On knowledge

Some things I learned about knowledge this past year.

About  knowledge management: Codified knowledge (documents, lists, reports, best practices) is effective in organizations that have mostly new staff or high turnover, like a pizza franchise. It does not help teams to produce any better unless the team is rather inexperienced. Interpersonal sharing can be more effective for some teams but it is time-consuming and requires “slack time” for experienced team members to take advantage of it. Lesson: You cannot run your senior staff at full-steam all the time and no amount of electronic documentation is going to help except to get inexperienced people up to speed.

From Peter Senge:

The average life expectancy of large companies is about 30 years, but some are over 200 years old. What is the reason for this? Organizational learning! Basically, individual learning in organizations is irrelevant. Work is almost never done by one person alone. Almost all value is created by teams and networks of people.

Knowledge is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in life. While learning may be generated in teams, this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks [in French, this is the difference between connaissance and savoir faire].

A few decades ago the field of knowledge management was co-opted by information technology vendors, and became useless for organizational learning.

How does personal knowledge management relate to social learning?

PKM is an individual, disciplined process by which we make sense of information, observations and ideas. In the past it may have been keeping a journal, writing letters or having conversations. These are still valid, but with digital media we can add context by categorizing, commenting or even remixing it. We can also store digital media for easy retrieval. However, PKM is of little value unless the results are shared by connecting to others and contributing to meaningful conversations. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts as we build on the knowledge of others. As knowledge workers or citizens, PKM is our part of the social learning contract. Without effective PKM at the individual level, social learning has less value.

Managing what matters.

Learning and becoming knowledge-able are now basic requirements for every worker. These are also basic requirements for life, as much as food and water. We don’t manage what or how our employees eat and we don’t need to manage their knowledge or learning. We can make it easier for them to learn and share knowledge though, just like putting in a cafeteria or a water fountain. Workers need support and tools to develop these personal processes but the organization should stay out of the business of knowledge and learning and instead focus on collaboration.

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