Ballerinas and Aircraft Carriers

March 20, 2009

The new(ish) US government KM listserv is proving interesting although its not very active yet. However some real issues and valuable exchanges are taking place. This morning I got the latest posting which I reproduce below (with names removed).

The author is commenting on another forum where a writer says “traditional KM thinking is not the solution and is probably part of the problem.” He states:

I am weary of hearing that “traditional Km” is not part of the solution when in most areas it hasn’t even been tried. I understand the point regarding the rapid change of markets and situations in the world, and how organizations MUST become versatile and volatile places that turn on a dime, pirouetting like ballet dancers and tumbling like acrobats to constantly adjust.

But listen: we are talking about the US Federal Government. The US Federal government does not pirouette, nor does it tumble. It plods, slowly and deliberately, and more or less unthinkingly. It cruises, like an aircraft carrier, and when it turns, its radius is in nautical miles, not feet, and its duration is in months and years, not hours.

We have not even begun to scratch the surface of basic knowledge sharing and collaboration in government. We haven’t broken down basic internal boundaries and stovepipes. We need to start with basics before we can move to acrobatics.

Now I was a bit disturbed by this, and my response follows

I don’t want to get sucked into a “traditional KM” debate, in part because I have no idea what is meant by the phrase. I do however think there are two dangers in the above statement:

  • the assumption that government is an aircraft carrier while industry is a ballet dancer which is very far from the case. I remember one senior DARPA Exec asked what it was like to work with IBM (that was me at the time) said “Its wonderful it makes the US Government seem dynamic and non-bureaucratic”. Now this was probably a bit unfair but its not too far form the truth. Some parts of industry do move quickly, generally entrepreneurs, or larger companies with the right positioning but its far from universal. Government and the military also have their differences. I have seen more innovation in decision making in Military environments in the US, Singapore and Australia than I have ever seen in industry, to take just one example. I’d suggest less broad brush stereotyping, and a better focus on the culture and orientation of smaller units.
  • the danger of seeking idealistic solutions (or future states) rather than pragmatically dealing with the evolutionary possibilities of the present, the latter approach coming under the generic title of a naturalistic approach. This is illustrated below with the statements “We haven’ broken down basic internal boundaries and stovepipes”.   You get this a lot in industry as well, lots of competence models three years plans and vision statements all of which try to define what should be rather than deal with the present now. Stovepipes are not going to go away, live with it. I found a complain in Greek political literature so its been around for a few thousand years already. requiring people to freeely share information across silos is never going to work and too much time is spent attempting it. On the other hand, create social obligation at a finer level of granularity between silos and information will flow on a “Just in Time” basis. There are some basic principles here and I’ve summarised a set of seven I put together some time ago below by way of an offering!

Overall we need to remember that knowledge management is, to use the Greek, a matter of phronesis or practical wisdom; its the exercise of judgement and that can only be developed in action through the acquisition of habits. To quote Heidegger here (sorry about that but one should always acknowledge ones sources): “an authentic existence can only be gained on the foundation of our quasi-habitual, skilful, inauthentic involvement with the world” Habits in humans determine action, not mission statements, organisational values and outcome focused targets.

We can say one thing about the last decade, its that approaches based on ideal human qualities, trying to persuade people to codify and share knowledge, trust fellow workers, contribute fully to communities of practice, define best practice and all that stuff have to all intents and purposes failed. Government should learn from that failure, rather than seek to discover the failure for itself yet again.
To be really cynical here there is an old adage in management consultancy:   When industry won’t buy it any more ’cause it doesn’t work, then go and sell it to government as “industrial best practice”.

Seven Principles of Knowledge Management

  • Knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted.
    You can’t make someone share their knowledge, because you can never measure if they have. You can measure information transfer or process compliance, but you can’t determine if an expert has truly passed on all their experience or knowledge of a case. (acknowledgement to Drucker)
  • We only know what we know when we need to know it.
    Human knowledge is deeply contextual and requires stimulus for recall. Unlike computers we do not have a list-all function. Small verbal or nonverbal clues can provide those ah-ha moments when a memory or series of memories are suddenly recalled, in context to enable us to act. When we sleep on things we are engaged in a complex organic form of knowledge recall and creation; in contrast a computer would need to be rebooted.
  • In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
    A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is literally no time or a previous history of distrust. On the other hand ask people to codify all that they know in advance of a contextual enquiry and it will be refused (in practice its impossible anyway). Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts.
  • Everything is fragmented.
    We evolved to handle unstructured fragmented fine granularity information objects, not highly structured documents. People will spend hours on the internet, or in casual conversation without any incentive or pressure. However creating and using structured documents requires considerably more effort and time. Our brains evolved to handle fragmented patterns not highly structured information.
  • Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
    When my young son burnt his finger on a match he learnt more about the dangers of fire than any amount of parental instruction cold provide. All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.
  • The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
    There is an increasing body of research data which indicates that in the practice of knowledge people use heuristics, past pattern matching and extrapolation to make decisions, coupled with complex blending of ideas and experiences that takes place in nanoseconds. Asked to describe how they made a decision after the event they will tend to provide a more structured process oriented approach which does not match reality. This has major consequences for knowledge management practice.
  • We always know more than we can say; we will always say more than we can write down.
    This is probably the most important. The process of taking things from our heads, to our mouths (speaking it) to our hands (writing it down) involves loss of content and context. It is always less than it could have been as it is increasingly codified. (Acknowledgement to Polyani)

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