October 23, 2008

The Futility of Bottling Knowledge

Are you trying to bottle knowledge? If you view knowledge as a "thing" to be captured, packaged and delivered, you're trying to bottle knowledge. How's that working for you?

Knowledge management gurus will tell you that bottling knowledge is a very KM 1.0 approach and ill-advised. Experts from the school of hard knocks will tell you that trying to bottle knowledge is an exercise in futility. You'll never ever bottle enough to really make a difference; even if you bottle some good stuff, your customers will always want more; and when you're in the bottling business you run the risk of creating bottlenecks.

Not convinced? Consider this:

Fish : Water ~ Humans : Information/Knowledge

In other words, fish swim in water and we swim in information. Trying to bottle information/knowledge is as difficult as trying to contain our environment.

So what should you do instead? Switch metaphors.

Instead of viewing knowledge/information as a "thing," think of it as water. Rather than trying to bottle all that water, think about channeling it. Think about creating small reservoirs as necessary. Think about distilling it. Think about broadening access to it. If you're not convinced, consider how very difficult it is to contain water over the long term. It goes where it will. Why fight its natural tendency to flow?

Viewing knowledge/information as water will lead you to some fresh new ways of handling law firm knowledge management. Less about command and control, more about channeling and collaboration. It will also inexorably lead you to social media tools. They are far better equipped to help broaden access to knowledge than the KM 1.0 tools we've been working with.

And, if you really want to broaden your perspective, switch metaphors again. How about this metaphor: try thinking about knowledge as "love." If you're curious about this, read Is Knowledge Stuff or Love?


Anonymous said...

Mary, I like the metaphor but not for the reason you used it! We're not "swimming" in information/knowledge. We're drowning in information. Knowledge is the random life preservers tossed out by experts to save a few of us. Social media, on the other hand, is a whole group of people tossed overboard - some of whom are pretty good swmimers and others of whom are dog paddlers, all of whom are treading water together while not gagging on too much useless information...err...water.

The logical extension of your premise that "bottled" knowledge is futile is that treatises, textbooks, professional journals - i.e., old media - is also futile. Obviously, when you look at any one book or formal KM application, you're bound to conclude that it's breadth and overall value is limited - an old coke bottle floating in the ocean. That isn't to say, however, that the particular medium of publishing knowledge is invalid. The trick is to minimize the effort involved in creating/updating any given formal solution and to identify the areas in which that particular mode of knowledge capture and sharing can do the most good. Social media has its place but it isn't a panacea. - Brent

Mary Abraham said...

Brent -

As with most things in life, the secret is in how we strike the right balance. Tossing out all old media would be foolish. However, focusing exclusively on captured (or bottled) knowledge doesn't seem sensible either. I'd suggest that we tilt the balance in favor of social media as a means of widening and enriching access, but still set aside a reasonable amount of time and effort for knowledge capture -- keeping in mind that the act of capturing knowledge distorts and diminishes that knowledge. (See D. Snowden's 7 principles of knowledge management.)

The concern that led me to write this post was that many law firms focus primarily on bottling knowledge and miss the valuable opportunities web 2.0 presents to broaden access to information and deepen understanding.

- Mary