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Knowledge Musings


This is a k-log (knowledge log), a blog (weblog) on knowledge topics written by David Skyrme. Enjoy.

06 February 2004

Knowledge Is Neutral

So said the Right Rev. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, on BBC's 'Thought for the Day' this morning. He was citing the call for certain kinds of pornography to be banned from the Internet, saying that the Internet could equally be used for good as it could for evil. Likewise knowledge about nuclear physics (my own field) could be used to create weapons of mass destruction or for peaceful purposes. It is difficult to unlearn or uninvent new technologies (though as we known, even NASA can lose quite recent knowledge - read the article 'The Cost of Lost Knowledge' at desinationKM.

But in a strict sense, perhaps knowledge is not neutral at all. Knowledge is within us, and often the same facts or memories can be interpreted by us in either a positive or negative manner depending on our mood and the surrounding circumstances. When we transfer knowledge to others, our mannerisms, tone of voice and surrounding language affects how it will be received and interpreted.

As a KM enthusiast, I must admit that the knowledge I possess and try to convey to others is often very far from neutral. I guess I'm one of those people who always see a glass of water as half full rather than half empty, or perhaps even overflowing when there's only a trace!

Posted by David; 7:00 PM.

22 January 2004

Quick Thinking = Bad Knowledge

How knowledgeable are service engineers? Twice recently I've had problems with equipment and each time it has taken three or more calls and call-outs to solve the problem.

When Underground is Overground

The first time was a problem apparently with my ADSL line that kept dropping out. I tried all the obvious things such as swapping round equipment to another (non ADSL) line to see if it worked. Also putting different phones on the ADSL line (through filters of course) and swapping filters. The tests done from the exchange showed the line was fine so an engineer was sent. He did all the checks on the terminal boxes inside the house, couldn't find a problem and said I needed an ADSL specialist. This specialist was convinced because of the bounce in the signal that it was a problem 40 metres down the line and so underground engineer was needed. The surprising thing was that the underground engineer climbed a pole - apparently my underground line goes up a pole to a box then straight down again before going underground - don't ask me why! After disconnecting he tested both directions asked me to plug and unplug equipment and quickly identified that white noise was coming from some of my equipment. I redid all my connections e.g. the connector into the ADSL modem, and haven't had a problem since. The point is that it was only the third engineer who adopted a logical problem finding approach.

When On Is Off

The second problem was with a new laptop which after begin turned off would not turn on again. I initially suspected mechanical switch problem. It was duly returned to the factory and when I received it was told they had changed the motherboard. Not understanding the logic of this I was unsurprised when the fault recurred. On calling up support I was told to do a static discharge - uncomfortable since this meant unfolding a paper clip and holding it in reset button for two minutes. It solved the immediate problem in that I could turn on the computer the first time, but after turning it off I couldn't turn it on again. I did some tests off my own back checking out various combinations of battery in-out when turning off and on and found that without the battery it worked fine but with it in it didn't. Sounded like something in the on-off, battery-mains circuitry to me. Second call to support - "OK we'll send a new battery" (I personally didn't see what was wrong with the old one). Surprise, surprise a new battery didn't solve the problem. I was then told to 'calibrate' the battery - nothing in the manual about this. And as the name suggest this merely seemed to make sure that when the computer said 65% charged it was roughly right. So on about the fifth call to support I finally got through to someone who went through a logical approach of elimination, and concluded it was probably in the circuitry. So the laptop was sent back a second time and this time the problem was solved.

The Lesson: Quick Fixes Aren't Quick

What's the knowledge lesson here? In both cases the first support people didn't think through the problem but simply tried out remedies that worked in most cases. Perhaps this is good business sense - why waste time thinking when you might not have to. However, once the initial quick fixes didn't work (does this sound familiar to knowledge - indeed management consultancy - professionals?), in both cases the companies, or engineers, concerned resorted to yet more quick fixes (try this see if it works) rather than adopting a logical problem solving approach of elimination. It took three engineers in the first case and about seven calls in the second case to solve the problem.

Posted by David; 10:37 AM.

29 November 2003

Knowledge Fatigue

Another event, more knowledge exchange, then what? I've just returned from KM Europe 2003 at the RAI, Amsterdam. As someone who has been to KM conferences since 1996 I do sometimes have to think hard about what is new. It got me wondering - am I suffering from knowledge fatigue? You know the symptoms - it's analogous to the problem at security X-ray machines. The monotony of thousands of bags passing by with nothing to attract your attention means that you might inadvertently miss the one bag that it's important you stop. So knowledge fatigue at a conference is the condition of hearing everything you've heard before, said every which way, but adding little new insight. But then .... your thoughts might just wander away, just at the time that something new and important is said.

It's a case of gaining - and keeping - people's attention. Getting KM on the corporate agenda is one example. How do overcome people's initiative fatigue and rise above all the other initiatives vying for senior management attention? You could latch onto something esle that's currently flavour of the month: "KM minimizes your risk of going to jail because of non-compliance with regulations". You could try appealing to people's emotions - "think how (in)famous this will make you!" Or you try an innovative delivery method - such as delivering your proposal by carrier pigeon (after all that's how Reuter's transferred vital knowledge in the era before online networks).

As usual at such events, its who you meet and what you do outside of the formal sessions that are the highlights (OK - I know it was Amsterdam, but I didn't mean those sorts of highlight!). For myself, I was fortunate to take a few side excursions (twice to the Hague and once to Utrecht) that helped me overcome my knowledge fatigue. One was a Knowledge Cafe on the role of KM in innovating public policy. The other was an event which brought together communications professionals with the KM community - Communications Meets Knowledge Management. These were refreshing and different.

So perhaps the reason I sometimes suffer from knowledge fatigue is nothing to do with the quality of content at mainstream KM events, but the fact that all events seem too similar in format - and all presenters use Powerpoint slides. To be fair to the Ark Group, they did have many different formats on offer at KM Europe 2003 and they are to be commended for a well-organised event. So again the fault was probably mine - expecting some exciting new developments in KM, when in reality it's steady, solid - even if unexciting - progress.

You can read my full report of KM2003 on our I3 UPDATE pages.

You can see what excited me about the environment at the Utrecht School of Communications on our news pages and also view my presentation on the 6Cs of effective knowledge sharing.

Posted by David; 5:15 PM.

09 October 2003

The Power of Visualization

A new programme 'The Human Mind' started on BBC1 last week. It started by reminding us that each of our brains has over 100 billion neurons (cells) and that learning and memory is about the electical signals that create pathways between the cells.

OK, there was some dumbing down, in that every point was laboured with examples and analogues. For example, to get over the point that the first time you do something is the hardest, and it gets easier with repetition (learning), the presenter Robert Whiston flung a rope over a chasm, then added a rope bridge and finally walk boards. This equates to strengthening the synapses (brain pathways) through repeated use.

So in an hour-long programme there were only half a dozen or so key points which could be written down in less than a page (though probably not half as fun for those taking part in the programme!). Here they are:

  • Learning is the result of electrical signals crossing neurons to create pathways.

  • As actions are repeated the pathways become stronger and the actions are more automatic.

  • Imagination can create and strengthen pathways.

  • It's one thing to fill the brain with facts; quite another to recall them. (Don't we know it!). Recall is about triggering the pathways.

  • If some pathways are broken, then other routes are usually available.

  • We can remember without realizing it. Our subconscious memory (intuition) plays a larger role than many of us recognize.

  • Innovation is often the result of new combinations of thoughts; an example cited was combining the notion of a hand-held axe with that of a wooden shaft to create a more powerful axe with a handle.

Taking the second and third point, the power of imagination in memorizing was shown. One person after 20 minutes study recalled fully the sequence of 10 decks of cards (520 cards) by using visual cues for the cards and realting them to landmarks along a known route thrughout London. Whiston himself was taught such a visualization technique. He was given the names of 30 objects to memorize in the morning and recalled them all after returning from a full day's work. Even a week later I can still remember the salamander on the sofa (though the other 28 objects do elude me!).

Even more remarkable is the example shown of a young gymnast learning a new complex move. Having tried it and failed a few times on the bar, she stepped aside and kept running through the steps in her mind. This visualization (virtual practicing) is enough to strengthen the learning pathways. She went back on the bar and completed the movement flawlessly.

But perhaps the best was the case of a firefighter who through intuition brought his team safely out of a burning building - depsite protestations of his men - moments before it was engulfed by a fireball. He did not know why, but after they recalled the episode (a bit like an After Action Review, it was put down to changes in direction of air-flow (in vs, out), lack of noise and orange smoke. Insitinctively through his subconsciousness, these bits of information together with his past experience foretold of impending change.

As we being to understand better the human brain and how it holds and recalls knowledge, perhaps there are some indications of how we can build and sustain knowledge in our organizations. Who said knowledge management was dull?

Posted by David; 3:08 PM.

02 October 2003

Ripples Round The World

I've just finished reading Simon Winchester's latest book 'Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded'. It's a good story about piecing together and refining knowledge over a century and more. First, like unexpected events today, there were pieces of evidence that when put together after the event showed that something unusual was happening (though the state of volcanic knowledge then - like now - was not sufficient to predict what actually happened). But more importantly, Winchester suggests that it was an early example of the global village in action. The recently invented telegraph kept people around the world informed about something that was to affect the whole world.

Apart from the obvious local effects - tsunamis that submerged settlements and caused over 30,000 deaths, there were several much wider ranging effects:

  • noise: the eruption could be heard nearly 3,000 miles away in the Indian ocean island of Rodriguez

  • waves: oscillations of 4 feet at Port Elizabeth (South Africa) and a few inches off Biarritz (France) and Devonport (England)

  • pressure waves: on barometers around the world that showed 7 fluctuations over a 2 hour period as the sonic waves rippled around the globe.

These were all examples of pooling fragments of knowledge (volcanic fallout?) after the event, the latter following a call for relevant information by the Royal Geographic Society.

Another interesting aside by Winchester is his description of Lloyd's agents, placed at strategic locations around the world since 1811 (and still present today) who were paid a retainer "to collect and transmit to the corporation (Lloyds) information of likely interest". Reuters also had (and still has) a similar news gathering network.

Today, we have built on such networks and refined our information gathering capabilities. But does that mean that we are any more 'intelligent' as organizations? Will we overlook the volume of weak signals, that when put together will warn us of an impending event. See my The Unintelligent Enterprise and also my comments on the events of September 11th 2001.

Posted by David; 1:29 PM.

29 September 2003

Well, I've succumbed!

There are now a few knowledge/KM related-blogs around (see for example AOK's featured bloggers). All are streams of personal thoughts and as others have mentioned are creating knowledge silos, the very things that KMers strive to avoid!

But most KMers are experimenters and learners, so approach this personal knowledge blog (k-blog) in this vein.

Posted by David; 12:49 PM.

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David Skyrme muses about KM insights he gains in his daily life.


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