July 4, 2008

Investing in Knowledge

Today is a national holiday in the United States. And, since it seemed downright unpatriotic to go to the office on Independence Day, I've just spent the afternoon with two remarkable men named Benjamin: Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Disreali.

While it's never entirely wise to quote out of context, I do think these two have something interesting to say that bears on the practice of knowledge management. First, Ben Franklin:
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."
This is just what every knowledge manager in the USA wants to hear -- a founding father who seems to be acting as booster for your line of work. If it's good enough for old Ben Franklin, it's got to be good enough for your firm, right? Well, not quite. He wasn't talking about building repositories of documents or creating firm-wide taxonomies. He was most likely talking about enriching the mind. In fact, he suggests "emptying half a purse" into your mind, as if to say that spending half your fortune on cultivating your mind is the best possible use of that money.

So what about Benjamin Disraeli? Here's what he had to say:
"Knowledge must be gained by ourselves. Mankind may supply us with the facts; but the results, even if they agree with previous ones, must be the work of our mind."
So here, we have an eminent thinker telling us that knowledge really can't be separated from the person. It is an integral part of that person and their experience. Further, knowledge can't be handed to someone like a package. It can only be created by and for that person after applying their experience to the available facts. What can be separated and stored and codified and searched and retrieved and re-used are "facts" or information.

So, can someone explain to me why we call ourselves "knowledge" managers? Who are we kidding? At a minimum we are information managers: we provide easy access to the information our colleagues need to create knowledge. In some cases, we are collaboration facilitators: we provide tools and opportunities that allow colleagues to share information and develop that into something more. In other cases, we are subject matter experts who contribute our own learning to the existing store of information. If we are really fortunate, we're occasionally present at the creation of knowledge. But we almost never can actually "capture" and store that knowledge. We deal in information.

If my two Benjamins are a bit too retro for your taste, spend a little time with Patrick Lambe, Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden. In Patrick Lambe's post, Dead KM Walking, you'll find a podcast he created of a fascinating conversation among these three men regarding the state of "knowledge" management. You'll find that they tend to view knowledge in the same way as my two Benjamins. And, they have some rather disquieting things to say about the current state of our line of work.

It's good to face these questions squarely from time to time. If we aren't honest about what we're trying to do, how on earth can we communicate the nature and value of our work to others?


1 comment:

sharingatwork.com said...

Great read! I like your take on the future of KM and how it can be related to our organizations. I am still learning a lot in the area myself.

I wrote up something about evolving perspectives from knowledge transfer (what my org. does) to knowledge management (what slightly hipper orgs do) to knowledge sharing.

I am getting very focused on the culture and teamwork aspects of knowledge sharing now and I would appreciate any advice or additional reading you could throw my way.