Knowledge sharing, one at a time

“Every amateur epistemologist knows that knowledge cannot be managed. Education has always assumed that knowledge can be transferred and that we can carefully control the process through education. That is a grand illusion.” David Jonassen

While knowledge cannot be managed [at an organizational level*], we can work at managing our own knowledge. That’s what PKM is all about. Individually we can manage information flows, make sense of them and share with others, especially people with similar interests or common goals. Enterprise “knowledge management” initiatives have not been proven to work very well and may even be irredeemably corrupted. Dave Pollard’s experience with knowledge management shows how important it is to personalize our sense-making and how futile standardized methods and practices can be:

So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI [Personal Productivity Improvement] said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.

Luis Suarez prefers the term knowledge sharing to knowledge management. If this helps us move away from central digital information repositories (Knowledge Management, Document Management, Learning Content Management Systems, Content Management Systems, etc.) then I’m all for it.  I’m not advocating tearing down any existing IT infrastructure (yet); but we need to enable a parallel system that can handle the distributed nature of work in addressing complex problems, namely weaker central control and better distributed communications and decision-making.

The best first step in getting work done is to help each worker develop a PKM process, with an emphasis on personal. As each person seeks information, makes sense of it through reflection and articulation, and then shares it through conversation, a distributed knowledge base is created. It’s messier and looser than traditional KM, but it’s also more robust. This is what many of us already do. If you take all the published resources of my colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance you will see a loosely connected knowledge base of thousands of assets. They can be found, sometimes by searching and frequently by asking the person who created them. We each use different systems and connect with the open protocols of the web, like RSS, hyperlinks, OPML, etc.

The way to implement organizational knowledge sharing is already visible on the edges of the workplace. Many bloggers are doing it and have been for years. All it takes is getting everyone to do some form of PKM, on their own terms. Once most everyone is seeking, sensing and especially sharing, it’s a relatively easy task to start harvesting and analyzing our collective knowledge. For instance, take what Tony Karrer has done with eLearningLearning and expand this to include social bookmarks and synthesized micro-sharing, like my weekly Friday’s Finds on Twitter.

The real value of PKM is when enough people in an organization do it and create a critical mass of diverse conversations. PKM is our part of a social learning contract that makes us better off individually and collectively. For workers to be engaged over the long term, PKM must remain personal, and the organization must use a gentle hand at all times.

Using open Web systems ensures that not only will the organization get access to valuable information flows, but workers will be able take their piece of it if they leave. A little give and take will go a long way. Allowing the tools to be portable will ensure commitment and engagement without any coercive action on the part of the organization.

The collective sharing of PKM in the enterprise has the potential to create a dynamic knowledge base for idea management that can drive innovation.

* added to give clarification, in case of any confusion

6 Responses to “Knowledge sharing, one at a time”

  1. Allyn J Radford

    This is a very interesting and complex post. I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with some of the points that are made. There are some issues that could be debated on semantic grounds but I will try to avoid those because they are often less valuable, except there is value in stating that people do use words differently and that corporate execs may use terms they don’t fully understand to communicate a theme rather than a specific meaning.

    The statement that we should all move away from central repositories is too big a stretch to me. It implies that the repository is evil when in actual fact most of the problems come from poor implementation and poor design from a solution perspective not the technology itself. There is, of course, the rather naive thought that if you dump stuff in a repository you have fixed your KM problem. Patently an absurd assumption, but it prevails.

    There are many ways in which central infrastructure can actually facilitate the PKM views you have expressed. It is a matter of design and intent. I also shudder to think of the detrimental outcomes and risks that arise from storing everything of value on a personal hard drive (whatever that actually means in these days of increased mobility) rather than “allowing” an organization to have viable ways of protecting its assets while facilitating their being shared. It is hard to enable discovery or sharing that independently arises from personal work requirements when the content is tucked away on somebody else’s hard drive. That is what appears to have been advocated.

    The theme of PKM is very powerful. I say “theme” because I would suggest a slightly different way of thinking about it. KM is broken because it is very often about throwing bucket loads of stuff into a repository. This tends to remove all responsibility of meaningful sharing from the individual and does not necessarily give them really useful tools with which to share and add value. What you have suggested for PKM, however, could be equally broken because it puts *all* the responsibility on the individual and this is generally not sustainable. It can also make it difficult to support multiple conversations and sharing when you add the constraints of enterprise IT management. Always an issue.

    The thing that really resonates well is the opportunity for an individual to take part of the responsibility in the flow and sharing of knowledge for personal and Community of Practice benefits. It supports informal learning and organizational learning in meaningful ways. We should also be mindful that not all learners are ‘knowledge workers’ and they do not necessarily have the same work practices. Knowledge sharing and informal learning often has to live side-by-side with requirements for highly regulated activities that are required of businesses in certain sectors. PKM is likely to be of more value if implemented well and for the right reasons. (Notwithstanding the fact that knowledge needs to be internalized to be actionable.)

    I hope I have not misinterpreted the post but have responded (hopefully usefully) based on how it read to me.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks very much for your comments, Allyn. I think central repositories could be replaced by distributed ones, with open data standards. The organization could still harvest these distributed sources and keep a central resource, much as Google does with the web. It’s not necessary to build a central silo if all the little ones can share. I’m definitely not advocating a return to everyone keeping their data only on their local hard drive (e.g. Seek, Sense, SHARE). As you say, repositories won’t solve any KM problems anyway, but distributed ones may keep the IT department from meddling with knowledge sharing 😉

      I like the description of PKM or PKS as a “theme”. Yes, the responsibility is on the individual, because I don’t see it getting permanently adopted any other way. However, the organization can collect, collate and redistribute what is shared by individuals. It can also help by providing tools and coaching on PKM. The organization’s role moves from being directive to facilitative.

      Perhaps not all employees are knowledge workers, but I think it’s a very wide net today. For instance, Barry Schwartz shows the practical wisdom (social knowledge) required of the janitor in the workplace, during this TED Talk (@ 1:15):

      Here’s an example of informal knowledge sharing amongst folks not usually considered knowledge workers:

      Thanks for engaging in the conversation here and getting me to think deeper about this area.

  2. Howard

    Harold and Allyn;
    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.
    Wikipedia, although open sourced, is still a central repository that has great value to me. Hagel, Brown and Davison’s ideas about organizing around “pull” resonates more with me as an explanation of why the central repositories of KM might have been problematic. KM’s central metaphor was about pushing (mostly decontextualized) knowledge out to workers, organized around centralized command and control decisions. Pull is about tapping into the cross-disciplinary learning networks on the boundaries of organizations where knowledge flows in specific contexts. Instead of controlling and protecting knowledge stocks, it depends on serendipity and social learning networks and that can greatly increase the possibility of serendipity. It is a compelling vision to me although it may require a difficult change in mindset for businesses and needs more good examples to confirm it’s validity. I also think that a “pull” view of PKS would emphasizes knowledge’s social and meditational aspects over it’s representational aspects.

  3. Samuel Driessen

    Nice post, Harold. I enjoy following your PKM musings. I agree PKM is extremely important and a good (maybe the best) starting point for corporate KM. Most KM programs leave out ‘what’s in it for the employee?’. What I was wondering though is, what are your thoughts about internal and external PKM? One of the things that I find hard is what part of my personal knowledge to share and store internally and what externally. I don’t know of many tools to support PKM that seamlessly support internal and external PKM. Do you? And what would your approach be to this issue?

    • Harold Jarche

      Most of my PKM practice is inside/outside so it’s all public. However, there are tools that let you filter your artifacts. Delicious allows for bookmarks to be private, and WordPress has a private blog post function. Social networking systems, like let you post anything as private, public or only to a select & self-created group. A lot of depends on what tools are being used by your organization and what kind of Internet access you are allowed. A challenge for PKM in the organization is how internal software platforms will be used. These may be more secure, but workers may not post as much to them because they know they’ll lose the data if they leave the organization. I wrote some more about this here:


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