Scaling knowledge

Most organizations grow from simple to complicated structures and in so doing keep adding layers of control. These complicated organizations usually wind up getting industrial disease. On the other hand, networked organizations can scale because they do not need to control every connection. People who participate in structures like open source software projects can join and connect to others at will. Designers of these open organizational structures understand that in complex un-order, loose hierarchies and strong networks are best.

Organizations that deal with complex knowledge and require creativity from workers need looser hierarchies to maintain flexibility in dealing with changing situations. When the sharing of knowledge becomes one of our primary work activities, we have to be careful how we think about growth and management. Using terms like ‘scalable’ and ‘knowledge’ in a linear, accounting fashion can cloud our thinking. Knowledge is neither manageable nor scalable in the industrial sense.

If you think about personal knowledge mastery, at least how I define it, there is a fairly clear indication that knowledge cannot be managed, but people can develop frameworks and routines that help them manage their own sense-making. If everyone in the enterprise practices PKM, you could say that it is scalable in a certain sense. It is just not linear, in terms of 100% practice of PKM will yield 100% organizational KM. However, two organizational practices can take additional advantage of PKM outputs: Team KM and Organizational KM, as I mentioned in a  simple approach to KM.

I would say that the main objective of KM in any organization is to make better decisions. In addition, the primary job of leaders in a connected enterprise is to help the network make better decisions. This is why I recommend that Organizational KM focus mainly on decision memory. Keeping track of why or why not major decisions were made can help make better ones in the future.

Management’s job is to make sense of all these individuals seeking, sense-making & sharing. Manager’s in a connected enterprise need to become curators of knowledge. The organization has to be structured so that what is curated can later be accessed to make better decisions. Knowledge scales by keeping it flowing and adding value where we can. Conversation flows in enterprise social networks that social technologies enable also need to curated.

For example, you can take long conversation threads in an enterprise social network (like Yammer), curate them, and post edited text and graphics to a wiki. Not all conversations need to get this treatment but accessible libraries of knowledge can be created that can later help make better decisions. It is an ongoing flawed process, as all KM really is, but some of the artifacts may be useful.

We know that complex knowledge requires trust and time to share. So networks of people in trusted relationships will likely share knowledge better and even faster. But a network does not scale the same way a hierarchy does. It scales by building trust. Shared power is the visible evidence of trust. Scaling happens as control is decreased. This means it is difficult to grow according to plan or directive. Growth is organic, like a garden, and according to some natural laws, like social group sizes.

So even if everyone practices PKM, this will not equate directly to organizational knowledge. However, Organizational KM and Team KM can draw from the network effects of all that PKM . The scaling is non-linear, there will be unintended consequences, and growth cannot be controlled in a mechanistic way. While our attempts to manage knowledge will always be inadequate, there are still many ways to help us share our sense-making of complex knowledge in order to make better decisions as an organization.

One Response to “Scaling knowledge”

  1. Brent MacKinnon

    Hi Harold,

    You have drawn connecting lines between the disconnected points in my PKM understanding. This is a huge leap for me. I can see more clearly how individual PKM (mastery) and organizational PKM work organically together. Sense making and decision making is the fertile soil that creates conditions for growth. I’ll be spending more time sense making on your post and share what I discover once I’m ready (hopefully soon).

    Thanks for this,


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