology (IT) folks. Abraham Maslow is often credited with saying that “If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.” To paraphrase him, when your only tool is a computer, then every problem reduces to the bits and bytes of data. For me, people should be front and center in any true KM effort and, as far as I can tell, they are not. As a consequence, neither is the most important form of knowledge: the kind that resides in human beings.
Nickols goes on to identify the three types of knowledge (i.e., explicit, tacit and implicit), and points out that current technology deals best with explicit knowledge while largely ignoring tacit and implicit forms of knowledge. In his view, this leads to the following sad state of affairs: "we have huge databases and huge piles of documented practices, etc., etc., but we are no closer to being able to manage knowledge (i.e., concentrate and channel the capability for action along productive lines) than when the KM movement began. Many others will no doubt argue otherwise, but they have a huge investment to protect and I don’t."

For Nickols, the "true focal point" of knowledge management should be "managing human capability for effective action." This suggests less attention paid to structured content and more attention paid to storytelling, mentoring, training, communities of practice, etc. A shift away from technology towards people and how they interact with and learn from each other. This is tough stuff. It almost makes one long for the seemingly simple off-the-shelf solutions technology vendors claim they can provide. If only it were so.


Doug Cornelius said...

Mary -

Did you notice the storytelling theme from Nickols matches up with Dave Snowden's article?

Much like this great blog of yours is a series of stories. But it is easy to search and label content for reuse.

Mary Abraham said...

You're absolutely right, Doug. And it presents a daunting challenge to knowledge management systems (and managers) that have focused primarily in organizing structured knowledge. Stay tuned. I have a few more posts up my sleeve on this general subject. This is definitely an area worthy of further exploration.


Jack Vinson said...

Interesting observation. I am re-reading _Necessary but not Sufficient_, one of the Goldratt "business novels" for Theory of Constraints. In it, one of the characters immediately drops into "technospeak" in trying to discuss a problem with a customer. They quickly realize that the customer isn't interested in the bits and bytes, but in how the technology is solving a real problem for the customer. The book is about the mental jumps the techies jump through to find good answers. Entertainment.

Mary Abraham said...

Sounds like a cool book. Thanks, Jack.

In some ways, KM folks have been lapsing into technospeak for far too long. Nickols is encouraging us to get back to basics in the way we approach challenges, and to return to old-fashioned, jargon-free ways of communication.

- Mary