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The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management Is Changing the Way We Do Business


Knowledge management isn’t new. With more than two decades of history there have been knowledge management programs running with varying levels of success – and failure. The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management Is Changing the Way We Do Business aims to distill some of the best practices in knowledge management. The authors have years of experience in the knowledge management space and dozens of stories to share. There are encouraging stories and useful frameworks for ensuring that your knowledge management project is successful – and a few surprises.

Capture or Connect

Knowledge management is in part about capturing the information that is inside people’s heads and getting it converted into explicit information that can be shared with others. It makes sense that an organization would want to capture the knowledge that was built at so much cost. However, the problem exists in the fact that so much knowledge is contextual – and invisible – that it’s hard to convert the tacit knowledge into the explicit knowledge that drives the capture process.

Tacit knowledge is something that you know – but cannot express. The pioneer in this space is Michael Polanyi. He said that “…we know more than we can tell.” Ikujiro Nonaka later expressed a slightly different view that “tacit knowledge is unarticulated knowledge waiting transfer.” If Nonaka is right we should be able to capture every bit of knowledge out of someone – given enough time and resources. However, as Gary Klein discovered with his study of firefighters and discussed in his book Sources of Power, people are rarely aware of exactly how much they know. Fire commanders knew things “weren’t right” well before they could articulate what it was that was wrong.

The fire commanders’ knowledge was built on experience. Years and years of experience. Fire after fire. They had learned what to expect from fire. They learned what should happen – and what shouldn’t. They learned how to identify small differences in the ways that the fires looked that would be missed by others. Their knowledge was based on their experience. It wasn’t something they ever had – or even could – articulate.

Even if we could share all the knowledge that we have as Nonaka proposes, we don’t have time to do it. The process of codifying the knowledge that we have may take longer than the initial learning took. Check out some statistics about creating training programs. If it takes 750 hours to create a one hour simulation – how much time will it take to dump every bit of experiential knowledge out of someone and deliver it in a format that others can consume? It’s great that when you’re done the student will have a neatly packaged simulation that will help them understand something in an hour that may have taken a dozen hours to understand interspersed in a few hundred hours of non-learning.

On the other hand, if we’re able to connect people together they can optimize the answers for the learner through interaction – without necessarily being able to articulate precisely what the knowledge is. After all, we want the results that knowledge gives us – lower risk and better results – we don’t actually want the knowledge itself in most cases. If we can get the results without the knowledge – do we really need to cram more knowledge into everyone’s head? (Another case of ends and means was discussed in my review of Who Am I?) So the answer may be to connect people with the people who know – or are likely to know – what is needed.

Consider the hype and drive behind social technologies. They’re all about creating connections to others who may have the knowledge that we need. Knowledge management is about creating the connections between the people that have knowledge and those that need it. A long time ago (2006) Lawrence Liu was working for Microsoft in the SharePoint product team as a caretaker for the SharePoint MVPs. During that time I was telling him that I didn’t understand social. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I had set out to read what he suggested to help me better understand. You can see the result of part of that in reviews for WikinomicsGroundswellThe Wisdom of CrowdsThe Long Tail, and Linked. Eventually he said something very profound to me – “You don’t get it because you already do it.” After the obligatory head tilt like a confused dog, he explained that I already sought people out who I believed might be helpful to me. I didn’t need social tools because I was already socializing. I did eventually find a way to use social tools – to help my son find someone who had been to the North Pole for a school project – so I guess I did finally see the value.

I can tell you that there are things in SharePoint that I don’t bother to learn or remember because I know that there are other folks that know that part of SharePoint better than I ever will – and there are dozens more where I know some about a topic but recognize that there are others I can turn to when I get out of my comfort zone.

When I take a step back and look at the difficulty to articulate knowledge – and the power and richness of connecting to someone else, to an expert who can help me understand the problem differently – connecting wins every time.

The Cost of Knowledge

Much has been made of the fact that the loss of knowledge is a huge expense for organizations. Certainly this is true – however, finding information on how much money is lost as a result of the failure to transfer knowledge is hard to come by. And in some cases, it may not be possible to calculate the value of the lost knowledge. In 1997 when John Richter retired he had built and tested 42 nuclear warheads – China’s entire team had only built and tested 45. When all of the NASA scientists who put people on the moon have retired, how much will that cost us?

The IDC in 2005 shared that 24% of an employee’s time was spent searching for or analyzing information. How much is the payroll for the typical organization’s information (knowledge) workers? It’s a non-trivial slice of the pie that can be optimized – if we have the right knowledge and we can make it more findable.

Other studies place different values on how much of an information worker’s time are spent searching for information, however, every study seems keenly aware that a significant amount of our day is spent trying to find the information we need to do our jobs. Information is the underpinning of our knowledge. It’s the raw material we use to create knowledge – so if we’re spending time trying to find information we’re spending time trying to achieve knowledge. No matter how you slice the cake, knowledge is expensive.

Validating Knowledge

One of the things not covered in the book is the need to validate knowledge. In the technical book publishing world, this is the job of a technical editor. The technical editor is responsible for saying that the author’s steps and concepts are correct. I’ve got a listing of 73 of the books where I played the role of the development or technical editor. (My recordkeeping isn’t perfect, there are probably another few dozen or so where I served but didn’t keep records of it.) In research, instead of technical publishing, validating knowledge involves having others independently verify the findings.

In the course of my career I had the opportunity to bump into the idea of validating that training manuals have the requisite knowledge that will be tested on a certification exam. The idea is that the certification vendor would certify that the books would deliver the necessary information you need to know to pass the test. The difficulty was in figuring out whether the books really did cover all the requisite material. The certification exam vendor wouldn’t give the entire question pool over so that we could verify that the answer to every question was in the book. We had to review the book to determine whether it met the criteria or not based on the published set of skills to be tested.

Adding to the fun was that no one really wanted to pay for a 100% review of the book anyway. They wanted an outline review and a sampling of the topics to determine whether the book met the criteria or not. The problem is that knowledge – unlike a production line – doesn’t follow statistical process control. Someone can be absolutely perfect in their knowledge of hard drives and be completely wrong about networking. I found this on more than one occasion as I was reviewing books.

Our knowledge is simply Swiss cheese. We don’t know what we do and don’t know. Marcia Bates believes that we learn 80% of what we know based on being present. I happen to know that Ireland is called the Emerald Isle – though I cannot remember ever learning that fact.

Knowledge and Education

Sometimes, no matter how much we want to connect two people to share knowledge, we need to accept that this simply isn’t scalable. We need to codify and make explicit the knowledge that we have so that we can communicate it more broadly. Here we end up at the doorstep of Gerber who wrote The E-Myth Revisited. Gerber’s fundamental premise is that you should systematize everything. You should create procedures and education for every part of the process so that the people that you put into the process don’t matter. (This reminds me about Fred Brook’s classic work The Mythical Man-Month which talks about the fact that you can’t just trade one developer for another.) If you can make all knowledge explicit then you can make the responses consistent. You can make a contract with the consumer about how things are going to be.

That’s great. There are certainly well celebrated examples of this type of an approach. McDonald’s is the most common example of the franchise system which is built on the idea that you create a repeatable system – a franchise system – that anyone can operate successfully because of the consistency of the underlying processes. The franchise system describes every aspect of how to make the restaurant or other organization work. There are systems for everything – the knowledge of the original creator has been codified into a set of systems that are designed to generate the specific desired outcome – irrespective of the skill of the operator.

The problem with this approach is the inescapable de-skilling of the workforce. In removing thinking from the day-to-day operation we’ve removed the critical thinking skills that we need to handle the unexpected, the extraordinary, and the change in the environment which is inevitable. So communicating the system, the rules, and the procedures isn’t enough. Ultimately it will lead to de-skilling our workforce.

We need to educate people – but we need to educate them on the mental models that create the right output – not the rote question “Would you like fries with that?”

The Apprentice, the Journeyman, and the Master

As I’ve talked about before, the trades – and medicine – have it right. There’s a natural progression in which the apprentice does small repeatable tasks where they can build key skills. Journeymen work with slightly more complex skills and follow rules to assemble the smaller pieces into bigger pieces while supervising the apprentices. Masters support the journeymen and apprentices and may work on more complex pieces, but fundamentally they’re operating differently. They’re not operating by the rules. They’re operating at the deeper level. They’re operating on the principles that underlie the rules.

In the trades model, each piece leads into the next. The challenges are dealt in ever increasing complexity to keep the person in flow (See Finding Flow) and thereby operating at peak efficiency. It also creates a model of escalating knowledge that integrates feedback (both positive and negative) in a way that continually reinforces and refines the outcome.

Humor and Fun

There are plenty of discussions about bringing in fun to learning through gamification today. Gamification is the making of work into games so that it’s more enjoyable to learn. This isn’t an odd concept, we know that adult learners need different factors than children to be able to learn. (See The Adult Learner.) We know that we’re more apt to continue doing things that we enjoy. Sometimes that’s being in flow and being appropriately challenged. However, other times it’s tapping into our other drives. (See Drive)

People or Technology

Having spent most of my professional career in technical roles, one would think that I’d rather see investments in technology rather than people when it comes to building a knowledge management system. However, somewhere along the way, I’ve discovered that the technology is all noise. Sure, some vendor has a feature which the other doesn’t. Some product makes it easier to do X than competitor Y can do. However, ultimately, the key problem isn’t a technology problem. The key problem is almost always a personnel problem.

The big problems more often not problems of the technology, but rather are problems of aligning people, building emotional intelligence and emotional awareness, and getting folks to work together. Authors O’Dell and Hubert are quite explicit about the fact that you need both people and technology to reach the end goal, but that the more challenging part is getting the people to work together.

Knowledge Triage

If articulating knowledge is hard, and creating training takes a large amount of time, how do you begin to determine which knowledge must be preserved, and which knowledge is interesting to preserve? Knowledge is expensive to generate; does all information deserve to be protected the same way? Isn’t some knowledge more critical to the organization than other information? How do you determine which is which?

Even on a personal level, how do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of? One of the key suggestions I offered for my friend who happens to be a packrat is to set a level of acceptable risk. For him, I suggested that while he was deciding what to keep he should keep anything that he had a clear and present need for – honestly that wasn’t much. Then for those things which were being kept because they “might” be useful, evaluate how much it would cost to replace the item if he threw it out and had to replace it – compared to the storage it was taking. Generally speaking, if it could be replaced for less than $50 he should throw it out. The result was that he was able to clear out about half of his garage – and I’m only aware of one thing that he disposed of (costing around $20) that he later needed to repurchase. That’s a pretty good deal.

Knowledge triage in an organization follows the same rules. What can you not afford to lose? What, if you lost it, would mean the end of the business or such a substantial impact that you might not be able to recover? Once you have that knowledge covered it’s time to look for the knowledge that’s expensive to replace and easy to capture. You work your way down the list of different kinds of knowledge from the highest create vs. retain ratio, until you’re out of money.

It seems too simple. However, Switch encouraged us to realize that the size of the solution isn’t necessarily proportional to the size of the problem. Knowing what knowledge is important to keep and what isn’t doesn’t require a complex formula. It just requires a calibrated estimate that we learned about in How to Measure Anything.

Change Management and Organizational Change

Organizations resist change. While individual people may or may not be good with change, the structure of an organization doesn’t want to bend and create new positions of power and influence. One of the biggest challenges for a leader is to get the organization to change – to bend and shift amongst the swirl of forces that confront businesses. Ideally, those changes are focused around the leader’s clear vision. However, making that vision a reality is pretty challenging work.

John Kotter spoke of his 8-step model in both Leading Change and The Heart of Change. Dan and Chip Heath spoke about change in Switch. It’s not an easy thing. The power of the way we’ve always done things has a huge center of gravity and it tends to draw change initiatives in and to wear them down with friction. It’s likely that your organization needs to change in order to be able to better manage its knowledge. Whether or not you can get that change accomplished is the question.

An often cited problem when implementing any kind of change is culture. That’s just not the way things are done” around here. However, a culture is really the sum total of everything the organization does. If you get something done then you’ve changed the culture. Don’t let culture be an excuse for not being able to be successful in your project.

Good and Done or Perfect and Not

In The Paradox of Choice we met maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers were effectively perfectionists expecting that everything just had to be perfect. However, in addition to the psychological impacts of this approach, maximizers just don’t get anything done. Whatever they do get done they tear down and start over on. They simply can’t make forward progress.

There’s a natural desire to get the knowledge management approach “right” before getting started. However, “right” is just another way of saying perfect – and the strategy can’t be perfect – for long. Changes in the organization’s needs, personnel make up, etc., are all factors that will change what is right for a knowledge management strategy. (This reminds me of how waterfall-based software development models simply can’t cope with the degree to which requirements change during the course of the project.)

If you’re stuck trying to find the right place to start on your knowledge management journey, start with what seems right today and adapt.

Momentum and Small Wins

While the book warns about underfunding knowledge management and speaks about “random acts of improvement” caused by starving the knowledge management initiative, there’s something to be said for being focused and starting small to get the knowledge management ball rolling. Sometimes the best way to “wet the appetite” for knowledge management is to find some small wins that you can get done. Once you get you get a few wins under your belt you can leverage what John Maxwell calls “The Big Mo” – Momentum. Jim Collins speaks of how momentum can add up over time like turning a big flywheel in Good to Great.

You can’t do everything all at once but you can do everything you set out to do if you’re willing to get some small wins under your belt and move on to the next. Pick a small department and their trivially simple knowledge need – like keeping manuals for machinery used in the organization and solve that. Then go solve something else like capturing contracts and keep finding the small wins until someone takes notice.

The Great Lubricator: Trust

In any physical system we fight against friction slowing down the system and converting precious physical energy (momentum) into heat. We lubricate with oil to minimize the impact of the friction and keep things moving. In knowledge management – and any kind of relationships – the friction is the friction of two (or more) people. People are necessarily designed differently with different genetics, experiences, and preferences. Because people are different there are bound to be rough edges that when people come in contact they rub each other wrong.

So what’s the lubricant that allows people to work together with less friction? The lubricant is trust. I’ve spoken about trust numerous times in my reviews of : Trust & Betrayal in the WorkplaceBuilding Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life, and Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. I followed these up sometime later with a post titled “Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet” which talked about how to build trust. I have spent a fair amount of time learning how to identify trust components and how to recognize it when it appears.

If you look around you’ll find team building exercises abound. More often than not you’ll find that those team building exercises are designed specifically to engender trust in the team. Whether it’s the trust of having a shared – an often mildly embarrassing – experience or a specific trust episode where your safety is dependent upon others. You can generate an effective knowledge management program inside an organization with low trust – but it’s certainly much more difficult than generating it in an organization where trust is an integral part of the organization. So do the team building exercises — if for no other reason than it will help your knowledge management initiatives work easier.

Wrap Up

Knowledge management is something we’d all like to see better working in our organizations – maybe the first step is reading The New Edge in Knowledge: How Knowledge Management Is Changing the Way We Do Business. You’ll get a great perspective on how you can integrate knowledge management in your organization.