knowledge is personal

Knowledge management, for me, is personal.

A big conceit of the knowledge management (KM) field is that knowledge can be transferred, but unlike information or data, it cannot. Knowledge is personal. While knowledge cannot really be transferred, our experiences can be shared. Perhaps that is why we love stories. They are a glimpse into others’ knowledge, more nuanced than any other communication medium.

Stories make us human, and the best people to learn from are those who are able to admit that they mismanaged, botched, or bungled something. Of course, this can be a real challenge in organizations that do not discuss failure. Is failure an option in your organization? If not, how can you learn from it? Research shows that our memories get worse over time, but our stories, as we remember them, become much clearer. We have a propensity for self-delusion, something every jury member should always keep in mind. Fiction (story) is much more powerful than non-fiction. Would it not be more effective if we shared knowledge as stories, in education and at work? We hear a lot about the importance of curation in the digital workplace today, but what if our curators were also story tellers? Explicit knowledge (decisions, events, procedures, etc.) is relatively easy to capture, so that is often what gets attention and funding for technologies like document management systems. But stories provide the additional context that makes implicit knowledge stick in our memories. In good stories there are no answers, making them even stickier in our minds. Consider how this differs from case studies and best practices which often populate the corporate Intranet.

Implicit knowledge requires interpretation and engagement to make sense of it. Data and information may be gathered by the organization, but knowledge and stories are personal. Stories can help share implicit knowledge. Think about how much time do we spend telling stories in our official work. Compare that to our leisure time when stories are often the main mode of communication.

“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.” —David Jonassen

Individually we can manage information flows, make sense of them, and share with others. This should be the core of KM. Sharing is important for our own sense-making. It grounds our thinking in reality. Nobody can steal our knowledge anyway. As each person seeks information, makes sense of it through reflection and articulation, and then shares it through conversation, a distributed base of knowledge can be created. It’s messier and looser than traditional KM, but it’s also more robust. This is what many of us already do, with blogs and social media.

There is a lot of knowledge in an organization, some of it easy to codify, but most of it is difficult to do so. Thinking about knowledge as nothing more than content for a repository is a mistake. Like electricity, knowledge is both particles and current, or stock and flow. However, the particles are useless if they do not flow.

KM should be focused on enabling knowledge flow between people. This can be supported through easy capture tools (e.g. video) and systems that enable curation (adding value through indexing, validating, categorizing, etc.). Making it easier for people to tell stories is better KM. Giving space and time to share stories is also needed.

My story

rp_quill-450x440.pngA decade ago, I was a mid-career professional and lost my job. Actually, I was dismissed, but the company went bankrupt a few months later. I live in a rural area with high unemployment and I knew it would be difficult to find a job, especially at my age. So I became a free-agent. Every day I would go on the Web and learn what was happening in my field. I read journals and news sources and, most importantly, I started my own blog. I wrote about my profession, new technologies, and how I saw that work was changing in the 21st-century.

One day, after spending a lot of time on my blog, my wife asked how would I ever get any clients if I was giving away all my knowledge for free? I said that I believed it was more important to be known in this new connected economy than to horde my knowledge. How would people take the time to get to know who I was, if I did not give them something of value first? Of course, I did not know for sure this would work. I think my experience as a military officer for 20 years gave me some added confidence to go into no-man’s land.

Ten years later and I am now an international consultant and speaker. My blog, which was my way of sharing stories and thoughts, gave me everything. It allowed me to connect with other like-minded people all over the world. I learned that the more I gave, the more I got in return. But what I received was never directly connected to any single thing I did. Any reciprocity was usually indirect, and often a chance connection.

I was able to build a reputation as someone who can distill complex subjects to their essence. I “simplified the complexity” as one client put it. I was able to build a trusted network that has referred my work to others. Because of this sharing and developing trusted networked connections, I now travel across the world, speaking in Rome, Sydney, San Francisco, Paris, London, and many other venues.

During that decade, I took control of my learning and my future. I tried many web tools and services, testing out hundreds of these. I created a simple model (PKM) for myself, to make sure I could stay current in my field and sense what the future might bring. I shared this model with clients who then adopted it. One was a bank, another a multinational restaurant chain. They saw great value in this model. I then tested out other ways to help people do what I had been able to do.

I later developed an online workshop so that hundreds of professionals from many countries could begin to learn in networks. One of my long-time trusted connections online is Australian futurist Ross Dawson, who also understands the need for everyone to be actively engaged in learning and preparing for an uncertain future:  “The role of thinking effectively about the future cannot be outsourced. Not just leaders in business, government, and society, but all of us must actively engage with the extraordinary challenges of the future, so we can act better today.

Managing my knowledge by sharing my thoughts and engaging with others around the world has been a very personal experience and has helped me see with new eyes.

6 Responses to “knowledge is personal”

  1. Andrew Trickett

    Thank you for an interesting story. I am a firm believer in the power of stories. I use in a presentation a picture of the Trojan horse and ask the audience to say what it is. They all know what it is and i use it to illustrate the power of the story to stay in our minds – this one is about 3000 years old. I think though some managers are uncomfortable with the word story seeing it as ‘childlike’ To me it is the oldest and best communication tool especially when working on an issue and you get the ‘Rashomon’ effect with people seeing the same event from subtly different angles.
    I also agree with giving knowledge away – my wife too tells me off saying others use it without attribution but to me it is about sharing, but also showing the knowledge one has in terms of reciprocal altruism. like you the more I share and offer to help, the more people internally come to talk to me. Occasionally it doesn’t work but 9 times out of 10 it does. Like you I try to keep it simple because most working people have enough complexity in their lifes without a KM person adding to it. yours is a blog I avidly read, so thank you for what you do share, I regularly pick up something. I used to blog a bit so maybe my new year resolution is more working out loud.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)