our crude knowledge capture tools

Earlier this week I commented that while of course, you cannot capture knowledge in the literal sense, people in organizations need to share their knowledge-making experiences. The aim of knowledge-sharing in an organization is to help make tacit knowledge more explicit, not some type of fictional Vulcan mind meld. I have quoted Dave Jonassen on knowledge transfer several times here, “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.” I also noted in networked sharing that it is very important to understand that organizations and cultures that do not share what they know, are doomed.

It is important to keep in mind that what we loosely call knowledge, when using terms like knowledge-sharing or knowledge capture,  is just our approximation of it so we can share it with others. As Dave Snowden says, we are not very good at articulating our knowledge.

We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down. This is probably the most important. The process of taking things from our heads, to our mouths (speaking it) to our hands (writing it down) involves loss of content and context. It is always less than it could have been as it is increasingly codified.

When we use our knowledge to describe some data, such as what we remember from an experience or our summary of a book, we convey our knowledge by creating information, and as Dave notes, writing it down is not very effective.

But that does not mean that we shouldn’t even try. The cumulative pieces of information, or knowledge artifacts, that we create and share can help us have better conversations and gain some shared understanding. Our individual sense-making can be shared and from it can emerge better organizational knowledge. It’s not a linear process, as in from data we get information, which when aggregated becomes knowledge, and over time becomes wisdom (DIKW).

I think of wisdom as something that can only be partially shared over time. Hence the reason why masters can only have a limited number of apprentices. But when writing, and later books, came along, we had a new technology that could more widely distribute information created by the wise, and the not so wise. Neither the wisdom nor the knowledge actually get transferred, but the information can be helpful to those who wish to learn.

Mass communication has not been without its detractors, perhaps Socrates being the first.  He is reported to have said that the advent of written language, and books, would result in men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, who will be a burden to their fellows (Plato’s Phaedrus). How times change.

The lesson I take from this is that we cannot become complacent with knowledge. It must be shared amongst people who know that they are only seeing a fragment of others’ knowledge. Because it is so difficult to represent our knowledge to others, we have to make every effort to keep sharing it. For example, narrating one’s work does not get knowledge transferred, but it provides a better medium to gain more understanding. Knowledge shared in flows over time enables us to create better mental pictures than a single piece of knowledge stock.

One way of capturing knowledge is to create knowledge collections, as described by Steve Denning, in Can knowledge be collected?

Why has the promise of knowledge collections not been realized? Evidence-based medicine suggests that the answer may lie in distinguishing between precision knowledge, intuitive knowledge, and behavior-change knowledge.

[snip] In assessing the potential value of knowledge collections in economics, management or development, it’s important to recognize that most of the relevant knowledge is not precision knowledge. It’s not like “when you have a strep throat, take an antibiotic.” It’s more like the treatment of cancer or hypertension. It needs trained professionals to solve problems through intuitive experimentation and pattern recognition, and then behavioral change knowledge to provide support and involvement in continued monitoring and experimentation.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, capturing knowledge (as crudely as we do) is only the first step. We also need to enable sharing, take action, and empower people. But I cannot see how we can do this if we don’t try to capture some of what we know in order to get a level of common understanding. Exactly what I have been trying to do on this blog, over many years.

4 Responses to “our crude knowledge capture tools”

  1. Cynthia Silva Parker

    Thanks for this post. My colleagues and I have struggled over the years with how to make tacit knowledge explicit and how to create a shared knowledge base out of our individual experiences as collaboration practitioners. Would love some concrete ideas about how to do this better.

  2. Rick Ladd

    Hi Harold – Great post! It captures (serendipitous pun) the essence of what so many have been struggling with for so long. NASA paid Rocketdyne (at the time it was a Boeing company) millions of dollars to video capture the “knowledge” of the people who designed and built the power system for the International Space Station. I believe the videos are somewhere, but I wonder if anyone remaining there is quite sure where that is.

    During my time there we engaged in a major effort to characterize the over 5 million pieces of paper we had in the collections of each component team for the design, test, and operation of the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Towards the end of the program I was advocating for spending far more time, energy, and money on connecting people directly through status updates, blogs, etc. in order to facilitate a more useful transfer of information and, hopefully, knowledge and wisdom.

    I’m also mindful of Frank Miller’s equation, I=0, where he argues information has no intrinsic meaning and requires context in order for it to be useful as knowledge. He writes, in his abstract to the paper, “. . . [K]nowledge is the uniquely human capability of making meaning from information . . .”. I believe his thoughts are in accord with Dave’s, Steve’s, and yours.

    I’m of the opinion using a methodology that allows people to communicate – in as close an approximation of face-to-face as is possible – while capturing and indexing (or otherwise making the information findable) the products of the communication is a worthwhile goal. Anything that provides greater context while preserving content seems like an advance in the way we’ve been doing things since writing was invented.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)