A letter from Bad Homburg

October 6, 2009

I’ve a whole set of blogs in half written state, all of which I had hoped to publish over the last few weeks. They range from new thoughts on exaptation, to reflections on various journeys and some new thinking on power laws. A it happens work and travel have radically disrupted by ability to do much more than survive for the last couple of weeks.

I am now in Bad Homburg, a small town (and pretty in parts see photograph) just outside Frankfurt for KnowTech 2009. I was the only (and I think the first) non German speaker at this event and it was good to meet up with several old friends from IBM, the IKM and also various other events in different parts of the world. I gave a keynote on why social computing works, or more specifically a natural science approach to understanding why it has worked, and also to understanding changes that need to be made in order for it to work in the more restricted ecology of a modern organisation. The slides I used are here, and the podcast is here (one error, at one point I say Canada, when I should have said the UK but it doesn’t alter the point). I also did a pre-conference workshop. Participants in that can get the slides and podcasts by email

There are some basics in this, this was after all an audience for which much of material is new. I started off with a key quote from Polyani, to argue (i) that Nonaka’s SECI model was a gross and dangerous misinterpretation of tacit knowledge and (ii) that we need to aim for a synthesis of human and machine intelligence to enable, and enpower sense-making in organisations and society. I reproduce it here, its from his Knowing and Being which is hard reading, but worth the effort.

     While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.

I then used a modified version of the 7 rules of knowledge management to introduce insights from the cognitive sciences, moved onto complexity (with the Children’s Party Story) and then moved on to show the way in which you can create a highly functional KM system from social computing (using my own desk top as an illustration). From there I went to to a series of statements about complexity based change in knowledge management:

  • from “COP” & the matrix organisation
    to social network stimulation & crews
  • from taxonomies & ontologies to
    social computing, semi-constrained signification (not a folksonomy)
  • from “best practice” and structured documents to
    worst practice, fragmented micro-narrative and real time capture & deployment
  • from recipe books to
    Chefs, understanding and applying principles
  • from thinking of knowledge as a “thing”
    to enabling the flow

And some implications for management:

  • The technology for the original vision of KM is now largely available for free, or in lower cost for generic & interoperable capability
  • Applications co-evolve within architectural constraints with changing software components in varying forms to adapt, but also exapt.
  • Not all cars are black, and not all IT procured
  • Security and audit trail are not an issue, but they are an excuse to hang onto power
  • Applications emerge from agent interaction within light constraints
  • Context is everything, scale etc. etc.

There is also relevant material in two blogs late in September on knowledge management governance and definitions, with some great comments. They are here and here. For good measure I used the Nasrudin story to warn them about turning falcons into pigeons (and I just hope that translated.

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill.

He had never seen a bird like this before.

“You poor thing”, he said, “how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?”

He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

“Now you look more like a bird”, said Nasrudin

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