Why mastering personal knowledge is critical to success

This is the synopsis of a webinar for TP3 Australia I presented last evening (my time).

Three major external forces and trends are influencing the future of work:

  1. Technology is changing Expectations … of what is possible
  2. Globalization is changing Value Creation … from tangible to intangible, as culture gets digitized
  3. Social Media are changing Relationships … to a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world

Automation is ending the industrial era. Examples include lawyers replaced by software, bank staff replaced by websites, travel agents replaced by apps, and soon drivers will be replaced by robots. Many workplaces are at a break-point between the industrial era and the network era, with industrial era systems and structures unable to adapt to a world of mostly non-standardized, non-repeatable work processes.


What used to be valued traits in the workforce – obedience, diligence, intelligence – are not those required to do non-standardized work, which will soon be the only work that humans will be needed for. Gary Hamel identified initiative, creativity, and passion as the traits needed in a creative economy. I call these three traits – Talent, which cannot be automated [and would add curiosity & empathy]. For individuals to thrive in the new workplace, and for organizations to succeed, they need to focus on developing Talent.

Creating intangible value is not like producing tangible goods. The Return on Investment is not obvious. Developing a trusted relationship with a client by doing something extraordinary does not always produce the same results, but sometimes it can be significant. How do you measure the value of a free umbrella in a rainstorm? It could be exceptional if the recipient happens to be a well-connected customer experience expert.

Intangible value is much more volatile, as witnessed by the shifts in the market over the past few decades. Only one original member of the Dow Jones is still on it. Intangible value of the S&P 500 is over 85%. This is stuff that cannot really be measured, yet it drives most of the economy.

Creative, non-standardized work is difficult to learn. It requires informal, peer-assisted, cooperative learning, which does not happen in a classroom, as artists have known for millennia. Knowledge to do this work is not easily captured. You cannot take a recipe book and create a chef. Sharing implicit knowledge is not as simple as ‘knowledge-transfer’. The only way humans have figured out how to share implicit knowledge is through conversations. Lots of conversations.

You would not manage a project on Facebook, and would probably not organize your family and love life using project management software. However, we learn from our social networks which are often disconnected from our work lives. As work becomes more non-standardized, we will need more insights, serendipity, and connections to be creative. In a creative economy, cooperation is as important as collaboration was in the information economy. So how can we connect knowledge flows between our wide social networks and the more focused areas of getting work done? How do we deal with time and resource constraints as well as confidentiality issues?

knowledge flows

Teams need to share complex knowledge, usually in a deadline-driven environment. Research shows that sharing complex knowledge requires trusted relationships. These take time, so we cannot form teams on the fly and expect them to be creative. But high-functioning teams can develop group think. They need places to test ideas in a trusted space. This is what communities of practice (CoP) can enable, if supported and guided appropriately. CoP’s are where organizational learning & development departments should be focusing the majority of their efforts. CoP’s can also be the connector between work teams and social networks, enabling a flow of diverse opinions and perspectives to continuously permeate the organizational boundaries.

In the 20th century, work was rather separate from training and education, with the office apart from the classroom. Most web-based training is separate from the work being done. Today, work is learning and learning is the work. This requires a new perspective on how we think about organizational learning.

Improving organizational performance consists of reducing errors and improving insights. Most organizations have highly structured ways to reduce errors, such a Six Sigma. But most really on luck to improve insights. But reducing errors only looks backwards, at what has been done, while insights look forward at what can be done. Many organizations are driving into the future while looking in the rear-view mirror, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.

Gary Klein looked at over 100 cases of how new insights occurred in organizations and categorized them as five main types. Three of these (Connection, Coincidences, Curiosity) can be enhanced through the practice of personal knowledge mastery:

  • Making better and more diverse professional and social connections.
  • Increasing the chances for coincidences though social networks.
  • Practising curiosity through new experiences.

PKM is a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively.

We need to find ways of recreating what workers used to do – sit around and tell stories as they worked so they could learn together. Sharing implicit knowledge is critical in a fast-moving networked, creative economy. As the operational speed increases, this type of sharing becomes critical.

PKM adds an important foundation to Group and Organizational KM, which have not been as effective as promised 20 years ago. PKM makes each individual responsible for seeking, sense-making, and sharing knowledge. Groups and teams support this by working out loud, and the organization then focuses on curation, not creation of knowledge artifacts. In order to make this work, the organization must give up control, and treat workers as adults and co-developers of organizational knowledge.

With PKM, we seek new ideas from our social networks and then filter them through more focused conversations with our communities of practice, where we have trusted relationships. We make sense of these embryonic ideas by doing new things, either ourselves, or with our work teams. We later share our creations, first with our teams and perhaps later with our communities of practice or even our networks. We use our understanding of our communities and networks to discern with whom and when to share our knowledge.

It’s like constantly breathing in and out.

If you only seek information, you are just a consumer. If you seek and share, then you are a re-broadcaster, adding little value. If seek and make sense of information, without sharing, you are missing out out on opportunities to learn and connect. While we cannot seek, sense, share in all aspects of our lives, there are some areas where it it is important to do so. Understanding knowledge networks and developing practices that work for you take time, but will ensure that you are valued as non-standardized ‘Talent’ and not perceived as replaceable and routine ‘Labour’.

There are many layers under the SEEK > SENSE > SHARE framework, which can be supported through a wide variety of practices and disciplines. PKM is a journey to self-discipline.

The PKM online workshop is one way to get started on the journey.

2 Responses to “Why mastering personal knowledge is critical to success”

  1. Srinivasan M K

    Good article, but the challenge, I still see is how do you implement PKM and other tacit knowledge management methods in a dynamic work force with high turn over. Nevertheless, all the points in the above article are valid.

    • Harold

      You don’t need to implement PKM, just promote it. In a high turnover environment, you could offer PKM coaching as a pre-onboarding activity, showing the organization cares about continuous learning. It could be a valuable recruiting tool.


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