KM Archive Home   Site Guide   I3Update   Insights   Resources   K-Shop   About Us   Contact Us     ::Our new (2011) KM website is ::


May 2003    Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 73

Main Feature

Other Features

Latest Edition



About I3


Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Knowledge Flows:
Mainstream or Myths?

David J. Skyrme

One of our readers has suggested that my writings are "sooo mainstream" ("the prevailing trend of opinion" - Oxford English Dictionary). Well, in one sense I'm not apologetic. If knowledge management is to be relevant to organizations then it has to connect with their mainstream thinking. If you espouse too many "off-the-wall" ideas, you may end up in a side channel going nowhere. On the other hand, it's not always clear to me what is mainstream. Once you think you've perceived a pattern in the flows of knowledge (or opinions) about knowledge management, then other flows seem to suggest the opposite. Let me cite various opinions (not necessarily mine) that at first sight seem to reflect the opinions of many.

1. Knowledge Can't Be Managed

The very term 'knowledge management' is often seen as an oxymoron (see my article 'Knowledge Management: Oxymoron or Dynamic Duo'. If knowledge is contextual and personal, and much of it is tacit, how can you possibly manage it like you do a physical resource? The counterview is that some knowledge is explicit and can be managed. Furthermore you can manage environments and people so that knowledge is created, shared and exploited in a more effective manner. And isn't that mainly what KM is about?

2. Best Practices Aren't Best Practices

Organizations want to re-use knowledge and avoid 'reinventing the wheel'. By seeking out and documenting best practices they hope to improve the performance of some activities from mediocre to "better". The 'best' is inferred from benchmarking results from different approaches. But like many things in knowledge management, there is a large contextual element. What may be best in one situation is not necessarily so in another. It is also not always obvious what is cause and what is effect. For this reason some people prefer the term 'good practices'. Furthermore aiming at today's best may be unambitious. The more successful organizations longer term are those that are innovative and seek 'breakthrough' solutions, not merely the best. On the other hand if you're poor performers aren't learning from the best you have today, are you not perpetuating the knowledge and performance gap. This topic was discussed in I3 UPDATE No. 54. You will find more insights into 'best practice' at the Beep website.

3. Communities Don't Practice

Communities of practice are seen as a powerful way of developing and sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries. In particular most are conversation-based rather than content-focused. People with problems are connected to their peers and experts who might be able to help. But in many organizations, communities are virtual. There is a lot of 'interesting discussion' but is it practical? What distinguishes a community of interest from a true community of practice is the application of this interesting knowledge towards achieving a common purpose. Successful communities usually have some face-to-face meetings and encourage people to spend some time with each other, observing them at work and having meaningful 1-on-1 dialogues. With rare exceptions it is individuals who practice, not communities.

4. Storytelling Isn't Just Telling Stories

A good storyteller captivates their audience and leaves them with something to remember. Sometimes, people remember the occasion and the atmosphere and not the content. If it inspires them to do something different and worthwhile, it has achieved its aim. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of knowledge sharing used by man and has over the last few years been revived in the corporate context. Stephen Denning in his latest book The Squirrel characterizes seven types of story depending on the intended purpose e.g. sparking change, transmitting values, sharing knowledge. But Stephen is the first to say that the real focus of storytelling is the listener. They have to be an active participant in the process. If they can rearticulate the story in their context with a new story, then progress is made. Storytelling is just the start. Narrative, dialogue and changed actions and behaviours are where it leads.

5. Expertise Directories Locate Your Experts

Advances in language technologies allow systems to identify those who are apparently knowledegable on a subject. A user types in a question, and as well as relevant document, they see a list of people who have written on the subject and whose replies have been valued. This then makes the connection for direct person-to-person contact. It's technology's answer to the gatekeeper/knowledge manager who replies to a query: "I don't know the answer but I know someone who does". But are the experts identified, those best to help in your situation? Would it be better to learn from someone less expert but who has solved a problem similar to yours? What about the 'introverted' expert who does not actively participate in communities or publish widely?

6. A Portal is a Gateway to Knowledge

As we observed in I3 UPDATE No. 31, the idea of a 'one-stop-shop' that brings together disparate sources of information is beguilingly attractive. No longer do you have to hunt around many different places to find what you want. For example, it's a long time since I visited a business library - a core knowledge resource for me for many years - I now do my 'desk research' literally from my desk. Portals have many positive features, including personalization, useful search and retrieval tools and connections into communities. However, information sources need active management and peer review to keep them current and relevant. And although they may open the right doors, it is up to you to go beyond the doorways and actively engage in knowledge exchange.

7. What You Can Measure You Can Manage

The development and refinement of methods to measure intellectual capital (see for example 'Models for Metrics', I3 UPDATE No. 69 and 'Innovating Intangible Performance Measures' in No. 41) means that more companies are evaluating their knowledge assets and the their KM activities. If you can assign some measures or indices of value or performance, then you can identify areas for improvement and track progress. There are two main problems. First, intangibles are extremely difficult to measure directly. Second, the interdependinces means that most organizations do not have rigorous case and effect models. The implication, to use an analogy, is that even if you know that your airplane is going up or down and how fast, as a passenger you don't necessarily have the tools (as a passenger) to change it. Now what does it take to make you competent in the pilots' seat?

8. The Biggest Obstacle to Knowledge Sharing is Corporate Culture

Why is knowledge difficult to share? The conventional answer given a few years ago was that corporate cultures were not conducive to sharing. Why should individuals give up their hard-won knowledge, their source of value? Digging deep, though, one finds other reasons like lack of time, inappropriate reward and recognition systems and simply not thinking that one's own knowledge would be useful to someone in completely different situations as important factors. We explored some avenues to improving sharing in 'The 3Cs of Knowledge Sharing' (I3 UPDATE No. 64). One of the 3Cs was indeed culture. But as our article shoed, there are practical steps knowledge managers can take to overcomes the obstacles.

9. E-learning and KM are Two Sides of the Same Coin

In Creating the Knowledge-based Business' we showed the virtuous circle between organizational learning and knowledge management. As you apply knowledge you learn and generate new and more useful knowledge. What was once seen as two separate disciplines are now seen more and more as closely related (see 'E-learning: Which Side of the Coin?', I3 UPDATE No. 56). It is increasingly difficult to see the distinction between 'learning objects' and 'knowledge objects'. But the term e-learning perpetuates in some minds the notion of 'imparting knowledge' in defined course modules vs. user-centric and applied learning, which means accessing and applying knowledge in a real work situation. Is it a case of "heads I win, tails you lose"?

10. Increasing Creativity Will Increase Innovation

As noted in I3 UPDATE No. 71, innovation is high on the corporate agenda. I still hear many managers stressing the need to be more creative and urging people to "think outside of the box". Certainly that will increase the pool of ideas that could make a difference. But will they in practice. As we said in I3 UPDATE No. 17 and have repeated several times since, creativity is not innovation. It is how well you commercialize those ideas or improve those internal processes that are true innovations. Belatedly many public 'innovation policies are recognizing that alongside investment in R&D, education and science, you need networks and partnerships to exploit and grow this newly created intellectual capital.

So that covers 10 opinions on KM-related topics. Do they represent mainstream views or are they myths? In most cases, it's probably a bit of both, depending on circumstances. But I leave it to you to sort out fact from fiction, and let us know your opinion.

I3 Update / Entovation International News:
Current Issue - Archive - Knowledge Digest - Events - Subscribe




Knowledge Management: Oxymoron or Dynamic Duo?

Are Your Best Practices the Best?

Portal Power

Models for Metrics

Innovating Intangible Performance Measures

The 3Cs of Knowledge Sharing

E-learning: Which Side of the Coin?

Innovation on the Radar Screen

Creativity is Not Innovation




The Squirrel (Denning)

Creating the Knowledge-based Busines

Beep website

Top of Page
Home | Search | I3 UPDATE | Insights | Resources | About Us | E-mail Us