Leveraging collective knowledge

This week, a few related knowledge management (KM) articles crossed my path and I’d like to weave them together.

Here’s a model that shows how KM has progressed over the past 15 years. Nancy Dixon discusses three eras of knowledge management as moving from Explicit Knowledge (document management) to Experiential Knowledge (communities of practice; expertise locators)  and now to Collective Knowledge (social media). This post and Nancy’s previous ones, are well worth the read as a primer on KM.

Leveraging collective knowledge may be our collective challenge but there are no guaranteed solutions at this time. This is still new territory.

“Although the first thinking about Leveraging Collective Knowledge began to appear around 2005, there are only a few leading edge organizations that have developed new practices for making use of their organization’s collective knowledge. Most organizations are still centered in the perspective of the second era and some, who have come late to knowledge management, are still struggling with getting good content management in place.”

The need for KM is evident. In the gorilla illusions, Nick Milton points out that we need to create knowledge artifacts in order to counter the tendencies of our brains to make things up over time. These illusions include:

  • The illusion of memory
  • The illusion of confidence
  • The illusion of knowledge

As Nick concludes, “The implication is that if you will need to re-use tacit knowledge in the future, then you can’t rely on people to remember it.” With more information passing by us from multiple sources, our ability to keep track of it with only our brains is rather limited. We need systems, but more powerful and more flexible ones than currently offered by enterprise software systems like document management, expertise location, learning management or communities of practice.

Each person’s knowledge needs and knowledge use are unique. For example, Owen Ferguson explains that experts shouldn’t design online resources for novices:

The curse of the expert when it comes to online presentation is that they often decide they know better and produce a design that matches their own knowledge map – totally confusing the user. IT experts design the IT part of the intranet, HR experts design the HR part of the intranet, product experts design the product information parts of the intranet and all express surprise that users never seem to use them.

Actually, designing “for” anybody becomes a problem. Valued professional* work is non-standardized, as standardized work today just gets automated and outsourced.  Who really knows what knowledge needs any professional may have? How many levels of novices, journeymen and experts are there in an organization? Hence the need for the mass customization of (knowledge) work processes.

The relationship with personal knowledge mastery (PKM) is clear. The challenge is to enable “small pieces (individuals) loosely joined” – to seek, make-sense of, and share their knowledge. I use a combination of my blog, bookmarks, and tweets to inform my outboard brain so I can retrieve contextual knowledge as I interact with my clients and colleagues. My process works for me, but it cannot be copied as a standardized process. The real challenge is to help each person find a process that works on an individual basis while supporting the organization in leveraging collective knowledge.

* “A professional is anyone who does work that cannot be standardized easily and who continuously welcomes challenges at the cutting edge of his or her expertise.”David Williamson Shaffer

7 Responses to “Leveraging collective knowledge”

  1. David Beyer

    Great synthesis! We have built an app that helps hospital executives manage their intellectual capital. Since hospital administration usually comes from management background, we had to design around workflows that would appeal to them. When it comes to designing according to expertise, do you aim for the lowest common denominator?

    • Harold Jarche

      I wouldn’t think that aiming for the lowest common denominator would be the best strategy. I would look at some specific needs of sub-groups and focus on connecting, communicating and enhancing collaboration.

  2. Holly MacDonald

    Harold – can always count on your for great synthesis (although perturbed that David Beyer beat me to the punch with the term above). I’m intrigued by the reference to Ferguson and will be reading that link next.

    Where is the sweet spot where individuals and organizations meet? How do you approach that? Is it custom for each organization? Are there archetypes as a starting point?

  3. Michael Moroney

    This is an interesting summary of the state of the art at this time, though I think a little tough on the system developers. Most system development paradigms I am aware of strongly support the building of systems that meet or exceed the expectations of end-users. Knowledge management systems are no different to other types of system in this regard.
    There is ample evidence that the capacity to build collective knowledge within a learning community is a complex and time consuming process. It is therefore, in my humble view, helpful, if not necessary to build theory about knowledge building on the bedrock of experimental research rather than the shifting sands of crowd sourcing. Perhaps Engstrom’s cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) model might be a good investigative framework for this purpose? Thank you for a thought provoking site!


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