1998 and all that, a return to sin

July 10, 2007

Back in 1998 Fahey & Prusak produced a list 11 Deadly sins in knowledge management. John Bordeaux in a comment to my earlier post of Knowledge Management and Sin, reminded me and kindly found me an on line list. I’ve had them in my must blog folder for a bit and started to play with them in preparation for a presentation here in Atlanta yesterday, and for next week when I am teaching a four lecture series to the honors programme in KM at the University of Pretoria. For those interested the outline of the lecture series can be found

It was interesting to go back the best part of a decade and think about the changes which had happened and apply a little bit of retrospective coherence with a dusting of polemic …

The Sin My Commentary
Not developing a working definition of knowledge I’m not at all sure about this one. There has been too time wasted on listservs and in organisations trying to produce a definition when 3000 years of philosophy has not achieved one. I think what we need is to define the difference between what it means to manage knowledge and what it means to manage information. I normally use the example of a taxi driver and map to illustrate the difference. I mean a London taxi driver here, with the knowledge and all that implies. People get that and you can then avoid the K and I words. Instead you simply ask: Is this a problem for a map, or a problem for a taxi driver? Defining knowledge is the sin, not avoiding it
Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow This was prophetic. Everyone had put all their effort into knowledge as a thing; making tacit knowledge explicit. In consequence we have had a decade of pain and it largely hasn’t worked. In contrast techniques such as social network stimulation focus on creating connectivity between people to allow knowledge to flow, rather than worrying about the knowledge itself. Get the channels right and that is most of the battle. Generally if people have a working relationship, ideally a trusted one then in the context of need they will help each other without the need for direction, structure or technology.
Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside the heads of
Yes sort of, right to emphasise the human element, but some people took it too far and said all knowledge was in the heads of individuals when a lot of knowledge only exists as a result of their interaction; it a property of the system rather than an aggregate of individual properties. The emphasis on individuals is also dangerous in KM, it tends to social atomism. Better to think in terms of teams, crews and identity. Concepts that were not advanced in 1998, but these days complexity theory would allow us to change the text of this sin substantially.
Not understanding that a fundamental intermediate purpose of
managing knowledge is to create shared context
100% on, knowledge management is about creating shared context so that information can flow. Without shared context there is no information, its all noise. This one deserved a lot more attention than it got
Paying little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge Correct in the context of a world divided into tacit and explicit knowledge, but we have moved on from that. It was never a helpful split as it focused on the container rather than the thing contained. An over focus on explicit knowledge continues, but its better to think about experience and narrative, along with content.
Disentangling knowledge from its uses Another 100%, knowledge is all about action, making decisions creating innovative ideas. It is always contextual and is by necessarily entangled and messy
Downplaying thinking and reasoning Yep, and the anti-intellectualism of many a company continues to be a problem. In a modern changing world we need sophisticated executives, able to handle a concept, test a theory and apply novel ideas for competitive advantage or simply for survival. Bland consensus never helps, neither does the application of simplistic consultancy recipes and attempts to make things practical, in the sense of doing something familiar (which is the normal meaning). These are all the enemies of KM
Focusing on the past and the present and not on the future Another good one and one which could be applied to a lot more than KM. From complexity theory we get the idea of retrospective coherence, and the simple statement that hindsight does not lead to foresight. The future is uncertain, replete with possibilities. Knowledge as a strategic tool can take us there, informed but not controlled by the past.
Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation Too many organisations go for fail-safe design rather than safe-fail experimentation. In a KM system there are no right answers, although there are several wrong ones! In 1998 the technology enabled but did not encourage experimentation. Now we have social computing and there is no reason for other than a low cost experimental entry into KM
Substituting technological contact for human interface I think this one is 50-50 but that is with the benefit of time. Some technological interfaces (for example blogs) have a high human contact without the need for direct contact. Facebook and Twitter create intimacy. None of these were around in 1998 but I think if they had been this sin would have been written differently
Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge Again this one was correct at the time, and is still correct if people want to use the unbalanced score card or explicit outcome based targets. The most stupid is to count hits on a web site. However ten years later we now have some novel ways (quantitative material supported by rich narrative for example) which offer the possibility of measuring the impact, if not the outcome of knowledge applcations

Overall its impressive how the list has stood up. Its been interesting reviewing it, if briefly. All comments appreciated!

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