May 5, 2008

Tangling with The Four Paradoxes of KM

In the inimitable words of Yogi Berra, it was "déjà vu all over again" as I read Andrew Gent's discussion of The Four Paradoxes of KM in his blog, Incredibly Dull. (Gotta love that name.)

According to Gent, you cannot avoid confronting these paradoxes at one point or another in your knowledge management program, regardless of the system you implement. In fact, these pesky paradoxes have a way of surfacing time and time again. Here's how he sets the stage:
These are problems without a solution. They trigger intense philosophical debates when they arise and can lead to quite heated, sometimes personal, attacks on one position or another. The professional careers of a number of consultants in the field are based on advocating one side or the other of the debate.

Why? Why must it be one or the other? Why can't there be a middle ground? The reality is that any given KM program has only so much time, money, or attention to spend and must tactically select what problems to attack and how, thereby staking a position on each issue. And when you do, there will be advocates within management, among your professional peers, and in your audience base who will argue -- loudly -- for the alternative.
In brief, these Four Paradoxes are:

1. Tacit vs Explicit: Are you going to chase documents, best practices guides, etc., and then manage them using a comprehensive taxonomy and powerful search engine, or are you going to tease out elusive tacit knowledge by forming communities of practice, encouraging storytelling, and providing blogs and wikis to catch these heretofore unwritten pearls of wisdom?

2. Local vs Global: What are the geographic limits to knowledge sharing within your KM system? Are you going to support the natural tendency for communities of practice to be confined to local areas, or are you going to fight the institutional battles necessary to create communities that span geographic boundaries and force participants out of their cozy local groups into bigger gatherings?

3. Open vs Closed: This issue goes to the security of the knowledge within your KM system. The tension here lies between the understanding that information is most useful when it is shared widely, and the fear that some information is so confidential (or proprietary) that it cannot be disclosed. Of course, the problem with this is the tendency to be unnecessarily protective of the information within the system.

4. Quantity vs Quality: This paradox concerns the preference to either limit the content in the KM system to a few excellent examples (for the sake of efficiency), or to cram the system full of as much content as possible (for the sake of completeness).

If your experience is anything like mine, you've tangled with these questions many times. In fact, you may have argued with yourself about each of these and come out on different sides of the issue at different times. They are that confounding.

Gent takes an ultimately pragmatic view when he says that these paradoxes are insoluble as long as we persist in discussing them in the abstract. By contrast, when faced with a concrete business example, he believes that most of us can find the practical solution -- regardless of the high-minded stance we assumed in the earlier abstract discussion. However, while these ad hoc practical decisions taken on a case by case basis may move you past the Gordian knot of these paradoxes, the cumulative effect may be the creation of a knowledge management system that is neither fish nor fowl -- with limited collections of high-quality explicit knowledge in one place and snatches of tacit knowledge scattered through blogs and wikis elsewhere. Even if this schizophrenic approach may be completely defensible, it certainly does pose some management challenges for KM staff. On the other hand, if the knowledge gathered is of the type and in the form requested by the users within a specific community of practice, who are we to argue? Perhaps it's time we gave up our pretensions of actually being able to control all of this in a "father knows best" way.

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