Personal Knowledge Mastery
Harvard Business Review described The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The five disciplines necessary for a learning organization are:
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
- Systems Thinking (which integrates the other four)
These disciplines have influenced my professional work which is based on individuals taking control of their learning and professional development and actively engaging in social networks and communities of practice. In this article I want to focus on the first two disciplines: Mastery and Models.
Personal knowledge mastery (PKM) is a framework I have developed over the past 12 years. It is an individual, disciplined process by which we make sense of information and our interactions with people and ideas. While it is an individual discipline, PKM is of little value unless the results are shared by connecting to others, and contributing to meaningful conversations. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts as we build on the knowledge of others. As knowledge workers or citizens, PKM is our part of the social learning contract. Without effective PKM at the individual level, social learning has less value.
My Seek > Sense > Share model is how PKM can be quickly explained.
Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date. Building a diverse network of colleagues is helpful in this regard. It not only allows us to ‘pull’ information, but also have it ‘pushed’ to us by trusted sources. Good curators become valued members of knowledge networks.
Sensing is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing, and even failing.
Sharing includes exchanging resources, ideas, and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues. The discipline of knowledge sharing also requires discernment to know when and with whom to share appropriately.
PKM is the missing component of most enterprise knowledge management (KM) efforts. It is an enabling process that helps to distribute power and knowledge. Effective knowledge management really is dependent on effective PKM processes, but standardizing PKM destroys its value.
There is a lot of knowledge in an organization, some of it easy to codify, but most of it difficult to do so. Explicit knowledge is easier to codify and more suitable for enterprise-wide initiatives, while implicit knowledge requires personal interpretation and engagement to make sense of it. The organization can help this knowledge to flow. Three related KM processes are required.
PKM is about individual sense-making, but within a social and networked context. It is a self-directed way to continue to develop our expertise, especially through loose relationships in our social networks and stronger ones in communities of practice. The organization needs to support, not direct, these connections.
Group KM is based on practices like working out loud, so that everyone on a team or in a department knows what is going on and why. Decisions, and why they were made, are shared. New processes are co-developed to create emergent practices. This new method of work is to be supported by distributing power and enabling self-governance.
With PKM and Group KM in place, the organization can concentrate on curating the outputs of knowledge work. It provides the systems of record that can be searched and queried so that mistakes and exceptions are not repeated. In the network era organization, knowledge has to flow from implicit to explicit, understanding that its transfer remains messy and inexact. The flexibility remains at the individual human level and in the trusted relationships built over time: not with the KM system.
KM is just an aid to sense-making. People make their own sense in complex ways. This model can help support better knowledge flow in the network era organization if people are engaged on their own terms. It requires PKM as a base, with an emphasis on ‘personal’, and then space at work for Group KM. With these in place, Organizational KM becomes the easiest part.
Mastery comes through deliberate practice. Personal knowledge mastery is the ability to see patterns hidden to the undisciplined eye. It is the sharing and explaining of implicit knowledge in order to push the boundaries of understanding. PKM is very much based on informal learning through communities of practice and professional social networks.
“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box, Professor & Statistician, 1919-2013
The perpetual beta working model is not a map, but a compass to help guide organizational change for the network era. It is based on my Principle of Network Management, that it is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, especially management.
Notice on the model the use of two related terms: cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is freely sharing without direction from above and without expectation of direct reciprocity. Collaboration is working together for a common purpose. The challenge for working in today’s networked economy is to connect cooperation and collaboration. For the past century, too much work in our organizations was focused on collaboration to the exclusion of cooperation. While plans and structure are necessary to get work done, open and free cooperation promotes creativity and a focus on long term value. When dealing with complex challenges, collaboration without cooperation yields efficiency without effectiveness, especially if new or creative solutions are needed.
The perpetual beta working model consists of three overlapping network types: Connectivity, Alignment, and Productivity. Each network type must be strengthened to ensure knowledge flow and learning. Connectivity networks can be strengthened by weaving relationships to remove bottlenecks and gatekeepers and build a diverse knowledge-sharing network. Alignment networks can be reinforced by facilitating conversations and connections between practitioners in professional communities. Productivity networks can develop the skills necessary to support the other network types. For example, an organization can devote resources to train community facilitators and network weavers so that these larger networks become resilient sources of innovation, inspiration, and knowledge.
A structure of strong networks and loose hierarchies enables knowledge flow between the complexity of human networks and the complicated work done by teams to produce goods and services. Structure is created through temporary, negotiated hierarchies. This already occurs between contractors and freelancers as they take on new projects. When collaboration is required, then constraints are necessary to get work done. This takes the work to the complicated level, with objectives, tasks, and responsibilities. Meanwhile, outside the work teams, members are still engaging with complex systems and cooperating as they share knowledge. This is the dance all network era workers will need to master. It is a key aspect of PKM.
The perpetual beta working model can guide an organization transitioning to the network economy. It provides a metaphor and a conversation accelerator to ask better questions.
- How can we increase awareness of what is happening outside the organization?
- How can we test alternatives to learn new practices?
- How can we take action based on new knowledge?
- What are the barriers between the three network types?
- How can we optimize each network type for our context?
- What skills are necessary to ensure knowledge flow between network types?
Peter Drucker, American management consultant and educator, coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959. The dominance of knowledge work has the potential to shift our production systems from capital to labour. But Drucker saw that the shift to a society of knowledge workers would not be easy. He said that the demise of standardized work would bring about a “change in the human condition”. This change in the human condition, such as the possible shift to a post-job economy, requires new thinking and putting new models into practice.
The inconvenient truth is that our institutions do not have the answers. They were all designed for a different era. Our markets, designed to capitalize on gaps and weaknesses, are already focused on creating digital platform monopolies, so that the rest of us may become nothing more than users and renters of space. These silicon capitalists are no different than the robber barons of the 19th century. For instance, in this digital age many of us no longer own anything. When we die, everything that we have rented — our music, our lodgings, our software — no longer belongs to us. Even our identities, like email addresses and usernames, disappear. We become consumers, not owners. But we can own our learning.
The challenge for learning professionals is to help organizations become learning organizations, as described in Senge’s Fifth Discipline. It is also to master the new literacies of the network era and promote critical thinking, for ourselves and others. Questioning existing hierarchies is necessary to create the organizations of the future where power and authority are shared, based on mutual trust. The dominant organizational models need to become network-centric and learning-centric. Personal knowledge mastery and the working in perpetual beta model can be two of the disciplines required to develop the third discipline: Shared Vision, or our worldview.
Note: this article appeared in Inside Learning Technologies January 2017 (requires Adobe Flash)